Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I wondered how long it would take for pundits to start singing a familiar tune: Our enemy, Vladimir Putin in this case, is unhinged.
Not long at all. Within days, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki appeared to hint that the Russian leader might be suffering the effects of COVID isolation. Apparently, Putin, lacking the healthy social interaction of a well-adjusted human being, lost his mind in COVID lockdown and decided to break the tedium with the invasion of a neighboring country.
The Daily Beast suggested that Putin is “clinically insane.”
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, speaking like he shared a bunk with Putin, or at least had it bugged, said “something is off.”
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, sounding a bit unhinged himself, went a step further and moved rapidly to the bump-Putin-off phase of foreign relations.
And The Washington Post ran a speculative piece on the Russian dictator’s mental stability.
Western analysts have almost always been wrong, spectacularly wrong, in understanding the Russian mind and its motivations.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union with it, the prevailing political narrative of that moment told us we were witnessing something akin to the Domino Theory in reverse: Instead of nations falling like dominoes to communism, they were standing up, one by one, for freedom and democracy.
In his best best seller “The End of History and the Last Man,” Francis Fukuyama argued that Western liberal democracy had triumphed and now it was just a matter of mop-up operations against the remaining pockets of resistance. (You know, China, the Middle East and the whole of Africa and South America for instance.)
Former New York Times Moscow Bureau Chief and Pulitzer Prize winner Hedrick Smith said something not too dissimilar in his book The New Russians. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was “a modern enactment of one of the archetypal stories of human existence, that of the struggle from darkness to light, from poverty toward prosperity, from dictatorship toward democracy.”
Only they were all wrong.
Thirty years on, we are faced with a Russia that is aggressive and nostalgic for the iron-fisted days of Stalin, and the State Department, the Biden White House nor all the money in Cato or Brookings saw it coming.
For analysts operating in their pretentious think-tank echo chambers, the only possible explanation for this situation is that Putin is a crackpot. He must be, otherwise he would read their white papers and heed their counsel. And yet, even the most cursory reading of Russian history says that Russia has always regarded Ukraine — not Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania — as essential to Russia’s existence. Words and phrases like “breadbasket” and “warm water port” come to mind.
Did no one at the State Department tell Biden that? Perhaps that was one of the things lost on Hunter Biden’s laptop.
The “crazy” narrative being pushed on every network is the same one that was pushed about all of America’s enemies — the Ayatollah, Saddam, bin Laden, etc. It’s intellectually lazy. Rather than looking for the connective logical tissue and trying to understand what motivates them, we punt, dismissing them as beyond understanding. It looks oddly similar to what many men do when they find themselves in conflict with their spouse. If it’s not a winning strategy in personal relations, what makes us think it’s a winning formula in international relations?
Take, for example, 9/11.
The terrorists must be nuts, we were told. What sort of person would kill themselves and others like that? Understood from a purely secular point of view where there’s really nothing worth dying for since this life is all you get, the crazy explanation seems the right one. But the secular key didn’t fit that lock because those men weren’t secularists. When September 11 is viewed through the lens of radical Islamic teachings, the terrorists’ actions become perfectly rational. One need not be crazy to commit extraordinary evil. This is Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis.
Western foreign policy, especially that of the United States, has often operated on the erroneous premise that we are dealing with people who want the same things we do: freedom, peace, and a car in every garage. Such thinking got us nowhere with “Uncle Joe” Stalin and Ho Chi Minh, and it’s getting us nowhere with Xi and Putin.
Those countries that are not heirs to a Western tradition of thought don’t think like Westerners. And while human nature is the same the world over, human motivations, influenced as they are by a plethora of cultural factors ranging from historical experience and geography to religion and philosophy, are not.
Consider the fact that neither Russia nor Ukraine ever experienced the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Scientific Revolution, or Industrial Revolution. These epochs defined the West as we know it, and they define Western thinking.
Not Russia, not Ukraine.
Even Russian writers embraced by the West — Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn in particular — are little understood by it. This is evidenced by the fact that while they are loved in the West, that love was unrequited. They all rejected the West as soft, decadent and a great spiritual void.
Churchill called Russia “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” and to the Western mind it is. But to many Russians (and Ukrainians), such thinking is typical of arrogant Westerners.
I’m reminded of the 1866 poem by Fyodor Tyutchev: “Not with the mind is Russia understood, the common yardstick will deceive …”
If the yardstick being used is one made in the West, it will certainly be useless in understanding Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. If, however, we measure Putin’s actions against those of Russian leaders before him — Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Stalin and his Soviet successors, to name only a few — they are perfectly consistent with Russia’s historic Ukrainian policy.
The “Putin is crazy” narrative is an excuse for poor analyses and failed policies. Worse, it may plunge us headlong into World War III because it offers justification for skipping the diplomacy phase and going straight to war.
And that, to quote Russian historian and diplomat George F. Kennan, “is a highly overrated tool of foreign policy.”
Larry Alex Taunton is a freelance columnist contributing to USA Today, Fox News, First Things, The Atlantic, The New York Post, CNN, Daily Caller, and The American Spectator. He is also the author of The Gospel Coalition Arts & Culture Book of the Year The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, and the recently released Around the World in (More Than) 80 Days: Discovering What Makes America Great and Why We Must Fight to Save It. You can subscribe to his blog at larryalextaunton.com and find him on Twitter @larrytaunton.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.