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Putin, Ukraine and the madman theory of diplomacy

Will there be a war in Ukraine? The one man who might know for sure is Vladimir Putin. The Russian president has ordered the build-up of troops on the borders of Ukraine. The ultimate decision about whether to invade will be his alone.

But how will Putin decide? That depends on which version of the Russian leader you believe in: Putin the Rational or Vlad the Mad.

Most western policymakers believe in Putin the Rational. They argue that, after more than 20 years in power, the Russian leader is a known quantity. He is ruthless and amoral. But he is also shrewd and calculating. He takes risks, but he is not crazy.

But there are other analysts who fear the Russian leader is turning into Vlad the Mad. They think that Putin has been in power for too long and is growing increasingly out of touch and paranoid. His isolation during the pandemic has made matters worse. Vlad is listening to a dangerously small circle of nationalist advisers.

As evidence that Putin the Rational has morphed into Vlad the Mad some point to the Russian leader’s recent penchant for publishing long, nationalist essays on history and culture. There was his 5,000-word blast on the “Historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians” published in July — which portrayed the independence of Ukraine as a historical aberration.

The previous year Putin published a long essay on the origins of the second world war, arguing that Britain and France had deliberately encouraged Nazi Germany to attack the Soviet Union. These passionate musings suggest that the Russian leader may increasingly be driven by emotion and eccentric theories.

Western diplomacy on Ukraine is still largely designed to deal with Putin the Rational. Emmanuel Macron, France’s leader, travels to Moscow this week in an attempt to reason with Putin and strike a bargain.

Both the US and the Europeans are pursuing a policy that could be described as “deterrence plus off-ramps”. The goal is to show Putin that the price of attacking Ukraine will be too high. The Russian military will suffer heavy casualties, the Russian economy will be hit with devastating sanctions and the Russian nation will be increasingly isolated.

Set against this unappealing prospect, the west is trying to give Putin “off-ramps” — diplomatic options, which afford him the prestige of great power status and the opportunity to start wide-ranging talks on security in Europe.

Hopes that Putin may make a rational calculation to turn away from conflict have been raised by some of his recent comments. His suggestion that the US is deliberately trying to goad Russia into a war could be seen as preparing the ground for a climbdown. After all, why go to war — if that is what your enemy wants you to do?

But the prevailing American assumption is still that war is more likely than not. This view is based not on what Putin is saying — but on what he is doing. Over the past fortnight, the Americans have seen an intensification of Russia’s military build-up. They are particularly concerned by a new concentration of forces in Belarus — just two hours’ drive north of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. The newly-pliant Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, is allowing Moscow to use his country as a base for a possible invasion. The Russians are also completing all the logistical preparations that would be needed for war.

Military analysts think that Russian forces could probably surround or even occupy Kyiv quite quickly, if ordered to. But believers in Putin the Rational argue that the Russian leader knows that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would be folly. They think that Putin is more likely to take limited military action — perhaps confined to eastern Ukraine, where there is already a low-level conflict between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian forces.

A limited offensive, designed to give the Ukrainians a “bloody nose”, might divide rather than unite the west as allies squabbled about the response. The Ukrainian government could be destabilised and might fall. And Russia would preserve the option of recognising parts of eastern Ukraine as separate republics. All of these moves could be classed as risky, but rational.

But if Vlad the Mad is now running the show, it is possible that Russia will take much more radical action. What if Putin believes his own propaganda? A passionate belief in the “unity of Russians and Ukrainians” — combined with a paranoid belief that America is manipulating events in Ukraine — may lead the Russian leader to dangerously underestimate the reality of Ukrainian nationalism. As a result, Putin may not fully comprehend the extent of opposition that Russian forces will encounter, if they attempt to invade and occupy Ukraine.

A final twist is that Putin the Rational may be pretending to be Vlad the Mad. It was Richard Nixon who outlined the “madman theory”, when the US president told aides that it could be helpful if America’s enemies thought he was crazy enough to use nuclear weapons. Putin is said to be planning high-profile nuclear weapons exercises in the coming weeks — which would be a move straight from the “madman” playbook. But the line between acting like a madman and being a madman is disconcertingly thin.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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