If you choose your analytical tools poorly, your conclusions will be wrong.
I have spent the best part of the last few weeks attending and participating in talks about Putin’s plan for Ukraine. And every single time I was the only one who pointed out that an invasion of Ukraine may be catastrophic for Russia – but that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen.
Because Putin may not care about what happens to Russia. He might be wrong about it because he is too isolated. Or he might be free to ignore it because he lost all checks on his power by now. And that means that however disastrous an invasion would be to the economy, to particular business interests, to oligarchs or even to Russian people, Putin might still choose to do it.
A country’s interest is not the same as the interest of its leaders. In fact, the more autocratic the country, the less the people’s interests matter.
This is not groundbreaking. It has always been the problem with autocracies – analysts just tend to forget it.
It is obvious why it happens. Talking heads and experts are under pressure to perform a certain role. They have to show off their knowledge about the topic, preferably with numbers and factoids that the audience didn’t know. But that leads them down the false path of thinking that numbers and facts must matter in Putin’s calculations. And that is not necessarily the case.
The more autocratic a country is, the more it is exposed to the personality of its leader.
And that is a bad thing. It means that we are exposed to the consequences of his ageing, his personal grievances, his hormonal status, his ignorance.
If he is isolated, as Putin is, his lack of knowledge of certain realities will distort his decisions. To give an obvious example: if he killed or fired everyone who said no or brought bad news, he might be ignorant to the fact that the Russian army is not as sharp as he was made to believe.
If he is deranged, the list of terrible decisions he can make is virtually endless. Just look at his threats to use nuclear weapons. The question is only what can stop him. That is also the only question he asks himself.
It is also possible that he is dying and he wants to see the world burn. Why not? He amassed all this power – he may want to use it before he goes out. His family might be a force that keeps him civilized and with a view of the future – unless he fell out of them or if his chosen successor is terminally ill.
He might even be motivated to leave his little dick print on history. Again, that has nothing to do with the interests of Russians or Russia, but that may easily be his upmost concern toward the end of his reign/life.
Yes, this is all baseless speculation. But that doesn’t mean we must have better tools at our disposal. Maybe we really don’t have anything better than that. Yes, it is uncomfortable to be reduced to helpless Kremlinology. But that is exactly what happens when institutions are switched off, when opposition doesn’t exist and when an autocrat reached the point of no return.
In the US a political analyst can predict political development by looking at committees, popularity numbers, legal procedures and economic interests in America. But that kind of expertise is useless in a dictatorship when such checks on the ruler’s power do not exist. Putin worked hard to remove all those controls. In fact, that is his life’s work. His proudest achievement. How could he not brag about it? How could he not show it off? And how could he not use it for something?
Experts will always try to base their analysis on GDP and tanks and hard data. But we are now reduced to helpless Kremlinology: Trying to read the emperor’s mind and second guessing his little feelings. Because in a dictatorship that is what matters.
If you don’t like it, if you feel it is undignified and futile, you are right. It should never happen. But we must admit it when it does. And this is such a moment.
Sometimes we are helpless to guess or shape our political future and it is an uncomfortable thing to admit. That is why we should stick with democracy. With all its problems, it is designed to ensure that we will never be exposed to the stupidity and the ego of just one dude ever again.
Putin’s wild ride is also a reminder that other people’s autocrat is still our problem. If a guy can capture a sovereign state with all its resources and render it into his personal toy, we are not safe, no matter how distant that country seems on the map. He can destroy our democracy by corrupting our politicians, his oligarch can destroy our futures by buying up our country with their politically gained wealth. And the problem will keep deteriorating, and in the end there will always be a war. The unchecked ambition of a little dude will always get us there.
Putin’s interests are not the same as that of his people. Not taking that into account is a breathtaking analytical mistake.
It is also an analyst’s job to realize when hard data and facts are no longer relevant and we are hopelessly exposed to one guy’s stupidity, personal grievances, his ignorance, and his paranoia. We should never, ever get to this point – but it is important to see when we are there. If an analyst fails to identify even the possibility that Putin might do something that is against the interest of Russia, that analyst failed to choose the appropriate analytical tool and his conclusions will be wrong.