Would Vladimir Putin use a nuke?


Is Putin a rational actor?: We've been concerned about the possibility raised in this headline at New York magazine's Intelligencer site:

The West’s Sanctions on Russia Are Working Too Well

Are the sanctions working too well? At the end of his essay, Eric Levitz paints a gloomy picture, but it doesn't involve the type of gloomy possibilities we've been wondering about:

LEVITZ (3/7/22): Already stricken with high inflation before Putin’s invasion, the West will now see its energy costs explode. In Russia, the scale of devastation and disruption that awaits is difficult to comprehend. For some of the world’s poorest people, meanwhile, a sudden drop in wheat exports from Russia and Ukraine could very well mean starvation.

In drafting its sanctions, the West set out to wreck the Russian economy. At the moment, it appears to be succeeding beyond its wildest hopes (and/or fears).

People in Russia will suffer badly as Russia's economy tanks. Elsewhere, people may starve. 

In the West, we'll see our energy costs explode! But in this morning's New York Times, Thomas Friedman imagines an even more horrible possibility if the worldwide economic assault on Russia works a bit too well.

He says it once, then says it again. This is the possibility Friedman suggests we should imagine:

FRIEDMAN (3/7/22): We have already seen three “weapons” deployed in ways we’ve never seen before or not seen in a long time...These weapons might even prompt Putin to do the unthinkable with his nuclear arms...


There are two big dangers, though, with these innovations. If the economic nuclear bomb that the United States and its allies just detonated in Russia crushes its economy as quickly and deeply as I suspect it will, there is a danger, however remote, that Putin will go to greater, even unthinkable extremes, like launching a real nuclear weapon.

Two of the three "weapons" to which Friedman refers are economic weapons. In the course of a longer column, Friedman speculates, two separate times, that if the worldwide sanctions on Russia's economy work a bit too well, Putin could imaginably be driven to the use of nuclear weapons.

Is anything like that possible? We have no idea. We'll only say that Friedman raises the possibility twice—and there have been a lot of questions, in the past few weeks, as to whether Putin is still a rational actor.

Is Vladimir Putin a "rational actor?" We have no idea.

Is it possible that he has lost his grip on reality in some clinical way? We can't assess that possibility either. We can tell you this:

Since the run-up to this invasion, questions have been floating around about Putin's mental health. At the Intelligencer site, one early assessment started like this, straightforward headline included:

Is Putin sane?

The New York Times has broached the awkward question that has been on the minds of anyone who has paid even passing attention to Vladimir Putin recently: Has he lost his marbles? The Times reports that people have noticed that Putin “has fundamentally changed amid the pandemic, a shift that may have left him more paranoid, more aggrieved, and more reckless.”...

The brief assessment continued from there. For today, we'll note a point about the way such questions are pursued within the mainstream press, even in the case of widely reviled foreign leaders.

The headline on that brief essay is startlingly direct. Its language seems to be clinical. It seems to suggest the possibility that Putin could be dangerously "diagnosable" in some clinical way.

The headline seems straightforward. But right away, as the essay begins, Ryu Spaeth turns to the kind of funhouse language our journalist tends to employ when they discuss such possibilities.

Speath doesn't ask if Putin is actually mentally ill in some potentially dangerous way. Instead, he asks if Putin has "lost his marbles."

In the course of his short essay, Spaeth never quotes a medical or psychiatric specialist concerning Putin's possible mental state. His last paragraph starts like this:

SPAETH: No one can see into another person’s mind from afar, of course. And plenty of perfectly sane leaders, including our own, have made catastrophic foreign-policy decisions that, in retrospect, seem quite bonkers. But as the will-he-or-won’t-he predicament over Ukraine continues, the possibility that Putin is not playing with a full deck of cards at the very least robs the conflict of the narrative power that has been invested in it by those in the West who see it as a battle between the forces of good and evil...

Now we're imagining the possibility that Putin may not be "playing with a full deck of cards."

We've often discussed the way the mainstream press corps discussed, or rather refused to discuss, President Donald J. Trump's possible psychiatric state. Even when his niece, a clinical psychologist, discussed her uncle's alleged pathologies in straightforward clinical language, the press corps followed "the Goldwater rule" and refused to head down that path.

(As for the niece, she has now become a standard-issue "political" pundit.)

You'd think there would be fewer journalistic restraints in the case of a (widely reviled) foreign potentate. But the discussion of Putin's mental health has been conducted, when at all, in the same childish language which signals avoidance of the actual question. 

As an example, consider the way this question was broached last Monday night, on the Maddow Show. 

Over the weekend, Putin had said that he was placing his nuclear forces on high alert. Maddow started her discussion of this topic by saying this:

MADDOW (2/28/21): Is Putin's nuclear threat—is that just crazy talk? Or is it crazy talk that needs some kind of response?

Speaking of crazy, when U.S. intelligence and diplomatic sources expressed concern that Putin might actually have gone crazy, like he might be around the bend, how does that affect the world's realistic options in pushing him back right now?...

Right away, Maddow resorted to talk about "crazy talk," and to childish metaphor about "going around the bend." She spoke that night with Hillary Clinton, at one point asking this:

MADDOW: Madam Secretary, one of the things that's happened in recent days is that people who have spent time with Putin, who have sat across the table from him at negotiations and talks over the years say that, as much as they might have either disliked or thought that Putin was ruthless before, he seems different. He doesn't seem like himself. He seems like there might be something wrong with him, that he might be nuts. 

Putin might be nuts! In her response, Clinton was more adult:

CLINTON: Well, it's a difficult question to answer from afar, obviously.

I think the reports coming out suggest both his temperament, his paranoia seems to have increased dramatically. His vindictiveness, his dictatorial approach to the people around him, including his own military leadership, seems to have gone further and deeper than anybody had ever seen before. People have also suggested that, maybe physically, he's facing some health challenges.

I think it's important for leaders, intelligence agencies to get the best information they can. But ultimately, the people closest to Putin, those who have to deal with him, those who he's keeping at the end of 40-foot tables while he issues bizarre orders, they're the ones who need to act. They need to act for the good of Russia. They need to stop him.

Whether or not this has turned into some kind of physical or mental problems that he either had or has, in some way, come down with, we don't know, but his behavior is dangerous. And it's dangerous to the future of Russia.

Hillary Clinton isn't a medical specialist. To her credit, she stayed away from funhouse language as she suggested the possibility that Putin might be "facing some health challenge,"  "some kind of physical or mental problems."

That said, is it possible that Vladimir Putin is clinically dangerous in a way which might lead to otherwise unimaginable results?  This morning, Friedman suggests a possibility which rarely enters the public discussion as journalists watch the situation unfold—the possibility that "too much success" in countering Putin could produce a drastic response.

There may not be any way for American journalists to interview specialists who can offer helpful assessments of Putin's clinical state. It's also true that this isn't a game, and Putin isn't someone we're rooting against as a football game takes place.

He holds the world's largest store of nuclear weapons. Is there any chance, as events turn against him, that he could actually use them? 

Is Vladimir Putin a rational actor? Whether using his nukes or not, how far might he be willing to go if events turn against him?


  1. Yeah, with 78% (the last we checked) approval The Dark Lord Putin just has to be insane. Right, dear Bob?

    Any national leader with more than 40% approval (does BoJo have 22% now?) is a tyrant, and insane, and irrational; yeah, we get that.

    ...incidentally, we find it genuinely amazing that someone still reads Thomas Friedman. Meh, on the second thought, that's exactly what we would expect from dear Bob. You poor thing...

  2. "Hillary Clinton isn't a medical specialist. To her credit, she stayed away from funhouse language as she suggested the possibility that Putin might be "facing some health challenge," "some kind of physical or mental problems."

    And this is exactly the way Somerby should talk about Putin or Trump or anyone else exhibiting strange behavior.

    He could learn a lot from Clinton, someone he has never said a good word about.

  3. Somerby seems to think that if someone is mentally ill, that they cannot control their own behavior, that they have no knowledge of right and wrong, and that they have no responsibility for their own behavior. None of this follows automatically from the fact of mental illness. It takes a separate, clinical determination to say that Putin doesn't know what he is doing or cannot control what he is doing.

    It seems very predictable that Somerby, who excused Trump on the grounds of mental illness, is now saying the same things about Putin. If it were determined with 100% certainty that Putin is mentally ill, that wouldn't change a single thing about how "the West" should deal with him. It is fairly certain that both Stalin and Hitler were "mentally ill," but they still had to be opposed and stopped. You don't give in to evil simply because the person engaged in it is abnormal. If they were normal, they wouldn't be doing such things. "The West" is trying to stop Putin using the tools it has to deal with him.

  4. If Putin uses nuclear weapons, that will be on him, not the fault of those who are trying to stop him from behaving badly.

    It may be difficult to realize that we have little control over someone else with nuclear weapons, but that is our position. If he uses them, it won't be because we forced him to do it. It will be because he has chosen to do it.

    Surely even Friedman learned something from WWII and Hitler? It does not work to appease someone whose goal is to take over other countries until stopped, who has no self-restraint and will continue doing bad things to other people until someone stops him. Stopping such a person sooner rather than later is the way to minimize the damage done. Claiming that opposing Putin will make him use nukes is colluding with Putin.

    It is uncomfortable seeing grown men, with some intelligence, such as Friedman, so frightened that they will suggest untenable acts, such as letting Putin do what he wants without consequences because he might do something scary. Most of us liberals were frightened the entire time that Trump was in office, for fear he would try to stop a hurricane by nuking the eye, or send an F-22 to bomb Russia with a Chinese flag on it, to fool them into blaming China.

    Putin will do what he is going to do, and we must do the right thing to protect others from Putin's actions. But let's not be confused about who will be responsible if Putin decides to use nuclear weapons. It will be Putin to blame, not "the West."

    1. "If Putin uses nuclear weapons, that will be on him...."

      Nitwit remark of the year.

  5. The logic Somerby uses here is very similar to that found in domestic violence situations. When a violent man harms a woman, it is because she forced him into it by her failure to please him. That sounds dangerously close to Somerby's hints that if we impose sanctions on Putin for being a bad guy, we will have caused him to do something violent and we will be to blame, not Putin himself. Violent people only respect strength. Behaving in an appeasing manner will increase Putin's sense that he can do whatever he wishes and it will increase his contempt for those opposing him. He will feel less restraint, not more restraint, if no one stands up to him for his current wrongdoing.

    Did Trump behave better when everyone rolled over for him? Of course not. And Putin is little different, no matter how crazy Somerby suggests he may be.

    1. How often do you see women form a strategy that the husband should beat their neighbor to unite the neighborhood against him?

      "An invasion would be a diplomatic, economic and military mistake for Putin. Let him make it if he must."


    2. More often, the man threatens to beat or even kill the children in order to control the woman.

      Friedman and Somerby are talking about nukes, not just invasion. That is like a domestic violence equivalent of murder-suicide, which does happen in families usually because of depression and desperation, not craziness.

    3. I'll believe the public record over your college psychology class. I think you could put more effort into reading. It's not clear from your reply that you do.

    4. What public record are you talking about?

    5. I quoted the wall Street journal, and here's the new York times to boot.

      "A Russian incursion into Ukraine could, in a perverse way, save the current European order. NATO would have no choice but to respond assertively, bringing in stiff sanctions and acting in decisive unity. By hardening the conflict, Mr. Putin could cohere his opponents"

      Here's something I wouldn't say to any battered women:

      "Today, geopolitical strength is determined not by how much economic power you can wield, but by how much pain you can endure. "

      Read my rephrase of this strategy above again about showing your neighborhood how dangerous your husband is by letting him beat the crap out of your neighbor's wife.


  6. It was astute of Clinton to mention that the main victims of Putin's actions are the Russian people themselves.

  7. Who benefits from Somerby's attempts to scare us? Are members of the left in the US going around warning that Putin is a madman with a lot of nukes, so we'd better watch out? Or is this how the right tries to coerce the left into leaving Putin alone? Or perhaps Somerby wants to suggest that we would be better off with Putin's good-buddy Trump back in office, so he won't nuke us all to hell. If this sounds like blackmail, I think it is. Special question for AC/MA, what is Somerby doing by trying to get the west to lighten up on Putin in case he goes irrational and nukes someone? Is this the way liberals approach the Ukraine invasion?

  8. Being crazy is an asset when negotiating. It would be a reasonable tactic for Putin to feign being the kind of person who might start a nuclear war. How can an outsider figure out whether Putin is crazy or just pretending?

    Second point: Someone from a different culture may appear crazy to us, when he's actually just different.

  9. His behavior makes sense if the reports that he's taking steroids are true! Typical, "roid rage."

  10. Putin is as sane as the people who brought us Korea, Vietnam, Iran-Contra, Nicaragua, and Iraq.

    1. Exactly. In a democracy people should hold their own leaders to account.