As a political scientist, I am often asked what makes Russian President Vladimir Putin tick. Although Russian politics should never be reduced to the mind of one person, it is important to acknowledge that the question reveals a difficulty understanding why one of the most powerful people in the world behaves as he does. Putin’s decisions often appear ‘irrational,’ and nowhere is this more clear than in the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, in which he has inflicted needless, unprovoked destruction on a neighbouring country. As a scholar, I have two choices when asked to explain this event. My first option is to engage in convoluted mental gymnastics in order to find the logic in these events. But evidence is lacking that this invasion was based on balanced reasoning, as the Russian explanation for these events has been inconsistent: first, the Russian side has been ‘defending’ Ukraine’s two easternmost regions (Donetsk and Luhansk); then it was about replacing a regime elite in the capital of Kyiv; and now it seems to be an all-out attempt to conquer Ukrainian territory.
Better, then, in my opinion to accept the reality that this invasion, now highly costly for Russia, presents as irrational and use that as an opportunity to interrogate my own sense of what is ‘logical.’ Since Putin has unparalleled power as Russia’s President, it is fair to assume that he has the final say in all decisions, and therefore to attribute responsibility for the invasion of Ukraine to him. I think the decision to invade Ukraine presents as irrational for numerous reasons: first, because no specific event from the Ukrainian side preceded it, and Ukraine posed no direct threat to Russia; second, because the risks of an invasion for the Russian side (military casualties, international outrage) appeared to far outweigh the benefits. But most importantly, the true senselessness of Russian strategy lies in its apparent indifference to the lives of innocent civilians, the inhumanity.
I cannot explain Putin’s logic with the political science notion of a rational actor, who carefully weighs risks against objectives. Instead let’s start by pondering the use of language. In English we describe incomprehensible behaviours as ‘irrational,’ or ‘illogical,’ or ‘counterproductive,’ words which suggest that there is a perversion or contradiction of a preexisting rationality. The Russian language can actually be more expressive in explaining the Ukrainian debacle: we have words like бессмысленный (literally senseless, or thoughtless), сумасшедший (literally, an adjective to describe somebody who has “left their own mind”) or неразумный (unreasonable, in the sense of being unmeasured or out of proportion to the situation). These nuances are helpful in distinguishing a reasonable person who has made a poor decision from an instance where there is a lack of capacity to make a good decision. This lack of capacity could be temporary (for example, if anger or psychological distress has interfered with decision-making), or long-lasting (such as when an individual has a bias or blind spot that leads them to overlook important information).
How does this relate to the Russian president? Accounts of Vladimir Putin’s career tell us that before the Soviet Union collapsed, he was a career KGB officer. A fluent German speaker, he spent much of his time posted to Dresden, in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR).1 The GDR’s communist regime was one of the most oppressive in Eastern Europe, and it relied heavily on its political police, the Stasi. A Soviet KGB officer in the GDR would be expected to have frequent contact with his East German counterparts. The Stasi were well known for their heavy surveillance of civil society and for their militant, even ruthless, approach to intelligence-gathering.2 In the GDR, critics of the communist regime were considered fascists, and suspicion of ordinary citizens was the rule rather than the exception.
In 2017, for a research project relating to Canada’s Cold War foreign policy, I had the opportunity to visit Berlin for a month and do research in archives of the former GDR.3 I applied to visit the archive of the former Stasi, at that time near Alexanderplatz, and after waiting patiently, I was allowed to examine selected materials there for a few days. During those three days, I sat at a desk reading carefully-bound volumes and folders, which transported me to another world: a world where the work was highly bureaucratized and compartmentalized.
In terms of my own research, the material that I saw was completely useless. Each document was displaced from a larger context, much of the information within it was impossible to verify, and most importantly – I found it impossible to distinguish true facts from bogus information. It seemed to me that the job of the spy was to gather information, but also to provide misinformation, and the secrecy with which information was handled complicated any real accountability for the work. While I found it fascinating to read this material for the cultural insight it provided, it became clear to me that it was impossible to evaluate this material because providing a well-documented evidence basis was not the job of the people who generated these documents. True, I had only three days, so maybe in the future diligent historians will be able to write a full history of this institution. But it will be very daunting to piece together the fragments.
In my mind, I tried to imagine the mentality of a career intelligence officer for a communist regime. This work would require relying on an assumption that the non-communist world was the enemy, and that there would be an irreconcilable struggle between socialism and capitalism. Your job would never be to develop a measured understanding of international relations, or to weigh economic, social and political priorities in an evolving world. Your job would be to provide little fragments of information to your superiors, or point to little victories in gaining advantage over the adversary. Your job, in essence, would be to be a small cog in a large wheel – even if you rose to the top of your country’s intelligence agency. The big-picture decisions of government – engaging in diplomacy, collecting revenue, implementing policy – would be somebody else’s job.
Even though Soviet communism as an ideology was discarded when the Russian Federation became independent in 1991, binaries of “us” vs “them” have become a mainstay of Putin’s rhetoric towards the West. What does Ukraine mean in the Soviet imagination? Literally, I believe that Soviet security forces saw Ukraine as being summed up in its root word “krai” (which means edge, borderland or borderline). Ukraine contained what the Soviet Bolsheviks perceived as its most vulnerable border. My first book was on the origins of the Soviet border control system and I learned from archival documents just how concerned Soviet political leaders were about the loyalty of Ukrainians to their regime, and the extent to which they were preoccupied with maintaining an elaborate set of institutions to cut off Ukraine from its neighbouring Western countries, especially Poland.4 In this mentality, Ukraine is not a nation – it is a big, wide, vulnerable border, next to politically-questionable countries like Poland and Hungary.
The only way that I can make any sense of Putin’s actions in Ukraine is to imagine a secret-police frame of decision-making in which the strategic value of territory is detached from its inhabitants. This frame exaggerates the threat that a self-reliant Ukraine poses to Russian sovereignty: if we “lose” Ukraine, we lose our “krai” – so where will our new “krai” be? (The fact that Russia and Ukraine have policed their own borders since 1992 does not enter into a calculation made by a mind that still uses a Soviet, pre-1991 frame). If Russia’s rationales for starting a conflict with Ukraine are contradictory and inconsistent, that could be because the KGB’s mandate was not to provide a cohesive and consistent account of events, because that is somebody else’s job.
Only in this instance, nobody else is available for that job, because it is the role of the President himself to weigh carefully the various interests at stake in a given situation, and to present their decisions to the population clearly. The current Russian President is obviously not performing that job. Perhaps the irritability and impatience that Putin has shown in his recent public addresses reflects an inner bewilderment at the absence of he who is supposed to be doing the job of government. Somebody is missing – but this somebody is Putin himself. As the Russian words for ‘irrational’ suggest – the problem is not a deranged or deluded mind, but an absence in the mind.
In Wolfgang Hilbig’s novel ‘I’ (Ich), the protagonist is a Stasi operative who at the end of the work, tries to make sense of the imminent collapse of the East German regime, as civil society organized to demand a better life: “We were the shadow of existence, we were the genitive of the person…we were the practice of the disruption measures to be implemented, we were the achieved results of the given intelligence operation, the stipulation of the life of the soul of the person….Was I now capable of altering this condition? No, I had to admit, in all probability I was no longer capable.”5 The secret policy mentality skewed the agent’s whole way of perceiving reality, as he is trained to serve a regime that believes that its ultimate victory is inevitable – all defeats are only setbacks rather than moments for reflection. Is Russia’s president still capable of learning lessons from new experiences, reversing course, admitting mistakes? To paraphrase Hilbig, in all probability, he is not.
Andrea Chandler is Professor of Political Science at Carleton University
- Good accounts of Putin’s career in the security services can be found in: Catherine Belton, Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West First American Edition (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020); Masha Gessen, The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin First Riverhead Trade Paperback Edition (New York: Riverhead Books, 2013).
- See for example Mary Elise Sarotte, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), pp. 92-93.
- My research in Berlin was made possible through funding from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) Research Stay visit program (host institution: the Osteuropa Institut of the Free University of Berlin), 2017.
- Andrea Chandler, Institutions of Isolation: Border Controls in the Soviet Union and its Successor States, 1917-1993 (Montreal, Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998).
- Wolfgang Hilbig, ‘I’, trans. Isabel Fargo Cole (London: Seagull Books, 2015), p. 323.
Leave a Reply