Streetwise Professor

October 24, 2014

The Madness of Tsar Vlad

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:22 pm

Today Putin appeared at the Valdai Discussion Forum, and gave a performance that raises serious doubts about his sanity.

He ranted against the west, and the US in particular:

“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.


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  1. “Given the Lilliputian leaderships in the US and Europe, that is not a comforting thought.”

    There won’t be any other leaders in the next 5 to 10 years. So, the question remains: what to do with the bastard in the meantime?

    Comment by Marr — October 25, 2014 @ 2:49 am

  2. For a more realistic comment, see here:

    The French, or at least their Ambassador to the US Gerard Araud, who I would guess doesn’t offer opinions on national policy without authorisation, have figured out that the real issue is that Putin is willing to use force in Ukraine, and the West isn’t. If Araud is to be believed, France even thinks it a bad idea to send arms to Ukraine because it will only prolong the war and in the end hand Putin an even bigger victory.

    Fulminating about Putin misses the point. Putin’s a crook and a tyrant, surrounded by kleptocrats, and willing to suppress opinion in Russia, arbitrarily arrest oligarchs, and foment unrest in countries surrounding Russia. Did I miss anything? Did I establish my “I am not a shill for Putin” credentials?

    We *knew* this about Putin. We also knew that Yanukovich was Putin’s boy. We knew that Ukraine has a mixed population. We knew that Eastern Ukraine’s economy is integrated with Russia’s. We knew Putin is a gambler. We saw how brutal he was willing to be in Chechnya.

    None of this is knew, and yet we tried to associate Ukraine in an agreement with the EU. What did we expect? We trespassed in a bad guy’s back yard. Did we think he would say “Sure, and why don’t you take Kalingrad, too”?

    Comment by jon livesey — October 25, 2014 @ 3:40 pm

  3. +++and yet we tried to associate Ukraine in an agreement with the EU +++
    You are not suggesting we should have asked for a permission from a former KGB officer, are you?

    Comment by LL — October 25, 2014 @ 4:31 pm

  4. @jon livesey
    > Did I establish my “I am not a shill for Putin” credentials?

    Not sure about that, but you certainly did establish your “I totally agree with Putin that Ukraine is not a sovereign nation” credentials. It is in no small part the willingness of many in the West (google Frau von Ribbentrop) to agree that Ukraine is Putin’s back yard that has provoked Putin’s adventurism. Even a half-robust response to occupation of Crimea would most likely have prevented any further aggression.

    Comment by Ivan — October 25, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

  5. I doubt he would be found insane in a US court of law and certainly not in a Russian court. He enjoys record support at home. I can’t reasonably conclude that he is insane but is fanatically anti-American and a fanatic Russian imperialist. His bout of crying in Mongolia was however very unusual.

    I doubt he will ever order a nuclear first strike and if he did I doubt it would be carried out. If mad then it is the madness of fanaticism but even then fanaticism short of a suicide vest and still distant from scorched earth.

    He will keep nibbling away in his single minded way but can’t imagine he will ever shove all-in.

    Comment by pahoben — October 26, 2014 @ 5:37 am

  6. I agree that Putin’s Valday speech left one with a strong suspicion that the speaker was out of his mind. But one could also hear a picked-on schoolboy dreaming of drowning his offenders in concrete or in excrement (not for the first time, of course). If Putin were American, he would be a character in a Tom Wolfe novel – Wolfe is said to be the top literary authority on male humiliation.

    Comment by Alex K. — October 26, 2014 @ 9:53 am

  7. I wouldn’t pay too much attention to what Putin is saying as it has zero indication to what he will be doing. During the early ’00s he was very eloquent about the vitality of democracy, free markets and cooperation “with our western partners”. If anything, his mad conspiracy-theorist rambling is a positive indication for his future direction.

    Comment by aaa — October 26, 2014 @ 1:28 pm

  8. Any behavior when feigned, if done long enough, can become real (fake it till you get it, etc). If things go wrong, the fact Putin will most remember is that he now has more nuclear arms deployed than the US, according to some reports. Madness will be useful in many negotiation sessions, but probably not with Obama. The danger with our current President is that such behavior is so outside his experience that he will not recognize when things get pushed too far: I am not saying Obama will push things, but his natural tendency when confronted is to freeze up, do nothing, and hope it will go away. No decision is still a decision, and if such a decision it pushes our semi mad Putin the wrong way,we will be in trouble.

    Comment by sotos — October 27, 2014 @ 8:51 am

  9. @sotos-I have often thought, and discussed with a friend, how Obama’s apparent indifference to Putin is probably driving Vlad to paroxysms of rage, and could indeed contribute to his escalations. I don’t know whether it is just that Obama doesn’t give a damn and doesn’t want to be bothered by anything foreign (other than his obsession with doing a deal with Iran), or whether as you suggest it is the Obambi in the Headlights phenomenon. I think it started out as the former, but recently the latter has taken over. But as you state, like the overgrown juvenile delinquent that he is, Putin will not react well and will ramp things up.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 27, 2014 @ 9:47 am

  10. Here’s what worries me about Russia: whether Vlad is insane or merely acting like it, he’s acting generally in a threatening way, and there doesn’t seem to be anymore internal brakes/checks to rein-in or redirect his excesses.

    To me, that makes the danger that he’ll do something dumb and idiotic that drives the West into war with him because there’s nothing to stop him and he doesn’t know it’s dumb/idiotic anymore, since his decision-making system only echoes his thoughts, and he needs that action to happen to make his larger plan happen. The ultimate example of this to me is Galtieri attacking the Falklands (which he needed to happen to keep the dictatorship going) and his belief that the Brits wouldn’t respond, which was a somewhat crazy belief (obviously the experience of watching the British Empire be dissembled by anti-colonialist uprising in the 1960s made it not utterly crazy), but I’m convinced he believed the Brits wouldn’t respond primarily because if he did, his plan became almost impossible, thus, he convinced himself of the certainty of British acquiescence. Somewhat long and rambling point there, but I hope I get my idea across-Putin will end up doing something dumb and crazy because he needs something dumb and crazy to happen and there’s no one left to stop him.

    Also, I wouldn’t rule out the Russians attempting a limited nuclear strike-as this piece notes, they doctrinally think that nukes can be used in a de-escalatory manner. That is something that absolutely terrifies me.

    Finally, sotos’ comment about President Obama reacting to Vova and the limitation that “such behavior is so outside his experience that he will not recognize when things get pushed too far” reminds me of Duff Cooper’s quote about Nevill Chamberlain (whose worldview was shaped by his experience as Lord Mayor of Birmingham): had never met anyone in Birmingham who in the least resembled Adolf Hitler . . . Nobody in Birmingham had ever broken his promises to the mayor.”

    Comment by Blackshoe — October 27, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

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