Is Putin a Mad King?
It doesn't matter. Speculating about whether political leaders are deranged gets us nowhere--the question is, why are they in power in the first place?
As you can see, I am still pounding the Ukraine beat. My current act of resistance—suggested by the Anonymous hacker collective—is posting facts about the war in the comments of Russian restaurant websites. Add a picture of the destruction in Kyiv. This helps get information to Russians about what is done in their name.
And if you know someone who would enjoy this post, please:
In the past day or so, I have been seeing speculative stories asking whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has a mental illness.
The answer, given that the Russian President has given a false justification for attacking Ukraine, targeted that nation’s civilian population, and attempted to bring a peaceful neighbor to heel, seems to be: Obviously! But there is also no evidence that this is so. Furthermore, as my colleague Nina Kruscheva (yes, that Kruschev) points out in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Putin’s aggression is rational. It is consistent with the dictator playbook: demonstrate that you will stop at nothing to maintain and expand power. “Mr. Putin joins a long line of irrational tyrants, not least Joseph Stalin, who believed that sustaining his power required a constant expansion of it,” Kruscheva writes. “That logic led Stalin to commit horrific atrocities against his own people, including causing a famine that starved millions of Ukrainians to death.”
One might point out that Richard Nixon did this too: his brutal bombing campaign against North Vietnam was an extension of his “mad man theory” of foreign policy, in which he hoped to scare the pants off Russia and China by “appearing” to be irrational, brutal, and volatile (which, it turned out later, he was) and that if crossed, he might wake up one day and lob a nuke into the men’s room at the Kremlin or Zhongnanhai.
England’s tabloid press has been running stories for days that Putin has been driven mad by Parkinson’s disease, long Covid, and/or a nasty case of cancer. Or maybe two different cancers! The Daily Mail’s Harriet Johnston went to town on these possibilities late last week. She cited numerous unconfirmed sources and at least one “expert” who confirmed that a very tiny number of people who get Covid-19 go mad. A second “expert” suggests that Putin might have “hubris syndrome,” a mental illness that takes “hold in the brain” and which causes its victims to believe that “the personal and the national are identical because the leader is the nation and its destiny.”
These speculations include scrutiny of the Russian president’s demeanor and body. At Politico, Paul Taylor comments on Putin’s “bloated face” (perhaps a reference to yet another rumor that, whatever illness Putin is or is not being treated for, he is on steroids, which are famous for making people emotionally erratic and aggressive.)
Indeed, it is Putin’s declaration that he has a finger on the nuclear button that has elevated speculations about his madness from the tabs to the respectable press. On February 27, Putin, frustrated by his failure to dominate Ukrainian defense forces, put his nuclear arsenal on high alert. David E. Sanger and William J. Broad reported that this escalation “highlighted anew the question, coursing through the American intelligence community, about the state of mind of the Russian leader, a man previously described as pragmatic, calculating, and cunning.” At Business Insider, Tom Porter picked up the ball, documenting “seemingly erratic public performances by the Russian leader” that he argued was a departure from Putin’s usual presentation as a “brutal but a coldly rational actor.”
One cannot read these stories without being cynically reminded that Donald Trump was also perceived by many who opposed him as mentally ill every time he broke another norm. Even professionals played this game. It began as early as April 2017, when a panel of psychiatrists convening at Yale University announced their “belief that Trump has more than one mental disorder -- including antisocial personality disorder and extreme narcissism.” They collected 41,000 signatures from colleagues around the country who supported their views.
All these statements were, of course, in flagrant violation of the American Psychiatric Association’s so-called Goldwater Rule, created after the Senator and presidential candidate, among other things, speculated about ending the Vietnam war by turning the nation into a “parking lot,” presumably with a nuclear strike. Enacted in 1973, it defines speculation on the mental health of politicians as a partisan act and restrains psychiatric professionals from doing it.
But the larger question, as we watch Putin ratchet up his violence in Ukraine, is this: what good does it do any of us to imagine that no sane person would attack a peaceful democracy deliberately murder civilians, all the while spouting ludicrous falsehoods about “de-Nazification,” drug-addicted Ukrainian leaders, and the need for self-defense against a country that has been defending itself against Russian aggression since 2014?
I would suggest a few motives if perhaps less than conscious ones.
As outrageous as Putin’s charges were in the weeks preceding the war, I would note that observers preferred to see the “normal” Russian behavior not, as Kruscheva points out, as the consolidation of power through nationalist expansion, but as an unserious, but predictable, performance. John Judis says as much in Talking Points Memo. “I misjudged Vladimir Putin’s intentions,” Judis writes:
I thought he was merely threatening invasion and would settle for some version of a neutral Ukraine. After he invaded Eastern Ukraine, I thought he would settle for a separate Donbas the way he had settled for South Ossetia in Georgia in 2008. I didn’t expect he would invade and try to topple the government.
This mistake was partly the product of wishful thinking, but it also flowed from a certain version of realism that attributes reasonable calculations to both sides in a conflict. I avoid saying “rational” because I don’t want to say that Putin is mad, crazy, nuts anymore than George W. Bush was nuts when he made a similar, huge mistake and invaded Iraq in 2003. Putin may turn out to be nutty, but even perfectly sane rulers can profoundly miscalculate.
Judis also admits that he did not have faith in the Biden administration’s capacity to handle the crisis or the ability and will that Ukraine has shown in keeping the Russian invader at bay.
As significantly, the assertion that a Putin or a Trump must be insane disregards the fact that they, and their actions, are products of political systems that—when functioning normally—are often brutal, irrational, and guided by base motives. Speculation about Trump’s mental health seemed particularly useful in maintaining the fiction that there was such a thing called the Republican Party that still believed in norms. The United States now knows that this was not the case. Our political system is still in upheaval because one of the two major parties is engaged in a long-term disinformation campaign, one that mobilizes and empowers conspiracy theorists and calls it "free speech.”
Finally, the idea that Putin is unhinged suggests that there is something called a normal war that normal people start. Leaders don’t have to be nuts to go to war for expansionist or nationalist motives that they have no business fighting. William McKinley did it in 1898, and the Soviet Union did from 1917 until it crushed the Czechoslovakian democratic uprising in 1968. Eisenhower did it in Vietnam, Ronald Reagan in Grenada, Margaret Thatcher in the Falklands, and George W. Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These are only a few examples, and in several cases—most recently, Iraq and Afghanistan—these wars turned out to have been miscalculated and costly in their outcomes. What matters is not whether the war criminal in charge is mentally ill—but instead, why the political system has put that person in charge.
This, I am sure, is what our friends in Russia, who hate this war as we do, and are only gradually learning the truth about what is being done in their name, are thinking about now.
In London, a bill on the floor of Parliament requires that any property purchased in the UK by a foreign entity must be publicly attached to the buyer’s name. Real estate is one of the chief ways of laundering and parking stolen assets: London, Miami, and New York are vital centers for this grey market. Reuters reports that “The much-delayed legislation comes as many opposition lawmakers and those in the governing Conservative party have called on Johnson's government to do more to stop the flow of Russian cash into London, dubbed by some as 'Londongrad'’” (February 28, 2022)
Kelly Cogswell, formerly of New York’s Lesbian Avengers, reports on French popular resistance to Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine at her Substack, A Dyke A Broad. “I can’t help thinking antiwar is a meaningless position when bombs are already falling on your head,” Cogswell writes, “because the only questions that remain are: do you flee, resist, concede? Will your neighbors turn away or get their hands dirty and help? Or get their hands dirty by sitting on them as Putin slaughters his way to a new empire? Nobody gets to stay clean. Nobody gets to be pure.” (February 28, 2022)
In his Substack newsletter, Nonzero, Robert Wright explains the demographic and linguistic fault lines that may shape Putin’s thinking about partitioning Ukraine. “Most of Ukraine’s citizens are native speakers of Ukrainian, but about a third are native Russian speakers (and a large number in both categories are fluent in both languages),” Wright argues. “In recent years, the former have increasingly expressed a distinctly Ukrainian, and often pro-Western, ethnic identity, while many of the latter have felt alienated by a government in Kyiv that they see as anti-Russian.” Make sure you check out the maps. (February 25, 2022)
Political Junkie is a reader-supported publication. Consider converting to a paid subscription for only $5/month or a discounted $50/year to support my work.