Has Putin Miscalculated or Is He Unhinged?

Watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine was personal for me. In 2020, I had the privilege of participating in two short-term teaching assignments at Berdyansk State Pedagogical University on the Sea of Azov and at Zaporozhye State University. Both are in the eastern part of the country not far from the two separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk that Putin recognized just prior to launching his invasion. I, of course visited Kyiv, which is a beautiful European city. When I live steam the camera at Maidan Square to check in on the city, I think of the scrumptious meal I enjoyed at Last Barricade restaurant situated underground in this city center. The restaurant is something of a museum tracing Soviet repression of the Ukrainian people and claims to have the best traditional Ukrainian food in town. (No argument from me there). Maidan Square is the site of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity when protestors toppled the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych because of his refusal to sign a trade agreement with the European Union and his efforts to keep Ukraine tied to Russia.

Emails I have received from university colleagues detailed Russian attacks in areas where, not that long ago, I dined with students and listened to their hopes for the future of an independent Ukraine. Most wished for a future modeled on the West and wanted to relegate the Soviet era to history. While they recognized historical ties to Russia, they preferred to think of the relationship as in the past and not something to carry with them into the future. They recognized the problems of Ukraine (mainly government corruption) and contemplated reforms to root out the bad actors.

Vladimir Putin obviously has a different view of Ukraine’s desire to align itself with the West. Prior to the invasion, he could make tenable case for Russian security and how a Ukraine in NATO would give Russians great concerns. Just as the United States refused to allow Soviet missiles on the island of Cuba–just 90 miles away from Florida–so Putin could argue for a buffer zone. Most diplomatic realists have to admit that any thought of further extending NATO to the borders or Russia would only cause tensions rather than promote the security of Europe. There were no firm plans to admit Ukraine to NATO although during a NATO summit in 2008 NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that Ukraine (and Georgia) sometime in the future would be admitted into the alliance. The “future” has not come and was not even close.

But now with the invasion of Ukraine despite no imminent membership in NATO, Putin has squandered political capital and good arguments. Ukrainians have asserted that they would never be safe as Russia’s neighbor without a military alliance with the West and Putin is proving their point. This is especially true when he makes wild claims to “denazify” a country whose president is Jewish or when he claims that Ukraine in its current state poses a military threat to Russia.

Moreover, in recent speeches, Putin has shown that his real concern is not so much security, but bitterness at how in the early 1990s Soviet and Russian leaders handled the secession of states from the USSR and the USSR’s ultimate collapse. Putin berated Ukrainians for dismantling monuments to Lenin and promised to show them “what real decommunizations would mean for Ukraine” (i.e., their extinction as a nation). He also has complained that the last Soviet Constitution (article VIII, Section 72) allowed for secession of the member states. For Putin, Mikhail Gorbachev was a great blunderer who allowed the Communist Party to weaken and thus permitted dissent and demands for independence in the member states.

Many in the West have viewed Putin as a rational actor who drives a hard bargain. Rational actors can be dealt with by diplomacy and international structures. But recent speeches raise concerns that the Russian president might not be operating rationally. Indeed, he has appeared emotional and unhinged in various claims. Some speculate that there is truly a mental health issue in the mix.

Russian forces might be successful in taking Ukraine (although at this writing Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are fighting heroically), but the objective will not have been worth the cost. The invasion has united the West, brought about economic sanctions, and denunciations of Russia from around the globe. Select Russians banks are banned from SWIFT and thus impaired in conducting international commerce. The Russian central bank’s foreign reserves have been frozen. David Frum speculates that these sanctions “could potentially bankrupt the entire Russian banking system and push the ruble into worthlessness.”

Facially valid Russian security concerns are now subsumed in images of wounded civilians and burning cities. Putin cannot undo the damage caused by videos of his troops advancing on a weaker neighbor and the return of warfare to the European continent. Russia will emerge from the contest in a weaker position than it occupied prior to the invasion. This will not bode well for Putin at home. Protestors are already defying Russian laws and openly opposing the action in Ukraine.

As war rages on, a united West cheers for the Ukrainian fighter pilot know as the Kyiv Ghost who has reportedly shot down six Russian planes; Ukrainian Marine Vitaly Shakun who sacrificed his life to blow up the Henichesk bridge as a large Russian convoy approached; the beautiful Iryna Tsvila of the Ukrainian National Guard who died defending Kyiv; and the thousands of soldiers and civilians who are battling for Ukrainian independence. And what about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turning down President Biden’s offer of evacuation with the quip “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

Only an automaton could fail to cry out “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!”

William J. Watkins, Jr. is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the Independent books, Crossroads for Liberty, Reclaiming the American Revolution, and Patent Trolls.
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