Photo by Alexander Memenov/AFP

Putin must be mad

…and other lies Western elites tell themselves

Artillery Row

It is just over a week since Russia, or rather Vladmir Putin, launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Despite his preparing for months in full view of the world, many Western analysts and foreign policy wonks seemed taken deeply by surprise. Cynics would perhaps suggest, this is just the latest in a string of events that Western policy elites haven’t seen coming, such as the recent collapse of Afghanistan, Boris Johnson’s UK-EU Trade Deal, Trump’s Election, the original Brexit Vote, the Eurozone Crisis and the 2008 Banking Crash. Nobody is infallible, but it’s interesting that many commentators seem to respond, not by reflecting on their own mistaken assumptions, but by declaring that the problem wasn’t their analysis, but just that Putin was intrinsically “irrational”, “deeply irrational”, “not in his right mind”, an “irrational actor”, etc, and therefore, presumably, impossible to predict.

This sounds suspiciously like a cop-out from failed experts

This sounds suspiciously like a cop-out, from people who have failed again to do the thing they claim expertise in: understanding the minds and thinking of global leaders and political actors. This isn’t just people instinctively covering their backsides, but reflects a mistaken and superficial understanding of what “rationality” is, that underpins the worldview of modern progressive liberalism. Let’s look at Putin’s invasion, clearly the result of months of planning and organisation. Putin has talked and written at length about his motivations, to restore the unity of the Rus-sian peoples, i.e., Russia, Ukraine, Belarus (who trace their shared civilisation back to Kievan Rus) and prevent Russia from being encircled by Western militaries on her own doorstep. These goals, including securing Russian access to the Black Sea, would be coherent and understandable to every Russian leader since Peter the Great.

Ukraine, particularly, has been a running sore for Putin for almost his entire period in power: crisis there has been rumbling on since 2003, with increasing flare-ups in 2008 and 2014. The determination in 2022 to end this problem forever (from his perspective) reflects a long-standing policy. But why act now? I am not a foreign policy expert, but to just an interested layman, a few credible reasons stand out. The first, most obvious reason is the current energy crisis: “modern” Russia is a petrochemical state whose budget is highly dependent on fossil fuel sales. Oil and gas prices have been comparatively low since 2012, reducing Russia’s income and leverage over other countries, particularly nations like Germany that are heavily dependent on Russian Natural Gas. It is likely Putin hoped high energy prices would leave Russia better able to fund its war, better able to weather sanctions, and reduce European willingness to enact extensive sanctions in the first place, providing an opportunity that may not come again.

Western powers have been steadily moving away from foreign interventionism

Ever since the disastrous occupation of Iraq in 2003, Western powers have been steadily moving away from foreign interventionism, with the full support of their populations, culminating in the scrambled withdrawal from Afghanistan only last September. Putin could scarcely avoid the USA and others noticing the steady concentration of 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, but the discussion and negotiation usefully (from his perspective) gave him the chance to get clear assurances that NATO would not militarily intervene if he did attack Ukraine. Only then, once he had reasons to believe he could launch a contained conflict, in which he should outnumber and out-gun the Ukrainians, did he give the order. None of this is to say Putin’s decision was wise or correct or even safe for him, let alone anyone else. The decision to invade Ukraine clearly represented a huge risk but for Putin and Russia, given his aims and objectives, a measured one.

What do Western commentators mean when they label Putin irrational? Some appear to simply mean that he does not think like they do, or make the decisions they would. They appear genuinely unable to understand how someone may coherently and logically think from different assumptions than Western Liberals to reach different conclusions. One particularly laughable set of questions was asked by a liberal US commentator called Lawrence O’Donnell, who back in the day was also a writer for The West Wing, the political fiction so beloved of American and British liberals. “Is Putin smart? What would make him smart? His (weak) education? […] Has he had any valuable learning experiences anywhere in the world?”, he sneered to his 2.8 million twitter followers. He may as well have said with appropriate hauteur, “well, he’s not an Ivy League man, is he?” Bizarrely, it did not seem to occur to O’Donnell that after rising from being an obscure KGB officer to the undisputed ruler of Russia for over 20 years, Putin might have had some relevant experience and skills, despite not attending Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Western elites can’t say ‘God’, so they say ‘Reason’ instead

While it is easy to laugh at such bumptious myopia, it reflects a deeper intellectual shortcoming in the dominant progressive governing class. Western elites must label Putin irrational because they are committed to the idea it is not really possible to be intelligent, rational or logical and disagree with them. The political philosopher John Rawls, probably the most influential of the late 20th century, exemplified this trend with his “Veil of Ignorance”, a thought experiment designed to derive the just society purely from rationalistic reflection. By sheer coincidence, this reflection led Rawls to the kind of liberal social democracy already popular among late 20th century liberals.

Western secular elites are committed to their ideas; their policies and conclusions follow inevitably out of “Reason” itself. But any mathematician could tell you that Reason is a GIGO system — Garbage In, Garbage Out: any amount of nonsense can be logically derived from incorrect premises. Western elites ignore this fact because it lets them avoid discussion about where their ethical and political presumptions come from. Traditionally this would have been derived from God and Religion, or from some other metaphysical understanding of what is meant by the Good and Right. This kind of substantive metaphysics is incompatible with the purely reductive, materialist, naturalist commitments of the secular western consensus.

Western elites can’t say “God”, so they say “Reason” instead. Whereas God unites the True and the Good in himself, there is no reason why Reason should inevitably produce the moral or political conclusions Western Liberals want. Putin’s choices may be immoral, ungodly and abhorrent, but they are not necessarily irrational. As the philosopher Max Scheler said, “the purposes of the Devil are no less systematic than those of God”, and this is not just an abstract philosophical point. Serious policy disasters, like the attempts to drop Western democracy from 10,000 feet on places like Iraq or Afghanistan, follow in part from these failures. Whether it is understanding Russian nationalists, Chinese communists or Islamist militants: the blindness that Western elites semi-consciously inflict on themselves prevents them from understanding the world around them, and so doing their job.

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