It doesn’t matter if Putin is mad

20 March 2022

8:00 PM

20 March 2022

8:00 PM

Mike Tyson put it simply: ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth’. And Vladimir Putin has just experienced a blistering one-two: fierce resistance on the battlefield, trashing his plans for blitzkrieg, followed by the rabbit punch of international sanctions that will soon rock the whole of Russian society.

‘Putinism’ is not an ideology that can command intellectual or spiritual loyalty if it doesn’t deliver. It is not an ‘ism’ like Marxism. It is simply a Mephistophelean deal with the Russian people: if I can have double-glazing and a half-decent smartphone, you can have yachts and palaces. That deal is now off the table.

People may not be taking to the streets, but that’s in part because they’re standing in queues at Ikea and Uniqlo to grab worldly goods before the shutters come down for a very long time. (We shouldn’t be smug: many of us would do exactly the same.)

A few brave souls have demonstrated and many of them were arrested. People may yet come out and demonstrate in greater numbers, since appeals to beardy Slav messianism will be a poor exchange for the catastrophic collapse in living standards that has begun. ‘The Iranian reality’, as one Russian economist put it to me, economically. Yet Putin, bloodied, persists.

Is he mad to do so? And what apocalyptic chain of events might he set in motion if he is indeed unhinged?

‘Putin’s yebanutii – fucked in the head’ said Boris Nemtsov eight years ago. He was the leading opposition politician of the day, and was also as it happens commenting on Ukrainian affairs. Specifically, the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

He was shot dead less than a year later in full view of the Kremlin. Nemtsov’s blunt psychiatric assessment may have cost him his life: Putin is said to take umbrage.

By contrast, it costs journalists in the west nothing except virtual typewriter ribbon to speculate on the former KGB man’s state of mind. And so of course they do.

But while (if you have no skin in the game) it may be fun to indulge in psychohistory, the pursuit is ultimately an unsound pastime. For one thing, as someone schooled in the brutal 1990s world of mafia ‘negotiations’, Putin knows that the pretence of being deranged – an ‘otmorozok’, frozen to the soul, in Russian – is itself a fully rational tactic. Maybe he’s just putting it on?

So a more important thought may be this: if Putin had not existed, modern Russia would have created him. If Putin were to be deposed, someone equally depraved and paranoid may take his place at the far end of those absurdly long Kremlin meeting tables. Putin the man is contingent. Putin the phenomenon was inevitable.

When Putin was elevated to power at the dusk of the Yeltsin years, a former military officer told me never to forget that the man was and would remain merely a colonel among generals. His reign would be wholly on sufferance. The moment at which he was no longer useful would be the moment at which he would meet a fate similar to those he has ruthlessly seen off. Falling from a balcony. A phial of Novichok.

And there could be plenty of characters watching carefully in the grand halls of the Kremlin. The meeting of the Security Council immediately before the invasion, at which Putin leeringly humiliated his closest allies, may have given pause for thought to several. After all, even crooks and KGB veterans would prefer to be seen as heroes by their grandchildren.

A well-regarded analyst quotes a Russian aphorism: how do you get off a submarine? The implication being that Putin’s entourage are too closely bound to him to jettison their captain. It’s a clever metaphor. But one might equally choose a different one, and suggest the pressure to abandon ship is now compelling.

The Kremlin is not a monolith – it has many towers, as they say locally. Our convenient shorthand for ‘the people who run Russia’ fails to capture the many factions fighting like bulldogs under a rug. That fight is surely visceral today, however heavy the carpet and indistinct the movements beneath.

Putin’s mental health may of course be among the considerations for those close to him – inward looking hard men, and the outward, international looking ones – as they assess how best to secure their interests. For the true believers, Putin’s claim to have raised the country from its knees will be threadbare if Mother Russia suffers. While for the gangsters who depend on integration with the wider world to grow and park their wealth, ‘you can’t spread patriotism on your bread’, is how one Russian saying has been adapted.

It’s absurd to pretend to know with any confidence the probable outcome of this struggle in advance. One assumes that for all the official braggadocio about creating smartphones to rival Apple, or cars worth paying for and driving off the forecourt, the overwhelming majority of Russians know that the country’s future lies not in glacial Soviet isolation. At a certain moment, that may mean that the inward-looking old men (and they’re mostly men) are toppled.

But this would be an unsatisfactory outcome for the the rest of the world. Assuming that the shuffling off of Putin – or his prompt murder – would be a significant inflection misreads centuries of Russian history and the ceaseless seizure of the country by self-appointed cabals of secret policemen. Whoever follows Putin, if that person is from the security services, or backed by them, would mean going back to square one.

It is precisely for this reason that speculation about whether ‘Vlad is mad’ is beside the point. If he is, he’ll be replaced. If he’s not mad, it seems quite possible he’ll be replaced anyway. And then what?

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a proper recalibration of Russia’s relationship with the world depends not on the fate of one man but on unequivocal military failure. If not now, then the bleak implication is that such a vanquishing must come later – and probably at even greater cost in lives and ruinous misery.

The evidence for this is abundant: the Crimean war, the Russo-Japanese war and the first world war catalysed overwhelming change in the country as a consequence of catastrophic loss. Not always for the good, of course.

Which is why if such defeat comes to pass again, the crucial question will then be one of redemption. It must be sought and initiated within the country, by Russians themselves, with a process of truth-seeking like that which followed the crushing of Nazi Germany.

And this in turn must be met not by more punishment, but by wise and generous support from those who would sooner, for everyone’s sake, have Russia comfortable in its skin than picking in perpetuity at scabs both ancient and horrifically modern.

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