The alleged madness of Vladimir Putin

Is Vladimir Putin mad?  This question, of a rather specific medical nature, is critically important for the future of the world and millions of human lives.  Are we dealing with a rational individual?  Are we confronting a man whose ultimate goal is a murder-suicide?  And why is that important to know?  Why is Vladimir Putin's state of mind of great significance in the decision-making process undertaken by leaders in the U.S. and Europe.  The answer is simple and horrifying: nuclear weapons. 

The politics of the Cold War was based on the assumption that any nuclear exchange between the great powers would lead to mutual destruction (though a few on both sides from time to time doubted that outcome).  Another rule, no less important, was that the powers left the right to resort to the nuclear options only when directly threatened by another nuclear power.  There were a few notable exceptions to the rule: the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuclear posturing by the superpowers during the Yom Kippur War.  Yet the history of the Cold War and those two events in particular only underscore a rational nature of the people at the helms of both superpowers.  None of the conflicts, including in Vietnam and Afghanistan, directly and indirectly involving both superpowers, led to one side threatening the other with a nuclear strike. 

The current war in Ukraine began with a highly irrational event.  Vladimir Putin decided to go forward with a full-scale invasion of his neighbor despite small chances of achieving his goals.  So tiny are those chances that few observers believed that the invasion would take place until it did.

What are Putin's goals?  They were graciously provided by the president of the Russian Federation himself a few days prior to the invasion in his notorious ultimatum to the Western powers.  They included, among many absurd demands, absolute subjugation of Ukraine and the roll-back of NATO in Eastern Europe.  Putin assumed that Russia could completely control the second geographically largest country in Europe with a hostile population of nearly forty million.  He also assumed that the Kremlin could easily remove the democratically elected government and install its own puppet clique.

So Putin's ultimatum relied too much on a bad understanding of the military prowess of both sides, but also, and more importantly, it took for granted that Russia had enough loyal manpower to control such a vast country.  The truth is that it does not have enough troops to effectively control the major cities and towns in Ukraine without leaving Russia proper devoid of any fighting-capable troops.

Now, after days of intense combat, it is clear that even the pure military aspect of the plan had many imaginary parts.  We may assume that the original plan was based on a quick physical elimination of the government of Ukraine and takeover of the capital, Kyiv.  That still leaves Russia with an impossible task to govern the ungovernable.

Vladimir Putin has until recently been known as a KGB agent par excellence: calculating, disciplined, and risk-averse.  Has he gone mad?  Perhaps — though maybe not in the way most observers assume.  From the beginning of the crisis, even before the evasion, Putin has made some veiled and then direct threats of nuclear war.  Those who assume he is now acting irrationally think he may resort to the nuclear option if cornered.  Yet he has been cornered since the beginning of the invasion, given his inability to subdue Ukraine and the overwhelming sanctions steadily relegating Russia to the status of North Korea. 

Perhaps he has indeed gone mad, but not to the point of self-destruction.  His entire plan was doomed from the beginning.  But it was doomed by design.  It was meant to lead to the point where, by virtue of inevitably unfolding events, Putin would need to resort to the nuclear option.  However, that option would not be the ballistic missiles striking the capitals of the U.S., Germany, and France.  Rather, it would be one tactical nuclear device fired by an artillery piece, headed somewhere in Ukraine.  Such a terrifying, barbaric, and criminal action would nevertheless achieve both immediate goals of his campaign: demoralize Ukraine to the point of its surrender and deter NATO from actively intervening now or in the future.

The only question left to be answered under such a scenario is whether the U.S. would intervene proportionally with its own nuclear strike.  It is safe to assume that the answer is unequivocally "no."  The U.S. will not start a nuclear war if it is not itself attacked with nuclear weapons.

It is unclear what the U.S.'s doctrine says about the situation where a non-aligned country is attacked in such a manner.  But it is clear, based on the official position of many prior administrations, and particularly the current one, that the U.S.'s answer will be everything short of its own nuclear strike.  It may involve more sanctions and a complete cut-off of Russia from the rest of the world, but it does not look as though Vladimir Putin cares about any of that.

A tactical nuclear strike will lead to a tremendous loss of human lives and will start a global nuclear race unimaginable since the days of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Putin may not have the exit strategy, but he may have the endgame.

Image: G20 Argentina via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

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