Vladimir Putin is a fool

See updates through May 18, 2022, at end of post.


Fiona Hill thinks Vladimir Putin’s goal is bigger, much bigger, than Ukraine. She thinks he wants the U.S. out of Europe.[1] One might suspect he should have pushed for that when Donald Trump was president because Trump didn’t like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization either.[2] And from what I can see in Hill’s analysis, Putin badly misjudges the U.S. situation and the country’s relationship with NATO.[3]

According to Hill, the official Russian line is that NATO is nothing more than a U.S. puppet or, as she puts it, “an extension of the United States.”[4]

[Vladimir Putin] also thinks NATO is nothing more than an extension of the United States. Russian officials and commentators routinely deny any agency or independent strategic thought to other NATO members. So, when it comes to the alliance, all of Moscow’s moves are directed against Washington.[5]

But do the Russians actually believe this? Hill also writes,

So Mr. [Vladimir] Putin can act as he chooses, when he chooses. Barring ill health, the United States will have to contend with him for years to come. Right now, all signs indicate that Mr. Putin will lock the United States into an endless tactical game, take more chunks out of Ukraine and exploit all the frictions and fractures in NATO and the European Union.[6]

If NATO is nothing more than a U.S. puppet, it is a monolith. “[T]he frictions and fractures in NATO” cannot actually exist. If Putin seeks to exploit those “frictions and fractures,” then he must understand that NATO is something besides a U.S. puppet. Julia Ioffe offers a different understanding, which is consistent with my own recollection:

[Donald] Trump hated NATO and bashed it every chance he got. He publicly questioned the need for the alliance and for whether he’d order American troops anywhere if Article V (collective defense) were invoked. He publicly sided with [Vladimir] Putin over his own intelligence agencies. He spoke constantly of how much he liked Putin and how Russia was an important and strong power that America should respect. He told G7 leaders that Crimea is Russian. Trump did everything Putin wanted without Putin even having to ask for it, and Brussels and Washington lived in constant fear that Trump would announce a U.S. withdrawal from NATO. (As one former Kremlin advisor told me on the sidelines of a NATO conference in 2018, “Trump is our wrecking ball.”)[7]

So if Putin really wants the U.S. out of Europe, he should have made a deal with Trump when Trump was president. Now, according to Hill, he’s trying to get Joe Biden to pull the U.S. out of Europe, which is about as likely as Biden calling for Medicare For All[8] or forgiving all student loan debt. Regardless of how you or I feel about any of these proposals, flatly, none of them are happening with Biden as president. So why is Putin acting now? According to Hill,

Mr. [Vladimir] Putin wants to give the United States a taste of the same bitter medicine Russia had to swallow in the 1990s. He believes that the United States is currently in the same predicament as Russia was after the Soviet collapse: grievously weakened at home and in retreat abroad.[9]

There is, of course, a sliver of truth in that assessment: The U.S is certainly divided, its politics are grievously polarized, and the country is at considerable risk of political violence possibly leading to a civil war. Indeed, I don’t see how the country stays together, even if I am also perplexed by how it could peacefully break up.[10] But some might also remember when “a prominent Russian professor named Igor Panarin . . . predicted the breakup of the U.S. into six pieces by 2010.” Yes, by 2010.[11] Others might point out that “weakness” and “inexorable decline” do not necessarily mean immediate vulnerability, recalling that the British empire continued to expand quite substantially even after World War I exposed its overreach.[12]

The divisions in U.S. domestic politics appear to the Kremlin as signs of weakness. They reinforce perceptions in Kremlin circles that the United States is now in inexorable decline, a narrative that is embraced and propagated by Russian officials, media, and analysts.[13]

That was, though not to the extent it is now, also true before the 9/11 attacks, to which a furious U.S. responded with invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The other bit of truth that goes along with that is that seeking to exploit divisions in the U.S. might not have the consequences you think it will.

Participants [in a Quincy Institute working group] agreed that for reasons of domestic and international prestige, President Putin simply cannot emerge from this crisis empty-handed, and that his rhetoric and that of other Russian officials, together with Western intransigence, have placed Russia in a position where its only choice may be between humiliation and war. So although Putin and the Russian establishment are fully aware of the economic and political damage that Russia could suffer from a war, as well as the immense political difficulties it would face in occupied areas of Ukraine, the Russian government is indeed seriously considering war.[14]

This is strikingly consistent with Ioffe’s view of Putin as a psychological case, an egotist seeking attention.[15] There is, of course, a bit more to it. Putin may have crushed his opposition[16] but he still faces domestic pressures;[17] a historical and repeatedly exploited vulnerability to invasion via the European Plain (figure 1) in, among other places but perhaps most importantly, Ukraine; and finally, the need for a warm water port,[18] hence his takeover of Crimea.[19] And he isn’t wholly wrong about the link between the two countries: Russia was founded in what is now Ukrainian territory.[20]

Fig. 1. Map of the European Plain (in gray), January 27, 2007, via Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.[21]

Two of Russia’s chief preoccupations—its vulnerability on land and its lack of access to warm-water ports—came together in Ukraine in 2014. As long as a pro-Russian government held sway in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, Russia could be confident that its buffer zone would remain intact and guard the European Plain. Even a neutral Ukraine, which would promise not to join the European Union or NATO and would uphold the lease Russia had on the warm-water port at Sevastopol in Crimea, would be acceptable. But when protests in Ukraine brought down the pro-Russia government of Viktor Yanukovych and a new, more pro-Western government came to power, [Vladimir] Putin had a choice. He could have respected the territorial integrity of Ukraine, or he could have done what Russian leaders have done for centuries with the bad geographic cards they were dealt. He chose his own kind of attack as defense, annexing Crimea to ensure Russia’s access to its only proper warm-water port, and moving to prevent NATO from creeping even closer to Russia’s border.[22]

A wiser man might suggest that Russia’s own provocations lead its neighbors to seek to defend and to ally against it.[23] A wiser man might caution against underestimating rivals who appear “weak.” A wiser man would keep his own ego the fuck out of it.

A wiser man is not Vladimir Putin.


Update, January 25, 2022: In general, what I’m seeing out there is a divergence between “tankies,”[24] who, thinking the U.S. is a great Satan, consider anyone opposing the country not merely virtuous but saintly,[25] and therefore argue for compromising Ukraine’s sovereignty;[26] and neoconservatives, who, knowing they’re not going to get a nice not-so-little war out of this one,[27] are nonetheless whipping up hysteria.[28] I’m pretty sure the truth lies somewhere between these asinine poles, I’m not sure where, but I think probably closer to the neoconservative pole: I do think Vladimir Putin is a fool[29] in possession of a significant military with nuclear weapons, which makes him a dangerous fool. What appears absolutely to be the case is that Russia and the West are engaged in a propaganda war.[30]


Update #2, January 25, 2022: At this point Julia Ioffe is one of the few people I’m willing to trust on Ukraine:

Russia could invade at any moment, and it’s hard to see how Vladimir Putin, after calling up such a large force and publicly and angrily making his demands, can back off now without losing a lot of face. This whole thing feels like 100,000 of Anton Chekhov’s guns hanging on 100,000 walls. Once they’re introduced, they have to go off.[31]

Julia Ioffe also observes that Vladimir Putin’s moves are producing the very results he says he means to avoid.[32] Which is to say, he’s a fool.[33]

Ioffe offers another nugget, which helps to unravel the inconsistencies I’ve been seeing:

Another thought: Before the new year, Biden made clear that there would be no American boots on the ground in Ukraine, and NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg reiterated that because Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the country is not entitled to a defense by NATO states should it be attacked by Russia. At the same time, they are defending Ukraine before it has been attacked. In addition to the weapons shipments and the training of Ukrainians for an Iraq-style insurgency should Russia invade, we’re seeing some new strategies deployed. NATO governments are exposing the diversions that the Kremlin is apparently planning, thereby defanging them. Earlier this month, the Biden administration unmasked an alleged Russian plot to send saboteurs to blow up their own fighters in the Donbas in order to create a pretext for Russia to invade Ukraine. Once that plan for a false flag operation is made public, there’s very little the Russian government can do with it. The logic for the British government revealing Russia’s apparent plan to install a friendly government in Kyiv—a fear that’s been batted around national security and foreign policy circles since this crisis began—is much the same. Neither revelation is guaranteed to stop the Kremlin from pursuing either tack, but it certainly strips it of a really important element: plausible deniability. If you recall the invasion of Crimea by “little green men” and of the Donbas by “volunteers on vacation,” plausible deniability is a key Kremlin strategy.[34]

In this light, the stories need not make absolute sense; they need not be coherent. They just have to be close enough to the truth to dissuade Vladimir Putin from attempting his deceptions. But also, because everything is bullshit,[35] ignore the Ukrainian officials who say to relax.[36]


Update, February 14, 2022: Joe Biden and his administration have repeatedly and consistently said that the U.S. would not be sending troops to defend Ukraine against a Russian invasion[37] and I can’t imagine U.S. popular opinion supporting such an operation, so I’ve been dismissive of war talk on Twitter. Here’s the problem:

This is not going to be a war of Ukraine and Russia. This is going to be a European war. A fully-fledged war.[38]

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky does not support his claim with evidence[39] and Russia already occupies some Ukraine territory from previous incursions[40] that have not (yet) sparked wider conflagrations.

Zelensky has also sought to downplay the threat of an imminent Russian invasion, apparently attempting to preserve domestic stability.[41] So while seeming dissonant, the threat of a wider European war[42] also seems like it could involve the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which would draw in the U.S.

I still don’t know what to think here. Jon Allsop pointed out—as far as I know he made this point first[43]—that there’s a propaganda war and this point now seems to be widely accepted.[44] That argues strongly against taking anything being said, including the latest about the U.S. closing its embasssy in Kyiv,[45] terribly seriously. The trouble there is the downside risk, indeed a probability that ‘hysteria’ is much too strong a word for fears that Russia will invade.


Update, February 18, 2022:

With the caveat that you can’t rule anything out when Putin is involved and that the most pessimistic prediction is usually the right one, I have to say that I think an invasion is less likely now than it was a month ago. And not because of what Putin said on Tuesday. Yes, militarily speaking, Russia is far more prepared for an invasion today than it was then, but politically, there is much less reason now for Putin to give the order to invade than there was a month ago.[46]

That’s Julia Ioffe, three days ago, in an article in which she reiterates that this is a propaganda war and, so far, Joe Biden’s strategy seems to be working.[47] The cute part of that is that Biden’s strategy will indeed seem to be working until, brutally, it isn’t.

CNN this evening seems less canny, stenographically reporting the latest that Biden believes Vladimir Putin has decided to invade.[48] If, however, on that day three days ago, Ioffe was very guardedly optimistic that war seemed less probable,[49] today, we’re back to pessimism:

By Friday, things had escalated to the point where war—or something uncomfortably close to it—seemed inevitable. The Kremlin announced that Vladimir Putin, accompanied by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, would oversee military exercises that would include the firing of ballistic and cruise missiles on Saturday. The head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) told its residents to evacuate the area and flee to Russia because, he claimed, Ukrainian president Volodymir Zelensky had ordered an invasion. The Ukrainian government spent the day denying those claims.[50]

Ioffe proceeds by comparing “the development of this conflict and the beginning of the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia.” She has a lot of data points. She now is also buying the Biden administration line, writing that

Over the last few weeks, the Biden administration has made a number of intelligence disclosures, aiming to preempt, expose, or disrupt various Russian plans. By Friday, it was clear that almost all of them have checked out.[51]

Again, she’s got an itemized list of revelations.[52]

Remember that deception takes multiple forms. There is the form where you’re out and out lying. But there’s also the form where you’re withholding truth. To the extent Ioffe is right, the Biden administration may still be guilty of the latter, even as we can be certain the Russians are guilty of the former. Because it’s “classified,” I wouldn’t expect to ever learn how much or what, really, the Biden administration is holding back.

And of course, we can’t tell how correctly intelligence agencies are interpreting what they’re not telling us.

I’m not sure who put this text right under the title—it is not, strictly speaking, part of the article—on Ioffe’s latest:

Are we witnessing the outbreak of war in Ukraine? It certainly looks that way. But as with everything involving Putin, nothing is as it seems.[53]

The latter part of that is a point she really doesn’t develop.

Y’all know I have enormous respect for Ioffe, but the truth remains that, because this is a propaganda war, we won’t know whether Vladimir Putin will invade until 1) the invasion actually happens, or 2) the Russian troops have withdrawn to barracks. Until then, I honestly don’t know how you keep breathing when you’re submerged in bullshit this deep.


Update, February 20, 2022: As violence increases around Russian-held areas of eastern Ukraine,[54] and the propaganda war intensifies, I’m thinking it is important to remember that sometimes, propaganda is not meant to be believed.

Do not misunderstand: The propagandist would certainly prefer that you believe their propaganda. But if indeed, Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine,[55] despite the Biden administration’s apparently skillful use of intelligence releases to counter Putin’s propaganda,[56] we may have reached the limits of that strategy.

Putin may now have decided to dispense with credibility in favor of pretense, to an impose a “truth” made authoritative through brute physical force. In the end, no one is prepared to stop him; rather they have all assured their domestic constituencies that they will not intervene militarily to stop Putin from invading.[57] And so, just as no one believes that Crimea is Russian territory, but Putin occupied and annexed it anyway, Putin may now do whatever it is he intends in the rest of Ukraine.

Ultimately, war reduces to a contest between elites over which of them will control which territories, and control the people and the resources within those territories. And violence reduces to brutal persuasion. From the rest of us, it is compliance that is required, not belief.


Update, February 21, 2022: I share Anne Applebaum’s sense that the West is betraying Ukraine, leaving it to face Russia alone.[58] The question of what to do about it, how, really, to stop Vladimir Putin, however, is much harder. I honestly doubt that any western European country or the U.S. has the stomach for war with Russia and even if it did, everything I’ve seen of war is that it fails. The U.S. doesn’t even know how to win a war; it hasn’t won one since World War I (World War II was won mostly by the Soviet Union), unless you count Grenada and Panama, which are nowhere near the scale that this would be. So we’d be shedding blood not to save Ukraine, but only to increase the bloodshed.

And even if our presence somehow deterred or stopped an invasion, how long would we have to stay there? How long would Russia continue to be a threat?

The problem with this thinking is precisely what David Barash and Charles Webel point to in Peace and Conflict Studies. They distinguish between a peace achieved through force and a peace achieved by resolving the causes of the conflict.[59] The question is whether, with Vladimir Putin and like-minded elites in power in Russia, it is even possible to address those causes.


Update, February 22, 2022, repeatedly updated same date: Justin Sherin, posing as Richard Nixon, tweets of Vladimir Putin’s speech:


Julia Ioffe writes,

Perhaps even more terrifying was the speech [Vladimir] Putin gave before he officially acknowledged the [Donetsk and Luhansk] republics’ independence. In a primetime address to the Russian nation, Putin said, without any hedging, that Ukraine is not a real country but rather a fictitious entity created by Vladimir Lenin, which received its independence from the Soviet Union for no good reason, and which amounted to a lopping off of a key, historically significant part of Russia. And though Putin claimed that this was “wholly and completely proven by archival documents,” it was mostly lies. It was also jarring to hear Putin say this all out loud, despite the fact that he has expressed variations of this sentiment in various forms over the years. It belied the idea that Putin’s beef was with NATO and showed, once again, that the issue was the terms of the U.S.S.R.’s surrender in 1991, which he has long been determined to renegotiate—or change by force.[61]

We are given to understand that Putin’s grasp on power in Russia is absolute, that he has crushed his opposition.[62] But, if we trust British intelligence, it appears some in the Russian military and intelligence services have doubts about any invasion of Ukraine,[63] and then there is another piece to what Sherin, posing as Nixon, tweeted:


One issue is the prospect of military success:

Any invasion of Ukraine would be fraught with risk, in what would be the largest war in Europe since the second world war. It would pit 150,000 Russian troops, plus another 30,000 separatists, against a regular Ukrainian army of 145,000 plus tens of thousands of paramilitaries, many of whom have military experience.[65]

That’s a roughly even match on strength of forces. I was dimly recalling that attacking forces should enjoy a three to one ratio in troop strength. That’s oversimplistic[66] but I’m suspicious that a Russian invasion of Ukraine might not be the march on Kyiv that so many seem to expect.

There may indeed be doubts about Putin’s strategy. David Ignatius’ account of the “televised command performance of Putin’s security council in the ornate Kremlin chamber” includes that:

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia’s demands for security guarantees were “not an ultimatum,” and he seemed ready to meet Thursday with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken for more talks. Lavrov also conceded NATO’s unity, advising Putin that at this past weekend’s Munich Security Conference, “every Western representative declared their absolute commitment to a unified approach,” which “confirmed that we need to negotiate with Washington.” . . .

But the big surprise came when Putin quizzed Sergei Naryshkin, head of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. Naryshkin advised that threatening to recognize Donetsk and Luhansk would be useful leverage for implementing the 2015 Minsk agreements to settle the conflict in the eastern region. Russia has claimed to support Minsk, but Monday’s recognition of the two breakaway enclaves as independent will probably derail any chance for the agreement. In response to Naryshkin’s answers, Putin got antsy.

What followed was a rare Kremlin moment of quasi-dissent. “Speak clearly, do you support recognition?” demanded Putin. “I will,” answered his spy chief. “You will, or you do?” demanded Putin. When Naryshkin waffled and said he would support “bringing them into Russia,” Putin shot back, “That’s not what we are discussing. Do you support recognizing independence?” To which the vexed spymaster answered, “yes.”[67]

Ignatius describes other ministers’ responses as being dutifully on script.[68] Even here, one might harbor room for doubt: If you, a very powerful man, whom I have every reason to fear, indeed for my life, are plainly expecting me to assent to your previously chosen course of action on international television, how confident can you or that international audience really be that such assent is genuine? Jon Allsop notes that this performance may not have been so spontaneous:[69]

“This is happening spontaneously because I wanted to hear your opinions without any preliminary preparation,” [Vladimir] Putin said, as the officials got up, one by one, to agree with him. The meeting was broadcast on state TV and was ostensibly live, though if that was the case, the defense minister might want to check his watch since it appeared to be five hours behind the time.[70]

I would not expect such performances to be anything more than performances. I do not expect honest answers in such a setting. I expect compliance. But the script is unknown to us: Was that “rare Kremlin moment of quasi-dissent”[71] merely a bit of drama for whatever persuasive effect it might offer? We don’t know, its mere existence tantalizes, but that discrepancy on the defense minister’s watch[72] suggests it may well have been. Allsop again:

It appeared to have been choreographed and scripted, with officials parroting the same apocalyptic and fantastical talking points that have blanketed state media recently to justify recognizing the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, two eastern Ukrainian provinces claimed by Russia-backed separatists. (The separatists already control around a third of the territory in the two provinces, all of it abutting Russia.) As The Guardian’s Shaun Walker and others noted, some of the officials seemed visibly to squirm as they made their support for recognition a matter of very public record, not least Putin’s spy chief, who wore a “genuinely flustered expression” as Putin admonished him to speak more clearly, then shut down his support for a full annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk; others suggested, though, that this, too, may have been staged, to show Putin in the act of rejecting a possible option (for now).[73]

Ioffe on this:

In the security council meeting, Putin called up Russia’s highest ranking officials one by one, and one by one each took the microphone and obediently supported Putin’s decision, trying to outdo each other in their fervor. Whether they privately disagreed or were in sincere agreement with Putin, it didn’t really matter: they knew that to keep their jobs, their money, and their freedom, they had to bow and scrape and agree.[74]

Still, if you grasp something too firmly, it may crumble. I am wondering if that may apply as well to the power that Putin has grasped. And if that is indeed the case, while Russian diplomatic, military, and intelligence service doubts[75] may fail to impede an invasion of Ukraine,[76] this could backfire rather spectacularly on Putin.

When there is no one to tell Putin that a war with Ukraine would be a disaster, when he can afford not to care what anyone at home thinks, this is what we get: a furious and clearly deranged old man, threatening to drag us all into World War III.[77]

I can’t quite imagine that Putin’s monolith is Russia’s reality. If a Ukraine invasion sours, something else may happen. Ioffe here remembers Czar Nicholas II:

Nicholas II joined World War I and ended up losing the war, his kingdom, and his life. And yet, compared to the nearly 50 million Soviet citizens who would follow him to a violent death in the decades after he abdicated the throne, Nicholas got off easy. Doubtless, he could not have imagined that when facing his Bolshevik executioners in a Siberian basement.[78]

Those of us who do not know—that’s just about everybody—might do best to sit back, shut the fuck up, and pay some fucking attention. Because all this might, only might, go in an entirely unexpected direction. As Ioffe notes, “Wars have a way of getting out of hand, of getting swept up in their own momentum and sparking unpredictable chains of events.” For now, however, Ioffe points out that Putin has untied Volodymyr Zelensky’s hands in relinquishing breakaway regions which the Minsk Accords required Ukraine to reintegrate—a “poison pill.”[79] Zelensky can be aggrieved even as Putin has solved one of this problems. The bad news, however, is

At an evening press conference at the Kremlin today, Putin confirmed that he recognized the LPR [Luhansk People’s Republic] and DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic] as falling within “the borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions when they were still part of Ukraine.” That means Putin believes that two-thirds of Donetsk and Luhansk—including the city of Mariupol, a strategic port city on the Sea of Azov—should also belong to the separatists. Does that mean that he will send Russian troops further into these provinces—and into sovereign Ukrainian territory? If he does, that would be an undeniable war, not just an escalation.[80]

Whatever it is, and Ioffe too[81] contemplates the possibility of a wider war,[82] it has begun.


Update, February 23, 2022: I’ve been somewhat mystified by repeated claims that Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine could lead to World War III.[83] After all, he already occupies Crimea and a piece of eastern Ukraine and this has not expanded into World War III.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner’s answer is cyberattacks. His thinking is that unleashing numerous bots on Ukraine’s systems could spiral out of control into North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries. Putin might also cyberattack the NATO countries directly in retaliation for sanctions.[84]

Another possibility, which I think Julia Ioffe may have been alluding to,[85] is that a firefight too close to the wrong boundaries—Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are all NATO members bordering Ukraine—might spill over those boundaries generating a defensive reaction from that country’s military. Of these, Poland seems the likeliest possibility; it also borders Russia ally Belarus and has, of NATO countries, what appears to be the longest border with Ukraine. These countries all seem a long ways away from Russia’s announced military operation.[86]

Russia has already launched cyberattacks on Ukraine[87] and explosions and missile strikes have been reported outside separatist-controlled areas.[88]


Update, February 24, 2022:

The war arrived at 4 a.m. local time, just as the rumors said it would. It started with air strikes—in Kyiv, in Kharkiv, Mariupol, Ivano-Frankivsk—and then there were the amphibious landings in Odessa and Belarusian tanks coming over the border in the north. Just as explosions began to echo around Ukraine, Vladimir Putin addressed his nation, as well as the one he was attacking, something that he and his minions had promised for months that they had no intention of doing. This would be a “special military operation” Putin said, to “de-Nazify and demilitarize Ukraine.” His troops would rid it of the “junta” that had seized power and was committing “genocide” against the innocents. The perpetrators, he promised, would be tried and brought to justice.[89]

Putin claims he is pursuing a ‘denazification’ of Ukraine,[90] which, with reported widespread attacks, appears to mean he intends to replace the Ukrainian government.[91] In turn, the Ukrainian president, a Jew, compares Putin to Adolf Hitler.[92]

Julia Ioffe accepts the World War II references in one way: She understands Putin to be seeking to reestablish the world of the Cold War that followed World War II, one divided between Soviet and U.S. spheres of influence, where the antagonists, terrified of fighting each other—the “MAD” doctrine of mutually assured destruction—interminably fought out their differences in the developing world, with one proxy war after another.[93]

Maybe a lot of people don’t actually remember the original Cold War, which featured “duck and cover” drills for schoolchildren, preparing them for a nuclear attack. Maybe they don’t remember the decades-long threat of nuclear war. Maybe they don’t remember when “Ruskies” were demonized as “Commies.” I’m having an awfully hard time understanding why anyone not seriously deranged would seek to reestablish this order.

In this, at least as Ioffe understands him, Putin seeks to reify his own perception of that bipolar world: He already understands the world in those terms, now he wants to make his understanding real, as he reclaims Ukraine. And he claims that the U.S., through its alleged Ukrainian proxy government, seeks nothing less than the destruction of the Soviet Union Russia.[94] On Twitter, Ioffe had asked, probably rhetorically, if Putin really believed this[95] and I replied,


I was thinking of Putin’s background in the Soviet intelligence service, the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB). We should expect of such services that even when they are wrong, that they attempt to be objective, that they at least attempt to be truthful. But as Justin Sherin, posing as Richard Nixon, had tweeted all too recently,


Whatever we may think of Putin’s supposed canniness, he now shows no sign of an attempt at objectivity or truthfulness.

Finally, after explaining how modern and advanced his nuclear arsenal was, he turned to the camera and added another threat. “And now a few important—very important—words for those who might be tempted to intervene in current events,” he said ominously. “Whosoever tries to get in our way, or to threaten our country, our people, must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will bring about such consequences that you have never experienced before. We are ready for any developments. All decisions necessary for this have been made.” He paused and snarled, “I hope I will have been heard.”

It was hard not to hear him: the president of Russia seemed to be threatening the U.S. and its allies with nuclear retaliation if they tried to get in his way in Ukraine. It was certainly one way of achieving his dream of a new Cold War—by provoking a nuclear stand-off in the 21st century.[98]

I am reminded of those on the U.S. side in the original Cold War who advocated a preemptive strike, not because they had any assurance whatsoever that humanity would survive a nuclear war, but that they merely hoped enough on the U.S. side would survive to preserve what so many call a capitalist democracy[99]—these, arguably, were the original neoconservatives—but is really a constitutional oligarchy.[100]

Now it is Putin threatening nuclear war to impose his derangement. But still it comes back to the Nazis, as Ioffe writes,

[S]ince those flags changed [replacing the Soviet flag with those of fifteen former Soviet republics], Putin has been trying to renegotiate the terms of surrender, raging against this national humiliation just as another strongman, nearly a century earlier, raged against the humiliation of Versailles.[101]

So far, the only discernible impactful response from the rest of the world was a sell-off in financial markets that didn’t last long[102] while oil prices skyrocketed.[103] (No, I will not be impressed by sanctions,[104] at least until I see some oligarchs squeal.) It indeed may not be appeasement,[105] but for now, at least, it might as well be.


Update, February 27, 2022, revised February 28, 2022: The headline, “Analysis: SWIFT block deals crippling blow to Russia; leaves room to tighten,” on the Reuters analysis of moves to block some Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) could be—we don’t actually know—horribly misleading: We don’t know which banks will be excluded and whether this amounts to anything meaningful depends heavily on that.[106] They’re trying to exclude energy payments, to let those through, you know, so Germany can still get Russian gas.[107] Similarly, it remains to be seen how seriously Britain will crack down on London’s collusion with Russian money laundering.[108]

Apparently somewhat more significantly, the U.S. and European Union have announced sanctions on the Russian central bank:[109]

Central-bank sanctions are a weapon so devastating, in fact, that the only question is whether they might do more damage than Western governments might wish. They could potentially bankrupt the entire Russian banking system and push the ruble into worthlessness.[110]

David Frum goes on to explain that this is about the liquidity needed to convert between the Russian Ruble and western currencies:

What does it mean that Russia “has” X or Y in foreign reserves? Where do these reserves exist? The dollars, euros, and pounds owned by the Russian central bank—Russia may own them, but Russia does not control them. Almost all those hundreds of billions of Russian-owned assets are controlled by foreign central banks. Russia’s reserves exist as notations in the records of central banks in the West, especially the European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve. Most of Russia’s reserves are literally IOUs to the Russian central bank from Western governments.[111]

Which is fairly bluntly to say that the U.S. and European Union can freeze those assets. Frum paints a pretty dire picture for Russians generally and this, of course, would be why, as Frum wrote, “they might do more damage than Western governments might wish.” Indeed, “[t]he central-bank weapon is so strong that it might indeed provoke Putin into fiercer aggression as a desperate last gamble.”[112] I don’t know if the timing is right but this might explain why that fun-loving alpha male, Vladimir Putin, has put his nuclear forces on high alert:[113]

Speaking at a meeting with his top officials, [Vladimir] Putin asserted on Sunday that leading NATO powers had made “aggressive statements” along with the West imposing hard-hitting financial sanctions against Russia, including the president himself.[114]

It’s hard to escape that globalization, with so-called “free” trade, has otherwise made economic sanctions against Russia nearly impossible. It has been said that “the capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.”[115] Putin might have been thinking that of the West.

Robert Thweatt refers to some Trumpists, like Tucker Carlson, who root for Europe’s alpha male[116] simply because he’s an alpha male:


When I was researching my dissertation,[117] I came across the field of political psychology. Their methodology, at least what I found at the time, was entirely quantitative but they described a personality trait called “right wing authoritarianism” (RWA). Because they’re quantitative, they had devised tests (“instruments”) for the trait and it correlates with a number of other conservative personality traits, like fear of uncertainty. That’s not, by any means, to say that all conservatives are right wing authoritarians, but rather that some are.

Right wing authoritarianism isn’t quite what it sounds like. People with this personality trait want to follow authoritarian leaders. The complement, a desire to exercise authoritarian power over others, was called at least at that time, social dominance orientation (SDO). I think they were moving away from the “disorder” label, in part, I perceived, to avoid the accusation of politicization, but we are clearly seeing right wing authoritarianism among those Trumpists who also admire Putin.

In my dissertation, I was attempting to avoid treating conservatism as a psychological condition. I wanted to deal with their arguments.[118] But with Putin, we now probe the limits of delusion and derangement. I can’t say where this guy is going to stop.


Update, March 2, 2022: On the same day that Alexander Graef lays out four scenarios for the end of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,[119] Jim Sleeper, writing for the normally anti-war Tikkun, recalls World War II precedents to argue for the forcible removal of Vladimir Putin from power.[120] I doubt Sleeper reckons for the possibility of Putin resorting to nuclear war,[121] but an unlikely palace coup is one of Graef’s scenarios.[122]

My concern remains that Putin, seeking to restore the Soviet Union, may not stop with Ukraine,[123] but might seek as well to regain Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all former Soviet republics, now members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.[124] NATO members would be obliged to come to the latter countries’ defense and it is somewhat easier, in this case, to see the most terrifying of Graef’s scenarios, nuclear war,[125] come to pass.

Insane, you say? Of course it is. But that’s the problem with taking a page from Ronald Reagan’s playbook:[126] I don’t know where Putin stops[127] any more than any of us at the time could tell where Reagan would stop.[128] Putin can only be presumed to be a danger to the entire world.[129] We’d best hope for that palace coup.


Update, March 22, 2022: The huge question raised in Christiane Amanpour’s interview with Dmitry Peskov, reported by Luke McGee and Claire Calzonetti, is whether Vladimir Putin regards the setbacks his invasion forces have faced in Ukraine as an existential threat, in Peskov’s light, rationalizing the use of nuclear weapons.[130] I think the answer, given that all talk of nuclear weapons has originated on the Russian side and in the context of Ukraine,[131] has to be ‘yes:’

Dmitry Kiselyev, a longtime Kremlin propagandist who is known as one of the most sulfurous personalities on Russian television, opened his state television program on Sunday with a rundown of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. “In total our submarines are capable of launching over five hundred nuclear warheads, which are guaranteed to destroy the U.S. and all the countries of NATO to boot,” he said. “That’s according to the principle, ‘Why do we need a world if Russia’s not in it?’ ” He went on, “We’re not even going to talk about the strategic rocket forces. . . .Putin warned them. Don’t try to frighten Russia.”[132]

Isaac Chotiner’s interview with Andrei Soldatov[133] is the second I’ve seen in which the subject doubts that Vladimir Putin is indeed a madman.[134] But Soldatov also points to 1) Putin’s seemingly psychopathic reaction when questioned about deaths he is responsible for; 2) Putin’s increasingly small circle of people he trusts, suggesting paranoia; 3) a hierarchy of power in which underlings are afraid to report truthfully to their superiors; and 4) Putin’s apparent conviction that he knows better than anyone else,[135] something also observed by Stephen Kotkin in David Remnick’s interview.[136] I’m not a psychologist but neither are these otherwise extremely well-informed folks affirming Putin’s sanity, and I think there are definitely questions here to be asked of a psychologist.

Read the interviews anyway; both are extremely insightful. And yes, I think it’s quite obvious that Putin is stark raving mad; indeed, anyone who threatens nuclear war ought to be regarded as such.[137]

Speaking of interviews, Julia Ioffe interviews a Russian kid, now out of the country, battling Putin’s propaganda. His mother has blocked him, promised to report him for “fake news,” and refuses any communication.[138]


Update, March 28, 2022: It does not fully account for the apparently great many true believers in Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric in Russia,[139] but it turns out the Russians have a term for something very close to what I describe in my update of February 20.[140] A Telegraph newsletter describes it thus:

The Russian leader [Vladimir Putin], by contrast, uses a tired and predictable script, and one that relies heavily on the Russian tradition of vranyo.

Vranyo is the peculiar arrangement of Russian social and public discourse that says, ‘I’m lying to you. You know I’m lying to you and I know that you know that I’m lying to you. However, I’m going to carry on lying and you are expected to nod along and accept every word I say’.[141]


Update, March 29, 2022: Yesterday, I mentioned the Russian concept of vranyo,[142] noting that this didn’t fully explain why so many Russians seem to support the invasion of Ukraine.[143] Today, we’ve got a bit more of the explanation for those poll results people keep pointing to that seem to show that the invasion enjoys wide support.[144]

I strongly recommend Joshua Yaffa’s article[145] even if you don’t care about Russia and you don’t care about Ukraine because it is rare to see in mainstream media an exploration of what researchers call “threats to validity.”

Of such “threats,” I usually focus on response rate, which should be at least 90 percent to ensure a representative sample, but has sunk well below a tenth that,[146] in my view, fatally undermining the methodology. Fundamentally, with such abysmal response rates, respondents are a self-selecting group, and there is no reliably valid way to finagle representation for non-respondents from respondents.

In Russia, a lot of people aren’t answering, saying that to do so is against the law. The temptation is to suspect they oppose the invasion, but we don’t actually know. Again, the people who answer cannot speak for those who don’t. It’s the same problem. And so it is with other threats to validity, like how questions are phrased—they can’t call it a “war”—and how people are primed to answer—they’re told this is a “special military operation” against fascists, and they cannot be told about[147] the atrocities the Russian military is committing.[148]

The nuances are different in Russia, especially now. But the fundamental threats to validity are the same.


Update, April 6, 2022: Suffice it to say, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not gone well.[149] I return to the theme of idiocy[150] in a new blog post entitled, “A self-defeating idiocy.” A portion of this post was initially published as an update to two previous blog posts.[151] Those updates have been replaced with a note pointing to this new post. The text in the new post has been revised and extended from the earlier updates.


Update, April 26, 2022: The question that is now before us is, if you think you are already at war with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,[152] and you are warning of World War III,[153] how long before you start acting accordingly?

“Everyone is reciting incantations that in no case can we allow World War III,” [Sergeĭ Lavrov] said in a Russian television interview.

Lavrov said he would not want to see risks of a nuclear confrontation “artificially inflated now, when the risks are rather significant.”

“The danger is serious,” he said. “It is real. It should not be underestimated.”[154]

Such talk is variously dismissed as ‘bravado’ or as a concession of weakness or defeat.[155]

Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said he too regarded Russia’s scaremongering as a sign of weakness.

Russia has lost its “last hope to scare the world off supporting Ukraine,” he wrote on Twitter after Mr [Sergeĭ] Lavrov’s interview, adding: “This only means Moscow senses defeat.”[156]

But we must not forget that the Kremlin has repeatedly said it views its invasion of Ukraine as responding to an existential threat.[157] If the Kremlin indeed feels it has nothing to lose, then it might well act accordingly.

So now the question really is, do the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin really believe the nonsense that they have peddled? Or is this really just imperial ambition? Or are the two somehow confounded, as Russian empire seen as existentially essential to Russia’s survival? So far as I know, no one knows the answer to these questions.


Update, May 10, 2022: I had associated Max Boot with neoconservatism, so it’s more than a little surprising to me that he wrote this:

[Vladimir] Putin is now in a strategic quandary that should be familiar to Americans after our misbegotten wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq — only many times worse. Russia has launched a “war of choice” based on bad intelligence (such as the assumption that Ukrainians would welcome the Russians as liberators). The war is going badly, but once troops are committed, emotions run high and national prestige is on the line. Both escalation and withdrawal are too painful to contemplate. The easiest thing to do is to continue doing what you’ve been doing, even if there is scant hope that the results will get any better.[158]

Afghanistan and Iraq were, or are, flatly, wars of neoconservative ambition, imperialism, if you will; neoconservatism arose as a reaction to, among other things, the antiwar movement that sought to get the U.S. out of southeast Asia.[159] Boot’s argument is that it required a change of U.S. leadership to get the country out of each of those wars (it took Richard Nixon more than one term to extract us from Vietnam, so I think I’m unlikely to be alone in doubting this example) and that the same is required, even if unlikely, in Russia.[160]

Boot doubts that Vladimir Putin will use nuclear weapons because “that would be the action of a madman who fears that the end is near. Putin’s troops are carrying out unspeakable war crimes, but he is far from Hitler-in-the-bunker territory.” And Boot sees in a relatively subdued (read, less bellicose) Victory Day celebration, where Putin did not escalate the war on Ukraine, signs of recognition of reality rather than insanity, as Boot puts it, that “while Putin is isolated [but apparently not in Hitler-in-the-bunker territory] and prone to miscalculation, he is not insane.” Boot’s claim that Putin “far from Hitler-in-the-bunker territory” must stand against evidence, evidence that Boot recognizes,[161] that the Kremlin sees or at least portrays the war in Ukraine hysterically in existential terms.[162] We can certainly hope that Boot is right at the same time we recognize that this chain of reasoning seems tenuous.

Boot’s assessment of Putin rests on Putin’s apparent recognition that a general “mobilization [with a declaration of war rather than a ‘special military operation’] would bring more problems than it would solve” and that “the war is not going his way.”[163] That’s two data points against a boatload (the Moskva, perhaps?) of delusional crap[164] that Putin continues to justify his war with,[165] even if we set aside Putin’s simultaneously ludicrous and terrifying hubris of a “historic mission.”[166] Again, we can certainly hope Boot is right, even if we think his evidence is selective.


Update, May 18, 2022: With her use of a “wood chipper” analogy, Julia Ioffe sets up a binary between two possibilities: The first is Ukrainian victory over dismally-performing Russian troops. The second is a slow grinding away of Ukraine, which apparently Russia can (in quantitative terms) sustain indefinitely, slowly feeding the country to “[Vladimir] Putin’s Wood Chipper.” My sense of this article[167] is that Ioffe, while brilliant and indispensable in understanding Kremlin psychology and in offering insight into the Russian people, is perhaps overreaching in military matters.

It remains the case that the Russian military has performed astonishingly abysmally, failing even at basic tasks of warcraft.[168] And it remains the case that Putin has declined any “off-ramp” and is now boxed in, unwilling to admit defeat, unable to claim victory, unwilling to declare war (as opposed to a “special military operation”), unable to make significant gains without doing so and potentially facing serious consequences if he does.[169] It’s important not to give an incompetent and delusional madman more credit than he deserves. His failure remains a failure. His calculation remains, to put it ludicrously mildly, a miscalculation. His persistence is nothing even remotely like victory. He is, in fact and as I have been saying since January, an idiot and he fucked the hell up.[170]

All that said, there are at least two fallacies in play here: First, binaries are often false dichotomies. And second, as this war has amply demonstrated, quantitative capability is not qualitative capability. I doubt as a practical and political matter that Russia can hold out as long as Ioffe’s experts imply. But it also remains the case that the West’s response has failed to dissuade Putin. There is some question, even if there is as yet no sign of the West relenting in its support for Ukraine, whether the West will in fact relent. There is also no sign that Ukraine will be able to dislodge Russia from Ukrainian territory.[171] Putin’s persistence could yet pay off. I think it is more likely, not necessarily probable, but more likely that Ukraine prevails after a long and horribly destructive war.

The difficulty here remains that where Russia’s conventional forces may be stymied, its unconventional—I continue to think nuclear—forces are untested. If the Kremlin really sees that this war, whether it chooses to call it one or not, as existential, whether really for Kremlin political survival or Russia’s survival, Putin may very well decide he has nothing to lose by pushing that big red button.[172] It might be difficult, again in quantitative terms, to see how going nuclear improves Russia’s military situation,[173] but it might, indeed, be a desperate Putin’s only hope, however slender and even at the cost of however many lives, for a face-saving way out.

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