The Russo-Ukrainian Pre-War Crisis: A Comparative Test of Rational Choice, Expected Utility, Poliheuristic, and Prospect Theories to Explain the War's Outbreak

Daniel J Reisner, Salve Regina University


Given the tremendous suffering created by the Russo-Ukrainian war and its profound international security implications, policymakers and international relations scholars must fully grasp why the three-month pre-war crisis erupted and ultimately ended in conflict instead of de-escalation. Accordingly, this mixed approach study seeks to identify the most likely crisis-related decision-making strategies adopted by President Biden, Zelensky, and Putin. The dissertation tests rational choice, expected utility, poliheuristic, and prospect theory frameworks against the critical decisions made by the three presidents. The dissertation’s findings indicate that a Prospect Theory-based framework provides the most accurate predictions of the four models tested to explain five critical decisions made immediately before and during the crisis. The Prospect Theory model consistently preferred the non-conciliatory alternatives available to each President, thus steering the crisis into war, which all actors would have preferred to avoid. Further, and to an unexpected degree, the study’s incidental finding highlights the salience of politics in decision-making, concluding that a simple lexicographic decision rule grounded in political interests accurately predicts and explains each leader's choices more reliably and parsimoniously than the four tested frameworks and just as elegantly. This decision strategy, conceptualized as the political-lexicographic model (PLM), is offered as an alternative framework that most aptly explains and predicts the three Presidents' crisis decision-making strategies. Additionally, the dissertation’s comparative approach, which evaluates multiple political leaders involved in the crisis and tests competing decision theories through qualitative and quantitative lenses, demonstrates the value of incorporating several theoretical models and overweighting the political dimension when explaining or attempting to forecast a crisis outcome. The conceptual framework offered in this study is practical, intuitive, and easily adaptable by policymakers, analysts, and scholars. The conclusions and recommendations in this dissertation will ideally contribute to more accurate and reliable predictions and accounts of foreign policy decisions, especially those that involve the potential for inter-state conflict.

Subject Area

International Relations|Political science|Cognitive psychology

Recommended Citation

Reisner, Daniel J, "The Russo-Ukrainian Pre-War Crisis: A Comparative Test of Rational Choice, Expected Utility, Poliheuristic, and Prospect Theories to Explain the War's Outbreak" (2023). Doctoral Dissertations. AAI30689824.

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