Is President Putin a Rational Actor?

It’s a common question that has been asked every time Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist moods appear: Is Putin a rational actor? The short answer is: yes.

The rationality debate in IR theory applies mostly to horrific examples in human history. For example, we used to ask “Is Bin Laden a rational actor?” But horrific impacts and human suffering shouldn’t be conflated with irrationality. Rational does not mean good or just. Right now, the discourse likens Putin to Hitler, judging Putin as irrational and erratic when it comes to his actions in Ukraine.

The claim that President Putin used to be rational but is no longer acting as such also appeared in Western mainstream media.

But Putin’s goal is not suffering first. He is after a very specific view of Russian goals and interests – Putin is not after death and suffering as a political goal. War instead is a means to an end — his view of Russia in the 21st century.

The rationality debate is most often pushed and used as a sign of support for Ukrainians and to denounce Putin’s actions and the way his Ukraine strategy is unfolding. Evil, inhumane and harsh do not equal irrational, however. Putin’s Ukraine plan is rather rational and strategic, in fact. He follows and closes in on several points. The Ukraine map, alignments, forces, negotiations, laws, restrictions, suppression, and the resources game, as well as the international map and alignments play out remarkably well for President Putin right now. Human suffering is a factor with regard to opening the humanitarian corridors – Putin is not after the refugees. He sees the human factor as collateral damage, a necessary evil, and as a side effect of his military strategy.

War is quite common throughout history. The highlight of Western media right now is precisely the human suffering angle and it revolves around denouncing Russia’s actions but that doesn’t make President Putin irrational. The definition of rationality is when something is done in accordance with reason or logic. As far as chess play goes, Putin is winning right now, which remarkably means that suffering would end sooner rather than later if Putin gets what he wants. The way energy and resources play out, the way Putin receives the international sanctions, the pronouncement of the independent republics, the UN process, the pronouncement of the list of unfriendly countries, and the disinformation strategy follow each other in a rational sequence. He is after political goals, and not after suffering as an evil master plan. We all have a stake in President Putin being rational.

The discourse around the war in Ukraine has moved to such a polarizing plane that many already feel a chilling effect on free speech, as they try to voice an opinion. It’s almost like claiming that Putin is a regular political player means that you are against the Ukrainian refugees. Such a reflex actually stands in the way of analysis. Putin’s horrible actions don’t make him irrational. The madness game is played often vis-à-vis big leaders. US President Joe Biden is often subject to the unfit to lead question. Other explanations outside of the irrational should be sought here, as an irrationality lens doesn’t get us very far.

In Bulgaria, for example, the Minister of Defense, Stefan Yanev, was sacked after using the words “military operation” instead of “war”.

Putin is facing a chess play, as the sanctions and counter-measures hit Russia. When the war will end is a question subject to a cost-benefit analysis. Putin will continue and push through as long as his actions don’t destroy the Russian economy. Putin isn’t a kamikaze – there are lines which will make Putin retreat. All that is a rational actor analysis and not irrational gone crazy. How pressured the Russian economy is — is a factor. But that is also a factor for the various players, including EU and NATO member states. At the end of the day, EU and NATO members are also rational players that decide how far they will go. Seeing events outside of that lens, is again Western mainstream one-sided coverage.

It’s a chess play game and President Putin is at the center of the table right now. He is clearly rational. Those that deny that could be also a part of the mainstream media machine.

[Photo by, via Wikimedia Commons]

Iveta Cherneva is an Amazon best-selling author and political commentator. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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