Vladimir Putin is a truly evil man. But he is not a mad man.
A mad man wouldn’t be able to run Russia for as long as Putin has, so can we stop the tired “mad man” trope? Whenever someone like Putin, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, or Kim Jong-Un threaten us, we project our Western values onto the enemy and conclude that only a mad man could behave in such a way.
Putin has threatened to use his nuclear arsenal to keep countries from intervening in Ukraine, which from our perspective could only come from someone who has lost his marbles. But American presidents have also used nuclear diplomacy in the past. Does Moscow really intend to start a global nuclear war to keep countries from interfering with his invasion? Highly unlikely. It’s just Putin exercising strategic unpredictability — no one really knows what he will do, and he would have us think not even nuclear weapons are off the table. Would North Korea, a country with an economy one-third the size of Ethiopia’s, matter in the slightest if their dictator wasn’t threatening nuclear attack and launching missiles? Kim Jong-Un’s strategic unpredictability provides leverage, prestige, and keeps him in power. While he didn’t overtly go nuclear, Donald Trump’s strategic unpredictability meant that America’s enemies no longer knew what the United States was going to do. That made the world a much safer place than it is today.
Strategic unpredictability is not madness, it’s effective diplomacy — so long as it doesn’t go too far.
Putin isn’t mad; We are just spoiled
Autocrats think very differently than Americans do, especially former KGB agents. Most Americans grew up in a post-atomic age, where nuclear deterrence kept major wars and conquests to a minimum. This is not normal human behavior. History is full of powerful states invading weaker neighbors, and national borders extending only as far as your ability to project your power. Moscow had to check their ambitions during the Cold War, but now the West is perhaps weaker than it has ever been. Not only that, Russia has tremendous leverage given that Europe needs Russian fossil fuel to keep the lights on.
From a “might makes right” perspective which is more on-par with how civilizations used to function, Russia is powerful enough to take Ukraine and that is all the justification Russia needs. Putin doesn’t care about collateral damage or anyone’s feelings.
Cable news brought about the need of 24 hours of nonstop news alerts, which requires a lineup of guests that can say things like “Russia’s ground forces haven’t made it as far and as fast as we think they expected… did Putin not think this through?” Viewers hoping for good news in Ukraine may want to hear that the Russian invasion is facing setbacks as columns of vehicles stretching from one end of the horizon to the other full of stalled columns of vehicles, and look how long it is taking Russia to defeat a significantly weaker opponent. We’d love to think that Putin is in over his head and grossly miscalculated the execution of his invasion. But is this actually the case? Highly unlikely.
Sending tens of thousands of men, their vehicles, and all the necessary supplies into another country is a tremendous challenge. More-so when much of your force is conscripted. Is it a big deal in the short term that Russian convoys are having maintenance issues, running out of fuel, vehicles being abandoned, and everything is taking a long time? Right now it is. But soon they will have the tires replaced and the fuel distributed, and the Russians will get where they need to go.
This is a different type of fight than the contingency operations we have become accustomed to. Rather than liberating populations or defeating insurgents, this is old-fashioned killing people and taking their land and resources. No one is there to win Ukrainian hearts and minds and we need to know this will be ugly. There will be no Russian version of the “Courageous Restraint” medals NATO proposed in 2010. As the invasion turns into occupation, cluster bombs or thermobaric weapons (“vacuum” bombs) will be utilized against civilians and resistance forces — if they haven’t been already. This is not due to any cognitive decline in the Russian president, it’s simply a matter of “what are you gonna do about it?”
Vladimir Putin knows exactly what he is doing. He has a nuclear arsenal he can use for leverage, and is doing what is necessary to take what he wants. The invasion could be going better, but if Russia has the resolve to persist, today’s setbacks won’t be a factor in the end. Has he miscalculated the global response? Perhaps, but more importantly: does the global response matter when the West is weak and divided? Putin isn’t mad; he is only doing what tyrants have done throughout history.