Why predicting the future is a risky business

A friend of my was teasing me the other day that my predictions about Ukraine not turning out to be very good.  He was referring to my argument here that if Russia’s aim was to strengthen its position on the international stage, become the primary regional player in Eastern Europe/Central Asia and push back western/NATO influence then a full-scale invasion of Ukraine wasn’t likely to achieve this.  For those reasons, my view was that if Putin’s previously stated desires remained the case, then full-scale invasion was less likely than an ongoing game of cat and mouse with the West. 

It turned out that Russia did invade after all. I pointed out to my friend that I’d included this as a possibility. He begrudgingly acknowledged that I had “hedged my bets” which I thought was a little unfair as I’d be clear up front that the situation was volatile and unpredictable. However, whilst I I was clear that a number of options were possible, I did think that full invasion was lower down the list of likely outcomes at this stage. I did expect Russia to play a longer game.

My reasoning was that when you looked at things logically, invasion looked like it would lead to a ramping up of NATO involvement in Eastern Europe meaning more troops and weapons on Russia’s border not less.  It also would potentially involve other countries including Finland considering joining NATO.  I thought Putin could achieve more by taking a longer-term approach involving occasional troop exercises on the border.  I expected there to be voices of caution against invasion from around him in the Kremlin and I expected his financial backers to be wary of full-scale invasion.

Some people were adamant that Russia would not invade, especially those who saw the whole escapade as the fault of NATO and the EU and saw Putin as genuinely anxious about Russia’s security. And those people made their assessments without any hedging.  Yet I expressed reservations and included caveats because predicting the future is a risky business. Anyone who’s spent the last two years looking at COVID-19 pandemic models should know that.

Predictions rely on models. These are not always formal models with spreadsheets, numbers and calculations. Sometimes they are models in people’s heads but they are models because the rely on the following.

  1. Assumptions and parameters
  2. Data/information/knowledge
  3. Processes – number crunching or logic.

So we approach the question “what might happen next in World affairs based on

  • Assumptions about what motivates the key players and how they might act
  • Information about how they’ve acted in the past and their stated aims
  • Logical reasoning about what is likely to be the best and worst outcomes for each player.

For example, with regards to NATO, we assume that:

  • It is unlikely to intervene in a context where a non NATO member is threatened by a nuclear power.
  • It will intervene rapidly and with maximum force to an incursion into a NATO country’s domain.

Those assumptions are backed up by data in terms of how NATO countries have operated in the past and about the stated aims of the alliance.  Logically, it is risky for NATO therefore to actively intervene into Ukraine because NATO allies will be wary of provoking an escalation and widening of the conflict.  Russia has also indicated a willingness in threats to go nuclear and has positioned troops on the Belarus/Polish border all aimed at discouraging western intervention.  However, Russia will consider it riskier to invade current NATO members, although in order to gather more data may look at ways to test that resolve.  Expect for an example an increase in Russian incursions into NATO country airspace and via her Navy into territorial waters. If Russia detects signs of a weakening resolve by NATO to defend the Baltic states or Poland then that will affect their decision making.

Similarly, when I drew up scenarios about what Russia might do, I had some assumptions in mind. My assumptions were that Russia and Putin have a specific desire for power and influence beyond current borders. I was pretty confident about those assumptions, but I was less confident about other assumptions, I recognised there were some unknowns.

For Russia to exercise constraint, Putin would need to believe that the longer-term game was still worth it or he would need people around him who still did. However, there were unknowns here. I did not know if he’d given up on some ambitions and decided to settle for less. I did not know whether or not he was acting completely rationally and whether who else if anyone had influence.

Indeed, my assumption was that it would be in the interest of Putin’s rivals at home and opponents abroad to talk him down from invading. However, that assumption may be flawed. It is possible that rather than talking him down from the ledge, that rivals have been psyching him up to making more and more rash decisions in the hope he will over-reach. Similarly, rightly or wrong, there may have been those abroad who wanted to draw Putin into military action in the hope this would bog him down in Ukraine for years to come.  We assumed that the West were talking up invasion to discourage Putin. What if some were in fact baiting him?

This raises the point that assumptions may not always be right. A lot of western assumptions are based on the premise that money talks, hence the reliance on economic sanctions. However, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that Putin isn’t particularly motivated financially and is willing to make economic sacrifices for the sake of national/patriotic pride and what he sees as defence of Russia’s freedoms. Again, western liberal democracy is a slow learner here. Brexit should have taught them the lesson that it isn’t all about the money.

This points us further to a major problem with models and predictions. They aren’t always able to count for the unpredictable and so the number crunching and reasoning misses things that change the course of events.  Suppose for example that Putin is unhinged and that he has so surrounded himself with sycophants that there’s no-one left to challenge him.  My scenario didn’t allow for that.*

It’s possible that Putin could have gone to bed on Tuesday with no intention of launching a full scale invasion on Wednesday only to be put out and insulted by something someone said to o about him on Wednesday. It’s also possible that he saw/heard things that emboldened him. Perhaps there were things about the economic sanctions announced that both emboldened and annoyed him in equal measure.

It’s okay to have models and scenarios but we need to be careful about making certain predictions.  We have to allow for the unpredictability that human beings bring into the real life arena. That’s one reason why it is hard/nigh on impossible to predict the future.

However, there is an even more important reason and that is that the future does not belong to us.  It is God who owns and holds the future. He does so effortlessly because he is the Lord of Time.  This is crucial for us as believers to remember.

I believe in prophecy. Whilst this gift is about more than future predictions and doesn’t always include them, I do believe that God can and does at times reveal to his people what is about to happen.  However, when that happens, we are not told everything but are just given a small glimpse into what lies ahead.

Our normal expectation is that we have to live with uncertainty, not knowing what the future holds. And, as much as we would like to see clearly into the future it is better that we don’t know. If I knew the future I would become complacent leading to either pride or despair.

Because I do not know the future, I’m instead encouraged to do two things. First, it does encourage me to use discernment, to seek to act wisely and do the right thing. Secondly and even more importantly I learn to have faith and to trust Christ with every detail of my life.

I can make some fallible guesses and predictions about what could happen and the probability of scenarios but I cannot predict the future. However, I do know the one who knows and holds the future and I trust in him.

Note I don’t personally think we are dealing with someone irrational in the sense of unhinged, insane. However Putin’s approach may be driven more by emotion than cold logic

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