Op-ed by - Brian Whitmore
Can he distinguish between fantasy and reality?
You can learn a lot about someone from their delusions.
Consider Vladimir Putin's comments on January 26. Speaking to students at St. Petersburg, the Kremlin leader said the Ukrainian Army is not really the Ukrainian Army at all. Those soldiers fighting pro-Moscow separatists in Donbas? They're actually NATO's foreign legion.
"We often say: Ukrainian army this, the Ukrainian army that. In actual fact though, who is fighting there? These are indeed official subunits of the armed forces. But to a large extent these are so-called volunteer nationalist battalions," Putin said.
"In effect, it is no longer an army but a foreign legion -- in this case NATO's foreign legion -- which does not of course pursue Ukraine's national interests. They have a completely different agenda that is connected with achieving the geopolitical objective of containing Russia."
Yep. He actually said that.
Putin is doing a number of things here. On one level he is playing that old Kremlin game of drawing equivalencies.
The West has long accused Moscow of manufacturing the separatist conflict in the Donbas, arming and supplying the militants, and sending in Russian troops to direct and reinforce them.
So Moscow naturally -- indeed almost instinctively -- says the West is doing the same with the Ukrainians: Look! NATO has little green men too!
But there is more here than the Kremlin's standard run-of-the-mill -- and entirely false -- whataboutism. It is more insidious than that.
There Is No Ukraine
Putin famously said that Ukraine "isn't even really a country." And here he is again peddling his longstanding meme that the Ukrainians themselves have no agency of their own. They are nothing but the playthings of great powers. Their army isn't even their army. And right now, they're just NATO pawns.
And this belief is actually pretty widespread in the Russian elite. In a recent article, political analyst Aleksandr Sytnik provided an eye-opening inside look at how decisions were made in the run-up to the Ukraine crisis.
Sytnik recently left his post as a senior fellow at the Russian Institute for Strategic Research, a Kremlin-run think tank that provides expert analysis for foreign policy decision making.
Sytnik writes that the institute's director, Leonid Reshetnikov, is a staunch Orthodox Christian who romanticized the tsarist Russian Empire. And the director of its Ukraine department, Tamara Guzenkova, was deeply hostile to the very notion of Ukrainian statehood.
The pair, Sytnik wrote, was fond of repeating phrases like: "there is no Ukraine, only Little Russia;" "Ukrainian statehood is a bluff and Ukraine is a failed state;" and "the Ukrainian language was artificially created by the Austrians and the Poles to break up Russian unity." They were backed up by dependent and subordinate researchers.
Throughout the Ukraine crisis, the institute consistently gave the Kremlin bad advice based on faulty premises. It helped organize insurgency movements in eastern Ukraine and lobbied for the establishment of so-called Novorossia -- a strip of eastern and southeastern Ukraine stretching from Kharkiv to Odesa.
It isn't entirely clear whether the institute was the architect of Russia's Ukraine policy over the past year, or whether they simply reinforced the prevailing prejudices in Putin's inner circle.
What is clear, however, is that their analysis -- as represented by Sytnik -- overlaps completely with the policies that the Kremlin enacted. It also illustrates the prevailing groupthink about Ukraine in the inner sanctum of Russian decision making.
We're Fighting NATO!
But Putin's widely shared delusions about Ukraine are not even the most disturbing thing about his comments.
What he is really getting at here is nicely captured in a tweet by journalist Natalia Antonova.
This really gets to the heart of things. Putin wants to view the Ukraine conflict as a twilight showdown between Russia and the West. But his endgame in this fantasy isn't Ukraine -- it's the West itself.
In a recent interview with the Kyiv Post, military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer recalled a conversation he had with a European ambassador present at high level meetings with Russian officials.
"Russians all the time want to put a map on the table and carve up Europe, Yalta-style, or Molotov-Ribbentrop style," Felgenhauer said.
"Russia is waiting for the West to begin talking on substance -- where Vilnius goes, where Lviv goes. In the Russian view, there should be a map and a line on the map. They can’t say so publicly. They would want a secret appendix."
Now that's never going to happen of course. But it nicely illustrates the level of delusion among Russian officials these days. And if that is indeed Russia's endgame it's still pretty damn chilling.
A man stands on a platform at an empty main railway station in Simferopol, Crimea.
Mini Me: The Shrinking 'Collective Putin'
Part of the reason such groupthink is prevailing among Russian decision makers is because the group calling the shots is getting smaller and smaller.
According to media reports, the so-called "collective Putin" -- that inner sanctum of decisionmaking -- has shrunk to just a handful of trusted advisers -- all of them hardliners associated with the security services.
The economic elite both inside and outside government, which has been urging an exit from the Ukraine crisis, has been marginalized. Bloomberg reported recently that officials dealing with economic issues complain of needing to wait months just to present their policy proposals to the president.
Political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, who advised Putin during his first two terms, told Bloomberg that there was “a very high level of concern among a fairly wide circle of people” in the Russian elite.
"There is a group of people in the upper echelons trying to protect themselves from losses," Pavlovsky said. “They are critical of Putin but they can’t challenge him because he can easily crush them. That makes them even more unhappy."
Not only is Putin not talking to his economics team -- he apparently isn't even thinking about the economy.
Since the Ukraine crisis erupted, the Kremlin disinformation machine has been in constant overdrive. And we've learned a lot about the role of propaganda and subterfuge in hybrid war.
Nutty statements from Russian officials are so commonplace that we almost don't even notice them all anymore.
But we seem to be crossing a threshold and getting close to a very dangerous point. When you build up a make-believe world and surround yourself with only people who reinforce it -- there comes a point where you cannot distinguish reality and fantasy.
And if Putin really believes his own hype, then we're in a very frightening place, indeed.