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Perspective 66. Putin's Worldview: Is He Rational?
We have the word of no less a savant than Donald Trump that Vladimir Putin is "pretty smart" and that his war strategy is "wonderful" and "genius." But is Putin's grasp of reality really all that rational?
No. We have evidence in hand in his two paranoid speeches, justifying Russia's invasion of Ukraine, on Feb. 21 and 24. Close examination of these effusions shows just how warped Putin's psyche is.
In perspective, in Vladimir's mind everything begins with a plot to destroy Russia. In supporting Ukraine, the West "tried to put a final squeeze on us, finish us off, and utterly destroy us." It was a threat to "the very existence of our state and to its sovereignty," literally a "matter of life or death." This threat came about because of the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, which "disrupted the balance of forces in the world." Putin is still gripped with the great trauma that overshadowed his early career and which he has described elsewhere as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century.
The source of this evil threat is the United States, an "empire of lies" with a "feeling of absolute superiority" that "aspire[s] to global dominance." The "so-called Western bloc" consists of "satellites" of the United States (reviving Cold War terminology once applied to Russia!) and NATO is but "a tool of U.S. policy."
The litany of U.S. aggression runs through Serbia, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and even Chechnya -- where the United States is strangely credited with fomenting Muslim separatism against the Russian state. Putin also professes to believe, rather oddly, that the Ukrainian troop control system is already so integrated with NATO that "NATO can issue direct commands to the Ukrainian armed forces."
The Ukrainian government is portrayed as a "puppet regime" of "far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis. (One wonders for whom the neo-Nazis would serve as puppets, and why such a regime would have a Jewish President whose grandfather perished in the Holocaust.) But this regime is accused of a terror campaign to root out Russian language and culture, and of the "genocide of millions of people" living in the Russian-speaking Donbass region.
Given such crimes, the failure to act would itself be the "first step towards complete degradation and oblivion." It would be a mistake on a par, Putin says, with Stalin's attempt to appease Hitler before Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 -- that is, with perhaps the greatest blunder in Russian history.
Russia's aim, in this account, is not to occupy Ukraine but to "demilitarize and denazify" it. How this is to be done without occupying the country is another dimension of fantasy. The beauty of this rationale is that hostility to the invading Russian army will justify continued occupation, while the occupation will guarantee the persistence and growth of such hostility.
Of course it never occurs to Putin to ask himself why Russia's neighbors, having experienced Russian benevolence over the centuries, are so ready to become "puppets" of the United States.
But the most alarming sentence in these dismal documents comes when Putin warns the rest of the world not to interfere. If they do, he vows, "the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history."
Shortly thereafter he put Russia's nuclear forces on a state of heightened alert. Given his mental state, let us hope that there are some more rational minds in the chain of command.
But think of it for a moment: a deranged but domineering foot soldier in his country's conflicts lives through its defeat and humiliation, rises to power, rebuilds its military power and with paranoid determination sets out to re-establish what he sees as its rightful place in the world. Maybe parallels to the 1930s are not entirely irrelevant?