Why Putin got so Delusional

Ein Por­trait Putins aus Patro­nen­hülsen, von der ukrainis­chen Kün­st­lerin Daria Martschenko. Foto: Shutterstock

By waging a war against Ukraine, Putin has badly mis­cal­cu­lated. The Russian leader has become victim of his own pro­pa­gan­dis­tic visions and failed to antic­i­pate the Western respo­nse, writes Vladislav Inozemtsev.

Three weeks into Russia’s war against Ukraine it seems obvious that Putin badly mis­cal­cu­lated. The Ukrain­ian people stand united against the enemy, the Russian advance remains slow, and there is no idea what the Kremlin plans to do after a capture of Kyiv. With unprece­dented Western sanc­tions and inter­na­tional com­pa­nies exiting in droves, the damage to both Russia’s eco­nomy and its inter­na­tional stand­ing appears enormous.

Prior to the war, most experts, includ­ing myself, argued that Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin will not attack Ukraine because of either lack of strate­gic forces needed to occupy the entire country or fear of mil­i­tary defeat that might ruin his support at home. The start of the Russian offen­sive made many people to believe that Putin has become delusion­al and lost his sense of reality. Former German Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel already claimed in 2014 that the Russian leader was living “in another world”. So now we need to figure out how and why this happened.

I would focus on three major factors that con­tributed to this.

First, it seems that Putin has always been a Russian impe­ri­al­ist who was shocked by the down­fall of the Soviet Union, or, as he uses to call it, a version of the ‘his­tor­i­cal Russia’, and believes that Ukraine was a crucial actor in the Empire’s dis­mem­ber­ment. This is at least par­tially true: Ukraine was the largest Soviet repub­lic that declined to sign a new Union treaty in summer of 1991; it never rat­i­fied even a mo­re loose Com­mon­wealth of Inde­pen­dent States charter; it rejected the Russia-picked can­di­date in 2004/​05 pres­i­den­tial marathon; it opted out of any Customs or Eurasian Union with Russia, and finally it revolted against the Moscow-impo­sed can­cel­la­tion of the EU Asso­ci­a­tion Agree­ment in 2014. Putin tried hard to get Ukraine on his side and was humil­i­ated by the Orange Rev­o­lu­tion and later by the Rev­o­lu­tion of Dignity; he failed to split the nation in 2014 and promote his be­loved Minsk Agree­ments since 2015. He became crazy in his efforts to prove Uk­rainians and Rus­sians are either the same people or being cul­tur­ally and histori­cally insep­a­ra­ble, and, since he under­stood that time was running out for him, he took the risk of inva­sion becom­ing cap­ti­vated by his own – albeit prim­i­tive and mislea­ding – argu­ments. Having created a world of pro­pa­gan­dis­tic images and visions, he became his own victim. He sin­cerely believed Russia should – and can – com­pen­sate for all humil­i­a­tions of the post-Soviet era and became an addict to this concept willing to take revenge at almost any price.

Putin thought the West would react like in pre­vi­ous times

Sec­ondly, Pres­i­dent Putin made a huge mistake in assess­ing the West’s respo­nse to the Russian inva­sion. Here I would say he was not so much delu­sional since for years the Western nations have been quite indif­fer­ent to his adven­tures. After the incur­sion into Georgia that resulted in rec­og­niz­ing both Abk­hazia and South Ossetia as ‘inde­pen­dent’ states, almost no sanc­tions were imposed on Russia. After the annex­a­tion of Crimea, the full-scale regional war in Donbas and the downing of Malaysia Air­lines Flight MH-17, the sanc­tions inflicted were mostly sym­bol­i­cal – if someone asks Rus­sians in the streets whether they feel their effects, she or he will get a response that only the food embargo is visible, but this was a Rus­sian, and not a Western, move.

Taking into account that the war in Donbas claimed more than 14,000 lives but resulted in no crucial hits at the Russian eco­nomy, Putin had a proper basis for think­ing that a new advance into Ukraine will not result in mean­ing­ful sanc­tions (the dis­con­nec­tion of some Russian banks from SWIFT and the ter­mi­na­tion of Nord Stream 2 that were widely menti­oned, caused no concern). Maybe, if the West voted for all the sanc­tions now in place well before the con­flict started, Putin would not have had a strong moti­va­tion to move forward. Thus, here not only he mis­cal­cu­lated, but all his aides and experts, none of whom pre­dicted the closure of the Euro­pean air­space, the arrest of the Central Bank’s reserves or the US oil embargo.

Putin’s power ver­ti­cal is dysfunctional

The third element appears to be the least depen­dent on Pres­i­dent Putin’s mindset but of course was created by his mul­ti­year pres­ence at the top of the Russian poli­tics. During these years he mas­ter­minded an extremely loyal but not very effec­tive ‘power ver­ti­cal’ filled with non-pro­fes­sional man­agers being pre­oc­cu­pied with ei­ther self-enrich­ment or career making which both required a full and unconditio­nal sub­ju­ga­tion to their boss’s will. Very illu­mi­nat­ing in this respect is the story of the 5th Service inside the Federal Secu­rity Service that is called the Service of current infor­ma­tion and inter­na­tional con­nec­tions and is respon­si­ble for mon­i­tor­ing the sit­u­a­tion abroad with special atten­tion to the post-Soviet space. On 11 March, two inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ists reported that the service’s chief and his de­puty were placed under house arrest — sup­pos­edly because Putin was furious about the dif­fer­ence between the infor­ma­tion about Ukraine’s mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ties they pro­vided and those that appeared at the bat­tle­fields (I would add that rumors about Ukraini­ans expected to greet the Russian ‘lib­er­a­tors’ were also a bit exaggerated).

The same can be said about the Russian mil­i­tary that was thou­ght to be a modern and well-equipped force but drove into Ukraine on Soviet-bu­ild trucks with no idea about their des­ti­na­tion and purpose. All this was easy to predict because Putin has been extremely depen­dent of what his aides and col­leagues present him as a cred­i­ble infor­ma­tion – so here his delu­sion was not ‘inter­nal’, or ‘natural’, but may rather be attrib­uted to the dys­func­tional char­ac­ter of the entire system he had created.

The war in Ukraine, by the way, is an enor­mous, albeit rare, proof of Putin’s con­flict with reality. In other spheres he looks much more suc­cess­ful (or lucky) than in this one. He almost doesn’t care about his country’s economy – but all the current crises have been met quite effi­ciently. Thus, the quality of life achieved by 2013 has been by and large sus­tained until today. He uses the most straight­forward ways to crush the polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion, and it looks he chose the right way for not estab­lish­ing dia­logue with his oppo­nents since the overall number of tho­se ready to con­front him is tiny.

In many other moves he also chose the right ways and coher­ent responses – but the “Ukrain­ian ques­tion” made him crazy, and, with a high degree of cer­tainty will bring his reign to an end.

Vladislav Inozemt­sev is Special Advisor to the Middle East Media Research Insti­tute’s Russian Media Studies Project and Foun­der and Direc­tor of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Indus­trial Studies.

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