Europe Politics

Putin's obsession with Ukraine has made analysts question his rationality

Key Points
  • Political analysts say Putin's recent claims directed toward the Ukrainian government are nonsense.
  • Max Hess, a senior political risk analyst at AKE International, told CNBC Monday that Putin has, in recent days, "challenged our assumptions about his rationality."
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he attends his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, Russia, December 23, 2021.
Evgenia Novozhenina | Reuters

President Vladimir Putin's widespread attack on Ukraine, and his accompanying rhetoric, have left a number of political analysts questioning the strongman leader's rationale — and rationality — for the invasion.

The Russian leader's obsession with Ukraine is long-standing and he has repeatedly extolled the unity of Russians and Ukrainians, while at the same time deploring the country's pro-Western government under President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Political analysts who spoke to CNBC say Putin's recent claims directed toward the government are nonsense, reflecting an irrational and ill-judged attitude toward the leadership in Kyiv and its direction.

In particular, Putin's baseless references to Ukraine's leadership as "neo-Nazis" and "drug addicts" has prompted analysts to say such pronouncements show an irrationality and effort to misinform and manipulate.

Max Hess, a senior political risk analyst at AKE International, told CNBC Monday that Putin has, in recent days, "challenged our assumptions about his rationality."

"I have Russian, right-wing friends who have messaged me shocked that he went in for Ukraine, and these are people who were initially supportive of the recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk [self-proclaimed republics] and who had believed the propaganda claims that Ukrainians were trying to ethnically cleanse Russians, which are complete nonsense."

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Asked if people were now questioning Putin's ability to think rationally, Hess said "there clearly are people who are."

Timothy Ash, emerging markets strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, believes that it is increasingly clear that Putin's game plan was to encircle major cities Kyiv and Kharkiv — at which point he thought Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would throw in the towel.

"He has been spectacularly wrong on all counts," he said in emailed comments Sunday, adding that he "cannot help feeling here that Putin has spectacularly miscalculated and will pay the price eventually by being forced from office."

As he attempted to justify the invasion that began last Thursday, Putin said Russia did not want to occupy its neighbor but said Russia's aims were the "demilitarization and denazification" of Ukraine, a comment widely seen as ludicrous by international observers.

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"Ukraine is not run by Nazis but it is a flourishing democracy unlike Russia," Ash said.

Hess noted that while there are right-wing groups in Ukraine, but they have no political power. Moreover, such groups exist in Russia too, where arguably the right wing has more political sway.

"There are some people on the right wing in Ukraine who have been in militias and various things [like that] who have beliefs that I find offensive and don't agree with ... But the idea that they have any kind of political influence on the government of Ukraine, which has a Jewish president [Zelenskyy] ... is ridiculous," Hess told CNBC.

In any case, he noted, "the far right in Russia has gotten a larger share of the vote in literally every single election than the Ukrainian far right has ever gotten."

False and misleading narratives

Putin's speech announcing the invasion offered an insight into his mindset when it comes to Ukraine. He included multiple references to World War II, the collapse of the Soviet Union and what he sees as the dangers posed by NATO to Russia's security interests.

Essentially, Putin has attempted to justify an attack on Ukraine as Russia protecting its citizens in the country, both in Crimea — which it annexed in 2014 — and in eastern Ukraine in the two pro-Russian "republics" it supports.

Western officials and close followers of Russia also see Putin's comments, and his version (and often revisionist view) of history as an attempt to create false and misleading narratives over Ukraine in order to justify and sell an invasion to the Russian people.

Last week, Putin once again extolled the "unity" of Ukrainians and Russians, just as he was announcing that Russia would recognize two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine — the People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk — and would send troops in on a "peacekeeping" mission there, a move that was widely seen as a precursor to larger military action, which has now come to pass.

In a television address on Feb. 21, Putin tried to emphasize the links between Russia and Ukraine, stating that Ukraine "is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space."

"These are our comrades, those dearest to us – not only colleagues, friends and people who once served together, but also relatives, people bound by blood, by family ties."

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Analysts have long noted that Putin's obsession over Ukraine stems from his desire to influence and control former Soviet satellite states like Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus.

Ukraine has proved stubbornly unwilling to go along with Putin's plan, however, and last year, in an essay entitled "On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians," Putin said that "the wall" that had emerged between Russia and Ukraine in recent years was a "tragedy."

Ukraine's appetite for independence from Russia has been seen in several popular uprisings against the government in the last two decades, beginning with the so-called "Orange Revolution" in 2004 that saw mass protests in the country after a contested presidential election, and which culminated in pro-Western politicians coming to power that year.

More recently, there was the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, a more violent uprising that came with a wave of pro-European protests and civil unrest which led to the ousting of the then pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Putin called this revolution a "coup d'etat" in his speech on Thursday last week.

Putin's miscalculations

How far Putin is willing to go to subjugate Ukraine as Russian forces continue their invasion of the country is uncertain. This week there are concerns that a massive Russian convoy of military vehicles and manpower, slowly approaching the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, will conduct a large-scale offensive against the city.

Other strategically-key cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol are believed to be steadily becoming surrounded by Russian forces on Wednesday. Nonetheless, Russian forces have made much slower progress than was expected, and have been hit with logistical issues.

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David Roche says this is 'the beginning of the end' for Putin

Veteran strategist David Roche told CNBC Monday that he thinks the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a failure thus far, and that Putin, surrounded by advisors that don't want to contradict him, has no one to challenge his version of reality when it comes to Ukraine.

"Putin, as an autocratic leader, is increasingly isolated ... and he believes his own propaganda, he believes whatever he wrote, the 5,000 words about Ukraine not being a real nation or real country, he believes that is the truth," Roche said.

"There is actually no feedback loop which will allow Putin to get himself educated as to what reality is and that is the perfect recipe for major mistakes — military, political and socio-economic and Putin is making them. My belief is that this is, over a period, the beginning of the end of Putin because he has shown himself to be hallucinatory and incompetent."