AOAV: all our reportsExplosive violence in UkraineMilitarism examinedMedia, culture and armed violence

The ‘madman despot’ theory only serves to embolden Vladimir Putin

The Russian President, if commentators are to be believed, is “deranged”, “possibly crazed”, and in the grips of “hubris syndrome” and “COVID brain fog”. But to what degree has this psychological profiling of Vladimir Putin inadvertently strengthened the tyrant’s hand?

Quite a bit, potentially.

In the MacManus theory – a concept published in 2021 by Roseanne W McManus, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, following a major review of leaders’ reputations for madness – it was found that perceived madness could be harmful in crisis bargaining. A widespread perception of madness was an advantage, especially with an autocrat backed by a giant military, she wrote.

Admittedly, some see Putin as anything but a wild dictator with a loose finger on the nuclear button. Former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev has described him as “a rational actor” whose invasion of Ukraine is “horrific but not irrational”. But many others have depicted a man on the edge of lunacy, and such attempts cast a long shadow over his words and deeds. 

Such armchair psychoanalysis must be resisted.

These attempts to put Putin on the couch are, at best, speculative leaps that make him look more erratic, unstable and unpredictable than warranted. And this may be in his interest: because as long as the Western press – and to an extent its leaders – perceive him to be unhinged and fundamentally irrational, Putin will know that he can (probably) get away with more. 

Indeed, depicting the Russian leader as deranged is an exercise in speculation that arguably says more about his commentators than their subject. It suggests one of two things: either that they do not understand him – or that they do not want to. The former perhaps cannot be helped (we never fully divine the contents of another person’s mind), the latter is obviously more problematic. 

The framing of a despot as mad has a long tradition but is all too often reductive and offensive to people with real mental health challenges. The depiction can also produce grotesque, irrational foreign villains and therefore geopolitical mistakes.

Saddam Hussein was painted as erratic and unpredictable, despised by his own people. And when the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ lie was used as a reason to invade Iraq, much of the Western press took it at face-value – a case of collective confirmation bias owing to a widespread investment in Hussein’s madness.

Today, the truth is that Putin’s motivation in invading Ukraine is more nuanced and strategic than madness permits. And, while a great deal has also been made of his obscure ideological convictions, his antediluvian desire to reunite the two countries and his strange obsession with Kyiv (often described as the “mother of Russian cities”), these are not in themselves indications of mental instability – even if they are entirely wrong-headed.

In the end, Putin is reduced by some to a caricature of mental pathology and warped ideology.

The Russian Rationale

Some leaders knew all too well the virtues of being seen as slightly unhinged. Yet, when former US President Richard Nixon tried to persuade the world that he was mad – and wasn’t above pressing the nuclear button to stop communist aggression – no one bought it. Nixon was outed as a hard pragmatist. Why not Putin?

For all the unspeakable atrocities and war crimes that many say have been committed in the past two months, there was nothing fundamentally irrational about the invasion of Ukraine. Desperate? Maybe. Abhorrent? Undoubtedly. But not unthinkable, and certainly not deranged. 

The invasion must be seen in the context of a country running out of options. Russia is a petrochemical state – a pariah among an increasingly broad tent of countries committing to net zero and renewable energy. Global politics and climate change dictate that fossil fuels, which currently fill the Russian state’s coffers, are a dwindling source of revenue. Meanwhile, climate change, the same phenomenon that Russia is refusing to tackle, is threatening to devour three-quarters of its territory that lies in the arctic north. 

Invading Ukraine does not solve climate change but it could, in theory, win Russia immense geopolitical leverage over global food and energy markets. Indeed, Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, with reliable year-round access to the Black Sea, a key trade route.  

Known as the ‘breadbasket of Europe’, the country is also home to incredibly fertile ‘black earth’ (chernozem) covering an area larger than Italy – and vast, sprawling flatlands which, for decades if not centuries, have been part of the nationalist dream of Russian invaders.LOOTING THE LANDIs Ukraine’s Black Eartha Reason for Putin’s Invasion?Dimitris Dimitriadis and Iain Overton

This type of nationalism is not rooted in history or jingoism but hard-nosed pragmatism.

Together with Ukraine, Russia could control a-quarter of globally traded wheat, and even larger chunks of the global barley and maize markets – a dependency that threatens to bring countries in middle Africa and north Africa to their knees, with the World Trade Organisation foreshadowing bread riots, violence and social unrest. 

Meanwhile, Russia is already weaponising oil and gas – its main export – as a means of economic warfare. This is a response, in the Kremlin’s narrative, to Western sanctions and a stark reminder of just how dependent Europe still is on Russia to keep the heating on. Putin knows that Europe’s attempt to wean itself off Russian energy will be long and painful for its electorates, and he is pressing leaders where it hurts the most.  

It seems as if it will simply be a matter of time before he decides to do the same with wheat and other critical food stuffs, including barley and cereal. In a world in which climate change has rendered food security ever-more elusive, an autocrat who can credibly threaten starvation – at least among certain countries – or serious food upheaval, is a force to be reckoned with. 

While that may seem like a far-cry from the current realities of the conflict, it is in line with a broader, long-term strategic plan – one that a deranged mind would simply not be capable of hatching. But, as Niccolò Machiavelli remarked, “at times it is a very wise thing to simulate madness”.

Unless Western journalists resist the sensationalist urge to depict Putin as a madman – and seriously engage with the nuances of Russian aggression – he may yet succeed.