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Vladimir Putin & the Sane Man Theory

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Czech translation here

The events in the Eastern Ukraine in the last few days have raised many questions. What is going on and why have Russian nationalists with covert backing from Moscow seized public buildings in various cities and erected barricades? Is Putin aiming to annex the Eastern half of the Ukraine?

One century after the madness of World War One, are we going to see another series of slippery escalations taking us in directions that few if any of us want to go in?

These questions are hard to answer at the moment, but there are some points that we can use to gauge how things are likely to work out.

First of all, ignore all the do-or-die declarations. Most shows of aggro and bravado – even when backed up by automatic weapons (and Facebook pages) – are posturing and done mainly for the benefit of those posing alongside you.

When real bullets fly or death looms into view, even the toughest Right Sector hard man or hero of Mother Russia takes cover and thinks of his loved ones. There are very few real kamikazes in the Ukrainian situation right now.

Next, there is the question of leadership, and in particular Vladimir Putin. Sure, the guy has “balls of steel,” and any other macho epithet that the media or the blogosphere care to bestow on him, but he is also no mad man. In fact, the realization of this might be his Achilles heel.

Back in the 1960s US President Richard Nixon purposely tried to cultivate and project an image of latent insanity to the enemies of America so that they would think twice about provoking a Superpower with such a mentally unstable man at the controls. This was the famous “Madman theory.”

Alas, Vladimir Putin is no such madman or even pretend madman, but instead an eminently sensible and controlled person. To the discerning observer this perception has not been altered much by recent events, such as the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the events in the Eastern Ukraine. Rather than aggressions, these actions, when viewed geopolitically, are essentially defensive in nature in that they were triggered by a major Western economic push into Russia’s backyard.

Putin is no mad man flying off the handle, but rather someone engaged in damage limitation, the damage having been done to his geopolitical position by the Ukraine’s sudden and tumultuous Westward swing.

In fact, if Putin had been more careful to cultivate an image as a madman and appeared to the West as another Hitler or Kim Jong Il, then he would actually be in a stronger position now. The weak-willed countries of the West would inevitably have been sucked into appeasing him. But, instead of this they are fully prepared to wage diplomatic and economic war on Russia to the degree that it doesn’t infringe too much on their own economies.

The fact that they calculate in this rather self-serving way, as embodiments of Homo economicus, reveals the underlying weakness of the sane man in situations like this.

But the same Western weakness that gives Putin room to fight back against Western encroachment also limits the threat that Putin can pose. He is no starry-eyed nationalist driven by messianic zeal and an unbending belief in pure will; nor some hyper-Confucian nihilist with a liking for Bond villains and missiles.

Putin’s weakness is essentially that he is a pragmatist, and even a relatively mild-mannered one within the context of Russian politics. His main concerns are for the general welfare and harmony of what is a large and ethnically diverse country. This is the standard by which he is judged, and the source of his power and authority, not his ability to out-think Obama is Syria or humiliate America elsewhere.

The Ukrainian situation may be about ethnic Russians and their safety and rights, but Russia itself is not about ethnic Russians. It is not an identitarian state united by a spiritual force or transcendent idea, such as nationalism, fascism, fundamental religion, or even the millennial materialism of Marxism, as it once was, but is instead a multicultural state united by a belief in gently rising living standards.

Those citizens of the Russian state who support Putin do so because of the degree to which he achieves these goals. Those citizens who oppose him oppose him for exactly the same reasons – only they have higher expectations and so judge him more harshly.

And then there is that small minority – which includes real Russian nationalist as well as ethnic separatists and leftovers from Communism who oppose him precisely because he lacks such a grand transcendent vision.

This lack of such a vision and his close affinity instead with Homo economicus means that the limits of Putin are there to be seen. The bottom line is he is unwilling to engage Russia in a real struggle with the West, as this would bring a period of material hardship that only spiritual zeal could cope with and rise above.

As much as he may decry what has happened in the Ukraine, Putin has no wish to take the kinds of actions that would deeply antagonize the West against him.

If such a situation was to arise, resulting in a new Cold War and real economic sanctions – including, for example a ban on imports of Russian oil and gas – then Russia could only be sustained by moving towards something like Iran’s religious fundamentalism, North Korea’s Juche, or true ethnonationalism. For a state like Russia with a substantial multiethnic fringe and a materialistic middle class this would be a non-starter.

So, Putin, despite appearances, is not likely to do anything that will deeply antagonize the West. The only question, then, is how far can he go before he reaches that point, and will it be far enough to redeem the loss to Russia’s geopolitical position caused by the Ukrainian revolution. This is the type of question that sane men have to ponder carefully, even while they beat their chest.

 

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