Don't make war in Ukraine about Putin’s mental health

12 March 2022

12:05 AM

12 March 2022

12:05 AM

There was a time when supposedly serious commentators on world affairs used to at least feign historical knowledge. They might quote Bismarck or Castlereagh. Now, international relations punditry, like almost everything else, has succumbed to the language of pop psychology.

Vladimir Putin is ‘gaslighting’ the Russian people, we are told, motivated by his ‘hypermasculinity’. His invasion of Ukraine is, according to one commentator on Radio 4 this morning, ‘unforgivable abuse’. I thought abuse meant kicking a dog or being cruel to a partner. Now it means starting a war. It’s almost as though we’re unable to think of Putin as anything other than a nasty contestant on reality TV.

Take Vanity Fair’s explanation of ‘the psychology behind Putin’s war’. The Russian leader is, apparently, ‘a small man of five-six saying he’s five-seven’. Ah, of course. He’s just like your BFF’s horrible boyfriend. Grand strategy, Nato expansionism, a vision of a greater Russia – these are as nothing compared to the insight that he might not have been loved as a child.

Where once we might have talked about an ‘information war’ or ‘propaganda’, now the man in charge of the Kremlin is simply another toxic male. ‘This playbook of bullying and domination is well known to those who study sexual and interpersonal violence,’ huffed one recent Ukraine op-ed.

Sadly such talk isn’t confined to self-obsessed social media types. The US secretary of state Anthony Blinken recently said that Putin is ‘gaslighting the world’. The hope is that he’s dumbing it down for our benefit. But given the US armed forces now see themselves as the military wing of girlboss ideology, I’m not so sure.

The problem with all of this language – the type of talk you see on chat rooms rather than at Chatham House – is that it reduces a potentially civilisation-ending conflict to utter banality. International affairs is only understood in the cod-Freudian terms we use to understand personal relationships. Now we’re told, in all seriousness, that Putin’s issue is that he ‘refuses to show vulnerability’. It’s not militarism, stupid, it’s the patriarchy.

Making the war in Ukraine about Putin’s mental health says far more about us than it does about Russia’s leader. Feelings are all that matter, not reason or understanding. Gone are geopolitical concerns, resource competition or territorial disputes. It’s all about sexuality and childhood.

This is in many ways a consequence of the internet. But it also has something to do with the nature of life in an advanced, prosperous society. In truth, few of us have many real problems. So instead we problematise everything and everyone. An interaction wasn’t awkward; you’ve got anxiety. That person wasn’t rude; they have psychological issues.

The hope might have been that plague and war – both of which we’ve now experienced first-hand – would shake us out of endless introspection. But the opposite seems to be happening: we see everything through the prism of therapeutic understanding.

That’s why we have commentators telling us to ‘look after ourselves’ because watching a war unfold on social media is ‘very stressful’. The sane reaction is to roll your eyes. But maybe, for some of our fellow citizens at least, reading the news really is cause for self-care. Our lives are so coddled that a few horrible pictures really do disturb us deeply. The problem, of course, is that Putin doesn’t think like that. He thinks we in the West are weak and decadent. Perhaps he has a point.

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