Ever since Khrushchev’s shoe-pounding moment, the Russians have been playing on the madman theory of politics, making up for their weakness and incompetence by trying to appear scary and deranged. You were supposed to believe that they were terrifying maniacs capable of doing anything. Especially involving nukes.
In reality, the Russian leadership was as scared of war as we were. Even more so because they knew they would lose.
American leaders like JFK and Reagan who got that were able to push back. Those who didn’t, got bullied.
That brings us to the present day where we’ve seen the same tactics repeatedly utilized. The Russians keep talking about their nukes and other NBC options and the Biden administration falls for it every time. Are the Russians capable of using chemical, biological, and possibly even nuclear weapons? Maybe, but they were fairly conservative in that regard even during the Soviet era. And the one thing they wouldn’t do is attack us with any such weapons. Not that it’s an issue because we don’t have forces on the ground. We’re doing what the Russians have done to us (and we did to them before) which is back a proxy war.
And so here comes the rumors that Putin is sick. Is he sick? Probably. He doesn’t look healthy and there are persistent rumors of him preparing to step down. Unlike the propaganda that pervades the current conflict, 90% of which is utterly untrustworthy and 9.9% of which is mostly untrustworthy, those rumors predate the war and they have some basis in internal moves happening within Russia.
But the overall reason for pushing these stories is madman theory. A sick Putin, we’re told is capable of anything. Is that true? Russia is functionally a totalitarian regime, but it’s an oligarchy. Unlike Stalin, who would have been able to do anything, Putin’s allies are not about to let him do anything truly catastrophic.
From the beginning, my message has been, relax. This war is bad for the people involved, but it’s going to have a limited impact on us. It’s not the end of the world, just another episode in centuries of warfare in the region.
Madman theory panics the gullible. But there are few actual madmen who get into power. Even Hitler was relatively functional and capable of grasping consequences until toward the end of his reign.
Putin wants to seem unpredictable, but he’s not. We know what he wants and we know what he’s willing to do to get it. Those are the key things to understand about any leader.