If Vladimir Putin doesn’t make sense, he doesn’t make sense, and he cannot last

See update for October 16, 2022, at end of post.



Fig. 1. “The atomic cloud over Nagasaki 1945.” Photograph from Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Overseas Operations Branch, New York Office, News and Features Bureau, (12/17/1942 – 09/15/1945), by Charles Levy, August 9, 1945, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Russia has launched a missile attack against several Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and energy infrastructure, drawing international condemnation. Vladimir Putin claims it is in retaliation for[1] what the Russians claim was a truck bomb attack, orchestrated by Ukrainian “special services,” that severely damaged the Kerch bridge between Russia and Crimea.[2]

There may be reason to doubt this barrage can be sustained. The head of the British Government Communications Headquarters says that Russian forces are exhausting their supplies and munitions.[3] That likely includes missiles. When it was first reported that Russia might be exhausting its inventory of advanced missiles, this foreshadowed less accurate missile and artillery strikes which would be more dangerous for civilians,[4] but Russia is targeting civilians anyway,[5] and if indeed Russia is exhausting this inventory as well,[6] well, what next? If some analysts are correct, even going nuclear would be insufficient to improve Putin’s fortunes and might draw a devastating conventional counterstrike from the West.[7]

It’s possible that some of this information is wrong, but I am remembering the lesson I learned from the dot-com crash: If it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t make sense, and it cannot last. Putin hasn’t made much sense about Ukraine anytime this year,[8] and he hasn’t been making any more sense lately.[9] If this information is right, it gets really, really hard to see how Putin’s war can continue and how he can last,[10] even if, for now, his position still appears secure.[11]


Update, October 11, 2022: I have added citations to existing footnotes and it isn’t just Lewis Page[12] who thinks going nuclear would not improve Russia’s military position,[13] leading to a light modification of the original text. In general, Vladimir Putin appears ever more to be acting out of desperation, delusion, and fury; indeed, some might call it a military-grade temper tantrum, potentially even with nuclear weapons.[14] For all of it, there is still no coherent path to victory. Putin still isn’t making sense.

So on one hand, there is the suggestion in my original post that Putin must surely fall;[15] this is, after all, no way to run a war, let alone a country. On the other, he appears ever more the cornered, wounded animal, albeit with nuclear weapons (that, admittedly, he may not actually be able to use[16]), and thus, all the more dangerous. It’s a scary, scary time.


Update, October 12, 2022: This is how Jade McGlynn ends her Telegraph op-ed, published under the tempting headline, “Desperate Putin is out of time as rival elites begin to circle:”

Put yourselves in the Russians’ shoes: you can either accept as false the premise of this war, in which Putin has tied up your national identity, and demand the radical overhaul of society in the face of terrifying force, or you can pretend the real issue is that the military and politicians haven’t been trying hard enough and, once they start doing so, Russia will win.

The second narrative is much less demanding and much more tempting, but it will only exacerbate Russia’s problems since Russia cannot win. The Ukrainians are not for breaking. Every Russian attack just makes them more defiant. This is why Putin will not reassert authority over his unruly elites or the public if he continues to pursue a path of escalatory aggression. But it is difficult to ascertain another way out and he has left himself very little, if any, space to turn back.

At some stage, however, the elites will have to make a choice: whether to prop up [Vladimir] Putin or save themselves. History suggests the latter is far more likely.[17]

It’s a flawed headline. McGlynn’s argument is more that Vladimir Putin’s escalation of his war criminality in Ukraine and his appointment of Sergei Surovikin, also known as “General Armageddon,” to lead it[18] are a response to Russian war hawks. She suggests that Putin is doing this under compulsion[19] from the one source of war criticism he has permitted.[20]

I think to infer from these moves that Putin is losing agency, as McGlynn does,[21] would require that Putin is doing something he hasn’t tried before in less challenging times. But these tactics are not new. Indeed, “General Armageddon” has built his career in the Russian military, including in Syria, including under Putin, on them.[22]

Certainly, we see desperation. Putin’s war has gone wrong from the start. And certainly there will be consequences.[23] He will lose agency. Events will swirl beyond his control. But I do not see evidence that this is already happening and it is premature to say that it is.


Update, October 16, 2022:

Since the [Russian missile] onslaught began on Monday [October 10], more than three dozen people have been killed and scores more wounded. Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure appears to be the main target, meaning that some residential areas have been plunged into darkness, leaving civilians confronting the possibility of facing winter without power.

But conditions on the battlefield continue to favor the nimbler, more highly motivated and better armed Ukrainian military, which seems likely to retain the advantage over Russia’s lumbering, poorly equipped and exhausted army, at least for the foreseeable future.[24]

Remember what I said about Liz Truss and flailing? How flailing rarely turns out well for the flailers?[25] It’s the same with Vladimir Putin in his war on Ukraine. Almost nothing is going right for Putin[26] and it’s increasingly clear that he continues the fight merely out of delusion.[27]

What’s interesting is to see the tankies come out of the woodwork on Twitter. Now that Putin is losing and losing badly,[28] they are desperate for a ceasefire, to “save lives,” they say. I’ve previously noted that they seem only to object to U.S. imperialism, not to anybody else’s imperialism and tyranny.[29] Now we’re seeing that they actively support and embrace Russian imperialism, support and embrace Putin’s tyranny.

To my great dismay, this appears to include the Green Party in the U.S., leaving me no one on the Pennsylvania ballot to vote for, only a smorgasbord to vote against: Democrats for neoliberalism, Republicans for white Christian nationalism, capital-L Libertarians for capitalist libertarianism, and Greens for being, well, tankies.

  1. [1]Dan Sabbagh, “Kremlin decision to target Ukraine’s cities was political, not tactical,” Guardian, October 10, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/10/kremlin-decision-to-target-ukraines-cities-was-political-not-tactical; Pjotr Sauer, “Sergei Surovikin: the ‘General Armageddon’ now in charge of Russia’s war,” Guardian, October 10, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/10/sergei-surovikin-the-general-armageddon-now-in-charge-of-russias-war; George Styllis, Gareth Davies, and Grace Millimaci, “Deadly strikes are just ‘first episode’ of response to Crimea attack, says Medvedev,” Telegraph, October 10, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2022/10/10/ukraine-russia-war-latest-putin-nuclear-crimea-bridge-zaporizhzhia/
  2. [2]Peter Beaumont, “Impact of Kerch bridge blast will be felt all the way to the Kremlin,” Guardian, October 8, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/08/impact-of-kerch-bridge-blast-will-be-felt-all-the-way-to-the-kremlin; Peter Beaumont, “Vladimir Putin calls blast on Crimea-Russia bridge an ‘act of terror,’” Guardian, October 9, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/09/russia-ukraine-war-attack-housing-zaporizhzhia; Adam Schreck and Vasilisa Stepanenko, “Explosion on Crimean bridge damages key Russian supply route; 3 dead,” Los Angeles Times, October 8, 2022, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-10-08/truck-bomb-damages-crimea-bridge-a-key-supply-artery-for-russias-war-effort; Maite Fernández Simon and Paul Sonne, “Putin’s bridge of dreams explodes in flames,” Washington Post, October 8, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/10/08/kerch-bridge-crimea-symbolism-putin/; Times of Israel, “Russia says truck bomb caused Crimea bridge explosion, stops short of blaming Kyiv,” October 8, 2022, https://www.timesofisrael.com/russia-says-truck-blast-caused-crimea-bridge-explosion-stops-short-of-blaming-kyiv/; Yaroslav Trofimov, “Major Explosion Hits the Bridge Between Crimea and Russia, Halting Traffic,” Wall Street Journal, October 8, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/major-explosion-hits-the-bridge-between-crimea-and-russia-halting-traffic-11665215052
  3. [3]Dan Sabbagh, “GCHQ head: Putin making strategic errors due to unconstrained power,” Guardian, October 10, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/10/gchq-head-putin-making-strategic-errors-ukraine-russia; Dan Sabbagh, “Kremlin decision to target Ukraine’s cities was political, not tactical,” Guardian, October 10, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/10/kremlin-decision-to-target-ukraines-cities-was-political-not-tactical
  4. [4]Christopher Gettel, “Russia Is Running Out of Missiles. That’s Bad News for Ukraine,” Defense Post, September 1, 2022, https://www.thedefensepost.com/2022/09/01/russia-missiles-running-out/
  5. [5]George Styllis, Gareth Davies, and Grace Millimaci, “Deadly strikes are just ‘first episode’ of response to Crimea attack, says Medvedev,” Telegraph, October 10, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2022/10/10/ukraine-russia-war-latest-putin-nuclear-crimea-bridge-zaporizhzhia/
  6. [6]Dan Sabbagh, “GCHQ head: Putin making strategic errors due to unconstrained power,” Guardian, October 10, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/10/gchq-head-putin-making-strategic-errors-ukraine-russia
  7. [7]Lawrence Freedman, “A ‘strategic nuclear exchange’ would offer Putin zero military gains,” New Statesman, May 4, 2022, https://www.newstatesman.com/world/europe/ukraine/2022/05/a-strategic-nuclear-exchange-would-offer-putin-zero-military-gains; Lewis Page, “Why Putin would be a fool to go nuclear in Ukraine,” Telegraph, October 2, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2022/10/02/why-putin-would-fool-go-nuclear-ukraine/
  8. [8]David Benfell, “Vladimir Putin is a fool,” Not Housebroken, June 11, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/01/24/vladimir-putin-is-a-fool/
  9. [9]Greg Miller et al., “Putin confronted by insider over Ukraine war, U.S. intelligence finds,” Washington Post, October 7, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2022/10/07/putin-inner-circle-dissent/; Farida Rustamova, “Vladimir Putin is making rash and secretive decisions in face of defeats, Kremlin insiders warn,” Telegraph, October 2, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2022/10/02/vladimir-putin-making-rash-secretive-decisions-face-defeats/; Ishaan Tharoor, “Annexations show the depth of Putin’s imperial delusion,” Washington Post, October 5, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com//world/2022/10/05/putin-colonial-imperial-delusion/
  10. [10]Robyn Dixon, “As Ukraine war falters, Russians ask a risky question: Could Putin fall?” Washington Post, October 6, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/10/06/putin-successor-president-russia-war/; Christian Esch et al., “Berlin and Washington Play Out Nuclear Scenarios,” Spiegel, October 7, 2022, https://www.spiegel.de/international/world/berlin-and-washington-play-out-scenarios-of-a-nuclear-strike-by-putin-a-ecbc1772-8526-4ce1-ae0d-7270309df54e; Julia Ioffe, “Fear and Loathing in Moscow,” Puck News, September 13, 2022, https://puck.news/fear-and-loathing-in-moscow/; Greg Miller et al., “Putin confronted by insider over Ukraine war, U.S. intelligence finds,” Washington Post, October 7, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2022/10/07/putin-inner-circle-dissent/
  11. [11]Dan Sabbagh, “GCHQ head: Putin making strategic errors due to unconstrained power,” Guardian, October 10, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/10/gchq-head-putin-making-strategic-errors-ukraine-russia
  12. [12]Lewis Page, “Why Putin would be a fool to go nuclear in Ukraine,” Telegraph, October 2, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2022/10/02/why-putin-would-fool-go-nuclear-ukraine/
  13. [13]Lawrence Freedman, “A ‘strategic nuclear exchange’ would offer Putin zero military gains,” New Statesman, May 4, 2022, https://www.newstatesman.com/world/europe/ukraine/2022/05/a-strategic-nuclear-exchange-would-offer-putin-zero-military-gains
  14. [14]Yasmeen Abutaleb, “Biden suggests Putin’s nuclear threats mean a ‘prospect of Armageddon,’” Washington Post, October 6, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/10/06/biden-putin-nuclear-armageddon/; Bloomberg, “Russia Test-Fires Nuclear-Capable ICBM in Warning to U.S. Allies,” April 20, 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-04-20/russia-stages-test-of-nuclear-missile-in-warning-to-u-s-allies; Daniel Boffey, “Russia reasserts right to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” Guardian, March 26, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/26/russia-reasserts-right-to-use-nuclear-weapons-in-ukraine-putin; Julian Borger, “Russia’s nuclear threats ‘totally unacceptable’, says UN chief,” Guardian, September 22, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/sep/22/russia-nuclear-threats-totally-unacceptable-says-un-chief-antonio-guterres; Nandita Bose and Pavel Polityuk, “Biden says Putin’s nuclear threat brings risk of ‘Armageddon,’” Reuters, October 7, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/ukraine-forces-break-through-russian-defences-south-advance-east-2022-10-03/; Josie Ensor, “Nuclear weapons convoy sparks fears Putin could be preparing test to send ‘signal to the West,’” Telegraph, October 3, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2022/10/03/nuclear-weapons-convoy-sparks-fears-putin-could-preparing-test/; Edward Helmore, “Jake Sullivan: US will act ‘decisively’ if Russia uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” Guardian, September 25, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/sep/25/us-russia-ukraine-war-nuclear-weapons-jake-sullivan; Mary Ilyushina, Miriam Berger, and Timothy Bella, “Russian TV shows simulation of Britain and Ireland wiped out by a nuke,” Washington Post, May 3, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/05/03/russia-ireland-nuclear-weapons-video-ukraine/; Yuras Karmanau, “Putin puts nuclear forces on high alert, escalating tensions,” Associated Press, February 27, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-kyiv-business-europe-moscow-2e4e1cf784f22b6afbe5a2f936725550; Luke McGee and Claire Calzonetti, “Putin spokesman refuses to rule out use of nuclear weapons if Russia faced an ‘existential threat,’” CNN, March 22, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/03/22/europe/amanpour-peskov-interview-ukraine-intl/index.html; Julian O’Shaughnessy, “I’m reconquering just like Peter the Great, insists Vladimir Putin,” Times, June 10, 2022, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/president-putin-creates-police-department-to-impose-martial-law-xqhlt79fn; Reuters, “Hailing Peter the Great, Putin draws parallel with mission to ‘return’ Russian lands,” June 9, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/hailing-peter-great-putin-draws-parallel-with-mission-return-russian-lands-2022-06-09/; Farida Rustamova, “Vladimir Putin is making rash and secretive decisions in face of defeats, Kremlin insiders warn,” Telegraph, October 2, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2022/10/02/vladimir-putin-making-rash-secretive-decisions-face-defeats/; Dan Sabbagh, “GCHQ head: Putin making strategic errors due to unconstrained power,” Guardian, October 10, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/10/gchq-head-putin-making-strategic-errors-ukraine-russia; Dan Sabbagh, “Kremlin decision to target Ukraine’s cities was political, not tactical,” Guardian, October 10, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/10/kremlin-decision-to-target-ukraines-cities-was-political-not-tactical; Pjotr Sauer, “Putin flirts again with grim prospect of nuclear war – this time he might mean it,” Guardian, September 21, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/sep/21/putin-flirts-again-with-grim-prospect-of-nuclear-war-this-time-he-might-mean-it; Pjotr Sauer, “Sergei Surovikin: the ‘General Armageddon’ now in charge of Russia’s war,” Guardian, October 10, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/10/sergei-surovikin-the-general-armageddon-now-in-charge-of-russias-war; Jordan Michael Smith, “Would Putin Really Go Nuclear? Well …,” New Republic, March 7, 2022, https://newrepublic.com/article/165634/putin-nuclear-weapons-ukraine-us-response; Paul Sonne and John Hudson, “U.S. has sent private warnings to Russia against using a nuclear weapon,” Washington Post, September 22, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2022/09/22/russia-nuclear-threat-us-options/; Adam Taylor and William Neff, “Why the world is so worried about Russia’s ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons,” Washington Post, March 29, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/29/why-world-is-so-worried-about-russias-tactical-nuclear-weapons/; Ishaan Tharoor, “Putin makes his imperial pretensions clear,” Washington Post, June 13, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/06/13/putin-imperial-russia-empire-ukraine/; Ishaan Tharoor, “Russia pushes the panic button and raises risk of nuclear war,” Washington Post, September 21, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/09/21/russia-referendums-ukraine-occupied-nuclear/; Ishaan Tharoor, “Annexations show the depth of Putin’s imperial delusion,” Washington Post, October 5, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com//world/2022/10/05/putin-colonial-imperial-delusion/; Simon Tisdall, “Putin is trapped and desperate. Will his friends in the west rescue him?” Guardian, August 28, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/aug/28/putin-is-trapped-and-desperate-will-his-friends-in-the-west-rescue-him-russia-ukraine; Robin Wright, “What Does Putin’s Nuclear Sabre Rattling Mean?” New Yorker, March 1, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/what-does-putins-nuclear-sabre-rattling-mean
  15. [15]David Benfell, “If Vladimir Putin doesn’t make sense, he doesn’t make sense, and he cannot last,” Not Housebroken, October 10, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/10/10/if-vladimir-putin-doesnt-make-sense-he-doesnt-make-sense-and-he-cannot-last/
  16. [16]Lewis Page, “Why Putin would be a fool to go nuclear in Ukraine,” Telegraph, October 2, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2022/10/02/why-putin-would-fool-go-nuclear-ukraine/
  17. [17]Jade McGlynn, “Desperate Putin is out of time as rival elites begin to circle,” Telegraph, October 11, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/10/11/desperate-putin-time-rival-elites-begin-circle/
  18. [18]Julia Ioffe, “‘General Armageddon’ & Putin’s Bridge to Nowhere,” Puck News, October 11, 2022, https://puck.news/general-armageddon-putins-bridge-to-nowhere/; Pjotr Sauer, “Sergei Surovikin: the ‘General Armageddon’ now in charge of Russia’s war,” Guardian, October 10, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/10/sergei-surovikin-the-general-armageddon-now-in-charge-of-russias-war; George Styllis, Gareth Davies, and Grace Millimaci, “Deadly strikes are just ‘first episode’ of response to Crimea attack, says Medvedev,” Telegraph, October 10, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2022/10/10/ukraine-russia-war-latest-putin-nuclear-crimea-bridge-zaporizhzhia/
  19. [19]Jade McGlynn, “Desperate Putin is out of time as rival elites begin to circle,” Telegraph, October 11, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/10/11/desperate-putin-time-rival-elites-begin-circle/
  20. [20]Thomas Grove and Matthew Luxmoore, “As Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Stalls, Critical Voices Emerge in Moscow,” Wall Street Journal, May 19, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/as-russias-invasion-of-ukraine-stalls-critical-voices-emerge-in-moscow-11652958665; Pjotr Sauer, “‘We have already lost’: far-right Russian bloggers slam Kremlin over army response,” Guardian, September 8, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/sep/08/we-have-already-lost-far-right-russian-bloggers-slam-kremlin-over-army-response
  21. [21]Jade McGlynn, “Desperate Putin is out of time as rival elites begin to circle,” Telegraph, October 11, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/10/11/desperate-putin-time-rival-elites-begin-circle/
  22. [22]Julia Ioffe, “‘General Armageddon’ & Putin’s Bridge to Nowhere,” Puck News, October 11, 2022, https://puck.news/general-armageddon-putins-bridge-to-nowhere/; Pjotr Sauer, “Sergei Surovikin: the ‘General Armageddon’ now in charge of Russia’s war,” Guardian, October 10, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/10/sergei-surovikin-the-general-armageddon-now-in-charge-of-russias-war
  23. [23]David Benfell, “If Vladimir Putin doesn’t make sense, he doesn’t make sense, and he cannot last,” Not Housebroken, October 11, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/10/10/if-vladimir-putin-doesnt-make-sense-he-doesnt-make-sense-and-he-cannot-last/
  24. [24]Liz Sly, “Russia’s escalation won’t turn tide of the war, analysts say,” Washington Post, October 15, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/10/15/ukraine-military-situation/
  25. [25]David Benfell, “John Fetterman might be losing a race that was his to lose,” Irregular Bullshit, October 14, 2022, https://disunitedstates.com/2022/10/14/john-fetterman-might-be-losing-a-race-that-was-his-to-lose/
  26. [26]Liz Sly, “Russia’s escalation won’t turn tide of the war, analysts say,” Washington Post, October 15, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/10/15/ukraine-military-situation/
  27. [27]David Benfell, “If Vladimir Putin doesn’t make sense, he doesn’t make sense, and he cannot last,” Not Housebroken, October 12, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/10/10/if-vladimir-putin-doesnt-make-sense-he-doesnt-make-sense-and-he-cannot-last/
  28. [28]David Benfell, “If Vladimir Putin doesn’t make sense, he doesn’t make sense, and he cannot last,” Not Housebroken, October 12, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/10/10/if-vladimir-putin-doesnt-make-sense-he-doesnt-make-sense-and-he-cannot-last/
  29. [29]David Benfell, “The desperate attempt to blame anybody else for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine,” Not Housebroken, March 3, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/03/03/the-desperate-attempt-to-blame-anybody-else-for-vladimir-putins-invasion-of-ukraine/; Roane Carey, “Don’t Be a Tankie: How the Left Should Respond to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” Intercept, March 1, 2022, https://theintercept.com/2022/03/01/ukraine-russia-leftists-tankie/