What drives Vladimir Putin?

Putin’s justifications for invading Ukraine uncannily reflect the motivations of one of Russian literature’s most famous antiheroes, Dostoevsky's Rodion Raskolnikov. Both believe themselves to be unconstrained by conventional morality.
Vladimir Putin at an EU-Russia summit in Brussels.
Vladimir Putin at an EU-Russia summit in Brussels. Credit: Peter Cavanagh / Alamy Stock Photo
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Towards the end of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s timeless masterpiece, Crime and Punishment, the novel’s protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, delves into his reasons for murdering an old pawnbroker lady and her timid sister Lizaveta. He had thought initially he would use the money he stole from the pawnbroker to launch a career (the crime of killing a mean old lady appeared to him insignificant in view of his truly Napoleonic ambitions). But as he goes deeper, it becomes clear that this was not, in fact, a particularly important part of Raskolnikov’s actions, and that he committed the crime for a different reason: above all, to prove to himself that he was not bound by the social canon; that he could overcome the artificial constraints of morality; that he had, to use the famous concept of Dostoevsky’s near-contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche, the will to power.

‘Am I a trembling creature,’ rambled Raskolnikov, ‘or do I have the right?’ The right to do what? The right to bend down and pick up that which was his, that was there for the taking, if he only found the inner strength to discard moral objections.

Raskolnikov’s struggle with himself — his attempt to rationalise the abominable — uncannily reminds me of Vladimir Putin’s reasoning for invading Ukraine. He has put forward various explanations for his aggression, some that might be called ‘ideological’ in that they highlight Russia’s alleged historical rights to Ukrainian territory. Others are based on a skewed interpretation of Russia’s core ‘security interests.’ But behind all this rhetoric lies Putin’s preoccupation — an obsession even — with proving to others and, above all, to himself that he has the right to Ukraine, the right not in a moral-ethical sense, nor in any legal sense, but in Raskolnikov’s sense: to bend down and pick up what was his because he dared to do what no one else did — openly challenge the US-led rules-based world order.

America has always occupied a larger-than-life place in Putin’s imagination. In his many recent statements on foreign affairs, Putin has spoken of the United States with spite and hatred. A perusal of these voluminous pronouncements reveals that what Putin finds most objectionable is the idea of American ‘exceptionalism.’ It appears he first used this term to talk about the US in May 2007, in his Victory Day speech, and it soon became a regular fixture of his discussion of foreign affairs.

It is unclear what was the precise moment when Putin embraced this view of US foreign policy: perhaps it was the American intention to set up missile interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic (publicly announced in January 2007). Putin touched on this issue in his infamous speech in Munich. He also highlighted other perceived affronts, including the US agreements with Romania (December 2005) and Bulgaria (April 2006), allowing for the stationing of up to 5,000 US troops in the two countries. Putin’s criticism of American ‘exceptionalism’ overlapped in time with Washington’s greater assertiveness, which challenged Russia’s conventional position in Europe and potentially eroded Moscow’s ability to threaten the US and its allies with nuclear obliteration.

The build-up of Russia-Western tensions began visibly in early 2007, and led, in short order, to Russia’s suspension of its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Forces Europe (announced in July 2007), resumption of strategic bomber flights (August 2007), and, soon enough, to Russia’s war in Georgia (August 2008). However, the downward slide in Russian-American relations was briefly arrested with the change of guard in the Kremlin. Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency was characterised by the renewal of the Russian-American dialogue, even in spite of the regime’s growing obsession with the challenge posed by domestic opposition.

But alongside Putin’s ‘return’ (given he had never left) came also his preoccupation with countering American ‘exceptionalism.’ He mentioned the issue in his well-remembered op-ed in The New York Times in September 2013, where he called for ‘caution’ in Syria. The op-ed followed President Barack Obama’s speech to the US Congress, in the wake of Assad’s use of chemical weapons, in which Obama justified US strikes on Syria  by referring to American exceptionalism. ‘It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation … When we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal,’ Putin wrote in response. In fact, he personally added this passage to the op-ed written largely by his aides, a reminder of the extent of his personal obsession.

Obama’s occasional dismissive remarks about Putin — such as when he compared him to ‘the bored kid at the back of the classroom’ — added to the sense of a personal affront. It wasn’t just that the Americans felt they were ‘exceptional.’ They also pretended to be teachers. And they wanted to teach him – him!

These emotional underpinnings of Putin’s conflict with the West were enormously important, more important perhaps than the perceived harm to Russia’s security interests from NATO’s eastward enlargement. The issue hinged on Putin’s perception of himself as the leader of a ‘Great Power,’ one that, although not America’s equal by most measures, nevertheless had the means at its disposal to destroy the United States, and so end in one stroke its arrogant exceptionalism, even if this meant also destroying the world. If he had the means, then did he also not have the right?

Putin’s ideas were put to a test in 2014, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in what Putin described as a ‘coup’ and Ukrainian protesters called the ‘revolution of dignity.’ Putin perceived an opportunity to cannibalise Ukraine and so prove he could push back against American exceptionalism. ‘Those who keep talking about their exceptionalism,’ he proclaimed in the wake of his annexation of Crimea, ‘do not like Russia’s independent foreign policy. Events in Ukraine confirmed this. As they also confirmed that the double-standard model of relations with Russia does not work.’

In speaking about ‘double standards’ Putin was alluding to America’s wars in the Middle East, beginning with the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and then Iraq in 2003. The latter was infamous for having benefited from the made-up pretext of ridding Saddam Hussein’s regime of the weapons of mass destruction that he evidently did not have. Back in 2003, Putin was careful in his criticism of the Iraq war, and even compared it positively with the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. The Soviets, he argued, had merely tried to ‘improve’ their position in Afghanistan but instead got mired in a war that lasted for ten years. By contrast, the US attacked a regime that ‘had been opposed to the international community for a long time’ and that ‘brooked no compromise.’ As for the US invasion of Afghanistan, that, too, Putin accepted as a necessary measure in the war on terrorism. What doubts he harboured, he kept to himself. 

It was only later that Putin would cite Afghanistan and Iraq (and also Yugoslavia and Libya) as examples of American exceptionalism in action, using them to justify his invasion of Ukraine. ‘Our Western partners,’ he complained bitterly on March 18, 2014, ‘prefer the right of might over international law. They have come to believe in their chosen-ness and exceptionalism.’ On the same day Russia formally annexed Crimea.

The world looked on in disbelief but there was very little reaction to the crime. The sanctions that were imposed on Russia were of symbolic, superficial character, not so much as a slap on the wrist. It was as if Raskolnikov murdered the old lady in plain sight, and then walked down the street, brandishing the bloodied axe: see, I did it because I could! With Russia promptly annexing a part of Ukraine, and successfully bolstering a defiant tyrant in Syria, it may well be that Putin came to believe in his own manifest destiny.

Indeed, Putin had in effect proclaimed Russia’s exceptionalism, i.e. its ability to intervene in its neighbours’ affairs at will, to threaten, to annex. He presented this exceptionalism of his as a response to American exceptionalism. ‘Democratisation’ of international relations, which Russian propaganda has trumpeted for years as a remedy against the US-led ‘unipolar world’ came down, on closer inspection, to the assertion of Russia’s right to do as it wanted at the expense of those deemed weaker, the ‘trembling creatures’ of global politics, including Georgia and Ukraine.

Putin was especially unwilling to accept the challenge posed by Presidents Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky. It was not because he was terrified of Ukrainian democracy or feared that Russia might catch the ‘democratic virus.’ Far from it. Russian strategic thinking dismissed Ukraine as a semi-failed state (an important reason why so many in Russia underestimated the strength of Ukraine’s resistance). The real reason was that Putin could not accept that his exceptional right could be so insolently rejected by trembling creatures that he so disdained.

As he set his mind on destroying Ukraine, Putin’s rhetoric about American ‘exceptionalism’ became shriller. Unsurprisingly, the term crept into his February 24 announcement of the invasion. ‘Why is all of this happening?’ he raved. ‘Where does this insolent manner of speaking from the position of your own exceptionalism, infallibility, and all-permissiveness come from? Wherefrom comes that condescending, arrogant attitude towards our interests and absolutely legitimate demands?’ He could well have added, in grim Raskolnikov’s voice: ‘Am I a trembling creature, or do I have the right?’

Putin had now committed himself to the hideous act of murder. Within hours the Russians launched a full-blown invasion of a neighbouring country, unleashing a gruesome orgy of violence. Few in the Moscow inner circle saw it coming. They thought rationally. They talked about security interests. They weighed the pros and the cons. And they completely underestimated Putin’s emotional state, and his pathological preoccupation with proving an idea – that he could.

‘The paralysis of power, of will — this is the first step to degradation and oblivion,’ Putin said in his announcement of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There is something here that bears resemblance to Nietzsche’s will to power: the desire to do the unthinkable in pursuit of goals, rejecting the seemingly artificial constraints of custom and morality. ‘Behold! I bring you the superman!’ Nietzsche proclaimed in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Here he was, the Russian ‘superman’: his face contorted by fear and hatred, facing his own mortality and futility, raining vitriol, asserting himself in your face, America.

But Putin’s misadventure ran into a problem: the Ukrainians fought back. The Russian offensive stalled. After months of fighting, Putin managed to prove only one thing: that he could not do the things he said he would. Not for lack of trying of course; simply, he was no superman, only a delusional despot with a bloated ego. The ego was punctured. Putin blew hot and cold and promised, in one particularly militant speech, that he had not ‘even properly begun yet.’

In a rarely-read chapter of The End of History, Francis Fukuyama talks about ‘men without chests,’ that is,  those who have no ambition to be recognised as superior to anyone else. The problem could arise in a liberal democracy, where all are afforded equal opportunity, and general justice prevails. Such a situation, Fukuyama argues, could lead to a degree of societal degradation: ‘If man reaches a society in which he has succeeded in abolishing injustice, his life will come to resemble that of the dog.’ He sees redemption in the pursuit of greatness in foreign affairs, citing encouragingly Churchill’s statesmanship in the Second World War and President George H.W. Bush’s decision to expel Iraq from Kuwait.

In one particularly controversial passage, Fukuyama even hails the benefits of a ‘short and decisive war every generation or so,’ so that a liberal democracy could ‘defend its own liberty and independence.’ Putin’s Russia is not a liberal democracy by any stretch of the imagination, but he envisioned this war against Ukraine as the short decisive war of his generation — a war that would bring him the recognition he so badly craved. Putin’s barrel-chested misadventure thus owes something to a Fukuyamian conception of recognition, perhaps not exactly in the way the political scientist envisioned when the two of them eyed the end of history from their respective perches in the State Department and the KGB.

‘I just killed,’ Raskolnikov concluded at the end of his famous monologue. ‘I killed for myself; just for myself.’ But there was a paradox, which he perceived even as he committed his crime. ‘Did I not know,’ he muttered, ‘that if I began to ask and interrogate myself whether I have the right to power — then it follows that I do not have the right to power.’ ‘I had no right to go there,’ added Raskolnikov, ‘because I am just a louse like everyone else.’

Eventually, Raskolnikov fully confessed to his crime. He could not live with the guilt, which, for Dostoevsky at least, proved the existence of divine providence. Having risen insolently to assert his right against fellow man, Raskolnikov was stricken down by the hand of God. He fell on the ground and kissed it to the amusement of the passers-by. This, for Dostoevsky, was a sign of Raskolnikov’s repentance, the beginning of his return to normality.

Raskolnikov and Putin are very different people. At the very least, they represent men at very different stages of their careers. Raskolnikov was a desperately poor student eyeing the unfair world and rationalising his own place in it. Whether he killed an old lady and her sister to become Putin, or just to prove to himself that he could take what was rightly his, he dared not take the next step. He could not overcome. Putin, by contrast, is a highly accomplished murderer. Many an old lady has been dispatched in cold blood on his orders — and innocent children too. Will he ever repent, fall on the ground and kiss it? Will he feel the need to, if God — thanks to the criminally pliant leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church — is already on his side?

‘Do I then strive after happiness? I strive after my work!’ Thus spoke Putin on emerging from his bunker like Zarathustra from his cave. And, behold, there was death and destruction everywhere.

And he grinned.

‘I haven’t even properly begun yet.’

Sergey Radchenko

Sergey Radchenko is the Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor at the Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

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