Putin’s rationality debated

By Jeff Schubert

John J. Mearsheimer has written an article, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault”, for “Foreign Affairs” magazine. I essentially agree, however, the article contains the following three quite important comments that I would take issue with:

(1) “In March, according to The New York Times, German Chancellor Angela Merkel implied that Putin was irrational, telling Obama that he was ‘in another world’. Although Putin no doubt has autocratic tendencies, no evidence supports the charge that he is mentally unbalanced. On the contrary: he is a first-class strategist who should be feared and respected by anyone challenging him on foreign policy.”
(2) “Russia is a declining power, and it will only get weaker with time.”
(3) “The United States will also someday need Russia’s help containing a rising China.”

Why are these comments questionable?

(1) Putin is  either “irrational / mentally unbalanced” or a “first-class strategist”?

Putin is not “mentally unbalanced”. However, he will be “irrational” to the extent that his decisions will often be adversely affected by his extended time in power, which will have affected his thinking and ensured that his lieutenants and advisers will lack genuine independent thought and/or be loath to disagree with him. And, then there is his reading habits. See my November 2011 article on “Putin’s dangerous reading”


If Putin were a “first-class strategist” (like, say Bismarck) he would have stopped after taking Crimea, and Russia would have gained more in terms of security than it lost in terms of a relatively temporary negative effect on the economy. But, by over-playing his hand (in an “irrational” way, in my view) Putin is doing significant direct and indirect (through the effect of sanctions) damage to the Russian economy. Putin’s great strength is taking advantage of the stupidity of others (be it the authorities in Kiev, or the US).


(2) “Russia is a declining power, and it will only get weaker with time.”

I keep reading this, although I suspect that very few people who put this view know much about the detailed workings of the Russian economy other than it is very commodity dependent and has significant demographic problems. However, in many ways the Russian economy now has many features similar to successful economies such as Australia (which also has a significant, although less, dependency on commodities). Having said this, there is much that could be improved in the medium term and very significant gains in Russian GDP per capita obtained. See my articles on Russian economic reform to get a professional view of the Russian economy


(3) “The United States will also someday need Russia’s help containing a rising China.”

This comment implies that the US will repeat its Russian “containment” mistakes when dealing with China. This, in my view, would be a an even bigger mistake.

About Jeff Schubert

Jeff has studied the motivation of leaders deeply. He writes regularly for Leaders we deserve. You can read more of his work on his blog site.

2 Responses to Putin’s rationality debated

  1. Edward Spalton says:

    One thing which distinguishes Russia from the West is the tremendous revival of the Russian Orthodox Church which has coincided with the rapid abandonment of Christianity by the West’s leadership classes. The Churches ( in the UK at any rate) have generally turned into a parody of their former selves with belief systems around increased state welfare provision, environmentalism (based on man-made global warming, supposedly caused by wicked capitalism), the politics of sexual equality etc.

    The Orthodox Churches appear to be much less influenced by these fads. Putin appears to see Orthodoxy as a large part of Russian identity – holding firm against the new, secular, Western heresies ( and against Papism) as well as a bulwark against the extreme manifestations of Islam. It should not be forgotten that the rivalries in Ukraine are also marked with religious differences between Orthodoxy ( from Moscow) and Uniates ( who appear outwardly Orthodox to a Western eyes but are in communion with Rome)

    So there is a distinct ” otherness” , which the West finds hard to cope with. A Serbian Orthodox friend described the Western response as ” Pravo Slavo Phobia” ( a fear and hatred of Orthodox Slavs).
    At its lowest common denominator ( in the USA), he thought it hinged on these factors.
    These guys were all commies, right?
    They are not Catholics, not Protestant, so what the hell are they?
    They use a real funny alphabet.
    So I guess they are just kinda weird.

    I think quite a lot of this is projected into more sophisticated thinking about a Russia in general and Putin in particular.

    The late Sir Alfred Sherman ( of Russian/Jewish descent) was credited with being the creator of Thatcherism. He had been a communist in his early life – a real one, a machine gunner in the International Brigade. He went as a sympathetic newspaper correspondent to communist Yugoslavia, saw the system didn’t work and completely changed his mind. A friend, who knew him better than I did, said that a Sir Alfred believed that Christianity would be a liberating force for the Russian people and bring them close to the West eventually.
    But, I do not think he had taken full account of the collapse of Christianity in the West. Our leaders of opinion today are not just secularist but deeply hostile to Christianity. You only have to compare the coverage given to the unfortunate Muslims of Gaza and the fate of Christians elsewhere in the Middle East to realise that Christians are largely invisible here.

    So I think there is a Kulturkampf going on here which is additional to the geopolitical/military struggle . This is colouring the way in which Putin and Russia are portrayed.

  2. Edward Spalton says:

    Many thanks for the compliment. In my capacity as Secretary of the Campaign for an Independent Britain I am involved with a series of problem solving workshops at the moment – on how to disengage from the EU . See our website
    http://www.camapignforanindependentbritain.com for details of the latest at Dawlish in South Devon.
    I will follow your link with itnerest.

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