MONDAY, MARCH 7, 2022
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?