Perspectives on Ukraine (3 & 4): Putin’s Sanity and a Clear Line

damaged building in Kyiv, Ukraine - Putin's sanity

Last time, I wrote of my feelings about Russia and Ukraine and described pieces of the two nations’ history together. It was both a disclosure and a starting point for discussing the present war and its implications. Today’s two perspectives focus more directly on the war. The first, er, third, involves our attitudes about the current Russian autocrat — specifically, Vladimir Putin’s sanity. The fourth is a consideration which ought to inform our responses.

3. Don’t Dismiss Vladimir Putin as Insane

It’s tempting to say Vladimir Putin is insane, end of story. After all, he is a dictator. He invaded another nation to build his empire. He and his proxies have occasionally mentioned nuclear weapons. And his forces have deliberately targeted civilians, including refugees and hospitals. In our enlightened twenty-first-century hauteur, we’d like that list of offenses to be diagnostic.

Some have a further motive, conscious or otherwise, for questioning Putin’s sanity. They’re not comfortable with the basic moral categories, good and evil. If they can dismiss him as insane, they don’t have to face the fact that he is evil. Yes, evil, not merely misunderstood.

Vladimir Putin - Putin's sanity
Russian President Vladimir Putin

But there’s more at stake than morality. If we ascribe Putin’s offenses to insanity, we risk missing things we need to see and learn. Then we end up doing the wrong things or not doing the right things. Either way, people die who didn’t have to die.

The Light Was Green

If we dismiss Putin as insane, we save ourselves the unpleasant effort of trying to get into his head. This helps us to avoid an inconvenient question. What signals might Comrade Putin have seen from the US and the West generally, that he could think he might get away with this?

In my mind, half a dozen signals loom large:

  • the Obama/Biden administration’s be-a-doormat-but-make-speeches approach to Russia from 2009 through 2016;
  • the Biden/Harris administration’s daft, callous, duplicitous, uncollaborative, systemic ineptitude in Afghanistan;
  • the economic and cultural death wish which has arisen in US politics and culture;
  • Europe’s long-standing inability to get together and do anything militarily against a serious threat, without the US leading from the front, which we are not;
  • the UN’s impotence, including Russia’s and China’s veto power on the UN Security Council; and
  • the much-remarked transition of the US Armed Forces from a military force to a laboratory for compulsory social and political revolution.

Disbelieve any of these answers if you will; perhaps we can debate them another time. But we’ve sent the expansionist tyrants of the world — especially Russia and China — a consistent message: Go for it. We’ll watch.

All of this was predictable. On the US side, we’re getting the foreign policy we voted for. (I’m using “we” in a loose sense which excludes the actual voter who bears my name. Decades of watching the man fully immunized me against the Potemkin village of a Joe Biden candidacy.)

Oligarchs, Shmoligarchs

If we dismiss Putin as insane, we may pin too much hope on a pipe dream. We may wait for Russian oligarchs to remove him from office and perhaps from the mortal world. It may well be in the interest of some of them, but I wouldn’t say it’s likely.

Putin has been in power since late in the Clinton administration (1999 or 2000). Since then the US has had a pair of two-term presidents (Presidents Bush and Obama), a one-term president (President Trump), and almost half a term of President Biden. The oligarchs in power by now are Putin’s oligarchs, or they wouldn’t still be in power. If they have political alliances at all, they are Putin’s allies. Otherwise they would already have lost their obscene wealth and possibly their lives.

Besides that, it’s not as if there’s a formal senate of 10 or 20 oligarch-billionaires with direct, defined political authority. There are over 100, and their situations are diverse. Some have divested their Russian assets, voluntarily or otherwise, and invested elsewhere. Some of them live outside Russia. Some have been away from Russian power politics for years. What they have in common includes this: Putin can seize any portion of the Russian economy they control. He can have them arrested. He can reach around the world to murder them. He’s done it all before, and they know it.

And surely some oligarchs see war in Ukraine and restoration of the empire as good for their own interests.

This Is High Stakes Chess, Not Powderpuff Checkers

We should assume that Vladimir Putin is sane. Wonder if he’s physically ill, if it pleases you. But I wonder if those reports are wishful thinking or disinformation from one side or another. In the Soviet period we heard similar reports years before any given tyrant departed the scene. And when that finally happened, there was typically another tyrant waiting in the wings.

chess player and chess board - Putin's sanity

Putin is a chess player, not a dabbler at checkers. He is playing the long game. Invading Ukraine again is only one piece of a larger plan, and preparations for this piece were under way for many months. They included systematic, outrageous, but familiar misrepresentations in Russian media about conditions in Ukraine. He has spun the present war as liberation, denazification, and so on — as a brotherly act, a solemn and charitable duty to one’s neighbors, not the vast crime against humanity that it is.

The present invasion of Ukraine is no mere bargaining chip to keep Ukraine out of NATO, though that is an important objective. Nor is it solely a product of Putin’s concern over a viable (if corrupt) democracy flourishing on his southern border, though Vladimir Kara-MurzaIt likely knows whereof he speaks: “A successful democratic experiment in Ukraine presents an existential threat to Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian kleptocracy in Russia.” (On this and the larger Russian picture, I recommend this National Review article: “In Dark Times, A Brave Man.”)

Whatever else this is, it is a serious effort at imperial expansion. Putin clearly finds it worth the risks at home and abroad.

Please note that the 2022 invasion of Ukraine is not the first phase of Putin’s plan to rebuild the empire. In 2008 he took two parts of Georgia (the Asian nation, not the US state). There were sanctions and strong words, including some from outgoing President George W. Bush, but Putin kept the territory.

In 2014, under the watchful eyes of US President and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Barack Obama, Putin seized the Crimea, a large, strategic part of Ukraine. By then the effete and cartilaginous former Senator John Kerry had taken over as Secretary of State from once-and-future presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, but then-Vice President Biden was supposedly a major player too. The world fussed and spit a little and tossed a few sanctions Putin’s way — but he has the Crimea still.

We have taught Vladimir Putin that he can get away with it, and he has learned.

The Trump Question

Some friends have expressed to me privately (to avoid being pilloried by friends, loved ones, and strangers) their conviction that, if President Trump had won a second term, Putin would not have invaded Ukraine. I think they’re wrong, but their reasons have merit.

First, he didn’t invade Ukraine while President Trump was in office.

Second, despite playing the fool with Afghanistan late in his presidency, and despite (almost uniquely in recent decades) not getting us into any new shooting wars during his presidential term, President Trump seemed to appreciate the military purpose of military forces, the historical advantages of military strength, and the importance of the US looking after US interests first.

Third, under President Trump, US oil and gas production increased to the point that we became a net exporter of fossil fuels. This caused energy prices worldwide to drop and remain low. (The international COVID-19 response briefly sent them near zero, but that was a temporary, separate phenomenon.) The sustained harm low energy prices have done to the Russian economy, which is heavily and unhealthily dependent on energy exports, is difficult to overstate. And empire-building costs money.

Some Americans still embrace the false narrative that candidate-then-President Trump was improperly friendly with the Russians. This is despite clear and still-mounting evidence that the narrative itself was a fabrication by his political opponents, approved by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and known to the sitting president, Barack Obama. Think about it. Short of an act of war (military or biological), no enemy of Russia could have done greater harm to Putin’s interests than the American president whose policies dropped oil and gas prices. With agents like that, does Putin even need enemies?

It follows that few friends could have helped Putin more than the next American president. He systematically undermined US oil and gas production, blocked a major pipeline project to move energy from the Middle East to southern Europe, and removed the past administration’s barriers to Russia’s completing a major natural gas pipeline to Germany. Forgive me for asking, but with enemies like President Biden and his administration, does Putin really need friends?

Despite all that, I think my friends are wrong (but not foolish). I think Putin would have invaded Ukraine anyway. I suspect he waited to see who would win in November 2020, because it would be a lot easier under Biden than Trump, if he got Biden. Then he waited a year for Biden policies to gain traction in the energy markets and elsewhere, weakening the US and dramatically empowering Russia. But Putin has a large, expansionist goal and a decreasing number of years to achieve it. Had President Trump been reelected, Putin could not have waited four more years to invade Ukraine.

The Best Chess Players Think Many Moves Ahead

Putin had to know that, if he invaded Ukraine, there would be sanctions — against oligarchs whose support he probably still needs, against Russian assets around the world, and ultimately, probably, against Russian energy exports. He must have calculated that he could weather them. A key part of that strategy has been his turn to China. China needs all the fossil fuel it can get, is a huge potential market for Russia exports generally, and can partially mitigate the damage from Russia’s exclusion from major world financial systems.

This emerging Russia-China alliance is not quite Hitler-Stalin. (Remember the Molotov-Ribbentop Pact from history class?) If we try to press the analogy, then perhaps China, of the two, with its fondness for genocide, more nearly resembles Hitler’s Germany. In any case the budding alliance is a major, long-term strategic concern — even more so if India is a party to it too, a possibility I am not pulling out of thin air.

Molotov and Ribbentrop
Molotov and Ribbentrop

I’ll buy a nice lunch for the first reader who can convince me that Putin doesn’t have an agreement in place with China. This agreement must have at least three parts:

  • Each nation will focus its expansionism away from the other.
  • China will largely replace Western energy and other markets which are or may be closed to Russia.
  • China will provide international banking and other services to Russia, replacing what the West may deny (or already has denied).

There may be a similar agreement with India, too — another huge, hungry market.

Putin would be a fool not to remember Stalin’s deal with Hitler over Poland, and Hitler’s breach of that agreement, but perhaps he thinks China will be a more reliable ally. At least for now, China can be a friend who is willing to buy many things rather than seize them by force. I’m sure China is eyeing the vast, largely unpopulated lands of Siberia, which the world’s most populous nation could use to great advantage — but that can wait. China plays the longest of long games.

Hitler-Stalin honeymoon cartoon by Clifford Berryman
Cartoon by Clifford Berryman, The Washington Star, 1939. Public domain.

Putin must also have anticipated some popular opposition at home. He has attacked it aggressively. He has jailed thousands of Russian war protestors on serious charges up to and including treason. (It’s a familiar tyrannical trope we’ve been studying ourselves, closer to home: painting ordinary political dissent as treason or, in a current phrase, domestic terrorism.) That repression may have started a clock of sorts; even a modern dictator cannot do such things forever with impunity. But he likely has calculated, quite sanely, that enough Russians will forgive him if he succeeds in Ukraine and beyond.

Where Putin May Have Miscalculated

Chess master or not, Putin may have miscalculated in at least these three respects.

He may not have foreseen Western Europe suddenly growing a spine. Here are two things which have surprised me: Germany blocking final approval of the Nord Stream Pipeline, after construction was complete, and the European Union (not NATO) banding together to send arms to Ukraine.

He may have overestimated the morale and effectiveness of his troops, most of whom are conscripts, in what is nearly a civil war — especially when they begin to see that they were deployed to Ukraine on mostly-false pretenses.

He may have underestimated the stubbornness of the Ukrainian people. It’s a Hitler-level mistake, in view of how Ukrainians (among other Soviets) resisted the Germans in World War II.

crowd with Ukrainian flags

All of this, plus the US fondness for selling arms, causes the war to drag on. This could lead Putin to another miscalculation. He presumably estimated that he can string the Russian people along on propaganda and disinformation until the conquest of Ukraine is complete, after which they will honor him for his success. (They’re a lot like us.) He may prove wrong about this too.

Disinformation only works for so long. It’s not just that mothers, fathers, wives, and children will eventually realize that Vanya never came marching home and hasn’t written in a while, because he died in Ukraine. It’s that a lot of Russians got very good under the Soviets at seeing through news reports and speeches and inferring the truth. They’re better at it than many Americans — but even we eventually realize the truth, of which more some other day.

A Look Ahead

I believe the current US administration fully intends that, when the dust settles:

  • Putin will have all or most of Ukraine;
  • the rest of Europe and the US will be none the worse for wear, in a military sense;
  • President Biden’s abysmal approval polls will rally to the image of him as a strong wartime president — without the inconvenience of US forces being sucked into a war (which could still happen, I admit); and
  • when fuel prices decrease somewhat, enough Americans will forget both how high prices were before Russia invaded Ukraine and how low they were a year or two before that.

Since the administration’s performance keeps exceeding even my cynical expectations, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn eventually that Putin and Biden have an unofficial agreement: the US will let Russia take Ukraine, and Putin will help Biden look strong and successful.

In any case, Putin’s empire-building won’t end with Ukraine. Look at a globe. Byelorussia is already on his side. Next he’ll want Kazakhstan, a very large nation, not to mention Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, the rest of Georgia, and other former Soviet republics. If he can get Ukraine, most of the others will be relatively easy. The West sort of cares about Ukraine, but even those who can find Ukraine on a map would struggle to find those other nations, which are further east.

Like tyrannical thinking, tyrannical expansion has its own momentum, but I suspect Putin will be content without the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia), because attacking them would be attacking NATO, a truly awful chess move at this point. Putin has restored the relevance of NATO; he might have to be insane to attack a NATO member nation.

That said, Russia itself is not implacable. It’s a bad sign (for Russia) that energy is so large a percentage of its GNP. Besides the inherent vulnerabilities of that, it also suggests severe limits on Russia’s ability to encourage and profit by the many gifts of its people. As long-term economic indicators go, this is a harsh one.

And perhaps Vladimir Kara-Murza is onto something. Perhaps Ukraine’s deeply flawed example will prove redemptive. We can always hope.

We’ll dispatch my fourth perspective more quickly …

4. The World Cannot Afford to Yield to Nuclear Blackmail

If you ask me exactly what the United States and other nations should be doing, militarily and otherwise, to stop Putin in his tracks and send his armies back to Russia, I don’t know. But for me there’s a clear line. I want to say a line in the sand, but President Obama discredited that phrase, so maybe in the wheat field. Yeah, a line in the wheat field sounds weird.

In any case, it simply cannot become the new world order that any aggressive dictator with nukes can say to the rest of the world, I’m taking that country, and you have to let me, because nukes.

If the world has any love for freedom or for humanity itself — for me and some of my favorite Russians, the two are inseparable — threats that <insert tyrant here> will start lobbing nukes unless the world accedes to his or her seizure of <insert other nation here> cannot be honored. Or we might say they should be honored by swift and decisive violence.

I’m all for being careful and judicious, and I’d strongly prefer that World War III not begin in my or my grandchildren’s lifetimes, but if we yield to that sort of blackmail once (Putin in Ukraine, if he escalates), we’ll do it twice (probably China in Taiwan) and thrice (take your pick). Better to pay the less horrific price of opposing it up front than the larger price later.

That said, speaking of feelings (as I did last time), I have no good feelings about nuclear war. I fear it. Intellectually, I accept the logic than bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved many, many Allied and Japanese lives. But I’d just as soon leave it at that.

Thanks for reading. My next post on Ukraine will address the war from the perspectives of international alliances and sanctions.

Photo credits:

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Thanks for reading!

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