By Ben Luongo
As Putin’s deadly incursion into Ukraine rages on, the public is looking for answers as to why he would launch an unprovoked attack on a neighboring country. To many in the media and foreign policy establishment, this is a sign that there is something wrong with Putin’s state of mind. Over the past week, members of the U.S. intelligence community have appeared on major news-networks to cast doubts on Putin’s mental stability. For instance, America’s former Russian ambassador Michael McFaul on MSNBC said that Putin was “increasingly unhinged”. Former director of U.S. National Intelligence James Clapper echoed the same sentiments later on CNN saying that he’s worried about his “acuity and balance.” Former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice stated on Fox News that he “seemed erratic.” In general, many in the government are now painting Putin as an “irrational actor.”
Make no mistake – Putin’s incursion into Ukraine is horrific and illegal, and it should be condemned in every way. However, there are serious dangers in prematurely painting Putin as irrational. Doing so may prompt the U.S. to employ unnecessarily aggressive tactics that would only make the situation even worse. And while it may seem like Putin’s decision to invade is proof of his instability, it actually adheres to the logic of balance-of-power politics (albeit in a brutal and inhumane way). In reality, concerns regarding Putin’s state of mind ignore how his actions fit within a larger historical context of Russia’s perceived threat of NATO enlargement.
Importantly, Putin’s security concerns regarding NATO implicates America’s role in creating the underlying conditions that set this crisis in motion. U.S. efforts to enlarge NATO failed to grasp the real security concerns expressed by a rival superpower able and willing to retaliate in a violent way. This blind-spot reflects America’s own distorted understanding of the history following the Cold War and the fantasies we told ourselves of America’s liberal hegemony. In this sense, claims by U.S. officials that Putin has lost his grip on reality actually project America’s own delusions regarding its unique place in a post-Cold War era.
Putin’s Balance of Power Politics
Putin’s motivations can best be understood against the backdrop of NATO enlargement following the end of the Cold War. Russia no longer posed a real a security threat following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, yet the west continued to break Eastern Europe away from Russia’s orbit as if it did. This has largely been done through American efforts to expand NATO, a military alliance designed specifically for combatting a Soviet threat that no longer existed. Since that time, NATO has expanded all the way up to Russia’s borders, a development that not only betrays an assurance that James Baker made to Gorbachev in 1990, but also one that can reasonably be understood as national security threat to Russia.
This came to a head with recent efforts to incorporate Ukraine into NATO, a move that most Westerners justify by saying that Ukraine has the sovereign right to join. However, this reflects a grave misunderstanding of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘state rights.’ No nation has a sovereign right to join a military alliance. NATO’s “open door policy” is an invitation to apply, not a guarantee of acceptance. Article 10 of the NATO treaty makes this quite clear that admission is based on the unanimous consent of its current members, who have the right to reject any applicant. And we have known for a while that Ukraine was unlikely to be welcomed into the organization.
Additionally, sovereignty implies limits and responsibilities; your status as a sovereign state does not allow you to threaten the national security of another. This is exactly the grievance that Russia made about NATO. Imagine if Russia never dissolved the Warsaw Pact but, instead, worked to incorporate our Canadian and Mexican neighbors into their military alliance. In fact, we can point to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 as a relevant historical example. Kennedy fought against Khrushchev installing Soviet ballistic missiles in a country on America’s doorstep, and for good reason! If that moment of history were today, Americans would have a very different perspective about military alliances having an “open door policy.”
Anchored in the appropriate historical context, Putin’s anxiety regarding NATO make sense, and it is consistent with his military actions for past two decades. For instance, Russia’s 2008 invasion into Georgia was not an erratic act of lunacy. Rather, Putin launched the attack after the Bucharest Summit publicly declared Western efforts to incorporate Georgia into NATO. Additionally, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 wasn’t the whim of a madman. Instead, it served as a direct response to reports of U.S. involvement in the overthrow of Ukraine’s government. Each of his military maneuvers have served as a direct response to NATO enlargement and, while they have often been bloody and illegal, they nevertheless express an understanding of the imperatives involved in self-defense.
One may argue that Putin’s incursion into Ukraine is comparatively different. His interventions in 2008 and 2014 pursued realistic objectives and demonstrated military restraint, which makes his full-scale assault on Ukraine today seems impulsive and unachievable. Again, this mischaracterizes the invasion as a mad dash for power. On the contrary, this has been carefully planned, maybe even as far back as March of 2021, and Putin patiently waited to attack until he heard assurances from the West that they would not intervene. Joe Biden repeatedly said that he would not directly involve the U.S. military, which gave Putin exactly what he wanted to hear. He invaded just a week after that.
Ultimately, Putin’s attack on Ukraine remains consistent with his previous responses to NATO enlargement. Claims that he has lost his grip of reality fail to recognize how his actions fit strategically within a larger balance-of-power game that he has played since taking office.
America’s Delusions of Liberal Hegemony
It’s worth repeating that there is no justification for Putin’s invasion. It’s criminal, brutal, and reprehensible. However, he in not irrational or unstable, and there is a danger in claiming that he is. Painting a leader as irrational implies that they no longer understand the limits of their power or recognize the costs of risky behavior and, therefore, they pose a direct and imminent threat. Because there is no way to reason with them, the only course of action requires a preemptive use of force. Such narratives, however, serve often more as a political tool to exaggerate a threat that doesn’t yet exist or justify a military action that would otherwise be unnecessary.
American foreign policy is rife with examples of painting others as irrational in order to justify military action. Our 2003 incursion in Iraq, the 2011 NATO intervention into Libya, and American military efforts in Syria were all based on the idea of their leaders being irrational. Attempts to escalate tensions with Iran and North Korea often relied on making the same arguments. This demonstrates an unfortunate politics of rationality – the term serves as pretext for the use of military force, and the U.S. has unfortunately had the power to define it in a way that serves its interests.
That’s why painting Putin as irrational poses such a danger. The assumption that Putin is no longer stable could lead many to view him as a direct threat to the United States or a NATO ally (and there is simply no evidence that Putin plans – let alone has the capability – to extend his military operation beyond Ukraine). Yet, the worry that Putin is “unhinged” will likely pressure Biden to involve the U.S. in a more direct way, which could inadvertently launch an armed conflict between the U.S. and Russia, two countries who own 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons.
In reality, suspicions of Putin instability reflect our own distorted view of reality – a view based on the myth of America’s unique role in the world. The U.S. enjoyed a unipolar moment following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it saw its unrivaled status as a responsibility to spread the liberal values that helped end the Cold War. This gave birth to a quintessentially idealistic foreign policy aimed to shape the world in America’s image, and it was justified upon stories about an exceptional America whose presence in international affairs played an indispensable role in maintaining peace and stability.
However, these are nothing more than fantasies which prevent us from recognizing how our interventionist foreign policy has often done more to undermine the liberal ideals we claim to protect (one has only to consider our failed wars,attempted coups, backing of dictators and terrorists, countless human rights violations, etc.). Lacking the ability to understand the limitations of our own power reflects a type of delusion that we disingenuously project onto Putin, and NATO enlargement illustrates precisely this point. NATO grew to what it is today primarily through U.S. efforts to expand its own ideals across Europe, despite Putin expressing his concerns for the past 20 years. It reflects a complete denial of reality to assume that expanding NATO all the way up to Russia’s border would go unchallenged. We lost our grip of reality a long time ago, and casting Putin as irrational is merely a projection of our own delusions.
We need to stop and understand the negative consequences of our actions before we escalate the crisis beyond anyone’s control. This is especially true knowing that prospective actions taking in Ukraine may be inviting nuclear war. If the U.S. wants to aid Ukraine, we need to first come to accept how delusions of liberal hegemony set the crisis in motion.
Ben Luongo teaches international relations at University of South Florida’s School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies.