Putin’s rationality debated

September 1, 2014

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.