Putin the Irrational
Emperor Putin and the profound failure of our foreign policy imagination
On the day Vladimir Putin recognized two regions of Ukraine as independent states, I opened The New York Times. I wanted to see how the paper of record would record such a rare and significant international crisis. The live news feed included the following:
Now edging toward the twilight of his political career, Mr. Putin, 69, is determined to burnish his legacy and to correct what he has long viewed as one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century: the disintegration of the Soviet Union. … Essentially, he appears intent on winding back the clock 30 years, to just before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Much about these words, composed by Moscow bureau chief Anton Troianovski, is remarkable. Troianovski, 36, claims to have identified the “essence” of the day’s historic events; to him, the stoic ex-KBG officer Putin’s “intent” is “apparent.” Offered as neither opinion nor analysis, these claims appeared atop the paper’s website as straight news. By publishing them in this way, the Times asserts them as simple facts.
Fortunately for Troianovski, it appears a great many journalists agree. As early as January, Max Boot wrote that Putin “might as well make the national anthem the Beatles’ ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’,” so clear was it what ultimately drove him. Tom Nichols declared Putin’s speech announcing the annexation “old-school, 180 proof grain alcohol Old Soviet Firewater.” Watching it, Nichols found himself wondering if Putin would “drag Gorbachev into the room in leg irons,” presumably for the sin of dissolving the Union. Charlie Sykes dissented from the rest. For him, Putin was not trying to restore the Soviet empire. He was reaching farther back in history. “Putin isn’t Hitler or Stalin. He thinks he is this guy:” writes Sykes, before including the cover image of a biography of Peter the Great, consisting mainly of an oil portrait of the book’s imperial subject. It was, of course, just as obvious to Sykes as to the rest that Putin aspired to the role of emperor; the only question was which one. Most significant of all was an interview of Antony Blinken conducted by CNN’s Jake Tapper. Tapper asked Blinken if “what drives Putin is a desire to restore the old Soviet Union.” The Secretary of State answered unhesitatingly in the affirmative.
Admittedly, these are quotes from the first flurry of commentary just after Putin announced the annexation—but, honestly, nothing has really changed since then. Not that there is anything surprising in that. Nothing ever changes in our foreign policy discourse.
Much about all this talk of “empire” strikes me as odd. Journalists, policy scholars, the secretary of state, even the president himself have been speaking as if what will happen, or fail to happen, as the Ukraine crisis continues to unfold will be determined principally if not exclusively by what goes on in the mind of Vladimir Putin. This despite the fact that it is well known Putin does not command a straightforward dictatorship but is instead the head of an oligarchy. Putin is, of course, prima inter pares and generally has wide latitude in setting policy, but that hardly means he makes decisions for Russia on his own. His attitudes toward empire, security, and whatever else are irrelevant if a critical mass of his partners refuses to go along with them. Yet rarely is this simple reality acknowledged in public discussion. Commentators instead continue to parse Putin’s words and actions as if they contained all the secrets of the Russian Federation’s future. As if, in short, the government’s actions would be determined by the thought process of one man.
There is also the problem that Putin’s explicit rationale for the annexation was nationalist, not imperialist. “Empire” is, of course, one of the most irrepressibly promiscuous words in the language, but it seems fairly clear what sense is relevant here. The Soviet Union was imperial after the Roman fashion, with one ethnic territory, the Russian, dominating a range of other territories each with its own distinct ethnic identity. What united all the Soviet Republics, in the official story at least, was a common commitment to the grand experiment in Marxist-Leninist ideology. The Union certainly privileged the Russian language and culture, and leadership was disproportionately drawn from Russian elites (with the notable exception of one Georgian), but it was always colored by Marx’s anti-nationalist cosmopolitanism. They were, after all, communists. Their citizenship was defined by their engagement in and commitment to the communal project of building a functioning Marxist society. A good communist could only disdain any and all ethnic sectarianism that might hinder such a project.
Putin’s Russia is an entirely different affair. In official propaganda the nation is now defined in ethno-nationalist terms, with Russian and Eastern Orthodox being the central ethnicities. Citizenship is defined in terms of belonging to a people, a volkisch turn which would have made Lenin sick. Such a conception of nation and citizen clearly informed the terms in which Putin justified annexation. This was especially true of the remarks delivered on February 21st in which he began with a cavalcade of emotional descriptions of what the two nations, or in Putin’s telling the nation and the region, share. For Russia, Ukraine is “an inherent part of our own history, culture, spiritual space.” Ukrainians are “our comrades, relatives, not only colleagues, friends, but also our family,” with whom Russians share “blood and family ties.” And what is at the heart of this fraternity? From “ancient times” inhabitants of Ukraine “were calling themselves Russians and Orthodox.” In remarks on February 24th, questions of nationhood were more submerged as Putin emphasized security concerns (very likely for Western consumption), but even then Putin made sure to cast the conflict between the liberal-democratic West and the authoritarian-communitarian East as a conflict of values and traditions. He avers that, “The culture and values, experience, and traditions of our ancestors invariably provided a powerful underpinning for the wellbeing and the very existence of entire states and nations, their success and viability.” These must be defended against the “false values” that the crass and morally shallow West seeks to impose on them.
The nationalist nature of this appeal is important in part because of its limited scope. Such justifications, however tendentious, have at least a certain plausibility when applied to a region like Eastern Ukraine which inarguably does share deep historical ties to Russia. Yet few other regions in the old Soviet sphere share similar ties to Russia (although some, like Belarus, ominously do). Putin’s reliance on nationalist arguments should therefore seriously complicate the narrative that Putin intends to expand to the old Soviet borders.
I suspect many Russia-hawks will adamantly object.
Why are you taking the word of ruthless authoritarian leaders?
Don’t you realize Putin lies as he breathes?
If Putin declared the dissolution of the Union the greatest calamity of the 20th century, among other shows of Soviet nostalgia, isn’t it clear where his true loyalties lie?
Isn’t it obvious that his proclaimed ethno-nationalism is insincere?
This nationalism is useful now, but who doubts that Putin will cast it aside the moment he sees a chance to pursue his larger ambitions?
Such questions are not without merit. It is indeed possible that Putin’s ethno-nationalism is merely a politically convenient pose. It is also irrelevant. What matters is that this is the myth by which Putin has chosen to govern. He has now invested an extraordinary amount of time and energy selling this myth to the Russian people, and it has become the main prop of the support or at least acquiescence he enjoys from the Russian people. If he were to attempt to incorporate large parts of the old Union which are more ethnically distinct from Russia, he would have to create some entirely new notion of nation and citizenship, in the process shedding much of his image as defender of an organic, Christian, Russian nation. It is doubtful he would put his own legitimacy at such risk. Further still, he would have to bring along enough of his oligarchic partners in this new paradigm, many of whom are likely to be sincere ethno-nationalists themselves. Above all, if Putin’s long-term plan is to switch from a nationalist model of rule to an imperialist one, why would he so strongly emphasize nationalism now, giving no hint of any shift in thinking? If his ambition is to rebuild a radically multi-ethnic empire, would he not now be articulating such a vision to his own people, just as he painstaking articulated the nationalist one? I will not gainsay Putin’s viciousness, but is he so politically short-sighted?
But such problems with the imperial thesis pale in comparison to the most basic and fundamental one. Let us suppose it has been somehow established beyond all doubt that Putin intends to restore all the Soviet territories, effectively reestablishing the Soviet empire. In that case we could declare Putin an imperialist with complete certainty. But then, what would have been explained?
Put another way, if we knew that Putin intended to recapture all the Soviet territory, would we not have to immediately ask why this was his intention? Would it be out of security concerns as NATO expands ever closer to Russia’s border? Would it be out of a desire to buy off oligarchs, giving them access to lucrative assets in the annexed countries? Would it be out of a desire to increase the military capacity of the Russian state for some future offensive aim? It won’t do to merely say, “Yes. All of these.” The specific reasons and how they are weighted make too much difference in predicting and explaining Russia’s behavior. A Kremlin overwhelmingly concerned with security and only marginally concerned with what it can steal, for instance, would act quite differently from a Kremlin overwhelmingly concerned with seizing wealth and only marginally concerned about security. The point is that the mere statement that Russia is attempting to restore the Soviet empire explains little or nothing at all.
When I first began to read various commentators’ declarations of Putin’s imperial ambitions, the ones I quoted at the start and others, I thought there must be some further explanation contained in accusations of “empire,” something the speakers took to be so obvious as to not need articulation, which would explain their meaning. Perhaps they thought Russia meant to resume its rivalry with the United States as the alternate model of nation-state, but thought that such a meaning was so obviously entailed by the word “empire” that it did not need saying. Or perhaps they meant something else entirely. Yet the more I read, the more I came to believe that they were not using the idea of “empire” as an explanation at all. Instead they seem to think that putting a nation or leader in the category of “imperial,” obviated the need for any explanation. One does not ask why an empire conquers any more than one asks why a fish swims or a tiger hunts. It is merely in the nature of the thing.
The grammar of “empire” reveals itself in the way it is used. Those who assert the imperial nature of Russia feel no need to elaborate further on the country’s motivations, as can be seen in all the advocates of the imperial thesis cited above. When Troianovski wrote that Putin was “winding back the clock 30 years, to just before the collapse of the Soviet Union,” it was the last sentence of his post. Case closed, apparently. Tapper and Blinken were equally concise. The former asked if Putin meant to restore the Soviet Union. The latter answered “Yes” and moved on to discuss other matters. The idea that they could mean entirely different things by “restoring the Soviet Union” never arose. Boot at least offers some justification for his use of the label, but what he gives is so feeble and pro forma as to underline how much he views justification as an afterthought. He notes that the national Russian hockey team had recently worn uniforms emblazoned with C.C.C.P., as though kitschy Soviet nostalgia contained revelations on Russian high politics. Then he points to Putin’s recent dispatch of troops into Kazakhstan, describing it as “a faint echo of Czechoslovakia 1968 and Hungary 1956.” What import this “faint echo” is supposed to have is left to the speculation of the reader. Best of all is Sykes’s oil painting of Peter the Great. He takes a 21st-century authoritarian and a 17th-century monarch and boldly equates them. Then he moves briskly on. I, for my part, was left wondering if such an identification did not raise far more questions than it answers.
Viewed correctly, assertions of Putin’s imperialism are closely related to the equally popular assertions of Putin’s insanity or rampant emotionality. These latter two claims, in fact, prove to be functionally equivalent. Whether Putin suffers from the irrationality of true insanity, or is overwhelmed by the sub-rational urgings of his unrestrained id, the point is the same: the negation of his reason. One Washington Post piece illustrates this equivalency nicely by moving seamlessly back and forth between both claims. Tom Nichols finds a more colorful synonym when he declares Putin neither insane nor emotional but drunk, specifically drunk on “180 proof grain alcohol Old Soviet Firewater,” a metaphor to which he returns to in a subsequent essay. Yet here again, the point is the same: Putin is deprived of sovereign reason.
Imputations of implacable imperialism, insanity, emotionality, or drunkenness all place Putin outside what Wilfred Sellars (channeling Kant as always) termed “the space of reasons.” They imply that Putin’s actions are not subject to explanation in terms of rational thought and justifications. Putin has no reasons for his actions, or none which befit a minimally sane or dispassionate man. Instead his behavior is amenable to causal explanation only. He acts because under the influence of delusion, violent passions, or “Soviet firewater.” In such actions there is no agency, only causal compulsion. We don’t ask a schizophrenic who attempts to assassinate the president, a man who in a rage who shoots his wife’s lover, or a man waking in the local drunk-tank after starting a brawl how they justify their actions. Such actors are presumed not to have been acting on reasons. They did what they did because they were insane, enraged, or drunk. Confined to “the space of causes,” their actions are explained like any natural event, something predetermined by the causal order.
Can such causal explanations of Vladimir Putin be adequate? Remember that Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, fully eight years ago. Incursion into Georgia occurred still farther in the past. Assuming that Putin’s motivation for pursuing such expansion is roughly the same in all three cases, as I believe nearly everyone does, then those who explain Putin’s behavior in causal terms have to apply that explanation to Putin’s behavior over a decade or more. But the idea that Putin has acted in the way supporters of the imperial thesis take him to have acted is about as plausible as the idea that Putin has been insane, in a towering rage, or drunk for the past eight or more years.
Above all I want put to the imperialist-theorizers a question: Could you imagine yourself behaving as you say Putin behaves? Obviously I’m not asking if you could see yourself assassinating journalists and invading sovereign countries. My question is whether we can imagine Putin’s subjective state as he made decisions relating to the invasion of the Ukraine. It seems to me that if Putin behaves as the imperialist-theorizers say he behaves, there is no way to imagine Putin from the inside.
Efforts to cast Putin as an emperor (or madman, rage-addict, or drunk) amount to attempts to keep Putin on both sides of a line. Putin is both agent and non-agent. On the one hand Putin is irrational enough that there is no need, and perhaps even some danger, in attempting to articulate Putin’s rationale for acting. He is supposed not to have such a rationale. On the other hand he is treated very much as a rational agent. He is taken to have goals and to be acting more or less effectively to achieve his goals. His current and past actions are seen as forming a coherent pattern. Putin’s actions are, if not rational, at least explicable. Even his future actions are, to the modest degree that politics allows, predictable on the basis of past actions. And no one advancing the imperial line doubts for a moment that Putin is fully responsible for all he does. In sum, Putin’s actions are coherent, predictable, explicable—even culpable. All without Putin being a normal, thinking, reasoning agent.
I find all this to be nonsense—the concept of Emperor Putin, as emerging from much of the commentary I’ve read, collapses into itself, unable to function for any useful purpose because of the contradiction at its core: the agency and non-agency of Vladimir Putin. This nevertheless yields an important insight, namely, that Putin’s actions and inactions must be accounted for like those of any other man, in terms of reasons and justifications, right or wrong, adequate or inadequate. So what might Putin’s rationale be?
Let’s begin with Ukraine itself, birthplace of Bulgakov, Trotsky, and Gogol, and cradle of the Russian Empire. Imagine if a series of horse-trades, agreements, and political contingencies brought about, without anyone planning or intending it, the separation of Massachusetts from the United States. Would the U.S. allow Lexington and Concord, the home of John Adams and John Kennedy, the port of Old Ironsides slip away? Would even 30 years cool its ardor for revanche? A central question in the historiography of the Civil War is why the North did not simply allow the South to secede. Part of the answer is that it would then no longer be the same United States. Losing Massachusetts would be far less of an identity crisis than losing the whole of the South, yet would many not feel the country could not be whole without her? So it is with Russia and Ukraine.
These sentiments are all the stronger in the breasts of Russia’s ethno-nationalists and evidence suggests we should count Putin among these. This point must be carefully understood. Putin, to the disappointment of some on his right flank, has explicitly and repeatedly condemned the idea that Russia belongs only to Slavic Christians. As Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy carefully delineate it in their essential study Mr. Putin, Putin’s vision is emphatically pluralist and, in an important sense, multi-ethnic. Even in matters of religion, where Putin does seem to grant a privileged place to the Orthodox Church, he nevertheless explicitly extends full membership in the national community to Russia’s Muslims and Jews. His favored term for Russian is not Russkiy, derived from the Slavic homeland Russ, but rossiyski, a term which embraces all the peoples of the Tsarist empire. Such pluralism is, however, sharply limited. Russian politics are governed by a notion of the people (narod) which is much thicker and more value-laden than anything in mainstream American politics. Only those who affirm common moral and political attitudes, respect for Russian traditions and institutions, and embrace a certain cultural tradition can be considered “nashi” (“ours” or “one of us”). Anyone excessively irreverent or pro-Western runs the risk of being labeled “chuzhiye” (“alien,” not part of the “narod”). A prime example of this othering was the highly successful Kremlin campaign against the punk activist group Pussy Riot who trespassed into an important Orthodox Church to perform their “Punk Prayer,” an irreverent protest song condemning Putin’s administration. For supposedly disrespecting the Church, although their song really was a prayer directed to the Holy Mother, Pussy Riot was widely condemned and even members of the group have recognized that their effort backfired (see especially Mikhail Zygar’s All The Kremlin’s Men). On the other side of the coin, Alexei Navalny has been the most successful oppositionist in many years in part because he is many respects more Slavophile and nationalist than Vladimir Putin. It is hard to tar someone as “chuzhiye” when he is more Russian than you. (Navalny, it might be interesting to note, also condemned Pussy Riot.)
Putin himself seems to have undergone an evolution on such ideological issues. The fall of the Soviet Union convinced Putin (whom did it not convince?) that a market economy was superior to a planned economy. Putin was never a liberal-democrat and always asserted the distinctiveness of the Russian political culture, asserting that Russians required a more collectivist and authoritarian system, yet in the early ’00s he spoke more reverently of Western individualism and seemed poised to move Russia in a more liberal direction if not all the way to liberal democracy. Yet the twin experiences of the War on Terror and the 2008 financial crash seem to have soured him on Western style liberal-democratic capitalism. Putin could make no sense of America’s willingness to invade Afghanistan and Iraq in pursuit of Islamist terrorists, and its simultaneous unwillingness to support Putin’s efforts to stamp out Islamist terrorists in Chechnya. The difference, Putin concluded, was Russia. America could act against her enemies, Russia could not. Likewise, America’s invocations of international rules and sovereign independence in condemning Russian actions abroad seemed like rank hypocrisy after Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Putin more and more concluded that talk of individual rights and international principles were mere pretexts deployed cynically when they advantaged the West and ignored when convenient. This darkening view of Western conduct of foreign affairs seemed to seep into Putin’s view of Western domestic politics. More and more Putin expressed cynicism about liberal-democratic governments, the “ideology” of individual rights, and the use of elections to represent the will of the people. Elections brought new faces, but they were always drawn from the old elite. Power did not really change hands. In the immortal words of The Who: Meet the boss, same as the old boss. The wild recklessness of American bankers, meanwhile, who ended Russia’s long, slow economic rise, similarly dented Putin’s commitment, vague at the best of times, to a free market economy. All these experiences lead him to favor a political vision in which centralized authority oversaw a more managed society, in both political and economic affairs.
During this evolution, Putin showed new and marked interest in Slavophile philosophy and the Orthodox Church. Men of events are rarely philosophers, and Putin, who uses the term “ideology” as an epithet, is far from the exception. Yet it would be wrong to dismiss wholesale, as too many do, Putin’s newfound infatuation with Ivan Ilyin and various conservative clerics. Ilyin, for instance, was (at least as best as I can ascertain secondhand; little of his work has been translated) typical of mid-century anti-liberal intellectuals. He saw Western liberalism as enervating and isolating. In the view of such anti-liberals, instead of clinging to individual rights which leads only to atomism and alienation, individuals should look to the collective for meaning. The leaders of the collective, in turn, must work to provide national projects which will invigorate and focus the people, allowing them to transcend their individuality. Putin may not be able to articulate the metaphysical view of the individual which undergirds all this, but is not hard to see how a leader could get a flavor of the idea and use it to inform his decisions. This is exactly what Putin has done.
Then there is the question of Russia’s encirclement by the West. Too much ink has been spilled over NATO. That alliance and its steady expansion since 1989 are no doubt an important part of the story, but arguments over Russia’s motivations have too often devolved into whether Russia can plausibly justify its sense of unease on NATO expansion alone, with doves arguing “yes” and hawks “no.” The real sources of the current problem are much broader. As scholars such as William H. Hill, Paul D’Anieri, and M. E. Sarrotte have pointed out, central to the evolving conflict between Russia and the U.S.-lead West were the two powers’ differing visions for the emerging international system. The differences were there from the earliest days of the post-Cold War period, in the gap between Bush’s “Europe whole and free” and Gorbachev’s “common European home,” a gap that has only grown wider with the intervening years. Russia expected a system in which autocracies and liberal-democracies could participate as equal partners. Europe would be a common home, to countries of all political systems. The U.S. anticipated a system in which nations would be bound by the ties of free trade and common liberal values, and to which autocracies would have to slowly assimilate. Europe must be whole and free. The Russian model was the UN; the American model was the EU and NATO. Even now, Biden’s Warsaw speech and subsequent comments reaffirm the U.S.’s traditional vision. In short, the U.S. insisted on an international system hostile to autocracies. Should we be surprised when autocracies attempt to carve out an international system of their own?
But the U.S. did not stop at excluding autocracies from international organizations. It also set about exporting liberal-democracy and empowering opponents of autocracy, or, in the view of the autocracies themselves, empowering threats to sovereign governments. Interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq were all, in the eyes of the Kremlin, based on Western “ideology,” and all brought ruin and instability far closer to Russia than to the United States. Worse, the younger Bush and many voices inside and outside of his government espoused an ambition to confront tyranny and spread democracy all across the world. It was in this environment that U.S. diplomats spoke out in favor of and even somewhat involved themselves in the famed “color revolutions,” a series of pro-West and democratic uprisings very close to Russia’s border. Alexander Haig believed a series of unrelated revolutions across the third world were part of a “soviet strategy of wars of liberation” deployed against the United States. Zbigniev Brezinski convinced Carter that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan as a first step toward cutting the United States off from the Middle-Eastern oil it needed. The Bush White House saw connections between Al Qaeda, Iraq, Niger, and North Korea as the world’s autocracies supposedly coordinated to oppose the United States. Is it impossible to believe that after multiple invasions, official expressions of condemnation for his mode of government, support for local coups, and much else besides, Putin too could see a plot?
Finally there is the economic question. As Gaddy and Hill argue, after the 2008 crisis, Putin set about insulating the Russian economy from external shocks. In speeches, he began to emphasize growth less and resiliency more. To this end, Putin set about creating a Eurasian Union, a trade collective on the model of the European Union which would join Russia to its Eurasian neighbors. In particular, Putin wanted to secure a reliable market for Russian goods which were less competitive or not competitive in the West. Such a scheme, as Putin apparently stated to Hill and Gaddy face to face at the Valdai discussion club, simply required the participation of Ukraine. One of Russia’s closest neighbors, and one of the most important markets in the region, Ukraine was essential to making Putin’s Eurasian scheme viable. When Yanukovich was out, and pro-Western factions were swept in, saving some remnant of Putin’s economic plan meant forcing some form of Ukrainian cooperation.
Perhaps my attempt to delineate Putin’s reasons for invading Ukraine is ultimately unconvincing. But if it is, then I take comfort in the fact that it nevertheless treats Putin seriously as an agent. It will not serve to ascribe to Putin some gross pathology or other such that he is conveniently inaccessible to ordinary political analysis. We must enter into Putin’s thought process as a normal, thinking, reasoning agent.