Because, somehow, Russian imperialism is okay

Back in March, I wrote,

Isaac Chotiner’s interview with Andrei Soldatov[1] is the second I’ve seen in which the subject doubts that Vladimir Putin is indeed a madman.[2] 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,[3] something also observed by Stephen Kotkin in David Remnick’s interview.[4] 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.[5]


Everything we’ve seen since in Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine since suggests I was entirely too charitable. It is not a sane man who, as Putin has indisputably done throughout this war, commits crimes against humanity but rather a psychopath. It is not a sane man who, as Putin continues to do, threatens nuclear war[6] and refuses any diplomatic “off-ramp”[7] to prosecute a war he clearly cannot win,[8] even with nuclear weapons.[9]

Ishaan Tharoor’s argument for diplomacy with Putin[10] assumes, however, that Putin is sane, rather than a deeply damaged from childhood, delusional, and psychopathic human being who is incapable of understanding anything other than humiliating defeat.[11] It neglects that diplomacy has been attempted and failed and that any acquiescence, any concession will, as Putin already demonstrated, only lead to him coming back for more[12] in line with his delusions of grandeur, his self-image as “the gatherer of Russian lands.”[13]

This argument for diplomacy with Putin is itself a desperate delusion, every bit as delusional and every bit as desperate as the invasion itself. Its timing is also suspect. In making the argument, Tharoor repeats a claim that neither Russia nor Ukraine can win.[14] When facts on the ground suggest otherwise,[15] this looks less like pragmatism and more like a last-ditch attempt to salvage Putin’s pride, position, and imperial ambition.[16]

Because, somehow, Russian imperialism is okay.

  1. [1]Isaac Chotiner, “The Purges in Putin’s Shrinking Inner Circle,” New Yorker, March 22, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/the-purges-in-putins-shrinking-inner-circle
  2. [2]Isaac Chotiner, “The Purges in Putin’s Shrinking Inner Circle,” New Yorker, March 22, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/the-purges-in-putins-shrinking-inner-circle; David Remnick, “The Weakness of the Despot,” New Yorker, March 11, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/stephen-kotkin-putin-russia-ukraine-stalin
  3. [3]Isaac Chotiner, “The Purges in Putin’s Shrinking Inner Circle,” New Yorker, March 22, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/the-purges-in-putins-shrinking-inner-circle
  4. [4]David Remnick, “The Weakness of the Despot,” New Yorker, March 11, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/stephen-kotkin-putin-russia-ukraine-stalin
  5. [5]David Benfell, “Where does Vladimir Putin stop?” Not Housebroken, October 7, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/03/04/where-does-vladimir-putin-stop/
  6. [6]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; Michael Horovitz, “Medvedev asserts Russia’s ‘right’ to use nukes to defend its territory,” Times of Israel, September 27, 2022, https://www.timesofisrael.com/medvedev-affirms-russias-right-to-use-nukes-to-defend-its-territory/; 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; 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; Zoya Sheftalovich, “Putin calls up 300,000 reservists, makes nuclear threat,” Politico, September 21, 2022, https://www.politico.eu/article/putin-announces-partial-mobilization-russian-reservists-nuclear-threat-conscription-ukraine/; Liz Sly, “Russia’s annexation puts world ‘two or three steps away’ from nuclear war,” Washington Post, October 1, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/10/01/europe-putin-nuclear-threats/; 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; Adam Taylor, “War in Ukraine enters a new phase, even more unpredictable and dangerous than the last,” Washington Post, March 1, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com//world/2022/03/01/ukraine-putin-nuclear-sanctions/; 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, “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/; 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
  7. [7]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/
  8. [8]Luke Harding, Isobel Koshiw, and Peter Beaumont, “Russia no longer has full control of any of four ‘annexed’ Ukrainian provinces,” Guardian, October 3, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/03/russia-has-no-full-control-of-any-of-four-annexed-ukrainian-provinces; Mary Ilyushina, Emily Rauhala, and Isabelle Khurshudyan, “Ukraine hammers Russian forces into retreat on east and south fronts,” Washington Post, October 4, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/10/04/russia-retreat-kherson-lyman-ukraine/; Paul Kirby, “Ukraine war: Russians start leaving Ukraine’s Kherson city,” British Broadcasting Corporation, October 19, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-63311744; Dominic Nicholls, “Russia’s bloated military has finally been properly tested – and the results are not good,” Telegraph, October 3, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2022/10/03/ukraines-lyman-victory-shows-skill-trumps-numbers-when-comes/; Uliana Pavlova, “Putin declares martial law in four occupied regions as Kyiv presses offensive,” CNN, October 19, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/10/19/europe/putin-russia-martial-law-intl/index.html; 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; 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/; Adela Suliman, “Russian military ‘exhausted,’ Putin’s judgment ‘flawed,’ U.K. spy chief says,” Washington Post, October 11, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/10/11/russia-military-exhausted-gchq-ukraine/
  9. [9]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/
  10. [10]Ishaan Tharoor, “The uncomfortable need to talk about diplomacy with Russia,” Washington Post, October 19, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com//world/2022/10/19/diplomacy-russia-ukraine-need-nuclear/
  11. [11]Julia Ioffe, “About a Boy: The Roots of Putin’s Evil,” Puck News, May 10, 2022, https://puck.news/about-a-boy-the-roots-of-putins-evil/
  12. [12]Julia Ioffe, “The Case Against Appeasement,” Puck News, June 7, 2022, https://puck.news/the-case-against-appeasement/
  13. [13]Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss, “Ukraine: Putin’s Unfinished Business,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 12, 2021, https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/11/12/ukraine-putin-s-unfinished-business-pub-85771
  14. [14]Ishaan Tharoor, “The uncomfortable need to talk about diplomacy with Russia,” Washington Post, October 19, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com//world/2022/10/19/diplomacy-russia-ukraine-need-nuclear/
  15. [15]Luke Harding, Isobel Koshiw, and Peter Beaumont, “Russia no longer has full control of any of four ‘annexed’ Ukrainian provinces,” Guardian, October 3, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/03/russia-has-no-full-control-of-any-of-four-annexed-ukrainian-provinces; Mary Ilyushina, Emily Rauhala, and Isabelle Khurshudyan, “Ukraine hammers Russian forces into retreat on east and south fronts,” Washington Post, October 4, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/10/04/russia-retreat-kherson-lyman-ukraine/; Paul Kirby, “Ukraine war: Russians start leaving Ukraine’s Kherson city,” British Broadcasting Corporation, October 19, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-63311744; Dominic Nicholls, “Russia’s bloated military has finally been properly tested – and the results are not good,” Telegraph, October 3, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2022/10/03/ukraines-lyman-victory-shows-skill-trumps-numbers-when-comes/; Uliana Pavlova, “Putin declares martial law in four occupied regions as Kyiv presses offensive,” CNN, October 19, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/10/19/europe/putin-russia-martial-law-intl/index.html; 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; 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/; Adela Suliman, “Russian military ‘exhausted,’ Putin’s judgment ‘flawed,’ U.K. spy chief says,” Washington Post, October 11, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/10/11/russia-military-exhausted-gchq-ukraine/
  16. [16]Jamie Dettmer, “Putin’s endgame? Kremlin infighting spills into the open,” Politico, October 11, 2022, https://www.politico.eu/article/putin-kremlin-infighting-spills-into-the-open/; 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/; 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/; 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/

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