What’s going on in Vladimir Putin’s head?

Vladimir Putin is an irrational, dangerous leader and the West will have to deal with him sooner or later, writes Alexander Motyl

Peace in Europe is impossible as long as Vladimir Putin remains Russia’s leader.

As both the biggest obstacle to peace and the key source of potential war, Putin has become the main threat to Russia’s neighbours and the West. However, what, exactly, motivates him?

Analysts are divided over the reasons for Putin’s foreign policy moves. Some see them as being grounded in his realist fears of Western strategic encirclement. Others root them in his authoritarian regime and imperialist ideology.

Putin’s most striking feature, however, is his unpredictability. Were his foreign policy grounded in some discernible logic, his moves would be predictable and ex post facto explicable. However, his ability to constantly surprise his domestic constituents and the world demonstrates that his moves are not grounded in any one logic or strategy.

To the contrary, they appear to be rooted in his personal whims. As Russia’s undisputed dictator, he can do whatever he decides is right, regardless of whether it promotes Russia’s interests or harms those of his perceived enemies. In this sense, Putin is the 21st century’s Hitler — a tyrant who solipsistically defines rationality in terms of his own shifting understanding of the concept.

Russia’s recent military buildup and sabre-rattling on Ukraine’s borders are a case in point. Do they portend war? Are they merely intended to intimidate? No one knows, and every interpretation is pure speculation about what is really going on in Putin’s head.

The same holds true for Putin’s latest provocation: the supposed neutralisation of groups of Ukrainian terrorists in Crimea by the Russian security service. Putin’s claim that Kiev is now resorting to terrorism follows directly from his earlier characterisation of Ukraine’s post-Viktor Yanukovych democratic government as fascist.

Is the provocation a prelude to an all-out attack along the lines of Hitler’s after the notorious Gleiwitz incident of 1939, in which German commandos dressed as Poles attacked a German border radio station? Or is it intended to scare Russians into supporting Putin’s party in the September parliamentary elections? Or is the provocation a signal to the West and Kiev that Putin is angry and will lash out?

No one knows, and it’s not inconceivable that even Putin does not know.

Is Putin rational? The answer depends on what is meant by rationality. If rationality means doing the morally right thing, then Putin is rational only in some twisted, immoral world. If rationality entails finding the best means to enhance one’s ends, however disreputable they might be, then Putin must qualify as deeply, disturbingly irrational.

After all, has Russia’s power and status in the world increased since Putin went to war against Ukraine? Has its economic standing improved? Has his own position become stronger?

Putin almost certainly would answer yes to each of these questions (Germany’s fuhrer also believed final victory was at hand, even as his country was ablaze), but a dispassionate analysis would suggest the opposite is true.

Finally, if rationality entails understanding the relationship between actions and consequences, between causes and effects, then Putin must qualify as irrational — not because he gets that relationship wrong, but because he appears to believe that actions have no consequences and causes have no effects. Hence, his unpredictability.

The comparison with Hitler is strong stuff, of course, but it’s high time Western policymakers realise that they are dealing with a man who could blithely start a world war because his position of supreme power for close to two decades has led him to believe that he is Russia.

What the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume once said about rationality applies with full force to Putin: It is “not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”

Indeed, the fact that a full-scale military assault against Ukraine, Belarus or Estonia appears to make no sense is precisely why Putin could do it.

While one must negotiate with irrational leaders, the only thing that can keep them in check, possibly, is preparedness. Their promises are as meaningless as their declarations of peace, and appeasement only whets their appetites.

Putin will have to go, one way or another, for peace-loving Europeans to breathe easier again.

Alexander J Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark, specialising in Ukraine, Russia and the former USSR.


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