What’s in Putin’s Head?

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Vladimir Putin

Lorenz M. Lüthi

As we are slowly coming to terms with a new reality in international relations, we try to make sense of it using the anecdotal and fragmentary information available to us. Few outside of Russia can claim to understand what is going on in Vladimir Putin’s head. Most of us are guessing about the rationale behind the war, the decision-making process that led to its outbreak, and the long-term goals Putin is trying to pursue with this military assault on Ukraine.

The first casualty, when war comes, is truth, as the oft-cited saying goes. The aggressor Russia and the victim Ukraine wage a propaganda war at home and abroad, and opportunistic partisans in the rest of the world are not shy to use the conflict to score cheap points. Ideological convictions often trump logical thinking and detached analysis.

Yet, we still must ask what led Putin to start this war, because the answer will guide future European and North American policies towards Russia for a long time to come.

Whether or not Russia ever received a promise in the 1990s, as Putin claims, that NATO would not expand into East Europe is a matter of debate among scholars—with proponents on either side. Yet, three decades later, this is a moot point. International relations are not static but dynamic.

It is important to note that NATO is not an imperialist project, as Russian propaganda and some talking heads in the North Atlantic claim. It was established in 1949 as a voluntary association of nations with the purpose to protect West Europe from a possible Soviet military attack. In fact, western European governments asked the United States to commit to military deterrence in the wake of the Czechoslovak coup in early 1948 and during the Berlin Blockade of 1948-49. NATO expanded to include Greece and Turkey in 1952, in the wake of Korean War, a war that had been started by North Korea—an ally of the Soviet Union and Communist China—in mid-1950.

By the 1990s, post-Communist countries in East Europe asked to join. For some of them, long-time Russian/Soviet occupation belongs to the darkest chapters of their national history—think about Poland and the Baltic states in the last 200 years. They were keen to escape the Russian shadow before while this window of opportunity was open. Initially, however, NATO was not keen to accept them.

Ukraine has never formally asked to become a member of NATO. And up to February 24, 2022, NATO had no plans of letting Ukraine join. The Russian propaganda about Ukraine becoming a bridgehead of American imperialism is a red herring. And with a relatively weak army, Ukraine has never been a security threat to Russia.

In the 1990s, Ukraine decommissioned its nuclear weapons in exchange for Russia’s binding recognition of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia legally accepted that Ukraine was an independent state, with legitimate security interests, and with a right to pursue its own foreign, defense, and domestic policies.

Going back to the first years of his leadership in Russia in the early 2000s, Putin has repeatedly denied that Ukraine has a history of its own; lately he has even denied that it has a right to exist. Constructing an increasingly bizarre view of Russian history over the course of two decades, he and his minions have handcrafted a justification for the ‘unification’ of the two ‘Slavic brother nations’. Since 2005, Putin has interfered in Ukraine’s domestic politics—at the beginning by using gas supplies and energy transit as a lever. Ultimately, this interference triggered the Maidan Revolution in 2014, during which Ukrainians sacked pro-Russian President Yanukovych after he had reneged on signing the EU association agreement under pressure from Putin.

Since then, Putin has pursued policies to dismember Ukraine—first in Crimea in 2014 and afterwards in the Donbas. It is irrelevant in this discussion that Crimea originally belonged to Russia, or that the Donbas has a large Russian-speaking population. Russia has signed legally binding international agreements to respect Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Why then is Putin so interested in absorbing Ukraine into a Greater Russia?

On the one hand, he has repeatedly asserted that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical disaster for Russia. Moscow lost influence in some of the Soviet Union’s most developed and industrialized parts. To be clear, Putin does not want to restore the communist Soviet Union. Instead, he aims at recreating the Soviet imperial project, in which Russia lords over what Putin considers its borderlands. This also includes the Baltic states, which have been the target of repeated Russian cyber attacks, and the Caucasus, where Russia has annexed two regions of Georgia in 2008. Here, too, Putin’s Russia used the red herring of supposed Georgian NATO membership to create facts on the ground after it had fanned separatist movements for years.

On the other hand, Putin follows old Soviet policies of pushing the United States out of Europe. At least since Joseph Stalin’s infamous Germany note in March 1952, Moscow has pursued a consistent policy of trying to establish its own dominance in all of Europe on the basis of a supposed ‘collective security’ arrangement that would exclude the United States. Successive Soviet leaders—Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, Iurii Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, and Mikhail Gorbachev—dangled the prospect of ending Europe’s Cold War division before European eyes in an attempt to get the American-led NATO out of Europe. Boris Yeltsin’s Russia lacked the political will and military power in the 1990s to prevent post-Communist eastern Europe from joining NATO. Putin, however, restored Russia to a degree of economic well-being and national unity that allowed him to demand, in late 2021, the withdrawal of NATO troops to the original alliance territories before new member states joined in 1997, i.e., to the west of the former Iron Curtain, leaving all of East Europe undefended. NATO rightfully refused. Given the clear and long-standing evidence of Putin’s malfeasance towards the non-Russian territories of the former Soviet Union, East European countries once again received confirmation of why joining the alliance was the correct decision in the 1990s. They had used their window of opportunity wisely.

So why now?

The timing and nature of Putin’s military assault on Ukraine is a much harder question to answer. Since 2014, it has been clear that the Donbas was in Putin’s crosshairs; it was only a matter of time before he would take decisive steps there. Like in Crimea in 2014, Putin cynically moved on the day after the end of the Olympic Winter Games. He knew he had popular backing for the ‘independence’ of the Donbas. There, Putin in fact used a page from Stalin’s 1945 playbook when the Soviet dictator politically recognized Iranian Azerbaijan after an ‘appeal’ from a puppet movement he had created there. American opposition foiled Stalin’s game, but the episode helped to spark the Cold War.

But why not follow a salami tactic of taking the Donbas and then further destabilizing and dismembering Ukraine?

One possibility is that Putin knew that his old tricks would no longer work that easily, since the rest of Ukraine has a progressively smaller population that identifies as Russian the further West he would go. Thus, military assault was the only tool to achieve his goal of reuniting the two ‘Slavic brothers’ under his leadership.

Another possibility is that he truly believed that the military attack would be a triumphal cakewalk, that Ukrainians would welcome Russian soldiers as liberators from a supposedly oppressive and tyrannical government. As we know now, he could not have been more wrong. After twenty years of his own interference in Ukraine’s domestic politics, many Ukrainians have developed a strong sense of nationhood.

The nature of Putin’s autocratic regime might help us to understand his miscalculations. Even before his assent to power, Putin did not believe in a democratic order with a vibrant and pluralistic political culture. For three decades, he has been a proponent of autocratic rule as the best tool to achieve political stability and economic wellbeing. The suppression of political opposition, which gradually accelerated over the course of his 22-year rule might have created a semblance of stability, but Russia remains at an economic standstill. At least, Putin used oil, gas, and wheat exports to pay down external debt that stemmed from the Soviet period and amass a war chest of foreign currencies. Russia’s economy is largely insulated from the world economy, except for its long-term reliance on resource exports. Until February 27, it looked like that Russia would be able to weather sanctions for a long time. The sanctions against the Russian Central Bank, however, will have quick and devastating economic consequences.

Yet, the suppression of the political opposition and the creation of a corrupt Führerstaat have deprived Putin of dissenting but constructive advice. He lives a luxury life, in a bubble where he is surrounded by KGB friends, true believers, cynical opportunists, and sycophants who echo his ideas and thoughts. At the same time, he has fashioned a public image of himself as a masculine superhero, riding bare-chested on a horse, diving for antique treasure, and playing hockey with Russia’s sports superstars.

His insulation from the Russian people and their daily problems has only increased during the pandemic. He has barely appeared in public for two years, hunkering down in his bubble while mismanaging the pandemic. One million Russians have died—in a population of 144 million. It is a sad world record!

Visible to all, he recently reappeared a changed man. The masculine superhero has turned into a paranoid megalomaniac. He now physically distances himself from other politicians, as we could witness in various high-level meetings in Moscow in the last weeks, although his recent meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing is an exception. He received French President Emmanuel Macron, his own cabinet, and the oligarchs in neo-Baroque marble kitsch, designed to impress the outside world with his imperial style and ambitions. Yet, since he, as a self-appointed ruler for life, is running an autocratic regime that has sent people to death either by assassination, brutal incarceration, or poisoning, he probably understands that this is a fate that may befall him, too. Students of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong will recognize that this is a leader who ultimately needs to subject, and thereby deform, state, government, and society to the necessities of his own physical survival. This also applies to other current leaders who aim to rule for life; just think of Recep Erdogan or Xi Jinping.

It is in the context of his visions for a Greater Russia, insulation from constructive dissent, paranoia, and megalomania that Putin decided to go to war in Ukraine. He probably assumed that this would be an easy victory—a Hitler-style Blitzkrieg triumph—that would go unchallenged by the world. He may have even assumed that this easy victory would convince the outside world to give him what he longs for—autocratic dominance of Europe at the expense of all liberal democracies.

Putin has worked for years to divide the North Atlantic world, to draw close to China in that country’s rivalry with the United States, to play on the naïveté and narcissistic megalomania of former President Donald Trump, and to support and even fund right-wing and ethno-nationalist movements at home and abroad. Just think of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement national, the German AfD, Nigel Farage’s UKIP, or the racist right-wing of the Republican Party in the United States. Each of these groups has endorsed, or at least fallen for, Putin’s game of peddling autocratic and ethno-nationalist forms of rule, including calls for major political realignments in the Western world and even constitutional changes in some countries.

These facts make his recent claims that the supposed ‘military operation’ in Ukraine aims at removing supposed neo-Nazis and terrorists from the Ukrainian government particularly disingenuous. Ukraine is a vibrant democracy. Its very existence demonstrates to all Russians that there is an alternative to Putin’s autocratic rule.

So what can we expect Putin to do next in his brutal assault on Ukraine?

Putin knows that he is playing a high-stakes game. Since he can see two likely ends to his own life—dying peacefully in bed or with a bullet in his head—he will do everything to preserve himself. That requires preserving his rule in Russia, since no autocrat like him can expect to go into peaceful and secure retirement. The fate of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet serves as a warning.

None of this augurs well for Ukraine. The war, which Putin cannot afford to lose at this point, is not going well for him. Ukrainian resistance is fierce, and even if he manages to install a puppet regime, the vast majority of the Ukrainian population will not accept it. Still, in this current situation, Putin can only escalate in the hope that high civilian losses will convince Ukrainians to fold. It is not a pretty outlook, and it will definitely not endear Ukrainians to him or to Russia.

As we observe Putin in his Moscow bubble, we cannot but think of Bruno Ganz’s Hitler in the movie Downfall. An aging, exhausted, paranoid, and isolated autocrat faces his own hubris but still blames everybody else for defeat. Maybe Putin too will end up dead in a bunker—with a bullet in his head.

Lorenz M. Lüthi is a professor of history of international relations at McGill University and the author of Cold Wars: Asia, the Middle East, Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

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2 thoughts on “What’s in Putin’s Head?

  1. Dr. Douglas J. Nesbitt

    In opposing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, we must avoid creating and reinforcing myths about how these events have come to pass. Several claims made in this article do not hold up to the most basic scrutiny and do a massive disservice to those of us who seek to put an end to this disastrous, dangerous and scary war. I’d go so far as to wager that the author of this piece commits the very sins of opportunism and abandons from the outset any kind of detached analysis. Here are four points of disagreement I’d like to present to Active History readers in the interest of us getting closer to understanding this conflict with the ultimate goal of bringing it to an end and preventing future wars:

    1. The author claims that the promise of NATO not expanding eastward is a matter of debate, and in the end of no consequence because international relations are “dynamic”. Scholars may debate this, but George Washington University’s National Security Archive has published digitized declassified documents which demonstrate that high-ranking United States officials and other Western European officials and leaders made assurances to Gorbachev in the early 1990s that NATO would not expand east of a united Germany. Those of us opposed to Putin’s imperialist war have to contend with this fact and not wish it away as this author does.

    2. The claim that NATO is not an imperialist project is astonishing. NATO just ended a 20-year occupation of Afghanistan in what was an obvious imperialist war led by the same imperialist power that used it as a stepping stone to invade Iraq. NATO’s military actions beyond its borders have been numerous since the end of the Soviet Union. NATO’s founding involved quite a bit of imperialist meddling in countries such as Greece and Italy, just as the Soviets were meddling in Czechoslovakia and Berlin. The very fact that NATO’s overwhelming driving force is the United States and is a projection of American power around Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia should be all the evidence one needs to conclude that NATO is an imperialist organization. To claim NATO is not imperialist is the height of ideological delusion.

    3. Past Ukrainian leaders have made significant public overtures regarding NATO membership. In 2008, the Ukrainian president and other high-ranking politicians and officials expressed public support for joining NATO in early 2008. In the lead up to the April 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, George W. Bush publicly expressed his support for Ukraine’s NATO membership. Opposition from Germany was part of the reason Ukraine did not join. This was widely covered in the mainstream press. Active History readers can look this up themselves through newspaper searches. January through to the end of April 2008 are the operative dates to study. The global press covered this story as it was a significant international issue at the time. The paragraph in question which raises Ukraine and NATO membership misleads readers into thinking there is no relationship of consequence between NATO and Ukraine. This is simply not true. Ukrainian government and military has worked closely with NATO on numerous fronts. Again, we have here another claim from the author that simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

    4. The author declares “Ukraine is a vibrant democracy” and an “alternative to Putin’s autocratic rule” in a bid to avoid any discussion of the significant fascist movement that took part in the Maidan Revolution in 2013-2014 and its subsequent role in the post-Maidan government and incorporation of fascist paramilitary organizations like the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion into the Ukrainian military. The Ottawa Citizen’s military reporter David Pugliese confirmed in November 2021 that Canadian Forces were in fact training these neo-Nazi militias. Canada was not alone among NATO nations training Ukrainian combat forces, including its neo-Nazis. The history of genocidal fascist nationalism in Ukraine has a long, ugly history and to try and wrap it up in a bow of democracy is the height of opportunism and ideological delusion. Prior to this war, the current Ukrainian government has done little to stop the fascists from waging pogromist attacks on minorities, such as the Roma. As for democracy, major opposition parties and media outlets have been banned by the current government. Immediately following the Maidan Revolution, minority language laws were repealed and were directly related to the rise of violent separatism in heavily Russian-speaking regions (students of Canadian history should know a thing or two about the centrality of minority language rights to democracy and peaceful co-existence between different cultural and national groups). None of these facts mean Putin’s invasion is justified or that his claims of “denazification” are anything but his own propaganda.

    The above article only moves us away from understanding this war, Putin’s mad invasion, and the nature of the Ukrainian and Russian states and societies. In attempting to set some of the record straight, I hope Active History readers must realize that the truth behind this war is much more difficult to swallow than the sanitized fictions peddled above. Armed with a sound knowledge of historical events, and foundational concepts of International Relations, such as balance of power, we must understand this war in the context of great power rivalries. To deny that the war right now is not a product of two global powers colliding on Ukrainian soil, with the Ukrainian people suffering as a consequence, is to deny reality and collapse into fantasy. Once you have lost track of reality, warmongers will be able to lead you astray as Putin has done to so many.

  2. Lorenz Luthi

    The commentator primarily takes issue about the debate among scholars whether or not there is a debate about the so-called U.S. pledge to the Soviet Union in February 1990.

    A distilled summary of this debate is here: Mark Kramer, and Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson. „NATO Enlargement—Was There a Promise?” International Security (2017) 42 (1): 186–192. Mark Kramer denies there was a pledge; Shifrinson argues there was one. I tend to agree with Kramer.

    Mary E. Sarotte’s new book _Not One Inch_ has a very detailed treatment of the issue on pages 51-62, placing the issue within the double context of the ongoing debate of German unification and the continued existence of two military blocs in Europe (Warsaw Pact vs. NATO). Although she is generally critical of the assertive US policy on NATO expansion in the 1990s (i.e., after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1991), there was still no pledge in February 1990.

    In essence, any proponent endorsing the pledge theory needs to deal with four problems:
    (1) There was no written or legally binding pledge (there was in fact only a hypothetical consideration, as Sarotte shows).
    (2) Poland and Hungary openly demanded NATO inclusion as early 1990, and Gorbachev’s Soviet Union did not oppose this idea. Hence, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic eventually entered in 1999, the Baltic states in 2004.
    (3) In the Unification Treaty of September 12, 1990 (2 & 4 Treaty), the Soviet Union recognized united Germany’s right of free choice of alliance. This had been a West German demand since the 1950s.
    (4) Even if the United States had made a pledge in February 1990 (which it didn’t), it was in no position to do so. Unlike the Warsaw Pact, NATO has always been an alliance that makes decisions collectively. Since its foundations in 1949, this principle has led to many internal crises, but also is a source of its enduring strength.

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