Did Putin lose his mind, or did we choose to ignore the signs?

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Just as Wednesday night arrived, we all thought we would go to bed certain that we wouldn’t see any radical developments coming from Russia. Vladimir Putin had “decided to launch a special military operation” at the request of the Donbass separatists who were worried the Ukrainian army would take over their minimal control of the region.

It’s safe to say that most of the academia and experts didn’t see this coming because the political and economic repercussions Putin would face would be too severe for Russia to endure. We have portrayed him as this strategic military man, former Russian spy that is always one step ahead. But we never thought that we would see the day that he would dare to defy the international order. However, the Kremlin leader went through with it and now we are all wondering if he lost his mind.

From a geopolitical point of view, we should have seen this coming. Putin has spoken clearly of his desire to reestablish the Soviet Union. He has pointed out multiple times that Ukraine is part of Russia because of historical ties. After 2014, countries with ethnic Russians were worried Putin would use this as an excuse to invade their country. It is a legitimate worry that we are now seeing unfold our eyes. But how did we get here?

In international relations we talk about Morgenthau’s realist theory that is established in the fundamental conservative skepticism, which leads him to conceive the desire for power as the constitutive element of humans, society and politics and seeks refuge in the rationality reflected in the balance of power, positioning himself as the only viable solution to the violence (Morgenthau, 1962). Realist theory exposes the desire for power, rationality, and other related concepts such as balance of power, interests, and purpose.  (Vargas Hernandez, 2009). Furthermore, in the words of Mearsheimer, the primary objective in the International System is survival and, to that end, the current power is not enough. Long story short, international politics revolve around power and the pursuit around it. 

Let’s go back 8 years when Putin annexed Crimea. On March 18, 2014, Vladimir Putin announced that a referendum was held in full compliance with democratic procedures and rules of international law, and that the numbers support the entry of Crimea in Russia were very convincing . This event would trigger several actions by NATO member states and the International Community overall. But more importantly, it continued to develop the fear that Russia would one day want to invade Ukraine through the conflict that was starting to unfold in the Donbas and Lugansk region. This anomaly in the world since the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of the many attempts by the Kremlin to present its geopolitical goals to the world. 

All throughout 2014 and 2015, the Minsk Agreements were used to try to negotiate an ending to the conflict. European powers were mediating in order to prevent further escalation with no luck. 

In 2019, President Zelensky is elected by a large majority (73.22%)  on a promise to restore Donbas to the country. His attempts were neglected by the separatists and Russia itself. He turns to NATO and the European Union to accelerate the membership process of the country "If we are talking about NATO and the MAP, I would really like to get (from Biden) specifics - yes or no" . 

Flashforward to late 2021 where Russia starts to deploy a large number of troops into the border with Ukraine under the claims that there were military exercises underway. In a practical point of view, Russia has the right to deploy its troops wherever they want within their territory. The problem started when they didn’t seem to retreat these troops and US intel stated that they were preparing an invasion. 

And then we started seeing, out of apparently “nowhere”, Ukrainian attacks to the Donbass separatists. Russian-backed forces were already shelling targets in the east, and in true classic Russian fashion, propaganda organs blame the violence on the Ukrainian government. This leads to a Presidential decree authorizing and ordering the deployment of more troops to the border with the Donbass region. At this point we’re all thinking that it's the 21st Century and we don’t believe in direct international conflicts, correct? We have the United Nations, International Law and so many other mechanisms to prevent international conflict, right?  Wars would “no longer” be fought with riffles and bullets. There are new tactics: cyber-attacks, propaganda, disinformation, chemical weapons… But the illegitimate direct violation of a country’s sovereignty was very unlikely. That is exactly what we thought before February 23rd. 

So, its February 2022 and Russia, against all odds, has launched a military intervention to Ukraine. But why? Has Putin lost his mind? The quick answer would be yes. But the realist answer is no. Putin has been saying for years that “the collapse of the Soviet empire “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” , that “he would reverse the collapse of the Soviet Union if he had a chance to alter modern Russian history ” , and more recently Ukraine is an illegitimate country that exists on land that’s historically and rightfully Russian: “Ukraine actually never had stable traditions of real statehood . These irredentist claims have warned for years what his ultimate foreign policy is geared towards. 

What can we expect from these actions? There’s no way of knowing, honestly. Putin’s decision went against any prediction, any previously set knowledge on his actions. He defied any sanctions, energy policy, military outcome, diplomatic tie that could potentially be broken. 

The West’s answer to Russia must be sufficiently harsh to dissuade the Kremlin from continuing their imperialistic plan. Since a military option is out of the table, isolating Russia politically and economically is vital. Russia’s economy is already fragile but with sufficiently robust sanctions it will cause Russians to question Putin’s decisions and not allow to fuel his plan. The question is: Is Europe willing to do that? 

But what if nothing stops Putin? First, nothing can guarantee that Russia will stop at Ukraine; many ex-soviet countries could follow suit and that in itself is a scary thought for the region. Are ex-soviet NATO countries safe? The answer is: they are safe-ish. If Russia for some reason chose to invade Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia, it would automatically trigger Article 5 of the Washington Treaty and would cause a World War between the Kremlin and the Organization. This scenario, though scary, is very unlikely. It doesn’t mean that these countries are not vulnerable to cyber-attacks and, in general, hybrid maneuvers. NATO is not clear about attacks that are not direct attacks, so there’s a loophole for Russia to attack and destabilize these countries. 

Second, we will most likely see a domino effect take place in other countries around the world. There are many nations in with irredentist agendas that, at the sight of a Russian successful win, will be more than willing to risk it all to obtain their goals. Let’s think of Taiwan, Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, to name a few. 

Overall, the world is not going to be the same as it once was. We can no longer assume that, because of mechanisms such as International Law, geopolitical agendas are forgotten and left aside. We sometimes think that realism is dead because we have evolved as a society and are no longer only driven by power. Let this be a lesson that, although rare, underestimating “red flags” that were hinted years (if not decades) ago could change the course of international politics. 

Maria Paula Velandia 
Senior geopolitical analyst at buho™  Clarity for leaders

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