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Vladimir Putin’s Game of Chicken

Boris Grozovski
Rescuers are searching for people under the rubble of a collapsed house in Kyiv after a drone attack
KYIV, UKRAINE—October 18, 2022. Rescuers search for people under the rubble of a collapsed house in Kyiv after a drone attack.

In recent weeks, Russia has been forced to surrender some of the territories it had seized previously. Vladimir Putin cannot undermine Ukrainians' high morale, cause a crisis in the Ukrainian government, or force it to cave. Volodymyr Zelensky and his team are not becoming more accommodating. They are more vehemently demanding that all Russian-occupied regions be freed.

After the September defeat near Kharkov, Putin, as expected, has doubled down and escalated the war, moving on to systematic attacks on Ukrainian cities. Russia is destroying the infrastructure that provides Ukrainians with light, water, and heat. The goal is to make cities uninhabitable, as happened with Mariupol and Izyum. This tactic could make life in Ukrainian cities unbearable in winter. Russia does not have many missiles left, but Ukraine has a weak air defense system, vulnerable to drone attacks.

At the same time, the protracted war, mobilization, and combat losses make the war less and less popular in Russia. From April to July the proportion of respondents supporting the war dropped from 66 percent to 55 percent. With the beginning of mobilization at the end of September, the share of supporters fell further to 51 percent. It is likely even lower: the vast majority of those reached by pollsters refuse to talk. According to a recent poll, 25 percent of those who did respond are convinced militarists and 17 percent would support the withdrawal of troops from Ukraine without achieving Putin's stated goals.

For a long time, Russian society has lived under an unspoken agreement with the authorities. People are not interested in politics and politicians’ integrity, while the politicians do not interfere with the citizens’ private lives. The mass mobilization has ruined this “social contract.” The level of anxiety in society, according to the state-run sociological agency FOM, has risen from 30–40% to 70%. Increased mobilization, defeats at the front, and huge war losses will make support for the war even lower.

Yet the less successful Russia's military is on the battlefield, the greater the chances that Putin might resort to using nuclear weapons. He simply would have no other way to prove that Russia is a great power, capable of winning wars, expanding its territory, and projecting force in its neighborhood.

Weak Strongman

For years, media referred to Putin as a strongman. In 2018, Time magazine proclaimed the beginning of a "strongman era.”

But the flip side of strongmen’s strength is their weakness. To be successful, Putin must simultaneously maintain loyalty in the population and among the elites. These tasks often contradict each other, points out the political scientist Timothy Frye in Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia. Putin's power has institutional limits: popular dissatisfaction with the war could undermine plans to fulfill all the draft quotas, while the declining oil and gas revenues and an economic recession would displease the elites and make it difficult to fund the war.

The short war in Georgia (2008), the seizure of Crimea and the Donbas (2014), the crackdown on the Russian opposition, and the brutal war in Ukraine have turned Putin from an ordinary strongman into a dictator who destroys the lives of Ukrainians and Russians with manic cruelty. If Putin is not stopped, his victims will number in the millions, and he will join the company of such bloody dictators as Stalin and Mao. However, could this be the secret dream of the boy from Leningrad who survived a difficult childhood, joined the secret police, and in the 1990s started building a dizzying career, swinging back and forth between the FSB, gangsters, oligarchs, and Yeltsin’s cronies?

Among dictators, one can hardly find psychologically healthy, positive, and balanced people with personal integrity. Dictators are interpolated with megalomania. They are sure everyone should love, admire, and fear them. Some of them have narcissistic personality disorders, some do not know how to express their feelings and understand others, and many find it difficult to enter into close trusting relationships and are vindictive.

The brutality of dictators is usually caused by heightened anxiety and fears, especially the fear of losing power, being humiliated, and eventually being punished for the crimes they have committed. The more dictators use terror to hold on to power, the more they fear losing it. Putin long ago crossed the line, which makes it impossible for him to have a "peaceful, secure old age" after leaving power.

If the dictator has not committed too many crimes, he can count on a peaceful exit by the time the opposition acquires reinforcements and has a chance to remove him from power. Then he gradually makes concessions. If, however, the crimes are many and violent, the dictator has to defend himself by tightening the repressions, because otherwise the inevitable trial awaits him.

A Game of Chicken

Leaders and analysts have raised the question of Putin’s mental health repeatedly. At the beginning of 2022, the U.S. intelligence community was very worried about Putin's mental stability. Putin was no longer calculating and cold, he had become erratic and stopped hiding his anger, said former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. Putin's long isolation may have caused the "hubris syndrome," and his shrinking social circle during COVID-19 may have made his plans inadequate. Putin "used to see things in 360 degrees—now it's more like 60," one former official told FT.

It is impossible to put a firm foundation under any of this speculation without having the results of a credible medical examination made public. Absent that, solipsism would be a safer bet. In March 2014, German chancellor Angela Merkel told Barack Obama that after speaking with Putin, she was not sure he was in touch with reality. "He is in another world," she said. Veteran journalist Marvin Kalb has developed this view: "Putin is not mad, and he is not in ‘another world.’ He is very much in his own world, which is for him a very realistic world of a new, frothy, determined Russian nationalism. Indeed, he is master of this world.”

In March 2018, Putin said, in reference to the possible use of nuclear weapons: "Yes, it would be a global disaster for humanity, it would be a disaster for the world. But as a citizen of Russia and the head of the Russian state, I want to ask myself the question: why do we need such a world if Russia is not there?" Six months later he developed the theme: "The aggressor must know that retribution is inevitable. We will go to heaven as martyrs, and they will just die.” Suicide bombers say the same thing. By saying this Putin took all Russians hostage.

Maintaining a belief that a healthy person would not start a war of aggression and would not repeatedly threaten the world with nuclear weapons is good for Putin. However, escalating the stakes as a way to get the other to back down can be a rational strategy in conflict situations, showed Thomas Schelling, a Nobel Prize–winning economist who during the Cold War applied game theory to studying international relations. Military theorists nicknamed this strategy "escalate to deescalate": act aggressively in order to break an adversary’s will and force them to retreat in fear.

If you fail to convince your opponent that you are credibly adamant about continuing the escalation, they will not give way. Persuasion is achieved through random acts of madness or a long-term commitment to not backing down. That is why one of the names of this theory is “madman theory”: you have to be truly mad or successfully simulate madness in order to win. In this Putin is greatly helped by Dmitry Medvedev's statements about the readiness of the Russian leadership for a nuclear war and the need for political regime change in Ukraine.

Countering Putin’s Sense of Impunity

What it meant was this: Putin has long been looking up to the U.S. foreign policy and America’s wars in distant countries and used the U.S. as a justification for his interventionism. His latest major speech can be summarized as follows: "The West is exploiting the whole world and has plunged it into evil. History has called Russia to the battlefield against this evil, and there is nowhere to retreat. It was not Russia who first used nuclear weapons, but the United States. They wiped out Dresden, Berlin and Hamburg. But why should they be the only ones who have the right to do so?”

Here Putin's reasoning is akin to that of Rodion Raskolnikov, a character in Fedor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. With murder, Raskolnikov answers the question he has been obsessing about: "Was I a quivering creature or did I have the right?" Raskolnikov decides that if he manages to commit a murder, he is a noble hero, like Napoleon. However, if he fails, then he is a weak creature and can achieve nothing in life. Murder becomes for him an act of self-validation.

The idea of perceiving Putin’s actions through the prism of psychology has many opponents. Putin is not mad but bad. He is not mentally ill but pure evil, some authors say. If we see him as dangerously unstable, we cannot resist him by providing Ukraine with heavy weapons, so the argument goes.

Healthy or mad, Putin is committing many war crimes in Ukraine. We need to think not about how not to incur Putin's wrath, which could lead to a nuclear strike, but about a strategy that could put an end to his crimes.

Putin will not necessarily win the game of chicken because more and more global and regional actors are concluding that Putin cannot be allowed to win. The question is what price will have to be paid when Putin keeps raising the stakes.

In the game of chicken that Putin has long imposed on the West, it does not matter whether Putin is insane or only wants to appear so. What matters is that Putin knows that in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and Crimea, he managed to win. The West has repeatedly avoided a direct confrontation by swerving, which helped Putin develop a sense of impunity. 

Now the situation has changed. Putin is still willing to take risks, but a broad international coalition is stepping up assistance to Ukraine. The prospect of Putin using nuclear weapons is no longer a source of confusion and consternation that paralyzes the will of politicians in the United States and Europe. Now they, like Ukraine, are ready to respond.

Putin is dealing with multiple threats now. The most dangerous ones are domestic, not international. Discontent with the war against Ukraine is sharply increasing inside Russia. The possibility of a revolution or a palace coup is distant at best, but Putin needs to concentrate on his domestic issues, just as he has always done in the past.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Boris Grozovski

Boris Grozovski

Kennan Correspondent on Russian Media and Society;
Journalist and public educator; author of Telegram channel EventsAndTexts
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more