There is a lot of talk in the West about Russian President Vladimir Putin being mentally unhinged. How could he not have known that his invasion of Ukraine would have serious consequences for his country? Or is he so obsessed with maintaining an image of greatness—especially ahead of Russia’s upcoming 2024 presidential elections—that he doesn’t care?
Either way, Putin risks losing the confidence of his people, whose economic suffering will increase as the conflict continues.
Perhaps the question of Putin’s sanity is beside the point, because there is little the West can do about it. Although both Hitler and Stalin were crazy by any psychiatric standard, they were still able to inflict horrific damage and death on millions of people. But Hitler did not have nuclear weapons, and Stalin’s hydrogen bomb was still being tested when he died. Putin’s nuclear arsenal, on the other hand, could destroy parts of the West in minutes.
In a nationally televised address last Thursday, Putin offered a menacing warning of Russia’s nuclear capability: “No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.” On Sunday, Putin went even further by announcing that Russia’s nuclear forces have been put on high alert, an order that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called “dangerous rhetoric” and “irresponsible behavior,” which “adds to the seriousness of the situation.”
The only other time that the Kremlin’s nuclear threat reached this height was during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. But Khrushchev—though volatile and impulsive—was apparently a rational actor, not consumed by the historical grudges and the need to show off his masculine credentials that seem to obsess Putin. Khrushchev also had to consider the views of fellow Politburo members. Although Putin purports to consult with advisers, he seems to make key decisions on his own. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Military Valery Gerasimov looked uncomfortable as they sat with Putin when he made Sunday’s announcement, but if they had reservations, they were ignored.
If Putin is indeed so detached from reality in the pursuit of his reckless confrontation with the West, what are his motivations?
First of all, like any dictator, Putin does not feel confident of his hold on power. He knows that he was not democratically elected to the presidency in 2018, or even in 2012, because serious contenders were barred from participating. Using his powerful security services, Putin has suppressed the media and arrested democratic oppositionists, including Alexei Navalny, who has been in jail for over a year after being poisoned. Ultimately, the Russian leader cannot be sure what his people really think of him.
Putin’s approval ratings were around 65 percent at the end of 2021, which may seem impressive by Western standards, but Russians are conditioned to say they approve of their leader when there is no alternative. Adding to that, as Putin knows, the continued decline in incomes and living standards is a potential trigger for serious dissatisfaction with his leadership.
Because of this insecurity, Putin hates having democratic states on his country’s border, especially Ukraine. He doesn’t want his people to get ideas. All Putin’s talk about the West destroying Russian values and NATO threatening Russia with nuclear weapons camouflages his intense fear of democratic aspirations in his own country.
Putin admitted as much on Thursday: “Of course, the question is not about NATO itself. It merely serves as a tool of U.S. foreign policy. The problem is that in territories adjacent to Russia, which I have to note is our historical land, a hostile ‘anti-Russia’ is taking shape.” And later: “Russia cannot feel safe, develop, and exist while facing a permanent threat from the territory of today’s Ukraine.”
Putin is all the more alarmed about NATO support for states along Russia’s border because of his growing concerns over how much longer he is going to stay in power. Although the Russian presidential election is two years away, there is reportedly considerable disquiet in the Kremlin about what will happen in 2024. Putin himself said last October that he would not say what his plans are because “it would make the [political] situation unstable.”
Leadership succession in countries where the autocratic leader and his cronies have amassed great wealth at the expense of their people, as in Russia’s case, is fraught with danger. Once out of power, they could be called to account by the new government, and ensuring that a designated successor will protect their interests can be problematic, especially if members of the elite know one another’s secrets and there is infighting. Accusations of corruption are potent political weapons in Russia.
Putin needs to be in a strong position, with high support from Russians, when he decides what happens in 2024. Either he runs again or his loyal, hand-picked successor does, and he can retire happily to his sumptuous palace in Gelendzhik. He is staking his claim on Russia’s future by invading Ukraine and demonstrating to his patriotic citizenry that he can stand up to NATO.
Putin may have been inspired by memories of the Chechen war, which catapulted him to the presidency in 2000. He was a virtual unknown when Yeltsin appointed him prime minister—and his designated successor—in August 1999. As with Ukraine today, Putin used a false flag as an excuse to invade Chechnya, claiming that Chechen terrorists were responsible for September 1999 bombings in Russia. As a result of his determined pursuit of the ruthless Chechen war, Putin’s approval ratings skyrocketed.
Significantly, in Thursday’s address, Putin mentioned this war and brought up the old, false accusation that the West had actively supported the terrorists there. Putin’s goal in Ukraine is the same as it was in Chechnya—installing a Kremlin-sponsored regime to take the place of one that won’t march to Moscow’s tune. He also hopes that his bold aggression will bring him the affirmation at home that he got with the Chechen war.
But all is not going according to Putin’s plan, with Ukrainian resistance stronger than expected and Western sanctions crippling. This is probably why Putin resorted to the insanity of his nuclear threat.
If Putin seems both narcissistic and deranged to the West, his own people may be getting the same impression, especially now that he has started talking about using nukes. And feelings of patriotism can only go so far when pocketbooks are empty. As political commentator Anton Orekh noted: “The effect of the current patriotic enthusiasm will be even shorter than after the Crimea. The economic situation is getting worse, so after some time even a victory over the Kyiv junta and the Anglo-Saxons will arouse people less than prices in stores and half-empty shelves.”
Unlike those who lived under Stalin and Hitler, Russian people today do not face death if they protest on the street, though they can be thrown into jail, as we have seen with the thousands of arrests in the past few days. Nor would Putin’s subordinates be shot if they refused to go along with Putin’s further acts of aggression. So, hopefully, Russians themselves will take action and stop their leader before “the consequences we have never seen in our entire history” are allowed to occur.