“I’m not sure he’s delusional,” former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said of Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2014. “I am sure he’s not wholly rational.”
“He’s a megalomaniac,” she continued. “And you have to deal with the five percent chance that he might, in fact, be delusional.”
If this was more than a rhetorical flourish, it’s a diagnosis with grave policy consequences. A genuinely irrational leader of a great power with few checks on his capacity to govern unilaterally is a dangerous thing. Deterrence is predicated on the presumption of rationality. Without that, the only constraint on that leader’s willingness to engage in aggression is to impose costs on those actions, and that dynamic can quickly spiral into a series of escalating reprisals.
Vladimir Putin is a revisionist. He despises the status quo and wants to expand the borders of Russia’s truncated empire. Toward that end, he takes calculated risks. Some of those risks have almost led to disaster, but all of them—from the invasion of Ukraine, to military intervention in Syria, to the harassment of U.S. air and naval assets and even the occasional set-piece ground battle between American commandos and Russian irregulars—have been within the bounds of rationality. After all, Putin got away with all of them.
And yet, the Russian president does tend to talk a good game. And by “good,” I mean disturbingly detached from anything resembling objective reality. Putin’s claims at the annual Valdai forum in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi this week are troubling, in part, because they are virtually hallucinatory.
At the conference, Putin claimed that the remnants of the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria had recently conducted raids near the Syrian city of Deir el-Zour, an area controlled by U.S.-backed forces. The militia took 700 captives, Putin said, including Europeans and Americans. And they plan on executing 10 of them per day unless their unspecified demands are met. “The day before yesterday, they executed ten people,” Putin said. American officials appear to have no idea what the Russian president is talking about.
Similarly, the Russian president appears to have convinced himself that his former countrymen broadly share his own revisionist recollections about the old Soviet Union. Putin claimed that “life in the Soviet Union was more secure, calmer” and that Soviet citizens in the Republics had “more opportunities” and “felt surer of themselves.” Russia’s policy toward the Near Abroad appears to undermine this assessment.
Moscow’s invasion and annexation (formally or otherwise) of territories in Ukraine and Georgia run counter to this ideal. Russian cross-border incursions and cyber attacks on Estonia betray the conceit. The apprehension that prevails in every European state formerly under the Soviet yoke over the prospect of imminent Russian invasion also renders the logic behind this assessment incomprehensible. “Building up tension and hysteria is not our way,” Putin insisted. “We are not creating problems for anyone.” Those who perished in the starvation campaigns and chemical attacks that Russia either abetted or facilitated might disagree.
But Putin saved his strangest assertions for last. Ruminating wistfully, the Russian autocrat suggested that American hegemony was responsible for much of the world’s ills. “This is the result of the monopoly from a unipolar world,” he said. “Luckily this monopoly is disappearing. It’s almost done.” Of course, it is Russia, not the U.S., that is in stagnation.
Russia’s population is once again shrinking. The United Nations forecast the number of Russian citizens falling below 120 million by 2050, partially the result of a 28 percent collapse by 2032 in the number of women in prime childbearing years. The aging workforce in Russia has compelled Moscow to do something it has resisted for decades: pare back state-provided retirement benefits. Following two months of protests and brutal crackdowns, Putin signed into law a plan to raise the Russian retirement age by five years for men and eight years for women. The move has put serious downward pressure on Putin’s popularity. Today, Russian voters express more faith in the military than in Putin, the central government he manages, or the regional governing bodies that are supposedly the most responsive to their concerns.
The Russian economy is dependent upon the production of hydrocarbons and is, thus, uniquely vulnerable. The increasing reliability and decreasing cost of alternative fuels and cleaner energy sources will squeeze the Russian economy, as will the sanction-related restrictions on its capacity to participate in global commerce. Russia’s GDP, which recovered some from recession in 2015-2016, still totaled $1.55 trillion compared with America’s $19.39 trillion. When it comes to productivity and trade, Russia trails less populous countries such as South Korea and Germany. In terms of individual purchasing power, Russia’s standard of living is roughly on par with Argentina’s.
Moscow maintains a sizable military, but it is aging and cannot sustain itself. The Sukhoi Su-57 stealth fighter is a fifth-generation warplane that is unlikely to remain in service beyond 2027. Its navy is decrepit and unreliable. Russia’s capacity to project power abroad is minimal. Despite a reasonably effective campaign in Syria, Moscow is estimated to have had only 15 or 20,000 service personnel in the Levant at any given time, and most of those served in a support capacity.
Moscow touts its sophisticated S-400 anti-air batteries, hypersonic missile technology, and underwater drones, but these narrow tactical choices betray Russia’s understanding that it will be on the defense for the foreseeable future. At Valdai, Putin claimed that Russia would never be the first to use nuclear weapons, but that comes as a surprise to anyone familiar with Russian military doctrine. Russian strategy has allowed for the “first use” of nuclear weapons as a “de-escalation” tactic almost since the end of the Cold War precisely because it cannot sustain conventional defenses against NATO forces.
None of this is to suggest that Russia is not dangerous. Just the opposite. A declining power is far more threatening than a rising power because it understands that time is not on its side. Russia may be willing to take more risks like those it has taken in Syria, Ukraine, and Georgia to forestall the inevitable, even if it hazards accidentally forcing the West’s hand. The risk of accidental confrontation is even greater if Vladimir Putin is truly irrational and undeterrable.
Perhaps Putin’s display at Valdai was merely a show of bravado designed for foreign consumption. Or it was a demonstration of strategic unpredictability or even simple wishful thinking. Or maybe, just maybe, Condoleezza Rice was right all along.