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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