Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Putin’s No Madman

His hands are covered in blood, but it’s wrong to say he’s acting irrationally.
February 25, 2022
Putin’s No Madman
(Photo: Shutterstock)

If insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, then many in the West look stark raving mad for thinking that Putin would never dare to escalate his war against Ukraine.

With Ukraine under full-scale assault, a slew of leaders, journalists, and intellectuals in the West have suggested that we are witnessing an act of delusional Russian folly. This chorus alleges that by ordering his military forces to expand the irregular war he has prosecuted against Ukraine since 2014, the Russian dictator has taken leave of his senses.

No less a figure than Prime Minister Boris Johnson has fanned the preposterous doubts about Vladimir Putin’s mental health, claiming that Putin is an “irrational actor” bereft of the ability to calculate risk.

Carl Bildt, the prominent Swedish diplomat and former prime minister, likewise asserted that it would be “insane” for Putin, whose emotions have “overtaken rationality,” to escalate his war on Ukraine.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, acknowledging that Putin’s war constitutes naked aggression, asserted that it is irrational because it could bring on a disaster in a replay of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

For the sake of a newly imperiled world order, this notion of Putin’s insanity must be promptly discarded before it congeals into conventional wisdom.

What makes so many smart people in the West convinced that Putin is unhinged? For years he has forthrightly declared his imperial ambitions, and has pursued them with unswerving devotion. His aggressive designs against Russia’s neighbors and his regime’s enemies have not incurred meaningful reprisals from the West, so he proceeds with justified confidence that he may never face concerted or forceful resistance.

And here’s the thing: He has yet to be proven wrong.

For two decades and counting, Putin has intermittently been condemned in the councils of Western governments for various depredations, but he has been consistently rewarded for his bellicosity. As he laid the groundwork for authoritarian confrontation and conquest while cracking down on dissent at home, the industrial and military power at his disposal was permitted to swell with little resistance from the outside world. He was even feted at international summits and invited to enter into trade deals with the richest nations of Europe. Even as he directed his intelligence services to sow disorder in the political systems of the West, scarcely any price was exacted for his extraordinarily brazen campaign of information warfare. GDP growth and partisan pique were too important to sacrifice to abstract concepts like the defense of democracy.

In the Kremlin, the meaning of the West’s feeble indifference was understood to be that the world order was no longer much of an order. Its erstwhile guardians no longer seemed willing to risk very much to preserve it against hostile revisionist powers. Even when Moscow unleashed military force, as it did in 2008 against Georgia, it was clear that it could do so almost without consequence. But the acid test would come in Ukraine.

After the Maidan Revolution brought down Russia’s puppet government in Kyiv in 2014, Putin did not squander the opportunity. In short order, Russian forces annexed Crimea and incited a civil conflict in the Donbas. European countries refused to impose sanctions or to isolate Russia from the world economy. It was only after Russian separatists shot down a civilian airliner carrying EU citizens that piecemeal sanctions were imposed. No strategic evolution came to pass, however, and Europe’s sordid reliance on Russian energy continued unbroken—grew, even.

On the available evidence, Putin bears every sign of being a supremely rational creature. His long tenure has been marked by cool calculation and acts of inching ever closer to his objective of overthrowing the post-Cold War settlement and restoring Russia’s historical sphere of influence. His record of aggression and provocation has seldom been countered, let alone decisively checked. And so, the question is not why he is now waging a full-fledged war against Ukraine. The question, given the mingled complacency and greed of the free world, is: Why on earth wouldn’t he?

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.