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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

The Question the World Is Asking: Is Vladimir Putin Rational?

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin. Image Credit: Russian Government.

The Russian onslaught in Ukraine set loose an important—but ultimately subjective and insoluble—debate about the mental state of one of the belligerents. Namely the aggressor, President Vladimir Putin. “Is Putin Irrational?” asks a typical entry in the genre. Or as strategic theorists would put it, do calculations of cost, benefit, and risk govern Putin’s decision-making, or do passions such as humiliation, hatred, and spite predominate?

The answer matters. A rational opponent can be deterred, or perhaps compromised with. An irrational one would be given to brinksmanship—or worse. The stakes could scarcely be higher when an opponent oversees a nuclear arsenal.

Rational or irrational? There are powerful arguments for both schools of thought. The despot in Moscow clearly longs to avenge the Soviet defeat in the Cold War, and to resurrect a Russian empire in some form or another. In part his aims are defensive in outlook, and thus rational—even though they goaded him into an unjust war against a sovereign neighbor. No great power relishes having a rival great power adjoining its frontiers. Putin believes, with some cause, that NATO might someday accept Ukraine as a member state—bringing the U.S.-led alliance to Russia’s door. Restoring some semblance of the geopolitical buffer the Soviet Union enjoyed thus commands high priority at the Kremlin.

And then there are more offensive aims, also rational if also morally objectionable. If Russia were to seize all of Ukraine, it would occupy all of the strategic Black Sea coast, the Russian Navy’s gateway to the Eastern Mediterranean (via the Bosporus and Dardanelles, controlled by NATO member Turkey). Adding Ukraine to a Greater Russia would forever prevent the Atlantic alliance from ensconcing itself along Russia’s borders. It would also give Moscow a forward platform for applying pressure on Romania and Bulgaria, erstwhile Soviet satellite states that now belong to NATO.

These aims may amount to mistakes or even self-defeating behavior—I believe they do—but that doesn’t make them irrational. Putin places inordinate weight on them, warranting heavy outlays of manpower and military resources for a significant amount of time. From his perspective, moreover, it’s worth running the significant risk to clutch at a pearl of great price.

But then there are indicators that lend support to the Putin-is-irrational thesis. Long ago he proclaimed the downfall of the Soviet Union the twentieth century’s greatest geopolitical calamity. Just before launching the February 24 invasion, he delivered a speech denying Ukraine’s nationhood, seeming to declare it integral to Russia on historical, cultural, and religious grounds. He vowed to “denazify” the democratic regime in Kyiv while accusing Kyiv of genocide against ethnic Russians. Such claims are reminiscent of Beijing’s constant seething over China’s “century of humiliation,” a painful interlude of subjection to seaborne empires that nonetheless ended seventy-three years ago, not to mention its claims to sovereignty over Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the Senkaku Islands.

Dark passions impel revisionist leaders to try to turn back the clock to some golden age. But despite the tenor of Moscow’s pronouncements, it may be that upbeat passions are at work as well—however baleful their consequences might be. In fact, it may be that a variety of hope rules in Moscow. Decades ago, in his classic treatise The True Believer, the Bay Area longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer explored the motives of those who embark on inexplicably risky, and thus arguably irrational, actions in the service of some grand-seeming cause.

Hoffer breaks down the motives that drive mass movements—including nationalist movements such as the one Putin has tried to kindle—almost into a formula. First, followers of such a movement, Hoffer’s true believers, must be radically disenchanted with the status quo, and bent on sweeping it away to replace it with something better. This is Revolutionary Warfare 101. Second, true believers must feel a sense of power to bring about fundamental change. Hoffer adds that far from being a detriment, inexperience is an asset to the movement; true believers don’t know that what they’re attempting is impossible, so they plunge ahead irrespective of likely obstacles. Once in a while a flaky-seeming movement actually does the impossible, as in the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Civil War.

And third, there’s the leadership factor. Someone has to impart purpose and direction to passions, which otherwise might sputter and die. The leader of a successful mass movement opines Hoffer, is adept at merging these factors into an overpowering appeal. A V. I. Lenin or Mao Zedong—or potentially a Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping—ignites “extravagant hope” within the movement. Onrushing hope propels the faithful along to a bright destiny if successful. This is another way to appraise the leadership of contemporary authoritarian leaders: are they capable of inspiring extravagant hope among their citizens, or are they run-of-the-mill strongmen who impose their will with a kind—or not-so-kind—word and a gun?

Not-strictly-rational passions, then, animate Russia and China at least in part. Whether they overwhelm cost-benefit calculations is the crux of the debate. The answer is unknowable because no human being can finally know what takes place in another’s cranium. Even the occupant of that cranium may not know. Plus, strategic grandmaster Carl von Clausewitz hints at how a fully rational combatant could tote up costs, benefits, and risks and arrive at a course of action that seems foolhardy if not downright crazy. Writes Clausewitz, “since war is not an act of senseless passion”—it’s a rational act, or ought to be—“but is controlled by its political object, the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration. Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.”

What he means by this is that how much the leadership wants some goal governs how much the leadership is prepared to spend on it. It can estimate how the rate at which it must spend militarily relevant resources and how long it must keep up the expenditure. Magnitude and duration, then, are at least somewhat quantifiable. But what about the value placed on the political object of a martial endeavor—on the goal? What are the objective units of measurement for how much someone covets something? There are none. Passions are an accelerant. They can inflate the value a competitor attaches to its goals, potentially without bounds—justifying an effort disproportionate to the strictly measurable, and rational, value these goals merit.

Which, again, is why the debate over the mental faculties of a nuclear-armed antagonist is both imperative and unfathomable. Is Vladimir Putin irrational? I think not. But this is cold comfort. He might be rational in a way that produces policies and strategies that no dispassionate observer could countenance.

Just ask an American philosopher and a long-dead Prussian soldier.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views voiced here are his alone”

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. Commentar

    March 12, 2022 at 3:56 pm

    The question the world should be asking is why must biden be given authority to decide the fate of mankind.

    It is highly strange (and unusually odd for those claiming to always favor plural voices in society) no western nation challenged his will and determination to confront russia and force putin into the ring.

    Security can’t be decided or forged by one side alone, it needs to be hammered out by skilled negotiators and never be left in the hands of 80-year-old men.

    It is crystal clear the western nations are acting no differently from their forefathers who ruled colonies in the 18th and 19th centuries. Or the slave owners who owned vast cotton fields in the same period.

    Putin, however, lives and breathes the 21st century. He has nuclear weapons and is fully prepared to preserve and protect his country and the donbass region from the colinial masters and slave owners of today who’re behaving like their forefathers of times past.

    Putin will win this one, just as the anti-fascists won the last time.Kyiv awaits the very same fate that befell berlin.

  2. A penny tossed to the wind

    March 12, 2022 at 5:11 pm

    I agree Vladimir Putin is rational. But it’s a rationality that begs a huge effort to try to understand.

    As a young boy, born into and living in a terrible room, by Western standards, standards he didn’t know and by which had no measure upon his thinking, he apparently relished and admired his cultural equivalent of James Bond. If only he could be like him. Such is a thinking process that sets boys on their paths in life all around the world. For some, its a sportsperson who sets off that agenda, as one example.

    Many boys want to be a hero. Remember ‘Superman’, in the West, the TV series. Or latterly Tom Cruise’s character in Top Gun who spiked enrollment into the US air force like never before.

    These are simplifications of course, yet they are significant and entirely rational and normal, governed in their own instances by the country’s overall culture, and what could be described as similar ‘culture’ in closing-in increments to things such as the town or city, the street and home in which we live.

    Through his life he had influences and aspirations that set about a cause-and-effect in what he chose to do. Like all of us.

    A critical determining factor is how we rationalise our decisions and our behavior, and this is where we really have to put in the effort and knowledge to get any valid understanding.

    Bit by bit Vladimir Putin, the boy, the young man, the husband, the careerist, the middle aged man, rationalised his decisions and actions. Playing a role in all of this is his inherent disposition, his tendencies and desires. For me, I could never join a KGB or its equivalent, but he could. But then I’d never had have to. So one plays into the other, ‘nature vs nurture’ as it’s simplistically called, and are so bound together that no ground has been gained in adequately separating them as to help us understand which played what role in determining who and what we become.

    A key element is ‘power’. I see a woman and child suffering and it hurts for days and days. Putin, I think, also feels that same suffering (I don’t think he’s psycopathic) yet it gets immediately rationalised away. He’s long been rationalising away human suffering and it’s no longer conscious: it happens now automatically, and has for a very long time.

    That Ukranian woman and child, suffering intensely, has now to him become an instrument, a tool, or a symbol, a token, a chess piece. And more. And perhaps all of them together.

    We do it too, in our own way. You are coach of a sporting team, you choose a new arrival to play an important game, over the player who is a club stalwart and dearly loved player for twenty years. It will break that stalwart’s heart, and the heart of the team’s supporters. But you do it; people in their own way understand you want the whole team and their supporters to experience the win. You have rationalised away the heartbreak: it has no bearing on your decisions and action.

    Putin has done this so often for so long that he is immune to that suffering, suffering that has no effect to him other than as described.

    ‘Power’ has changed that process that we all know and understand into a different state altogether. It has altered that rationalisation into a realm by which we do not operate, within which we have no experience or to which we cannot relate.

    So when we apply our experience of ‘rationalising’ to him, or, better, others in his country do (media, critics, public voice) he has no place for it because “you do not understand”. He has done this over and again so often for so long that normal rationales of thinking do not apply to him and the application of them is an unwanted hindrance, time- and mind-wasting such that it has to be removed for him to do what he wants and feels he has to do.

    (It is this altering of rationality by power that the International Leader Code of Conduct proposed is to guard against.)

    Other very human factors have now at this stage of his life come into play, affecting his decions and actions. He’s entering the last stage of his life. He could indeed have a heart attack or stroke at any time. And he knows it. He feels it. The end of his life has moved over the horizon straight at him and is now visible and sentient. He is thus impelled to do what he thinks and feels he must do while he can.

    It has all led to a place where he, and he alone, can do it.

    We as human beings are really at an interesting point in our evolution to gain a great deal from this war, from Vladimir Putin’s decisions and actions.

    It’s important to acknowledge where the world is at, how it’s changed. The reference points, the frame of reference, is very different from what we’re used to in assessing what’s now happening – and those changes have come upon us swiftly.

    Humanity has for the first time since we began walking on two legs become as ‘one’.

    It’s fascinating. For the first time in our evolution a common mindset, a common sentient oneness, has developed.

    Critical forces now affect us all, and, critically, we have an interconnectedness, largely, where we can deal with it, and we all know it.

    One of those critical forces by way of example is what we call ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’. The point here is that – regardless of your views and beliefs one way or another – that conversation binds us all. We are all in that mental framework, that emotional grip, together. We are interconnected, as one.

    That’s just one example.

    Into this oneness then Vladimir Putin, the boy become man become national leader, makes war.

    Instead of a war we can rationalise away, as we have in the past, as a “war against a nation”, this is a “war against humanity as one”.

    We have discovered that one person making war has no place in the contemporary age.

    This is a turning point in the evolution of humankind.

    Sorry folks if you’ve heard this before, but here it is again: the thing that’s missing is a control, a set of paramters, over one person’s behaviour – that person being a national leader (who by default is instantly an international leader).

    We know how to behave, as a person. We can contribute and debate ‘rationality’ and ‘irrationality’, sanity and insanity, humane-ness and inhumane-ness, forever and a day. That’s academic. What we need to put in place are those practical, effective paramaters for establishing how international leaders are to behave, in our sudden and new world of oneness, and a way to have an immediate pre-known remedy when that behavior is breached.

    A breach of an international leader’s reasonable behavior, behavior which we’ve come to expect of a human being and for which we in all others ways legislate, is in this sudden, new contemporary age a breach against us all.

    Bring in that instrument, that legislation, and our world leaders must act with civility.

    Vladimir Putin may well be the catalyst who changes the world. We just have to acknowledge what’s absent and get it done.

  3. Commentat

    March 12, 2022 at 5:27 pm

    The one person world should be asking if he’s rational is biden, B-I-D-E-N.

    Over 6 million people have died from covid, with almost one million american deaths.

    That’s same as the holocaust total deaths of ww2.

    Why is biden ignoring the person most respinsible. Why is biden not going after him instead of hunting putin’s heaf. Why hasn’t biden not yet issued an arrest warrant for him. Or at least demand he step down and have his day in a domestic court of law. Is biden so powerless, or so weak or so frightened. Rational or irrational. Or are the brain cells already fried way beyond help by the mrna vaccines.

  4. Sam McGowan

    March 12, 2022 at 7:23 pm

    No, Putin is not trying to resurrect the USSR, his goal is to unite the descendants of the Kievan Rus’ and to regain former Russian (not USSR) territory. Eastern Ukraine – and Kiev – belonged to Russia for more than two centuries before Bolzcheviks declared it to be independent. The rest of the country came under Russian control during the reign of Catherine the Great. Ukraine was NEVER a country prior to the Twentieth Century. Putin knows this and so does Zelensky, who is actually Jewish. It’s not that Putin is irrational, it’s that he’s ruthless, a characteristic typical of Russians – and Ukranians.

  5. Slack

    March 13, 2022 at 12:44 am

    Putin needs to hurl a 72-hour ultimatum to zelenskiyyy and co to 1)surrender peacefully or 2)flee to berlin, london or 3) perish like hitler in ’45.

    Then putin needs to TAKE OVER the land east side of the dnieper and thus be able to present a fait accompli to NATO. Use mother of all bombs if necessary.

    The land west of dnieper is rump ukraine and can join NATO. The eastern part is free and neutral like austria. No need to lick anybody’s boots and thus be able to serve as BUFFER between NATO and russia.

    As a follow-on, or critical step to ensure lasting peace, the UN and EU must guarantee the neutrality and statehood of free eastern ukraine.

  6. Dimmer

    March 14, 2022 at 6:48 am

    Dear author, I will ask you one question: are the actions of the United States in Ukraine rational? Or in Iraq or Libya or Syria? This skirmish was arranged by the USA. They created all the conditions for this to happen. They brought up Nazism on the territory of the Baltic countries, Ukraine. And now people like you are hypocrites. They talk about whether Putin is rational. You were told back in 2007 not to meddle in the interests of Russia. But you didn’t know. You are playing the king of the whole world.

  7. Alex

    March 14, 2022 at 10:50 am

    The rationality of the West and the East is different. But as long as Russia’s special military operation goes according to plan, Russia has no problems and is unlikely to have any.

  8. Keith Diggs

    March 14, 2022 at 4:18 pm

    Wait, so BIDEN says that PUTIN IS INVADING RUSSIA and that the IRANIAN PEOPLE will fight off Russian forces and your question is about PUTIN’S sanity? Just stop.

    Btw. PBS just had an interview with a NAZI UKRAINIAN MAYOR and blurred out photos of HITLER ASSOCIATES BEHIND HIM DURING THE INTERVIEW. So seems like ol’ Pooty Poot was right about Nazis in Ukraine and OUR FAKE NEWS media is LYING ABOUT IT.

    Perhaps because war would help Biden in midterms????

  9. Joe Comment

    March 18, 2022 at 1:38 am

    Several here are posting as if it were Ukraine who invaded Russia and not the other way around. The Russian propaganda has really declined. In the days of the USSR, it was even possible to imagine someone actually believing it.

  10. Joe Comment

    March 18, 2022 at 1:43 am

    Dimmer: How was this skirmish arranged by the USA? Because we refused to say that the Ukraine won’t possibly be a member of NATO in some far distant future? Norway for example is a member of NATO today. Does that mean Russia must now invade Norway, and if it does, the USA arranged it?

  11. Joe Comment

    March 18, 2022 at 1:55 am

    Commentar: “Security can’t be decided or forged by one side alone.” Then which countries must Russia consult before it forms its alliances? If Japan feels threatened by the Russia-China alliance, does it mean Japan has no choice but to attack? If Poland feels threatened by the Russia-Belarus alliance, does it mean Poland has no choice but to attack? If Turkey feels threatened by the Russia-Armenia alliance, does it mean Turkey has no choice but to attack? And attacking one’s neighbor is what you mean by “hammering it out by skilled negotiators”?

  12. Joe Comment

    March 18, 2022 at 2:26 am

    Sam McGowan: Since the 17th century, Russia and Ukraine have both been part of the same multi-national empire. If because of that you believe Ukraine does not exist, then why does Russia exist? Which other countries do you believe don’t exist? Belarus? Finland? Azerbaijan? Moldova? Former Soviet republics in Central Asia?

  13. Joe Comment

    March 18, 2022 at 10:40 am

    Sam McGowan: Do you believe Slovakia exists? Do you believe India exists? Algeria? We could go through the membership list of the UN and a lot of them won’t fit what seems to be your criterion of existence.

  14. Joe Comment

    March 18, 2022 at 10:42 am

    Sam McGowan: And finally, do you believe the Donetsk republic and the Luhansk republic exist? Based on what?

  15. phil stacy

    March 18, 2022 at 7:09 pm

    Psychopathy is a condition characterized by the absence of empathy and the blunting of other affective states. Callousness, detachment, and a lack of empathy enable psychopaths to be highly manipulative. Psychology Today

  16. Gen. Patton

    March 23, 2022 at 8:55 am

    Quite funny to see so many Russian trolls commenting on a website that few people read.

  17. Alex

    March 24, 2022 at 10:35 am

    But you, after all, are a Bandera Nazi, you read this site and you are torn to pieces with anger.

  18. RealSlimSady

    March 28, 2022 at 7:18 pm

    Thank God for REAL Nazis to prove to the World who the real Degenerate Criminals of this World are, and who and where all the Covid-19 and “Novice” are coming from……….Communists never mature………

    Russia is blessed to have Navalny ready to take over and lead Russia, and thankfully Putin did not succeed in murdering him!

  19. Alex

    March 29, 2022 at 11:19 am

    Navalny is just a “leader” of 10% of poor schoolchildren and students, the remaining 90% of Russia’s youth are for Putin. In total, more than 80% of the Russian population is for Putin.
    What is Nazism in Ukraine: torture of Russian prisoners of war by Bandera Nazis was recently published. The International Court of Justice could not turn a blind eye to this. Even the Minister of Ukraine said that this is unacceptable, but the Bandera Nazis no longer listen to the authorities of Ukraine. After the liberation of the cities, they return and take revenge on the inhabitants, who thanked the Russian soldiers for their salvation. Russia is forced to leave guards in the liberated cities. The order was also received not to capture Bandera Nazis alive. I don’t know what idiot decided to play Nazism with Russia, but now nothing and no one will stop the Russians.

  20. David Chang

    April 5, 2022 at 5:44 am

    God bless all people.

    But Clausewitz inherits Kant’s atheism.

    Clausewitz’s thought of war violate law of God, so he is wrong. And what people say about reason or rational, including Clausewitz’s rational, is valuation, not moral judgment.

    Therefore, Clausewitz quoted in this article is an accounting analysis of government, not whether the war should obey God’s law, justice.

    Because, it’s accounting analysis, people are divided by value, and Hitler and Marx think so.

    Adolf Hitler think that certain people is valuable animal,
    Karl Marx think that some people is worthless and therefore have to get more value from valuable people.

    Clausewitz, Hitler, and Marx, violate God’s law, speak the same wrong thought, and they say it is theory.

    Therefore, Russia President Vladimir Putin is rational. Because of rationality, the action of nuclear weapons is a calculated analysis of income and expenditure, not moral judgment.

    Rational is the thought of Putin, Truman and Oppenheimer.

    I hope that Naval War College will convince people in Russia to give up nuclear war by Morality.

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