Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.
Watching Vladimir Putin last week at his year-end press conference, one is tempted to ask whether the Russian president has gone mad.
Here is a man leading a country that in the last few months has amassed tens of thousands of soldiers and advanced military equipment on Ukraine’s border, now asserting that it is Ukraine which is planning an invasion of Russia. Putin claimed (without evidence) that the U.S. intends to arm Ukraine with hypersonic missiles. “They just have to understand that we have nowhere left to retreat,” Putin said.
Peter Pomerantsev, the author of the 2014 book “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” on the nature of Russian disinformation, told me that Putin sometimes deliberately acts crazy as a way to gain leverage with his adversaries. Launching a new war against Ukraine would indeed be risky for Russia, in part because Ukraine’s own military is better than it was in 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea. Russia would also risk even more devastating sanctions if it moved forward.
Sometimes this tactic is known as “the madman theory.” Former U.S. President Richard Nixon is said to have wanted geopolitical rivals such as the Soviet Union and China to believe he was volatile and unpredictable as a hedge against provocations from adversaries. Is Putin now doing the same thing?
It’s impossible to get inside the Russian leader’s head. But Putin’s brinksmanship has already paid modest dividends. President Joe Biden has offered diplomatic off-ramps to Putin, such as a NATO-Russia summit and high-level bilateral meetings to explore ways to ease tensions and address Russia’s security concerns with NATO and Ukraine.
Biden’s intention here is to prevent a catastrophic war. But his response has also emboldened Putin’s regime. Just consider Russia’s list of demands earlier this month to the U.S. and Europe. Putin’s diplomats are now asking for a treaty commitment to end any further expansion of NATO and to remove advanced weapons from NATO members that border Russia.
Instead of publicly ruling out such concessions, the Biden administration has spoken vaguely about the Russia proposal. A senior administration official on Thursday said some of the Russian proposals “we will never agree to,” while others may be the basis for negotiations. But the official declined to specify which proposals were unacceptable.
Further bolstering the case that Putin is only pretending to lose touch with reality is that his demands are consistent with what he has been saying for nearly 15 years. In a 2007 speech in Munich, Putin argued that Russia was promised that, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, NATO would not expand to Eastern Europe. This history is debatable. What is not debatable is that large majorities in countries that were once under the sway of the Soviet Union favored joining the NATO alliance. Putin’s proposal ignored the right to self determination of Poles, Latvians and others.
Nonetheless, Putin’s 2007 speech telegraphed his foreign policy. The following year, Russian forces invaded the republic of Georgia and to this day occupy two of its provinces. In 2014, Putin invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. In 2015, Russia entered the Syrian civil war and saved the dictator’s regime.
So does Putin really believe that the country whose territory he has annexed is the real aggressor? Probably not. Does he really believe the U.S. would provide Ukraine with some of its most advanced military technology? Again, probably not.
But Putin clearly benefits from the perception that he is volatile enough to make good on his latest threats. If Biden believed Putin was rational, he would likely call Putin’s bluff. Instead, he is attempting to coax Putin into defusing a crisis that the Russian leader himself has created.