Is Putin Rational?

Probably. Here's How to Work With Him

Putin in Sochi, March 16, 2014. Alexander Demianchuk / Courtesy Reuters

Ukrainians are waiting to see whether Russian President Vladimir Putin, having wrested Crimea from Ukraine, will continue his advance. The outward signs point to yes. Tens of thousands of Russian troops and hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles are amassed along Ukraine’s borders. The Kremlin insists that they are conducting military exercises, but that seems unlikely. Ukrainian armed services have caught Russian agents, tasked with gathering military intelligence and fomenting unrest, in several of Ukraine’s southeastern provinces. And border guards have stopped thousands of armed Russian “tourists” from entering Ukraine. Pro-Putin militants have seized government buildings and violently attacked peaceful demonstrators outside of Crimea, in Donetsk and Kharkiv. Meanwhile, Russia’s state-controlled channels whip up anti-Ukrainian hysteria as Putin and the Kremlin insist that the government in Kiev illegitimate.

No one can fully know Putin’s intentions. One’s best guess depends on one’s assumptions of his rationality. If he is irrational -- unable to correctly judge the costs and benefits of invading Ukraine because he is in thrall to some ideology or the pursuit of power -- then it is safe to assume that he will continue on his current course. Lilia Shevtsova, a liberal Russian analyst, and Andrei Illarionov, Putin’s former economic advisor, make that case. “He believes that he is chosen by divine providence to punish liberated Ukrainians,” Illarianov writes, “He believes that now there is a unique historical situation: Ukraine is in [a] state of severe crises, its authorities and institutions do not function effectively. He dreams that providence demands him to fulfill this mission.” If Illarionov and Shevtsova are right, nothing can stop Putin from launching a massive land war against Ukraine, regardless of how much it would cost in human life, property, and prestige. Such a Putin could conceivably keep marching up to the Atlantic, as Aleksandr Dugin, a Russian political scientist and Putin’s ideological mentor, believes Russia must. “If we win,” he recently wrote, “we will begin the

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