Putin is not insane, but trying to avoid angering him may be

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Americans have developed an unfortunate habit of ascribing mental illness to those with different values, goals, or circumstances than our own. This is objectionable for distorting public understanding of mental illness and fostering discrimination — but it also can dangerously cloud our judgment about what policies are necessary or productive. Many of our errors in the Second Iraq War sprang from this fallacy, and we are sadly repeating them with respect to Ukraine.

Demonizing Saddam Hussein was convenient for a Bush administration determined to make war on secular Iraq in response to the religiously motivated terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. This was not difficult because he was, indeed, a ruthless, brutal dictator — but his brutality alone did not explain why he would sponsor the Sept. 11 attacks nor why he would hold onto weapons of mass destruction in the face of crippling sanctions, both of which they insisted he did. 

The Bush administration and its allies therefore concocted the idea that Hussein was insane. This likely was wrong. 

Ruling as head of the fiercely secular Baath Party, Hussein had nothing to gain and everything to lose from aiding Al Queda — which is why he did not do so. Indeed, Wahhabi Islamic fundamentalists loathed and sought to depose Hussein, whom they saw as an infidel leading a Muslim country. And Saddam Hussein did not declare any more weapons of mass destruction to inspectors because he did not have any. He was coy about what he might have to maintain strategic ambiguity: With Shia and Kurdish communities resenting his Sunni minority rule, and bordering multiple countries he had invaded or threatened, he did not dare declare himself to be largely defenseless. 

Belief in Hussein’s insanity nonetheless played a crucial role in launching our disastrous invasion over many of our closest allies’ objections. Even if the evidence that he had weapons of mass destruction was thin, his supposedly deranged character suggested he would use them and be immune to deterrence.

Similarly, we have no reason to believe Vladimir Putin is insane. His values are deplorable, but he is pursuing his reprehensible ends with logical and rational means. 

Putin has made clear that what he wants most is to be seen as manly and powerful. I find his vision of masculinity repugnant and juvenile, but it is hardly unusual. Approaching the end of his rule, Putin is increasingly focused on his legacy, as others in similar positions have been. 

Russia’s economic performance is terrible and likely irreversible in Putin’s remaining time. Significant improvement in living standards would require rooting out endemic corruption, much of it perpetrated by members of his own inner circle

That leaves manly conquest, extending Russian power as his most revered imperial predecessors did. Expanded national boundaries are more durable than economic gains, offering better prospects for Putin admired by future generations. 

When Putin attacked Ukraine, the benefits of invading looked far greater than the risks. Ukraine, or even just its predominantly Russian-speaking area in the East, would be a far larger addition to Russia than the parts of other neighbors he could realistically seize. And the more democratic Ukraine becomes, the more it serves as a beacon reminding Russians that his authoritarianism is not inevitable.

The risks surely seemed minimal. When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Ukraine’s military — badly depleted under the corrupt pro-Russian president the country had just ousted — did not fight back. Ukraine did resist the subsequent invasion of Donetsk and Luhansk, but Russia prevailed — at least to a stand-off. 

Putin also had seen the West demonstrate weakness, allowing Russia to benefit from criminality. It hardly responded at all to Russia’s savage assault on Chechnyan civilians and its repeated invasions of Georgia and Moldova. The West did huff and puff after the Crimean invasion, but imposed few significant sanctions and quickly proved eager to resume business as usual. Perhaps most tellingly, the West stood by passively as Russian troops committed war crimes to prop up Syria’s brutal dictator. Believing the West too indecisive and craven to act was not crazy at all.

Yes, subtle signs pointed to possible trouble, such as an intelligence chief losing his composure when he realized Putin might actually invade — and risk disproving assessments of Russia’s military superiority. U.S. and British intelligence also seem to have penetrated his regime’s senior ranks. And Putin should have wondered how years of corruption affected military readiness. But in an authoritarian system lacking even the collective leadership of the Soviet Union’s final decades, Putin had countless fawning toadies to reassure him. 

Although the Russian military may be overrated, its disinformation machinery is not. Persuading westerners that Putin is dangerously unstable can make them hesitate to provide Ukraine the heavy weapons it needs to turn the tide. Notably Poland and the Baltic countries, which all border Russia and would face the brunt of any “crazy” Putin attack, are not cowed. They recognize that only Putin’s total defeat in Ukraine will bring them security. 

Seeing Putin as unhinged is also dangerous because it obscures the danger the broader nationalist Russian regime poses to Ukraine and to the rest of the world.

Absent a clear, humiliating defeat in Ukraine, any successor to Putin will likely be even worse: Comparably committed to destructive demonstrations of power and more willing to take risks because his grip on power will be shakier. 

The notion that anyone committing unprovoked, brutal aggression must be mentally ill assumes a broad, humane consensus that, although appealing, is far-removed from the world we live in.

It is profoundly unfair to those actually struggling with mental illness, the overwhelming majority of whom are peaceful souls — and it will lead to precisely the dangers the apostles of caution seek to avoid.

Allowing Putin to profit from brutal criminality means he will do it again. If he gains anything from his invasion of Ukraine, he will do it again. That is as coldly rational as it gets.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DavidASuper1 

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