After Russia occupied Crimea in 2014, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly told President Obama that she was unsure if Vladimir Putin was “in touch with reality,” and that he seemed to be “living in another world.” This was an unusually frank assessment from Merkel, and to many it suggested she believed Putin was exhibiting signs of insanity. Strategic analysts rushed to point out that Putin was merely fulfilling his vision of Russian nationalism, and however warped and belligerent that worldview might be, it was not a symptom of any mental instability. Likewise, that his aggressive stance toward Ukraine at the time was rooted in his perception that “for hundreds of years, Ukraine was part of the Tsarist and Stalinist empires, and it will remain in Russia’s sphere of influence.” Thus, while possibly erratic and even irrational to Western eyes, Putin’s actions were explainable.
And all of that is undoubtedly true. But as the full-scale invasion of Ukraine has unfolded the sheer counter-intuitiveness and folly of Putin’s strategy—to forcefully subdue a nation of 44 million as a prelude to renewing Russian hegemony over the entire former Eastern bloc—has once again prompted many to question his mental state, some suggesting that the enforced isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has warped his perception of what could realistically be accomplished by that invasion.
As reported by Eric Levitz, writing for New York Magazine, for example:
Western officials who interacted with Putin before and after COVID’s onset have almost invariably reported a change in his demeanor. After conducting five hours of talks with the Russian leader last month, Macron suggested that Putin was not the same man he had met at Elysée palace in December 2019.
Bernard Guetta, a member of the European Parliament who accompanied Macron in Moscow, said on French radio afterward, “I think this man is losing his sense of reality, to say it politely.”
“All our Russia-watchers, watching his press conferences, think that he’s descending even more into a despotic mindset,” a European diplomat told the Guardian in late February.
I suggest a more prosaic hypothesis is more likely, one which has less to do with any organic, cognitive deterioration and more to do with something we have all seen occur in spades in this country, most acutely over the past five years. I suggest that what’s animating Putin is the same thing that animates millions of Americans to readily accept the irrational proposition that the 2020 election was fraudulent and stolen; that Donald Trump’s disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic was somehow justifiable enough to warrant voting for him again; and that more-or-less routine and logical measures by the Biden administration to vaccinate and protect the American people are sparked by some nefarious, tyrannical intent.
Putin has simply brainwashed himself. He is a victim of his own relentless, propaganda, just like your seemingly irrational uncle or brother-in-law who, addicted to a diet of Fox News and right-wing social media, has simply abandoned reality as it exists in favor of his own prejudices and predispositions. Just like that uncle, aunt, or brother-in-law, Putin has reduced his social and political circles to the point where the only people he has contact with are those who agree with him. And just like those addled millions in our own country he will continue to double-down on his propaganda because that is what self-deluded people do. Their own identity is so wrapped up, so committed to their belief system that they cannot fathom its destructiveness to their own interests.
This is not a novel theory; Putin’s isolation—his retreat into a bubble of increasingly paranoiac statements as the war’s glaring failures and miscues become evident—is dramatically emphasized in each scripted photo-op with his sycophantic advisers. His delivery of pathetically rote accusations attributing Ukraine’s self-defensive actions to the work of “Neo-Nazis” and “drug addicts” are the same general types of tropes Fox News and the right-wing metaverse employ to describe supposedly “degenerate” (i.e. Democratic) opponents of their agenda. But beyond the visual cues, as he doubles and triples-down on his ill-conceived war, his behavior is identical to those MAGA aficionados and anti-vaxxers in this country who, faced with objective arguments against their behavior, will march right off a cliff rather than admitting they were wrong. It’s the reason anti-vaccine proponents spend their last breaths denying the existence of COVID-19 even as they’re being intubated just before death.
By any measure Putin’s war on Ukraine has proved to be irrational. In fact it’s becoming more and more irrational and self-destructive with each passing day. Just as your ornery, Fox News-spewing uncle alienates the rest of his family, Putin has (probably permanently) made not only himself but his entire nation a pariah, subject not only to brutal, life-altering sanctions long into the foreseeable future but achieving the exact opposite of his original intentions by reconstituting (and likely expanding) NATO, with every misstep and weakness of the Russian armed forces being studiously scrutinized and catalogued by the U.S. and its allies. As Levitz points out, he has even accelerated the efforts of European nations to wean themselves of his oil leverage, which is really the only card he has aside from his armed forces. Unable to achieve his goals through any legitimate means, he has resorted to threatening brute force, seemingly oblivious to the disastrous consequences to himself and his nation.
It’s the same magical thinking, this perception of invincibility, that informs thousands of people to attack their congressional representatives by storming the U.S. Capitol, and film themselves while doing it. The same thinking that prompts millions of Americans to disregard their personal health and even their children’s health in furtherance of an overwhelming impulse not to be proved wrong about a deadly pandemic: to “own the libs,” in popular parlance. Except in In Putin’s case he’s relied upon addled, mystical notions of Russo-Christian fascism in order to justify “owning the West.”
As Levitz observes, “To look at these results and conclude that it would be wise and achievable to conquer every inch of Ukrainian territory, dissolve the nation’s military, and impose a puppet government is madness.” But much as it does with the MAGA, QAnon and anti-vaxxer ranks in this country, the “madness” driving Putin has no remedy, it simply devolves into further, more virulent forms, searching for a solution that becomes objectively less and less attainable.