Czar Vladimir Putin is divorced from reality: Niall Ferguson
Russian President Vladimir Putin is not mad, as some in the West may think, but rather corrupted by power and divorced from reality, historian Niall Ferguson told Nikkei in a recent interview.
The wider impact for Asia involves what lessons Chinese President Xi Jinping will draw from this, said Ferguson, a senior fellow of the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
One difference, he said, is that the West will be unable to impose similar economic sanctions on China if it invades Taiwan, because the Chinese economy is huge and integrated with the rest of the world.
Edited excerpts from the interview follow.
Q: How would you describe the significance of the crisis in Ukraine?
A: It’s the moment when Europeans and Americans have woken up to the reality that Vladimir Putin intends to resurrect the Russian Empire and has not finished, even if he is successful in taking control of Ukraine.
For a historian, it’s just another disaster in the disastrous history of Ukraine. If you wanted to fit it into a pattern of Eurasian history, Ukraine is one of those borderlands that are constantly being fought over. You might say Ukraine is the unluckiest country of the last hundred years.
Putin claims a historical rationale for his invasion. He says that historically the Russian and Ukrainian people have been one. That’s just not true. Ukraine was a distinct, if somewhat chaotic, entity in the 17th century, and it was only brought into the Russian Empire after the time of Peter the Great.
We are now in “Cold War II.” The difference between Cold War II and Cold War I is that in Cold War II, China is the leading opponent, and Russia the junior partner — whereas in Cold War I, initially the Soviet Union was the leading opponent, and China was the junior partner.
Cold War II is more trans-Pacific than trans-Atlantic.
Q: We are seeing remarkable resistance from the Ukrainians and NATO is united in its opposition to Russia.
A: Putin cannot have expected such unity and severity in the realm of economic sanctions, as we see. It turned out that Europeans were far more willing to impose sanctions on Russia than he probably expected — not only that, more willing to supply military aid to Ukraine.
He has absolutely no interest in there being an escalation, because he would lose any war with NATO unless he was prepared to use nuclear weapons, and that’s just a bluff.
Q: What is Putin thinking now?
A: Americans have a tendency to think the leaders of authoritarian regimes are crazy. I don’t think Putin is mad. I think power has corrupted him. And it has also distanced him from reality. He clearly underestimated the Ukrainian resistance, and he clearly underestimated the risk to the Russian economy.
These are miscalculations, not signs of madness. They’re the kind of miscalculations you make if you are very divorced from reality, because you lead the life of a czar, in vast — if hideous — palaces, surrounded by people who are terrified of you and tell you what they think you want to hear. If I put myself in Putin’s position, I don’t think he’s trying to resurrect the Soviet Union. He’s looking back even further and trying to bring back the Russian Empire, with himself as “Czar Vladimir.”
It’s an ideology of conservative, orthodox nationalism that Putin offers, that has nothing to do with the Soviet legacy. A lot of people get this wrong.
He has a huge incentive to speed up the defeat of Ukraine, using more brutal methods if that’s what it takes. Because if he doesn’t win, then I think his position at home will become very vulnerable.
If I’m him, the crucial thing now is to achieve victory over Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian army as fast as possible so that we can get to some peace negotiation from a position of strength. In that negotiation, Putin might be willing to make some concessions to get the sanctions reduced or removed.
Q: What about China’s stance? It seems China is in a difficult position.
A: In the short run, Xi Jinping must be wondering if he made a mistake in giving Putin effective permission to invade Ukraine, because I’m sure Putin assured him that this war would be short, and it would not produce such a huge economic shock.
Xi Jinping likes stability, especially this year, when the [Chinese Communist Party’s national] congress is in preparation to renew his term as leader.
If Russia is plunged into economic chaos, who knows what happens next? There is some chance — I’d put the probability at 10% — that Putin falls from power. Some Russian leaders in the past were ousted, overthrown, assassinated, because of their failures.
In the longer term, the question is: “Is it really in Russia’s interests to be China’s junior partner, when China clearly has ambitions in Central and East Asia that pose a potential threat to Russia?”
At some point their relationship begins to fray because, in truth, neither side really trusts the other.
Q: How will this impact Taiwan?
A: Xi Jinping has, as his ultimate goal, to bring Taiwan under the control of the Chinese Communist Party, and I assume that he will conclude from observing the events in Ukraine that the West is weak, in military terms, and reluctant to fight, but it is strong in economic terms and prepared to use sanctions to punish aggression.
The question he will ask himself is: “Can they do to me what they are doing to Russia?”
And the answer will be no. Unlike Russia, China is a huge economy that is still, despite Cold War tendencies, deeply bound up with the U.S. economy, with very large U.S. investments in China. If you did to China what we’re currently doing to Russia, it would hurt us a lot more. That is what I’ll call the “mutually assured financial destruction” problem.