Putin Wants You To Believe He’s Crazy
Fun fact, Americans: people can be entirely rational and incredibly vicious at the same time.
Reading the results of several recent polls like this one from Quinnipiac, I was struck by the fact about 60% of Americans believe Putin is off his rocker.
This belief, widely spread by pundits and politicians in America, is dangerously mistaken. It stems from growing up in a school system that subtly trains Americans to believe there is a correct way to live, which social scientists like to call “rational,” with any deviation from this script rendering a person crazy.
Putin is clearly the bad guy in this situation, acting as a classic mob boss bully determined to play Big Daddy to his captive people, a charade meant to keep them infantile and subjected. But truth be told, he’s far from the only world leader who plays this sick game, and America’s are no different — hence all those institutional checks and balances written into the Constitution.
It takes a functional sociopath to climb the ladder in the complex modern world where popularity is all smoke and mirrors, a form of social hacking that promotes group conformity and a sense of collective exceptionalism. It takes a uniquely debased and delusional personality to hoard vast troves of wealth while billions of people live on the edge of poverty on a planet facing serious turmoil, especially given how devastating and democratized the tools of violence are these days.
Yet powerful people continue to exist, the harsh mathematical laws of resources meaning that their hoards leave thousands, even millions of others impoverished.
Power always blinds the one who holds it, which is why Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings the way he did. Not at all a tale of good against evil, the One Ring is purely symbolic of the ability to dominate other people. Sauron did not begin evil, he fell to it by deciding to force people to change their ways, originally with the best of intentions.
That’s why the story ends with the One Ring being thrown into Orodruin, burning Mount Doom. And not willingly on Frodo’s part, either, remember — Frodo too falls to the Ring in the end, which is part of why he never again finds peace in Middle Earth. Gollum’s hateful suppression of his Smeagol self and horrifying lust for the One Ring ultimately saves the day, not the goodness or willpower of the Ring-Bearer or even the intercession of gods, who show up only to give Sam and Frodo their just reward of escaping immediate painful death in fire.
Putin, Biden, Trump, Xi — deep down they’re all the same, which is why they fear fighting each other so much, preferring to attack smaller countries seen as allied with a rival. They live at the top of a pyramid scheme of power, grinding people into the dust in their own countries, always working to avoid direct fights with other powerful people who might hurt them. When they do go to war, it’s usually caused by accident, miscalculation, or fear of being in a worse position down the road relative to an opponent.
These types will do or say whatever it takes to maintain their always tenuous control over their people, ever fearful of a subordinate rising up to replace them, as usually happens eventually. They exist in a strange form of mutual dependence, like parasites slowly draining their host of vital energies, preventing it from shaking them off by threatening to leave their victims vulnerable to a worse fate at the hands of some other threat.
We, all of us in countries afflicted with powerful leaders, are subjected to propaganda that serves their interests because we were born into a system they dominated. They rigged it — the schools, employment, even social values — to keep us from coming after them.
The rise of the Internet is shaking the foundations of the postwar world system, giving people everywhere the ability to organized and resist in a decentralized, frankly unstoppable way. Problem is, the refusal by the powerful to change means that dangerous forces are being unleashed that will out in predictably chaotic ways all across the planet.
Tragically, these forces are prone to colonization by new power players — but that’s an essay for another time. Right now, as the powerful put all our lives on the brink of a global conflict, it is most essential to understand that none of them, not even Kim Jong Un, are in any way crazy. If they were, the nukes would already have been launched to End Ze World.
Everyone is rational, even serial killers — from their frame of reference. Reality as we experience it is partly real, but how we think about it is largely a construct of social conditioning, and we tend to see anything different from ourselves as somehow wrong or threatening.
Making the mistake of thinking these sick folks aren’t like us at all blinds anyone who wants to stop them. Perspective is a hell of a drug, and the ego-bias that afflicts most European and American philosophy blinds most “Westerners” to this truth. Einstein understood it, recognizing that even physics depends on the observer’s location and trajectory in the physical universe.
When America rose to global power in the 1950s, a group of powerful people worked out a mythology to justify their position meant to obscure how shaky it was and remains. America’s leadership clique chose to replace the British Empire with an American one, boosting a new nationalist patriotism reflected in the Pledge of Allegiance and other nonsense forced on the young in schools and adults in media always carefully sanitized not to offend the wrong interests, particularly those with solid advertising budgets.
Since then, most of what has been labeled “counterculture” has represented the lingering dream of something better, an America that was normal, just another country in the world full of people trying to get by and help who they can. A land that did want to live up to its ballyhooed potential and end the persistent scourge of bigotry that is ripping America apart today — again.
But leaders do what they do, and America’s have spent half a century more or less freezing America’s decrepit political system in place. Two zombie parties today wage an endless war over scarce tax dollars and fight to avoid responsibility for a million or more dead from Covid-19, all in the service of petty politics.
Democracy, autocracy — the real difference between these modes of organization is the strength of the institutions that limit the power of the powerful. In any system, these as well as theocracy, monarchy, and all the rest, the game is the same, only the rules differ.
Putin, brutal and unjustified as his assault on Ukraine is, now plays a deadly game not just to subdue Ukraine, but to accelerate America’s own collapse. Deep down, his dream is to turn the USA into the next USSR, and America’s own rotten leaders and self-destructive national myths are his greatest allies in this effort.
Not because he’s some kind of genius, but because his ruthless sociopathic frame of mind lets him perceive power dynamics clearly. Trump keeps winning for the same reason. Too many Americans have a kind of taboo against thinking this way, as if using the cancer’s capabilities against it taints the treatment somehow.
The justified global outcry over Russia’s ruthless disregard for civilian casualties is being twisted to portray him as insane, but the facts on the ground point to a starkly different and darker reality. One where Putin is winning according to his own thinking, where isolation from the rest of the world puts Russians completely under his thumb, hearing only his propaganda.
One of the biggest mistakes the Allies made in World War 2 was demanding total, unconditional surrender from Germany. This, while absolutely understandable, still gave the German people no choice but to accept the death of their nation if they wanted to end the war. Naturally, precious few were willing to rebel even at the bitter end, when Germany was invaded, devastated, and dismembered, because for them the end was materially identical, with the stain of being affiliated with the Nazis in the past doing little to stop Germany from becoming a world leader again today.
The same mistake is being made with Russia today, except unlike the 1940s the world is not united against Putin’s aggression. Most of the planet is not participating in the sanctions regime, so all the Russian oil America doesn’t buy will go straight to China and India. Food and metal prices will go up, but there too Putin can export to China and India, leaving Americans and Europeans to find alternative supplies.
American pundits seem to think that Putin cares about how people in Europe and the English-speaking world feel about being isolated. This I suspect is part of the cultural blindness forced on Americans by the popular media, which elevates popularity to something approaching divine status in this sad false nation.
Look, folks, Putin doesn’t care if you hate him. He doesn’t care if you think he’s crazy. He likes it, because once you write off a person as impossible to understand they gain a kind of power over you.
Need proof? Just look at how terrified America is of Russia’s frankly non-credible nuclear saber-rattling. Joe Biden has spent over a month insisting America can’t fight Russia in any meaningful way because that automatically means World War 3, a sneaky little lie that obscures the fact diplomacy never stops, even when two countries are bombing each other, and there is a vast range of violence between dogfights over Ukraine and a nuclear exchange.
Every action on the battlefield is designed to promote a favorable settlement. Nuclear weapons are not fundamentally different than any other kind and no longer even used to target an opponent’s cities, rendering a total global nuclear apocalypse extremely unlikely. Their purpose is for signaling, and threatening total annihilation if a country is pressed too far. But that threat loses power the moment one is used, making the threat itself non-credible.
Unless you can convince your opponent that you are crazy, too dangerous to risk confronting openly. Which Putin is doing now to great effect.
Fear of World War 3 is one of the tools the powerful use to control their populations. American weapons are already killing Russians, an act of war by any definition, and the only reason Moscow doesn’t start killing Americans in reply is that it doesn’t see widening the war to be in its interest — yet.
And even if there is an exchange of fire in the coming days between NATO and Russia, little fundamental will change. No one is going to launch the nukes because of a border skirmish — India has done those numerous times with China and Pakistan, it becomes almost a ritual. Putin will never wipe out the world unless he’s about to lose power, so his threats of total atomic annihilation are hollow — or promises, in which case he’ll find an excuse to do it one way or another.
The fact that Putin’s assault on Ukraine hasn’t been a lightning victory like Joe Biden kept predicting means nothing except that Putin’s Plan A, which was always high-risk, high-reward, is dead. Plan B involves the rigorous, systematic use of military power to isolate areas Ukraine tries to defend and starve those trapped there into surrender.
If you fear an insurgency, the most rational course of action is to empty a target area of people willing to sustain one. In Syria Russia learned this evil lesson too well: people will stop resisting eventually, they’ll run out of food or bullets if you can isolate their positions from resupply.
In broad terms, that’s how the Union won the American Civil War. It’s also how Japan was really defeated in the Pacific Theater of World War 2 — the bitter irony of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that these were never necessary to stop the threat Japan posed. By 1945 Japan was under tight siege by American and Allied naval forces, its armies in China under constant assault, running out of raw materials and even food. Japan didn’t have to be bombed or invaded, as it no longer posed a threat —Truman’s atomic attacks were used to signal to the Soviet Union that it had better not think of pushing into Allied-controlled territory.
Truth be told, what Russia is doing in Ukraine counts as genocide because Putin’s military effort is quite deliberately trying to change the demographic shape of occupied territories before any cease fire. This will make them far easier to administer in the future, with millions of Ukrainians displaced across Europe.
Absolutely nothing the United States, Great Britain, NATO, or anyone else is doing now can stop this. If Ukraine’s army is truly capable of winning this war in the long run, it will soon mount a series of major counter-offensives that push Russian forces back.
Maybe this will materialize. But the evidence so far shows that we’re really watching, one painful day at a time, Ukraine slowly losing its eastern half.
Meanwhile America isn’t doing what it could be short of open war that might make life more difficult for Russian forces. Ukraine’s sovereignty has already been violated, so it makes absolutely no sense for NATO to refuse to patrol at least the far western part of Ukraine’s airspace on the pretext of guarding its own borders.
This wouldn’t be a no-fly zone over contested areas, but would let Ukraine move its own air defenses further west, a move that would make it even less likely that Russian fighters would go near NATO air patrols. Cruise missiles like those used to hit Lviv the other day are vulnerable to interception by aircraft — even old MiG-29s if those can ever get delivered, and Russian ground forces aren’t going to get anywhere near Western Ukraine for a while so their SAMs aren’t in play.
NATO military types keep talking up the S-400 systems Russia put in Belarus, and while it is a lethal air defense system with long range it has a weakness: radars operate on a line-of-sight basis, meaning that anything flying low at a great distance is invisible up until it comes above the radar’s horizon. Also, missiles fired from 400km away still take time to reach an aircraft, which can use countermeasures and dive to get away if they can’t be jammed.
Now, Russia might be able to use its own airborne radar patrol aircraft, their AWACS, to help direct missiles, but this is far from any guarantee of a hit. Pilots would be over friendly territory too, able to eject and be rescued. As well, NATO would gain priceless information about the technical capabilities of Russian SAM systems, likely learning how to jam or decoy them.
Need a historic precedent for military operations falling well short of total war? In 1941, months before Pearl Harbor, American ships and German submarines traded fire on multiple occasions without triggering a wider war. The lesson? Shots fired does not mean World War 3 and a slide to oblivion. Everyone seems to forget that if Russia truly wants a fight with NATO, it can have one at any time under the existing pretexts of weapons shipments to Ukraine.
Russia so far has not escalated this far because there will be massive costs to all sides, along with serious uncertainties a rational mind like Putin’s doesn’t want to deal with in a difficult moment. The more the countries who say they want to protect Ukraine do to make life difficult for Russian military operations short of fighting, the more likely he’ll be to fear a real escalation won’t go well for him.
Putin is in many ways imitating the deliberate madman strategy Trump used to bully foreign powers during his term in office. Something people forget about leaders is that they see each other as peers, not the general public. Humans are naturally tribal because we can’t physically maintain meaningful relationships with billions of other minds.
People in positions of power naturally see others who share similar experiences as like them. Part of why they get so angry when someone like Putin proves he’s happy to ignore the rules of the tribe is this feels like a betrayal, which leads to emotional responses a strategic mind like Putin’s can use to his advantage.
The war in Ukraine is set to accelerate a series of major geopolitical shifts that will end in America becoming, at best, only one of several large powers around the world, none capable of dominating any other. China on the whole has been rightly horrified by the violence of Putin’s attack, but Biden has wasted no time using the crisis to advance his East Coast Sinophobic crusade, America’s historic racism towards Asian people pushing Russia and China closer together.
This shift, long in the making, will destroy the primacy of the Dollar, make global trade more expensive, drive up energy and food costs globally, fragment the internet, and further erode America’s position in the world. China is increasingly seen by countries everywhere, even Europe, as a more reliable partner — self interested, to be sure, but willing to treat other countries with mutual respect so long as you don’t talk about Tibet or travel to Taipei.
Putin’s war on Ukraine has backfired in some critical ways, but it has also demonstrated the hard limits to American power, which is a huge win for him. Media stateside isn’t covering it intensively, but the European Union has clearly drawn the same conclusion about America’s future as I have —the rising odds of a second Trump term is finally prompting the creation of a real EU Defense force. Europe may buy American arms for a few years, but I expect it will then become autonomous in matters of defense, negating NATO’s purpose.
America’s own future is bleak, as the only reason the federal government really exists at this point is to direct half of Americans’ income taxes to the Pentagon. Ironically, if the United States were the country invading Ukraine, it probably wouldn’t perform all that much better than Russia against Ukraine’s ferocious and generally smart defense.
The bottom line is this: Putin’s attack on Ukraine was a gamble that will cost him, but is also set to deliver long-term benefits. Russia has successfully deterred NATO from moving to defend a country it calls a partner and ally. Even Zelensky has openly called into question the real sanctity of NATO Article 5, which holds an attack on one is an attack on all.
Polls in America already show Americans split on which NATO members to go to war over. And given all of Biden’s rhetoric about democracy and Ukraine, the fact America is so openly afraid of Putin’s nukes has told him exactly what he needs to do to keep America from intervening if he starts something with Finland, Sweden, Moldova, or another non-NATO member in Europe.
Because Americans refuse to accept Putin’s rationality and commit the necessary hard power required to make him understand he can’t win a wider conflict, the initiative remains in his hands. He retains the ability to poke at NATO’s weak points, knowing full well that NATO and America couldn’t actually sustain or win a long war and so long as American leaders are desperate to have China as a new Big Bad Beijing has an incentive to keep Putin’s regime alive just like it does Kim Jong Un’s.
Maybe it’s simply because I’m pretty good at the board game Diplomacy, but I see no hint of irrationality in any of Putin’s actions. Were I in his position I’d be making many of the same moves, well aware that the American education system is so inward-looking and full of myths Americans lack the scientific grounding to see what is playing out on the global chessboard.
I mock and denigrate America a lot these days, though not because I think Americans are, as people, worse than anyone else on this planet. People are people everywhere, most just trying to get by.
But the very idea of America has been turned against its people. Power inequality is baked into America’s system as it stands, which is why there have been no Constitutional Amendments for about fifty years. Americans are told to trust their authorities, even when it is manifestly clear they all lie.
Ideally, Americans would wake up and reorganize before it’s too late. I doubt, though, this is possible now. If any leaders in the world are insane, it’s the ones in America who seem to sincerely believe God is looking out for them, that reality can be ignored because America’s destiny is written in stone.
This is the silly hubris that has destroyed more than one empire in days past. Russia may rip itself apart because the dissolution of the Soviet Union was merely paused for a generation, Russia itself as fake and imperialistic country as America.
But I’m willing to bet America is going first because leaders here have even less of a grip on reality. They try the same failed policies over and over again, imagining that this time the result will be different, even when the political system in America has been driving with the emergency brake on for my entire life. There’s no accountability and they know it.
Putin at least behaves in a fairly predictable way, meaning he can be beaten. An all-out assault on Ukraine was always a possibility, it would simply have been smarter given Ukraine’s resistance — which his intelligence people failed to predict — to go smaller and leave open the option of later expanded the war after gauging NATO’s response.
But winning dirty is a rational choice. Because as Israel has proven, once certain facts on the ground are changed through violence, rarely are original conditions restored without more — and if there’s no one left with the ability to resist, the invader wins by default.
Making a desert and calling it peace is one of the oldest strategies of the powerful in history. A Ukraine shattered and unprotected by NATO is Putin’s best option now, ensuring future confrontations with NATO will be limited to the region around Belarus, a more controlled and confined area where NATO bases are open to sudden overwhelming missile attacks.
Putin is not crazy — and if you think he is, he wins. All the crazy man has to do is shake his nuclear spear and America recoils in terror, despite America itself having done exactly that on multiple occasions in the Cold War.
So he draws even with his rival, gaining power in the process. And America’s craven, incompetent leaders aid him every step of the way.
Maybe, that’s what they wanted all along.