Is Russia's President Vladimir Putin abnormal? - opinion

In the disciplined study of world politics, a rational leader is one who values his own country’s national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences.

 Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of the executive board of the General Procurator's Office in Moscow, Russia April 25, 2022. (photo credit: Sputnik/Valery Sharifulin/Pool via REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of the executive board of the General Procurator's Office in Moscow, Russia April 25, 2022.
(photo credit: Sputnik/Valery Sharifulin/Pool via REUTERS)

Is Vladimir Putin normal? Even on its face, this stark query offers no prospect of usable analytic insights. In the crafting of any nation’s foreign policy, reasonable definitions of normalcy must remain irremediably subjective and hard to operationalize. A better question for the United States and its NATO allies would inquire about the Russian dictator’s rationality.

In the disciplined study of world politics, a rational leader is one who values his own country’s national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences. Is this what we currently see in the Kremlin? Does such a primal preference ordering accurately describe Putin? Or is he willing to tolerate huge security risks to Russia in exchange for presumed personal power and prestige? At the moment, it’s anyone’s more-or-less plausible guess. Among other things, this is because the Russian president now speaks openly and unhesitatingly about leveraging a nuclear war.

Whatever their particular or discrete security calculations, US President Joe Biden, America’s NATO allies and also Israel (because the world always operates as a system) will need to understand that even a seemingly rational Vladimir Putin could pose existential threats. In a variety of evident cases – and on account of increasingly probable decisional miscalculations during episodes of crisis – a rational Putin could pose even greater perils than an irrational one.

In such bewilderingly complex matters, it will always be important for responsible national decision-makers to differentiate between a Putin who is merely evil from a Putin who is potentially irrational or even subject to literal madness. “Do you know what it means to find yourselves face to face with a madman,” inquires Luigi Pirandello in Act II of Henry IV, “with one who shakes the foundations of all you have built up in yourselves, your logic, the logic of all your constructions?”

But, the Russian war against Ukrainian noncombatants is not just about evil or madness. After World War II and the Holocaust, American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton interviewed Nazi (SS) doctors. Perplexed as a physician, that such monstrous Nazi crimes could ever have been justified as hygiene, Lifton was determined to answer some basic questions. Most elementary of these queries was the following: How could the Nazi doctors have managed to conform large-scale medicalized killing of innocent and defenseless human beings with their otherwise normal lives?

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech as he visits the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur Region, Russia April 12, 2022. (credit: SPUTNIK/EVGENY BIYATOV/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS)Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech as he visits the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur Region, Russia April 12, 2022. (credit: SPUTNIK/EVGENY BIYATOV/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS)

In a similar fashion, US and other world leaders should inquire about Vladimir Putin and his all-too-many Russian underlings, enablers and altogether witting allies: How can these civilized people witness the daily aggression and genocide now being inflicted in Ukraine by thousands of Russian soldiers and continue as normal with their own private lives? In present day academic parlance, this would more fashionably be called a bystander issue.

It was not unusual for Nazi doctors to remain good fathers and husbands, while systematically murdering subhuman children. These defiling physicians (doctors sworn by Hippocratic oath to do no harm) were capable of supervising genocidal mass murders six days a week. On Sundays, they normally went to church.

NOW, WE must inquire along very similar lines: Are the Russian soldier-murderers in Ukraine similarly able to remain good fathers and husbands? If so, what would this mean for the future of war and peace between Washington, Moscow and other nation states? Looking ahead, whether from Europe, North America or the Middle East, should we more plausibly expect a hot war?

To the physician, the Oath of Hippocrates pledges that “I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art.” When asked about this unwavering duty, most interviewed SS doctors felt no contradiction. In Nazi pseudo-biology, the Jew was a source of infection. Ridding society of Jews, it followed, was a properly anti-infective medical goal. All such murderous excisions were conceptualized as recognizable obligations of healing, compassion and racial hygiene.

The duality of good and evil within each individual person is a very old idea in western thought, most notably in German literature from Johan Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Nietzsche to Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. In studying this invaluable literature, humans may finally learn that the critical boundaries of caring and compassion exist most genuinely within each individual person.

And as Putin-ordered Nuremberg-category crimes continue to escalate, it is high time to acknowledge that the walls of human normalcy, abnormality and rationality are conspicuously porous. They can allow even a single individual to navigate between polar extremes.

After attending the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, political philosopher Hannah Arendt advanced the sobering hypothesis that evil can be ordinary or banal. Today, as violence-stoking hatreds are being channeled by Russian President Putin into crudely belligerent passions of Mother Russia, banality could precipitate not only additional genocides, but also more catastrophic international wars.

Prima facie, the worst case here would be represented by a nuclear war. Ultimately in all discernible matters of Russia’s criminal war against Ukraine, truth will prove exculpatory: “Happy are those who still know that behind all speeches are the unspeakable lies.” This cryptic observation by Rainer Maria Rilke, the Dionysian poet (one associated with variously dense philosophical issues of being) laments the lies of all despots. Though the virulent particulars of such lies are ever-changing around the world, their generality of meaning remains both constant and significant.

There is one final observation. While largely unacknowledged, normal human beings are still able to grasp that in a presumptively “abnormal” world, not to be abnormal could express a unique form of madness. Even if Putin were judged by acknowledged experts to be perfectly rational, there would remain many existential or near-existential Russian threats to world legal order. Though abnormality, irrationality or outright madness could render Putin lethal across several continents, even a sane Russian adversary would elicit planet-wide exclamations of visceral horror.

What happens then? It won’t be a matter of normalcy.

The writer is emeritus professor of international law at Purdue University. He was born in Zurich at the end of World War II, the only son of Austrian Holocaust refugees, and is the author of many books and articles dealing with history, law, literature and philosophy.