Is Russian President Vladimir Putin crazy? It’s a good question. In the space of a week, he reversed almost all of the considerable and commendable progress that Russia had made during his two decades in office and brought Russia back into the organization of the Soviet Union.
Is Putin crazy? Yes and no. The great Scottish psychologist RD Laing explained madness thus: “Madness – a perfectly rational adjustment to a mad world.”
Laing said the actions of a schizophrenic are perfectly rational. What is wrong is that their perception of reality is distorted.
I think that describes Putin perfectly.
Laing made a name for himself when he was just 28 with his first book “The Divided Self” in 1960 which turned psychology on its head with a new view of mental illness.
The book’s power lies in Laing’s ability to grasp the rationality behind seemingly irrational behavior, a logic he revealed by having the reader see through the eyes of someone labeled as schizophrenic. Laing did not “explain” schizophrenia as an illness; he showed how schizophrenia was a perfectly logical way to deal with impossible, long-standing situations in a person’s immediate family or society. Schizophrenia is a response to contradictory demands that cannot be reconciled.
This destruction was entirely predictable. Indeed, I argued that he was acutely aware of the destructive nature of the invasion of Ukraine, which is why he so painstakingly, for 14 years, built his tax fortress to minimize the damage. What shocked was how fast and how far he went with the aggression. Although it has always been on the cards, no one expected it to escalate so quickly.
And it doesn’t go as planned. It seems that Putin was banking on the EU remaining divided and cynically focused on business to ensure that the EU would do what it always does when it comes to sanctions against Russia: obfuscate and deceive.
The United States was easier to predict. Russia had long since paid off its debt and withdrawn from dollar-denominated assets, making it immune to US sanctions. But Putin must be shocked by the unanimity and determination of the EU’s response – especially the freezing of the Central Bank of Russiathe gross international reserves (GIR) of February 27, which it seems the Kremlin did not expect.
But he ordered the invasion anyway and even though the Russian economy is in free fall and will become another Iran that will stunt its development and prosperity for a generation, he will not back down.
It looks like the action of a madman. International sanctions are one thing, but the reaction of the Russian people is quite another. Presumably, he is doing it for the “greater good of Russia”, which he has always claimed as his motivation.
But his own people almost universally condemned the invasion. All the Russian friends I spoke to last week are in shock. Everyone agrees that an unprovoked attack on Ukraine is senseless. Their dreams of a better life and a better Russia for their children have been shattered. Many Russians are now talking about leaving.
As protests and complaints mount at home, Putin is already acting with ruthless efficiency to cut this knee-deep movement. The press and social media have already been almost entirely shut down and if widely expected mass protests emerge, the police response is likely to be brutal and swift.
So what is Putin’s worldview that led to these seemingly self-defeating decisions? I criticized other commentators for telling us “what Putin really thinks”. Well, now I’m going to have to do the same.
The main problem is that Putin sees the West, and NATO in particular, as “the enemy”.
I mean that in the literal sense. As I have written elsewhere, he reached out early in his first term to join both NATO and the EU and was rejected on both counts. Then Russia was pushed back when it tried to take over carmaker Opel from former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and was denied board seats when it bought a batch of EADS shares, the aircraft maker European. And there are many other examples of these rebuffs. In these cases, Russia hoped to use these companies to save its automotive and aircraft industries respectively.
It also took 19 years before the WTO finally admitted Russia as a member in August 2012. The West was clearly extremely reluctant to allow Russia to join the global trade club and ultimately only conceded when it became too embarrassing to keep excluding her. Russia left the club again two years later when it imposed tit-for-tat agro-sanctions on the EU after the annexation of Crimea.
Taking Crimea in 2014 and securing Kremlin control over the naval base was also part of Putin’s long-term planning for the upcoming clash. He’s been working on this invasion for a very long time. This is the problem: he is convinced that the West has been the enemy for more than a decade.
Things really started to go downhill for him when the United States unilaterally withdrew from the ATM missile treaty, which was later extended to the implementation of the so-called anti-missile shield in Europe and rockets moving in Poland and Romania.
All of this fueled Putin’s paranoia. This was evidenced by one of the clauses of the statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry eight point list claims issued in December. Article three, barely discussed, says: “the parties reaffirm that they do not consider each other as adversaries and maintain a dialogue”.
By rejecting this list, the West, for Putin, affirms that it sees Russia as an enemy, which also confirms, for Putin, the exclusive character of the European security system. If Russia is not included in Europe’s security infrastructure, then it is the enemy.
But it goes beyond that, and that’s where twisted reality comes in. Putin doesn’t just see the West as an enemy; he sees it as an existential threat. He seems to assume that Ukraine’s NATO membership is inevitable, despite the fact that no membership has been offered, and probably never will be. He seems to assume that the appearance of NATO missiles on Ukrainian soil is also inevitable and that the United States will inevitably use that pressure to make demands of Russia at gunpoint.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly said that NATO is a defensive organization. The Kremlin has repeatedly pointed to NATO’s offensive campaign in Kosovo and Libya as evidence that is not true and has also fueled Putin’s paranoia.
From Putin’s perspective, he is then acting purely rationally to avert an unavoidable existential threat to Russia before the inevitable attack can occur, before those missiles arrive in Ukraine.
The second distortion is that Putin apparently believes he has nothing to lose. The West is already the enemy. He is already determined to destroy Russia. The destruction of the Russian economy was going to happen anyway. All Putin is doing is pushing the showdown and doing it on his terms, where he hopes to control the situation rather than wait until those missiles are in Ukraine and Russia has been dealt an unwinnable hand.
From this point of view, Putin has not destroyed anything as far as he is concerned. He just made an implicit threat explicit and prepared Russia with its fiscal fortress for a fight that was going to happen anyway.
The Russian economy was always going to be destroyed by the West, but right now Putin is ready for battle and seems hopeful that Russia can simply reorient itself away from the West and look to Asia instead. square. This is certainly true for the gas sector: Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller has pointed out that Russia’s energy future lies in China in a speech last September.
“There is no doubt that the Chinese The market is the most dynamic and fastest growing, and it shows simply incredible consumption growth rates every year,” Miller said. “Furthermore, the annual volume of gas imports [to China] should reach 300 billion cubic meters by 2023, in just 15 years. The figure is simply staggering,” Miller told delegates at a Gazprom conference. By comparison, Gazprom currently exports some 200 billion m3 of gas to Europe each year, but only around 10 billion m3 to China.
How can Putin, in the name of making Russia great again, so blithely and completely destroy its economy and condemn its people to a second-class life? It’s easy. Putin displays a pure Soviet mentality: where citizens are expected to make sacrifices for the good of the fatherland. bne IntelliNews wrote about it before in the clash between the Moscow Consensus, which privileges the State over the individual, against the Washington Consensus which places individual happiness at the center of its ideology. The Chinese think the same way.
So yes, Putin has gone mad, but in a perfectly rational and understandable way. I personally believe that the solution to Putin’s dilemma was to admit that Russia lost the Cold War and is unable to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. But the solution to the problem is to focus on growing the economy and developing business with the West.
This prevents the West from attacking Russia, because it would simply lose too much money. The sanctions imposed on Belarus last year were among the toughest ever, but in 2021 trade with Belarus has doubled. It is a version of Golden Arches Conflict Theory: “No country that has a McDonald’s has ever attacked each other.” (Although this rule has been proven wrong in the meantime in Serbia, and now here, as Russia and Ukraine have McDonald’s restaurants.)
I belong to a generation where Germany was still “Nazi” in most people’s minds when I was a child. Another generation later, I am married to a German. My children are half German. And everyone in emerging Europe wants to live in Germany (except Estonians who all go to London), because Germany is not only the most prosperous country in Europe, it is also the de facto leader of the ‘Europe. This is the role Russia should have aspired to and it was already halfway there.
The tragedy of Putin’s madness is, as Laing said, “we are effectively destroying ourselves through violence disguised as love.”