Is Putin crazy? Maybe, but he is certainly surprised

In the past two weeks, I have heard people argue that Putin has lost his mind, that his Covid isolation has warped his mind and that perhaps he is dying and wants to leave with a bang. While these conjectures may be true, I prefer to first analyze this from a “rational actor” point of view. This is natural for me for two reasons: I am an economist and I was a colleague of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita for many years. Before we deem Putin “irrational” let’s consider what a “rational” Putin could be thinking.

Putin may have thought last fall that this was a good time to move against Ukraine. He may have viewed the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as a sign of weakness, and also have concluded that Biden was in a weak position politically. Angela Merkel was leaving and was eventually replaced by Scholz from the Social Democratic Party. Putin likely remembered that the last SPD chancellor was Schroder, who has many close ties with Russia and worked to make Germany dependent on Russian natural gas. Putin may have thought that NATO was weak and dispirited after four years of Trump’s insults. Putin also had spent considerable resources on modernizing the Russian military and was not impressed with the Ukraine military. He did not want to embarrass his buddy in China, so he waited until the Winter Olympics were over. Late February, 2022, may have seemed like a good time to move.

Over the past two weeks, we have been surprised. We have been surprised by the abilities of the Ukrainians in blocking Russian advances. We have also been surprised by stories of Russian military incompetence. Some of the stories remind me of the Cold War aspects of the Soviet military. The Soviet military was one where decisionmaking was concentrated in the hands of a few officers. In contrast, the German/American/Israeli model is to train everyone and give autonomy to those in the field. Teddy Roosevelt Jr.’s actions at the Utah beach on D-Day is a great example. Russian weapons systems are built around this organizational structure, a fact which lead to the Israeli hammering of the Syrian Air Force in 1982. It appears that Russia still has not learned how to fight a modern war.

We have been surprised by the fast response of the West in imposing economic sanctions. NATO unity has exceeded our expectations. This is a case where American leadership can be successful if it treats its allies with respect. There are many things, such as SWIFT, which we do not directly control. We succeeded in convincing the owners of SWIFT to cooperate without resorting to nasty rhetoric.

Of course, the biggest shock is the response of Germany. The new pipeline appears to be dead, and Germany is now willing to send weapons to Ukraine. There is even talk of Germany reversing it anti-nuclear policies. I have always argued that the only way we can have a stable, strong Central Europe is for there to be a strong German military. One friend told me that idea scared her, so I reminded her that there is a strong American thumb which will keep any German military in check.

If we have been shocked by these developments, just think how surprised Putin is. Any rational person who starts a war knows that some things will not go the way he expects. However, nothing has gone as Putin expected. If Putin is at all rational, he will have to reconsider his decision.

Even the most rational actor needs time to figure out his response to a challenging situation. In the short run, he will continue to fight this war in the same way that Russians fight wars. Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, is an example of how Putin fights wars. He might hope that Ukrainian opposition will fold or that he can replace the Ukrainian government, but I don’t think that will happen. He also will have to realize that while his soldiers can move into cities, the Ukrainians will make life miserable for them. I am very worried about this possibility because the rules of war do not apply to anyone who is not wearing a military uniform while attacking a Russian soldier. I suspect this is a detail that Russian soldiers have been taught.

There are some surprising developments within Russia. Some oligarchs have criticized Putin, and there are demonstrations against this war. Putin has shut down media outlets he does not control, but it seems that information is getting into and coming out of Russia. I have seen videos of demonstrators grabbed and beaten by police, but I have not seen any reports of police shooting demonstrators.

Putin is not omnipotent. We need to look at the actions of other authorities in Russia. If I were a Russian police commander but did not like this war, I would tell my policeman to beat some demonstrators (because my superior demands that) but I would emphasize that killing a demonstrator would be a stain on Russia. I would tell the demonstrators’ leaders that I would not tolerate any potentially lethal attack on police. I would then hope that these leaders understand my actions. I would calibrate my men’s actions so that my superior sees victims of beatings but I would not want the beatings to be so severe that demonstrators stay home. This kind of communication takes time but if carefully managed by demonstrators and the police, could lead to massive demonstrations. This kind of behavior was seen in Communist countries just before the collapse in 1989.

At the same time, I hope more oligarchs express their unhappiness. These are corrupt, greedy, selfish people and that is to our advantage. They are not ideologues devoted to some outdated notion of historical Russia. They like the good life, and Putin is messing that up.

Another ally will soon arrive to help Ukraine. Springtime in Ukraine means mud, lots of the kind of mud that makes it difficult for tanks to move.

I think we need to be patient and allow time for Putin and others in Russia to react rationally to the evolving situation in Ukraine. It will be painful watching so many Ukrainians die this Spring, but our goal should not be minimizing deaths this Spring, but the cost of this war during all of 2022. Some argue for actions such as a no-fly zone over Ukraine, an action which would create a great deal of risk. That is an option, but one which we should keep in our picket. It is best to wait for the slow learning process in Russia to take its course and hopefully lead to an end to this war.

I must mention one more, and perhaps the biggest, shock: Switzerland! Wow! You know you have messed up when the Swiss are against you!!!

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