Today Putin appeared at the Valdai Discussion Forum, and gave a performance that raises serious doubts about his sanity.
“Statements that Russia is trying to reinstate some sort of empire, that it is encroaching on the sovereignty of its neighbours, are groundless,” the former KGB spy declared in a speech delivered standing at a podium, without a smile, in a ski resort in mountains above the Black Sea city of Sochi.
Listing a series of conflicts in which he faulted U.S. actions, including Libya, Syria and Iraq, Putin asked whether Washington’s policies had strengthened peace and democracy.
“No,” he declared. “The unilateral diktat and the imposing of schemes (on others) have exactly the opposite effect.”
He denied the US is a democracy, and expressed his befuddlement at the electoral college. (Note to Vlad: It’s worked for 225 years.) All that was missing was a rant about hanging chads. He accused the US of organizing a coup in Ukraine and supporting Islamic terrorists. He made not-so-veiled nuclear threats. And on and on and on.
My favorite was his statement that Occupy Wall Street was “choked in its cradle.” He’s just pissed that his influence op fizzled. (I remind you that The News Agency Formerly Known as Russia Today, AKA Putin’s Agitprop Network, was constantly hyping Occupy. As was his pilot fish-or is it more than that?-Zero Hedge.)
It was truly a bizarre performance, chock full with paranoia and resentment.
It follows soon after an interview by former FSB head Nikolai Petrushev that blamed the CIA for everything under the sun, most notably events in Ukraine, which he said was a coup by “self-described Nazis”(!). Fellow ex-KGB mouth breather (but hey, he did sport some bitchin’ flairs back in the 70s) Sergei Ivanov has made similar statements lately.
Thus the question (which I have posed before): is Putin genuinely mad, or is he, pace Machiavelli, “simulating madness at the right time.” Is he pissing purple, or chewing the scenery in an attempt to intimidate a feckless west, who could use his insanity as a justification for leaving hime a wide berth?
Although I don’t discount embellishment, I think he is unhinged at his core.
First, he is under tremendous pressure. Crimea was a bloodless triumph, but the follow on in the rest of Ukraine has turned into a bloody, expensive, and largely unsuccessful mess. Instead of sweeping to an easy victory that would net him all of Novorossiya and subject Ukraine to his control, he has had to fight a nasty campaign that has netted him only the blasted remnants of an already shambolic rump piece of Sovokistan, also known as the Donbas. He has earned the intense enmity of the vast bulk of the Ukrainian population. At best, by freezing the conflict he can prevent Ukraine from developing into a “normal” (i.e., westernized) country (something that horrifies Putin), but he cannot incorporate it into a New Russian Empire, except at ruinous cost.
What’s more, Russia’s already creaking economy is under tremendous stress. Part of that stress is due to the inexorable working of sanctions, which have deprived his cherished national champions of access to western capital, and his energy companies access to needed technology. A bigger part of that stress is attributable to a global growth slowdown that has caused oil prices to fall by about 20 percent. These economic stresses deprive him of the resources needed to underwrite his ambitions. Moreover, they create tremendous divisions and anger within the elite, thereby complicating his task as the chief balancer. If they go on long enough, they will create another front: popular anger, or at least resentment and a piercing of the perception of universal popularity.
Second, Putin comes by his paranoia and anti-US resentment honestly. It has been on display for years, too long and too often to be an act. It comes naturally to a KGB man, and was reinforced by relentless indoctrination in the service: read the Patrushev interview to see a rather comprehensive statement of this world view.
Third, dictators and autocrats almost inevitably succumb to madness and paranoia. They are surrounded by sycophants whose obsequiousness feeds a sense of omnipotence and omniscience. Cults of personality feed this sense even more. They rule by intimidation and fear, and hence hear no dissenting voices. There is no institutional check on their power. All of this means that there is no pushback on crazy, so craziness metastasizes.
Such a man is unlikely to be appeased, and difficult to deter. Reducing the dangers he poses requires chipping away at his capabilities, and confronting him with power that he cannot overcome.
Recently an (incredibly campy) art exhibition in Moscow compared Putin to Hercules. (Given Hercules’ goatish omnisexuality and Putin’s homophobia, this is rather amusing.) But I think another ancient parallel is likely to be more apt: Sampson. Putin is unlikely to go quietly into that dark night, and if he is doomed he is likely to try to bring down everything around his ears. The problem is that backing off will just create a vacuum that he will fill, and just defer the inevitable reckoning. It is unlikely that conflict with him can be avoided, because he will seek it out. How do you appease the paranoid?
As bad as the Middle East is, the real existential threat in the world right now is Putin. (Heaven forfend, but I actually agree with George Soros.) He has 4,500 nukes, and he knows how to use them.
That he’s mad, or at the very least wants to be viewed as being mad, makes that the most daunting challenge the United States and the West face. Given the Lilliputian leaderships in the US and Europe, that is not a comforting thought.