Presidents and prime ministers are often referred to as “statesmen.” And there is a dangerous and naïve assumption that “statesmen” are rational actors. In this view, Putin’s recent actions are just moves on the grand geopolitical chessboard. The moves towards annexing four provinces of Ukraine are just Bishop to Knight’s Three and the threat of using nuclear weapons is just Queen to Bishop’s Four. It’s all just maneuvering for advantage. He can’t possibly be crazy enough to actually use nuclear weapons, can he? Unfortunately, the answer is yes, he is.
Well, “statesmen” are actually just politicians. If you think Vladimir Putin is the wisest, smartest man in Russia, then you probably also think Joe Biden has an IQ of 160. And history is full of national leaders who were absolutely bat-*** insane. Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, just to name a few.
Putin is no genius playing 10-dimension chess. He is a creation of a political system and social environment that rewards cunning, deception, and ruthless brutality. He does have a PhD, but he is not educated, his “doctoral dissertation” was a word-for-word translation of an old German economics textbook. He is a man with few if any scruples, and his career is littered with stupendously dumb mistakes.
And he has one dangerous obsession, which I believe is the real motivation for his war in Ukraine. He craves respect as a leader of world consequence, the leader of a world super-power. And Putin is, like most Russians, extremely paranoid. Like them, he sees “the West” as a mortal enemy, intent on destroying Russia and the Russian people.
I spent four years as a political commentator on Russian state television (real Russian TV, not RT). I got to know many leading political figures in Russia, including members of the Duma and the Federation Council. They were generally a shockingly ignorant and thuggish bunch, Neanderthals in silk suits. And they were obsessed with one idea: Russia was, is, and always will be the geopolitical equal of the United States. Never mind that the U.S. economy is 15 times bigger or that the U.S. leads in technology, science, education, culture, and just about everything else. Russia has nuclear weapons, and can destroy the United States with the push of a button.
The elites in the Kremlin actually relish the idea of using their nuclear weapons. Even the use of a low-yield tactical nuclear bomb would possibly stun Ukraine into submission, and humiliate the West, especially the United States. The sad fact is, they’re right. What exactly could the United States do in response? The U.S. can’t respond with a nuclear strike of its own, that would almost certainly start all-out nuclear war, resulting in the end of human civilization. The U.S. and NATO probably can’t send boots on the ground into Ukraine either.
And the “annexation” of the provinces of Lugansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson provide Putin with what he and Russians imagine is a moral and strategic justification of the use of nuclear weapons. Having invaded Ukraine, now any counter-invasion to liberate their own sovereign territory can be characterized as “an attack on the Russian homeland.” It’s an entirely false argument, but one which Russians will enthusiastically believe. And the Russians are full of self-pity. For them, they are the victims, the mere fact that the Ukrainians are defending their own land is itself a “war crime.”
And having used a low-yield nuke on the battlefield, the message will be, “look, we did it, don’t think we won’t next destroy Kyiv with a more powerful nuclear device.” At this point, Ukraine does submit, and there’s nothing the U.S. can do about it. Or at least, it shouldn’t, if Americans have any instinct for self-preservation.
But the main benefit wouldn’t be victory in Ukraine. It would be showing the world that Russia can’t be ignored any longer. It might not be respected, but it would be feared. Putin and the Kremlin don’t give a toss about world opinion, the Russian president isn’t pining for a Nobel Peace Prize. He wants to be able to tell himself and his people that Russia is longer a second-rate power, a relatively poor and backward country. No, Putin’s Russia is again a super-power and it again has an Empire.
Don’t be fooled by mainstream media reports of opposition to Putin’s War. Sure, a few thousand people have been arrested in protests, a couple hundre dthousand men of conscription age have reportedly left or have tried to leave the country. These are minuscule numbers in a country of 140 million people. Sadly, most Russians I know would applaud if Putin used nuclear weapons against Ukraine. From their perspective, anything that forces the Ukrainians to submit to vassalage is good. Anything that puts the Americans in their place is even better.
Finally, there’s the fact that Putin believes he must avoid humiliation at all costs. And so far, the Ukrainians have humiliated him. In more than seven months, Russia has been unable to defeat what they consider a third-rate power. In fact, they’ve been pushed back by Ukrainian counter-offensives. For Putin, this is a matter of his ego, but also a matter of his political survival. He’d rather go down in a nuclear war than suffer the indignation of defeat.
And the risk of a nuclear war annihilating their own country? An old Russian anecdote sums up perfectly the Russian mentality. One day God appears to a Russian peasant. “Ivan Ivanovich, I will grant you one wish, anything you want. A cow, a horse, a new plough, whatever you desire.” Ivan is ecstatic. But then God adds, “Ivan Ivanovich, whatever I grant you, I will do for your neighbor Sergei Sergeevich twice over.” Ivan ponders this cruel dilemma. If he gets a cow, his neighbor will get two cows. If he gets a horse, his neighbor will get two horses. The mere idea causes him immense pain. But he thinks of a solution. “Then God, if you will do for Sergei Sergeevich twice over what you do for me, then please God, rip out one of my eyes!”
Make no mistake, we are in a moment of deep peril. Nuclear war is more possible today than at any moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis. And there are no easy solutions.