Is Russian president Vladimir Putin mad? While it’s natural for people waking up to a war having broken out on the European continent to ask themselves this question, it is the wrong question to ask.
It’s wrong because it leads to strategic mirroring. In the run-up to today’s outbreak of hostilities, the Biden administration admirably focused much of its energies on keeping allies on the same page. It aggressively shared detailed information about plans behind the scenes across European capitals, and by earlier this week had managed to cobble together a united front against Putin’s increasingly threatening posture.
But in seeking to deter Putin, the Biden team made several mistakes. It kept waving the threat of sanctions, sure that the thought of economic pain would make the Russian leader flinch. After all, to a modern, liberal-minded leader, the looming threat of material privations feels like a heavy cost to bear. Putin himself punctured that fantasy in his speech on Monday, saying that he fully anticipated heavy sanctions to be applied no matter what. The whole tone of his speech, dripping with hateful grievance, indicated that material privation was a small sacrifice to right what he insists are historical wrongs. Now that sanctions are set to roll out, we will see if Putin misjudged how much stress the Russian state can bear. As a means of deterrence, however, sanctions failed miserably.
The Biden administration also chose to leak copious amounts of intelligence indicating an impending invasion to the press. Some have defended the policy, which led to several instances of the United States “crying wolf” in the past few weeks, by saying that it was destabilizing for Putin’s secretive planners and somehow demoralizing for Putin himself. By showing the world that they knew exactly what the Russians were up to, they hoped Putin would struggle to manufacture a casus belli and so would hesitate. By showing that Putin was a hypocrite, they hoped that international opinion might also act as a brake on Putin’s ambitions. As it turned out, the Russians barely bothered to offer a pretext to launch the invasion—and the assault even began during a UN Security Council meeting chaired by the Russians themselves. To a rational Westerner, the opinion of the world matters. Putin’s Russia went out of its way to signal that such liberal conceits are beyond its contempt, or at least irrelevant.
The rationalist temptation has one further pitfall, which could undermine the work that the Biden team has done in unifying America’s allies. At time of writing, Russian troops are encircling Kyiv, and two scenarios appear likely. Either Ukrainian troops fall back to the capital city and gird themselves for an extended and exceedingly bloody war; or the government capitulates before the weekend is out. Should the former come to pass, the ensuing horrors ought to keep Europeans more or less unified in applying maximum pressure on Russia—and may even push NATO members to get serious about contributing more fully to their own security. But should Kyiv fall and Russia succeed in quickly decapitating Ukraine’s government and installing a proxy, liberal-minded rationalists will be tempted to negotiate with the Russians to help stabilize the situation.
There is something about the liberal worldview that insists that every problem is solvable through dialogue. This temptation is felt most strongly in Europe, where the building of the European Union was the product of tireless negotiations and compromises, leading to an outcome that has done much to improve its members’ standards of living. I suspect that, seeing Putin “satisfied,” many European statesmen will seek to formalize a relationship with Russia—especially if the war ends up being comparatively brief.
This would be a mistake. As I have written elsewhere, there is an incommensurability between Putin’s worldview and our own. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt remarked in 1933 of Hitler, “he would in the end challenge us because his black sorcery appealed to the worst in men; it supported their hates and ridiculed their tolerances; and it could not exist permanently in the world with a system whose reliance on reason and justice was fundamental.”
If there’s anything that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has taught us, it’s that he is serious about his hatreds and is contemptuous of the rationalist tolerance that undergirds how we see the world. After this war is over, an uneasy truce is possible and even likely. But normalization is out of the question. We in the West can’t let our ideological commitments blind us to the reality of who and what we are dealing with.
Photo by Kremlin Press Service/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images