No method in Putin’s madness

Published in (Wellington), 9 March 2022

In late January, I wrote a column arguing a Russian invasion of Ukraine was not a foregone conclusion (Russia has won the war without firing a single shot, 25 January). I wish my cautious optimism had been proven right.

The arguments I made were not idiosyncratically mine. There were many experts and commentators saying the consequences of a war would be devastating, not just for Ukraine (obviously) but also for Russia.

George Friedman, the international strategist and founder of Stratfor, said so. As did Dr Stefanie Babst, a long-time Nato strategist and former Nato Deputy Assistant Secretary-General. And similarly General Harald Kujat, a former Chairman of the Nato Military Committee.

Where we were right was on the consequences of the war for Russia. It was foreseeable that the west’s economic sanctions would be tough. It was obvious that war would mean the end of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. It was also clear that Ukrainians would not welcome Russian troops with flowers but that they would fight.

The scenario we see play out now is exactly the reason why I believed Putin would not cross the line to a full invasion of Ukraine. Almost irrespective of whether Putin will ‘win’ his war against Ukraine, the outcome for Russia will be the same.

Putin’s country has turned into a pariah state, shunned by the international community. Multinational companies are withdrawing from it. Its exports have collapsed along with its currency. It is excluded from any international events and engagement, whether cultural, sports, economic or political. Putin will never be considered a normal head of state again on the international scene. He will be lucky if he escapes conviction as a war criminal.

On every front, the outcome for Russia is disastrous (though obviously not as catastrophic as for Ukraine). Putin has undone decades of Russian economic development and consigned his country to a grim future.

Putin’s war has also, in effect, ensured that Russia will no longer be a superpower. Yes, it will be a country with thousands of nuclear warheads. But the war will weaken Russia enough to render it the poorer junior partner in the emerging axis of Moscow and Beijing.

The only element of power remaining for Russia will be its military – but it will be a military bearing greater ongoing costs in Ukraine than the Soviet Red Army did in its occupation of Afghanistan. And, like the Soviet Union when it faced Ronald Reagan, Russia will find itself in a new costly arms race as the west rises to Putin’s new challenge.

The war Putin started will thus devastate Ukraine and cripple Russia. Sadly, none of this was unpredictable. It is the logical outcome of Putin’s aggression.

Which brings me back to my views in January. I thought Putin’s own would see that any full-blown attack on Ukraine was suicidal.

The fact that Putin did not come to that conclusion himself leaves two alternatives: either he naively expected a far easier victory and a more muted western response or he did not care about the outcome in the pursuit of ideological goals.

If it is the former, it would mean Putin was ill-informed. It suggests there is no longer anyone in his inner circle able to challenge him. And, from everything we can see from the outside, there are signs this may be the case.

However, the second alternative is much scarier. What if Putin foresaw the potential consequences of his actions and recklessly went ahead anyway?

The events of the past two weeks suggest a degree of recklessness on Putin’s part of a kind we have not seen before. Yes, we have known Putin as brutal autocrat who poisons his opponents, wages war when it suits him and does not shy from flattening cities such as Grozny. But the level of recklessness in his war against Ukraine is on a different level altogether.

If it needed proof, shelling the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant delivered it. If that power plant had exploded, the fallout would not have been limited to Ukraine but to all of Europe, Russia included. No sane person, not even a half-way rational dictator, would do that.

Is there any method to Putin’s madness? Or has he gone completely off the rails?

Unfortunately, that is now the question. As Putin stands with his back to the wall, putting his nuclear arms on high alert and threatening the west with World War III, how much of that threat is real?

If Putin threatens the use of nuclear bombs if Nato enforces a no-fly zone over Ukraine, is that a credible threat?

Conversely, can the west still discard the possibility of Putin attacking a Nato member such as the Baltic states just because it would be suicidal?

From any rational perspective, Putin’s attack on Ukraine was a complete miscalculation. But that now makes it our problem.

With Putin’s Russia in economic turmoil, with his army facing a protracted war in Ukraine, and with the dictator himself isolated internationally and relegated to Beijing’s deputy sheriff, Putin has no obvious way out. Having lost everything, Russia has built for itself after the end of communism, Putin has nothing left to lose.

If Putin has an ounce of self-preserving rationality inside him, he would now latch on to any initiative, such as Israeli Prime Minister’s Naftali Bennett’s crisis diplomacy.

If, however, he concludes he is cornered with no way out, the only question remaining is whether he will take the world down the abyss with him.

After the events of the past two weeks, no one can rule out the previously unthinkable any more.

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