…or, does Vladimir Putin want us to think he is? It makes a big difference. Getting it wrong could mean the end of mankind. Ruth Ben Ghiat, a historian at New York University recently published a book, ‘Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present’ describing a psychosis common to autocratic leaders who seize power in a badly troubled country, restore it to prosperity and good order, and then Megalomania takes over. They imagine creating a legacy that they restored their country to its former greatness, usually through bloody and disastrous foreign adventures.
Putin fits the description nicely, right up there with Il Duce, Hitler, and Erdogan, among others. Reinforcing the craziness assessment, CIA psychologists recently leaked a theory that two years of self-imposed quarantine affected Putin’s state of mind. TV images showing Putin meeting foreign leaders across a thirty-foot-long table or his national security council sitting at a distance in a vast cavernous hall illustrate the theory. Others believe (or hope) Putin has copied Richard Nixon’s theory that unpredictability looking like insanity can make adversaries tread carefully, especially when you have 4,000 nuclear warheads.
A rational actor seeking achievable objectives could have forced Ukraine and the West into negotiations that would have gotten him at least some of what he claimed to want: a more neutralized Ukraine. Kudos to the U.S. intelligence analysts who got it right and to President Biden for organizing to fight on a financial battlefield, where the United States and its allies possess overwhelming advantage. A black mark on the rest of us who got it wrong. We thought Putin was a master of three-dimensional chess. It appears he was really playing craps.
Putin launched a dangerous, ill-planned, and ill-executed invasion of Ukraine. Given 20/20 hindsight it appears that he ordered a quick smash-and-grab operation sending fast-moving elite but lightly armed special forces into Kyiv to seize (or kill) President Zelensky and install a puppet government before anyone could react. Unexpected resistance by Ukrainian regular forces defeated the special forces operation. Frustrated, Putin doubled down and ordered Russian main force units into battle. Russian forces had not prepared logistically. Demoralized Russian POWs appeared on Ukrainian TV saying they were not told they were invading Ukraine until they crossed the border. It looks like Putin, an intelligence officer not a soldier, sidelined his generals and is making it up as he goes along. Otherwise, how does one explain the incompetence with which this operation has been conducted?
Russia has not committed enough forces to overrun, let alone occupy, a country bigger and more populous than Iraq (another example of arm-chair generals botching it badly) and appears doomed to a long, bloody, and brutal campaign without certainty of victory. Putin’s troops now face the onset of the ‘rasputitsa’, the spring and fall rainy season, that turns the countryside into a deep sea of mud and makes offensive war in the Ukraine and Russia virtually impossible. General Mud, not General Winter, stopped the Germans in 1941. No wonder Putin panicked and started rattling the nuclear saber.
However, now comes the tough part. How do we get Putin out of Ukraine without risking nuclear war? The answer lies with the Russian leadership and the Russian people. Western economic sanctions can inflict severe pain on the Russian people, but the history of sanctions teaches us that they are more likely to foment Russian anti-western patriotism than to send people into the streets to bring down Putin. The United States and its allies must shape a propaganda campaign that concentrates on Putin and avoids demonizing Russia and its people. Talk of punishing Russia afterwards guarantees Russian popular resistance.
And under no circumstances should we succumb to the well-meaning idiots who want to impose a no-fly zone or take other actions that will have American soldiers killing Russian soldiers. Supplying Ukraine with military and economic help to defend as much of its territory as possible makes it a war of Russians against their first cousins and co-religionists; a war more likely to sap Russian morale among both troops and on the home front. It also robs Putin of a pretext to use low-yield tactical nuclear weapons against NATO forces, which could escalate out of control.
One wonders what the Russian generals are thinking right now. Not only does it appear that Putin did not ask their advice on military matters, but he has bogged down the best units of the Russian Army in what threatens to become a slaughterhouse akin to the killing fields of World War One. In my experience, generals do not want to see their soldiers die needlessly. The fact that the Russian Air Force was largely absent from the fight in the first week of the invasion further raises questions about the attitudes of the Russian high command. If Putin indeed turns out to be truly crazy, only Russian generals can prevent a nuclear Armageddon. Let’s not talk about war crimes trials for them.
If Putin is only playing at being crazy, the generals will have less incentive to risk their lives standing up to him.
Now the genius of Biden’s plan to go after the wallets (as well as the yachts, mansions, and soccer teams) of the Russian oligarchs manifests itself. This group of kleptocrats, like the royal aristocrats of old, live in a symbiotic relationship with Putin. He cannot govern without them; they cannot harvest wealth without him. Unsavory though they are, we should hold our noses and ensure that they understand that the recovery of their wealth depends on how well they can guide Putin back towards a rational resolution to the mess he has created. We also need to offer Putin a face-saving way out such as an international conference whose complexity can conceal a retreat. And when that retreat does come, we should temper any temptation to crow about victory – a little humility is worth avoiding nuclear war.