vladimir putin

Putin’s War Looks Increasingly Insane

Photo: Andrei Gorshkov/AP/Shutterstock

The worst is yet to come.

That was French president Emmanuel Macron’s takeaway from his 90-minute call with Vladimir Putin Thursday.

“There was nothing in what President Putin told us that should reassure us. He showed great determination to continue the operation,” a senior aide to Macron told the Agence France-Presse, noting that the Russian leader was adamant about his intention “to seize control of the whole of Ukraine.”

The Russian government quickly confirmed this assessment. In an official statement, the Kremlin said that its “special operation” in Ukraine will not end until the full “demilitarization” of the country is achieved, “so that a threat to the Russian Federation will never emanate from its territory.”

Putin then gave a public address to his national-security council. The Russian president mendaciously blamed his invasion’s rising civilian death toll on Ukrainian “neo-Nazis” (who had supposedly been using innocents as human shields), before declaring that Russia’s military campaign was nevertheless “going according to plan and in full compliance with the timetable. All tasks set during the special operation in Ukraine are being accomplished successfully.”

This was a lie. The first week of Russia’s invasion has badly disappointed the Kremlin’s expectations. And the fact that Putin is refusing to moderate his objectives, even after several fundamental premises of his war plan have proven false, invites questions about the Russian leader’s rationality, if not about his sanity.

Research conducted by Russian intelligence officials in the run-up to the invasion, and subsequently leaked to British analysts, indicated that Ukrainians were dissatisfied with their leadership and gloomy about their nation’s future prospects. The picture of the Ukrainian government that emerges from these documents — of an unpopular, hollow state with more support from Western capitals than its own people — is of a piece with Putin’s apparent ideological convictions about Ukraine, which he routinely describes as a fictional nation wrested from its true motherland and dominated by foreign (if not “Nazi”) forces. It is not hard to imagine how the combination of Putin’s priors and the FSB’s research might have led the autocrat to wildly underestimate the degree of resistance that his invading army would encounter.

That Putin misjudged the strength of Ukrainian nationalism is reflected in both his war’s opening tactics and its ultimate strategic objectives. Instead of descending on Ukraine’s major cities with a combination of heavy arms, such as infantry supported by tanks and airpower, Russia initially sent small, isolated groups of paratroopers. This is a sound approach if one expects to be greeted as a liberator and wishes to avoid sparking a future insurgency through needless civilian casualties. But it was utterly inadequate to the challenge that the Ukrainian military actually presented. Meanwhile, Russia neglected to locate and destroy enemy radar and air-defense infrastructure at the onset of hostilities, enabling Ukraine to contest Russia’s air superiority and inflict large and unsustainable losses on Putin’s air fleet.

If Putin underestimated the Ukrainians, he likely overestimated his own forces. Wars have generally worked out well for the Russian president. Victory in the Second Chechen War helped him to establish a reputation for strength among the Russian public. His war in Georgia beat back that nation’s ambitions for NATO membership. He seized Crimea with little hardship in 2014 and successfully propped up Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship amid the Syrian civil war.

Yet Putin’s present mission demands far more of the Russian military than the limited operations it has pulled off in recent years. Russia was able to take Crimea on the strength of special-operations forces and separatist militias. A large-scale ground invasion aimed at imposing regime change on a nation of 44 million people is a categorically different task. And a great many of Russia’s nonprofessional, conscripted soldiers do not appear up to it. Interviews with Russian prisoners of war indicate that these conscripts “were completely unprepared” for the operation they now find themselves in. In some instances, Russian soldiers have surrendered en masse or sabotaged their vehicles to avoid combat. The Russian operation has also been plagued by logistical failures. The army’s allegedly poor tire management, combined with the onset of Ukraine’s spring thaw and its attendant mud, has bound Russia’s military convoys to roads and highways, funneling its forces into choke points where they lie vulnerable to Ukrainian drones and hunter-killer squads.

Such errors are unlikely to cost Russia military victory in a nominal sense. The Russian forces still boast overwhelming manpower and equipment advantages over their Ukrainian counterparts. But as great powers have learned so frequently in recent history, military victory is the easy part of a regime-change war. Ukraine’s resistance over the past week has not been sufficient to beat back the Russian invaders. But it has demonstrated what most analysts had assumed even before Putin’s invasion — that Russia cannot impose a puppet government on the Ukrainian people without embroiling itself in a ruinous occupation.

Beyond underestimating the Ukrainians’ will to fight, Putin has patently misjudged the West’s capacity to punish his aggression. The U.S. and E.U.’s sanctions amount to financial war on the Russian state, one that has wiped out ordinary Russians’ savings overnight. Not only has the West’s response devastated Russia economically, it has set back the very strategic objectives that Putin’s invasion was meant to advance. The NATO alliance has been reinvigorated, with Finland and Sweden both now contemplating applications for admission. Germany has committed $100 billion to its own rearmament. And nations throughout Europe are recalibrating their energy strategies so as to reduce their dependence on Russian fossil-fuel resources.

To look at these results and conclude that it would be wise and achievable to conquer every inch of Ukrainian territory, dissolve the nation’s military, and impose a puppet government is madness. There is no way forward that will leave Putin’s regime better off than it was before it blundered into war. The best way to cut his losses would be to seek some sort of negotiated settlement, perhaps a deal in which Russia annexes Ukraine’s separatist territories and then withdraws from the rest of the country, in exchange for the Zelenskyy government’s forswearing NATO and E.U. membership and the West’s lifting all sanctions.

Instead, Putin has opted to press his bad luck. And there is some reason to think that this intransigence is a by-product of literal mental illness.

American commentators and politicians have a lamentable habit of portraying all of their empire’s adversaries as lunatics who can be neither reasoned with nor understood. And Putin has no small number of rational (if not always legitimate) grievances against the West. But just because it is convenient for Western hawks to declare Putin a madman does not mean that he isn’t one. It is possible for a socially isolated 69-year-old autocrat to lose his mind.

Putin’s mental health has been a topic of speculation for months now. Throughout the pandemic, Putin has held most meetings via teleconference, tightly delimited his in-person contacts, and addressed subordinates from the opposite end of a 20-foot table.

Western officials who interacted with Putin before and after COVID’s onset have almost invariably reported a change in his demeanor. After conducting five hours of talks with the Russian leader last month, Macron suggested that Putin was not the same man he had met at Elysée palace in December 2019.

Bernard Guetta, a member of the European Parliament who accompanied Macron in Moscow, said on French radio afterward, “I think this man is losing his sense of reality, to say it politely.”

“All our Russia-watchers, watching his press conferences, think that he’s descending even more into a despotic mindset,” a European diplomat told the Guardian in late February.

Around the same time, Florida Senator Marco Rubio suggested that he has privileged access to information establishing that “something is off” with Putin.

“I’ve watched and listened to Putin for over thirty years,” former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul recently tweeted. “He has changed. He sounds completely disconnected from reality.”

Long-distance psychiatry is not the proudest field of medicine. From a geopolitical perspective, though, whether Putin is suffering from some clinical ailment is less important than whether his actions have come untethered from any rational calculation of his own best interest. Putin’s remarks Thursday suggest that the Russian leader is a madman in the way that counts.

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Putin’s War Looks Increasingly Insane