23 February 2022
Putin: The ‘Madman’ Gambit?
By Gwynne Dyer
US President Richard Nixon: You can say, “I cannot control him.” Put it that way.
US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger: Yeah. And imply that you might use nuclear weapons.
Nixon: Yes, sir. “He will. I just want you to know he is not going to cave.”
It’s from the Nixon Tapes, when the US was in a stalemate with North Vietnam in 1971 over how to end the Vietnam War. The two men were discussing how to convince the North Vietnamese that Nixon would go crazy and nuke them if they didn’t give in.
Nixon didn’t actually invent the ‘madman strategy’. That was Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote in ‘The Prince’ five centuries ago that sometimes it is “a very wise thing to simulate madness.” We like our points of reference to be more contemporary, so these days we attribute it to Richard Nixon – but in days to come we may call it the ‘Putin strategy’.
The problem for the target audience, the onlookers, and sometimes the leader’s own associates, is that they cannot tell the difference between a ‘madman’ act and the actions of a genuine madman unless the ruler actually does something irrevocable and plainly crazy. We’re not there yet with Vladimir Putin.
Two years of Covid have clearly given him a phobia about personal contact – those absurdly long tables or open spaces between him and his interlocutors – and his circle of advisers has shrunk to a small band of yes-men. But while twenty-two years of absolute power can make people isolated, it doesn’t necessarily drive them mad
His lengthy essays lamenting the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991 as “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century” sound less bizarre to Russian ears. Very few Russians understand that what actually happened then was the decolonisation of the last European empire, about thirty years after all the others.
Russians miss that because it was a land empire, not an overseas one, and so it was possible for them to believe that it all ‘belonged together’. The subject peoples never suffered from that delusion, of course: Dostoevsky called it the ‘prison-house of nations’, and they all left as soon as they could
So Putin’s denial of the legitimacy of the Ukrainian state, while terrifying to Ukrainians, is not beyond the bounds of normal Russian conversation – and it doesn’t necessarily mean that he intends to invade and conquer much or all of Ukraine.
He may intend that, but the possibility that it is just the ‘madman’ strategy leaves us unable to tell for certain. None of his actions so far qualify as ‘irrevocable and plainly crazy’, though they all point, in the best Machiavellian fashion, to the likelihood that he’s mad, bad, and very, very dangerous.
What Putin did on Monday, recognising the ‘independence’ of the two secessionist statelets of Lugansk and Donetsk, has been widely interpreted in Western media as proof that he intends to invade most or all of Ukraine. In fact it has changed nothing except the legal status of the Russian troops that have actually been there ever since 2014.
Some more Russian troops are now rolling into those fictional states, but they could have done that just as easily without Putin’s announcement. In fact, he still hasn’t done what he did with Crimea in 2014, which was to formally annex it. And we still don’t know what he plans to do next. In fact, he may not know either.
Here’s some evidence that Putin may not go any further, at least for the moment. When he sent his troops into Georgia to stop it joining NATO in 2008, he just took two small bites: Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions that had already tried to break away from the Georgian state on ethnic grounds.
Here’s some evidence pointing in the other direction. Putin has said he supports the claim of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics to all the territory of the former Donetsk and Luhansk provinces of Ukraine. (They now only control a third of that territory.)
This gives Putin a pretext to push on militarily if he wishes. Will he?
We may not know the answer for some time: the Russian troops can stay where they are for months, while Putin waits for Western leaders to get bored or impatient. Or he could push on immediately, or just collect his winnings and leave the table.
In the meantime, we can get some entertainment from the ludicrous efforts of Russian propaganda. Not only are the evil Ukrainians committing ‘genocide’ in Donetsk and Luhansk; they are working on nuclear weapons, and they are planning to attack Russia. (The Ukrainian army has some limited defensive capability, but it would struggle to invade Disneyland.)
And next week, they’re planning to send Ukrainian werewolves in to drink the blood of Russian maidens.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 14 and 15. (“Here’s…he?”)
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘The Shortest History of War’.