Is Putin “Irrational”?

Addressing an analytical pet peeve (and, more importantly, correcting a mistake).

Over the last week, I have heard a number of assertions that Vladimir Putin is behaving “irrationally” or that he is “irrational.”* It is a common mistake for people, from commentators to common observers, to assert that an actor that does something problematic is “irrational.”

The prefix “ir” means “not” or “opposite of.” Placing it in front of “rational” means that someone is not rational, or is acting the opposite of rationally.

Irrational does not mean immoral.

Irrational doesn’t mean dangerous.

Irrational does not mean mistaken.

Irrational doesn’t even mean risky.

Irrational absolutely does not mean “something I don’t like.”

Irrational means without reason, and suggests that a person is in some ways insane (or driven solely and completely by reason-less emotion).

Irrational assumes that the actor in question is not assessing evidence as they see it before acting. Irrational assumes no cost/benefit analysis has been made. Irrational assumes no logic or process in decision-making.

Kim Jong Un is often accused of being “irrational” when he engages in missile tests and other provocative actions. But he clearly is engaging in calculated, and therefore, rational behavior aimed at making statements about the regime’s military power. Moreover, he frequently leverages that behavior into concessions or other preferred behavior by South Korea, China, or the US as a result of his allegedly irrational acts.

I know there is a certain satisfaction some get in suggesting Kim is just crazeee, but the reality is that the evidence suggests that his provocations are calculated. Indeed, the North’s ongoing forbearance in attacking the Sout underscores the North’s rationality, because its leaders know that while a resumption of the war would devastate the South, it would end the North as an independent state.

(Likewise, some like to argue that Iran will nuke Israel if they get nuclear weapons, but they know full well that a nuclear attack on Israel would be met with a nuclear firestorm over Iran and thus would not engage in such a, dare I say, irrational act).

As we look at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is pretty clear that certain calculations have been made. For example, the calculation correctly made that an invasion in Ukraine would not trigger NATO directly entering into the fray. Putin assumed that the US and its allies would not commit to a ground war in Ukraine. He was correct. Russia also clearly sees that they have more military assets than does Ukraine. Also, a correct assessment, although there is some evidence that some miscalculation may have been made as to what those differences would mean on the ground.**

But, note, the miscalculation still assumes some calculating (i.e., rational assessment) was engaged in. (You can’t miscalculate if you haven’t calculated in the first place–which sounds like a fortune cookie, but I digress).

Note: Putin incurred into Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 without serious repercussions. He annexed Crimea in 2014 without serious repercussions. He has fought a quasi-war in Ukraine’s east since that time without serious repercussions. He meddled in the 2016 US elections and, well, you get the drill. It is not a huge leap for him to decide that he could act further in Ukraine without serious repercussions. Indeed, if he had just sat on Luhansk and Donetsk, he might have been able to slowly swallow parts of Ukraine. He probably thought, too, that the comedian-turned-president*** would surrender or flee, thus making regime change easier. So far this appears to have been a miscalculation.

And, despite the bold power-politics of it all, he appears to have counted on global interdependence to allow him to maintain certain assets and relationships. Instead, pipelines are being shut down and he is poised to find himself SWIFTed out of the international financial system, which will cut off the foreign reserves that were supposed to be his protection against the immediate effects of other sanctions.

Again, how all this plays out remains to be seen, but I don’t see evidence of the Russian government, let alone Putin himself, behavior irrationally.

Immorally? Yes.

Dishonestly? Yes.

Hubristiclaly? Yes.

But, also, rationally.

And the speech he gave last week was over the top and filled with lies and propaganda. If it turns out he really believes all that stuff, then maybe I will reassess my position (doing the ol’ rationality shuffle by allowing new evidence to affect my understanding of the world). But logic dictates that it is more likely that he knows full well the level of bullshit**** he was shoveling.

To be clear: it is true that individuals can certainly act irrationally, but it is highly unlikely that a truly irrational person can ascend to the role of national leader, let alone maintain that leadership for decades.

Further, I would note, ascribing irrationality to actions like the war on Ukraine is to provide a dodge for what is manifestly an immoral act. If Putin and his inner circle are just a bunch of insane people, then that lets them off the hook to some degree for what were clearly coldly calculated risks. They do not deserve to dodge their choices to engage in mass murder and destruction by having it subsumed under the umbrella of irrationality.

If one wants to assert the immorality of an act, call it immoral not irrational. If one wants to assert mistaken behavior, call it that, not irrational.

And thus endeth the rant.


*The only one I can specifically remember at the moment was by Mark McKinnon of The Circus when he was a guest on Late Night with Stephen Colbert this week. I would note that his cost-host from The Circus, John Heilemann disagreed with that assessment.

**Although despite some online optimism I have seen, including in OTB’s open fora, it is too early to really say.

***Reality, yet again, upstages fiction.

****In this case, yes, that is the technical term.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Ukraine, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    Rationality must be judged relative to desired outcomes. If you want to get a girl to date you and your opening move is strangling her cat, it’s fair to say you’re behaving irrationally. Likewise, if your stated goal is weakening NATO and your opening move is invading an independent European nation, it’s fair to say you’re behaving with a degree of irrationally.

    Putin’s actual goal – recreating the USSR and becoming Tsar Vlad the Shirtless – is an emotional goal, not a rational one. He did not sit down with a calculator and a ledger book and conclude that Russia could and should regain superpower status, that was a fantasy driven by his emotional needs.

    Rationality is a spectrum, not a fixed state. There are degrees of irrationality. Given the enormity of the risks, and the near impossibility of achieving his goal, I think it’s fair to say that Putin is demonstrating a degree of irrationality. 20% irrational? 50%? 75% irrational? Pick a number, but he’s clearly on the irrational spectrum.

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  2. @Michael Reynolds:

    If you want to get a girl to date you and your opening move is strangling her cat, it’s fair to say you’re behaving irrationally.

    Well, indeed, as there is zero reason to assume that the result will follow from the action (unless it is it known that the girl in question actually hates the cat in question).

    Likewise, if your stated goal is weakening NATO and your opening move is invading an independent European nation, it’s fair to say you’re behaving with a degree of irrationally.

    You mean like invading Georgia?

    You mean like annexing Crimea?

    Rationality is a spectrum, not a fixed state. There are degrees of irrationality.

    Well, without a doubt. None of us as 100% rational.

    But I think you are, somewhat to the point of my post, mixing that concept of rationality with other factors (to include whether actions lead to desired outcomes).

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  3. CSK says:

    I have a feeling this is going to end up like the long-running OTB debate over what is and what is not a cult vis-a-vis the Trump, er, Fan Club.

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  4. @Michael Reynolds: @Steven L. Taylor: Let me go a step further. Quite clearly, save under very unusual circumstances, does cat-strangulation lead to romance. But invading other countries does sometimes lead to desired goals. These are simple not comparable.

    There is a bias that bad acts must be irrational and that rational actors, therefore, behave in ways that we want them to. This simple isn’t true.

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  5. MarkedMan says:

    Merriam’s first definition of irrational:

    lacking usual or normal mental clarity or coherence

    The guy in the bus station that sincerely believes the NSA is spying on his brain and so wraps tin foil around his head is acting based on and in accordance with his beliefs but is exhibiting the perfect example of irrational behavior. Anti-vaxers who won’t take the shot because they think everyone in the CDC is lying to them and the US government wants to kill them are irrational, not just mistaken.

    This isn’t a nit-pick in the case of Putin. A mistake can be recognized but an irrational belief can persist despite all evidence to the contrary. I’m not saying Putin is irrational as I don’t know enough to have an opinion, but it is legitimate to be concerned that he is so.

    We should also be concerned that he took these actions out of desperation or that, if not, he is desperate now. Desperation can create the same results as irrationality. If Putin is desperate and has no value for anyone other than himself (and there is much evidence for that), then he may feel he has nothing to lose by going after a long shot, no matter how catastrophic failure may be for the world.

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  6. charon says:

    This guy seems to think Putin has something in common with TFG – Malignant Narcissism – so should be played the same way.

    https://twitter.com/therealhoarse

  7. @CSK: It could, and I am going to have to remind myself not to get too deeply into it. The competitive comment-box business tends not to be fruitful.

    I sincerely believe that everyone is more than entitled to their opinions, but I also am quite sure I am correct in my basic assessment, and everyone is just going to have to judge for themselves whether they want to accept my position or not (which, of course, is always the case).

    I am happy to address questions or sincere desires to debate my position, as always, but will endeavor not to go down unnecessary rabbit holes that lead nowhere.

    My position is basically a political science standard, FWIW.

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  8. I will add that to call an actor rational is not to assert that they are driven by pure reason. No one is.

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  9. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    There is a bias that bad acts must be irrational and that rational actors, therefore, behave in ways that we want them to. This simple isn’t true.

    This is very correct and very germane to this discussion. My objection to you ruling out irrationality on Putin’s part is the very real impact if he is irrational rather than merely mistaken. Behavior can be adjusted once a mistake has been recognized. Irrationality prevents someone from realizing the mistake in the first place.

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  10. Console says:

    Putin’s plan with Trump and all the other western democracies worked so well that he that he was in a better position than he really was. The American and European right made him legitimately think he’d invade Ukraine with no unified opposition. I’m not entirely sure that was a completely irrational thought.

    Whether it was the Hunter Biden thing or Trump’s first impeachment (where he was holding up the sale of javelin missiles to Ukraine) half of America proved to Putin that they were all in on Russian propaganda.

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  11. drj says:

    While I generally agree with this post, I am not so sure that there exists no significant overlap between acting hubristically and acting irrationally.

    Motivated reasoning can become so egregious that there is not much actual reasoning going on.

    There can be no meaningful rationality (I think) without intellectual (self-)discipline.

    Putin, quite clearly IMO, failed to question his own assumptions to the degree that rationality would seem to require.

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  12. Modulo Myself says:

    I don’t think there’s a very good model of human behavior underneath opposing the rational to the irrational. It makes sense if you’re a portfolio manager but not in analyzing Aztec sacrifice or WWI. You can’t think about the endless destruction of a long war or a priest atop a pyramid cutting out the heart of a victim and think that rationality can be explained as emotionless cost-benefit analysis. Meanwhile, a truly insane person might actually sound unequivocally rational. War and violence are human inventions and no one has produced satisfactory answers for why they exist and there probably will be no getting to the bottom of the mystery of Putin.

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  13. Lounsbury says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: You are being rather overly academic, although the point regarding irrationality being thrown around too broadly is a very valid one.

    As @drj touches upon, there are non exclusive factors here. And I think he is quite right to say motivated reasoning can become so egregious as to not be, to paraphrase, reasoning or rational at all.

    Putin taking military action relative to the Ukraine would not per se be an irrational act. Calculation matters. A move on eastern Ukraine would not have been irrational, nasty, brutish, but clearly rationally calculated like the Crimean, like the Georgian adventures.

    What we have seen this week however is of a different quality and all the signs of the planning are that there is indeed a component of irrational going on. And likely as we saw with Putin’s press conferences, an irrationality arising from him. Putin has been a coniving rational actor in the past, but there is signs of something of a different character going on here, dangerously different. It could be ratoinal miscalculation but neither should you waive away as abusive questions now – specifically in this time period, not the past – of Putin’s rootedness in rationality.

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  14. @MarkedMan:

    My objection to you ruling out irrationality on Putin’s part

    I did not rule it out (and, indeed, noted in the post that I am always willing to reassess based on additional evidence).

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  15. Sleeping Dog says:

    Among the more sophisticated commentators that I have read on the subject of Putin’s rationality, have been constrained. What they are noting is that Putin doesn’t seem to be as quietly calculating as he has been in the past. Also the over the top speech is something new, that it wasn’t the Putin of a few years ago.

    What is true, is that he has badly miscalculated, beginning with the assumption that NATO would back down if Ukraine was threatened. Remember he wanted to engage the US over the future of Ukraine, and Biden wouldn’t do it. After that he’s continued to double down at each setback and that is probably the best evidence of irrationality. He did go through a calculation and on each major point he was wrong and to season that moose turd pie, his army is proving inept.

    Is he irrational, I don’t know, but I hope not. Remember a definition of mental illness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

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  16. @Lounsbury:

    It could be ratoinal miscalculation but neither should you waive away as abusive questions now – specifically in this time period, not the past – of Putin’s rootedness in rationality.

    As noted in the OP and in an above comment, I am open to new evidence changing my view.

    But, as you note, my point is about the blithe way acts people don’t like get labeled “irrational.”

    You are being rather overly academic

    I know, weird, right?

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  17. Questions for consideration:

    If he succeeds, does that make him rational?

    If he fails, does that make him irrational?

    If so, of what utility is the term “rational”?

    (I would note that a lot of the comments above assume that if he fails, it proves he is irrational–which assumes that success is the definition of rational).

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  18. @Sleeping Dog:

    Among the more sophisticated commentators that I have read on the subject of Putin’s rationality, have been constrained.

    All rationality is constrained or bounded in some way. But the process of constrained or bounded rationality still follows an understandable pattern linked to an assessment of evidence and conditions and choices makes as a result.

    This is different than insanity.

    This is also different than highly emotional acts that tend to be time delimited (like getting so mad you hit the wall without thinking through the consequences).

  19. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    I have an empty lot next to my house. If I said that I am terribly afraid of my neighbor on the other side being able to throw trash in my yard, and then bought the empty lot and extended my house til it shared a direct border with my feared neighbor, it would be fair to describe my actions as irrational. Irrational to fear and irrational to take an action that brings about the exact opposite of my stated goal.

    If Putin is able to take Ukraine – not as certain as it once was – he will have extended the borders of his new Russian empire into direct contact with NATO members Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Driven by an irrational fear, Putin took actions that would – if successful – accomplish the exact opposite of his stated goal. This is the big difference with Chechnya and Georgia. In those cases his goals were not directly contradicted by his actions. And the potential blowback was insignificant compared to what we see now.

    There is literally no way to rationally reach the conclusion that the way to avoid X is by making X a fact. If I say I don’t want to get wet and I instantly jump in the pool, I am behaving irrationally.

    I think something changed in Vlad’s fevered brain. Maybe just fear of old age. Or maybe he’s seen a secret poll that panicked him. But it could be Covid paranoia, or early dementia, or just a black hole of hubris, but there is no part of this that can be described as rational as judged against Putin’s stated goals.

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  20. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Is threatening nuclear war rational, i.e., calculated to bring about a desired end, or is it irrational, knowing that everyone loses, including Putin?

    I’m asking seriously. Was this a gambit that Putin thought would force his foes to back off? If it was, it hasn’t yet done so. The EU response to the threat was to shut down air space to Russian planes, ban Russian propaganda television, and start sending money for arms to Ukraine.

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  21. Jay L Gischer says:

    I agree with your post, though I don’t want to argue about what words mean any more than you do.

    It has reminded me of a parallel thread to this discussion, the “Putin is evil” thread. This is not so much a thing here, but it is definitely elsewhere. The thing that bothers me is the notion that “Putin is evil, and no other explanation is needed.”

    As Gavin De Becker so eloquently describes in The Gift of Fear, evil people still follow humanly recognizable motivations. Putin and many Russians like him, I would guess, long for the days when their country was a major player, the other superpower. These days, the GDP of Russia is smaller than that of California. Investing-wise they are “emerging markets” not on the same rung as investments in the Eurozone or Japan. Maybe not even as China.

    They don’t like it. They want to be relevant. Those are the emotional needs. The course of actions he’s following is rational, given those motivations, and given the information Putin has about the world.

    I think we might one day find that he had a very mistaken view of how the Ukranians would react, and how fit his military was for a campaign where there was competent and determined opposition. This is one of the problems with authoritarian rulers who allow no dissent. They slowly are strangled with lies told them by underlings, because all the truth-tellers are in jail or worse.

    Where the “evil” part comes in, and yes, I would sign on to a description of Putin as “evil” and the invasion of Ukraine as “evil”, is that the rationality pursuit of ones goals knows no limit. It allows itself any act, if some justification can be found internally for it. The suffering of other human beings does not enter in to the calculus. That’s what makes it evil.

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  22. @Michael Reynolds: It is not at all irrational for Putin to believe that controlling Ukraine enhances Russiam security. Indeed, it is a long-standing notion by both Russians and non-Russians alike that control of that territory is to Russia’s advantage. This is a centuries-long idea.

    As an example, I would point you to Dan Drezner’s 1999, The Sanctions Paradox. See this passage on page 198 about Ukraine, which includes the sentence “Ukraine has a special place in the Russian consciousness” and where you will find sentiments not unlike those from Putin’s rant last week.

    The passage also quote Zbigniew Brzeneski from 1994: “It cannot be stressed enough that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.”

    There is also a quote by Dean Acheson that the Soviets were just “upper Volta with rockets” without Ukraine. This is not a new issue or idea.

    This situation is not at all like your lot analogy.

    There is a rational calculation about power going on here that is not just some whim of a madman.

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  23. Jay L Gischer says:

    @CSK: Putin’s strategy of “information warfare” means that he throws a lot of stuff out there, many, many statements, some of which are contradictory. This let’s him do trial balloons, and means he is less committed to any of them, which helps him bluff, keeps people off-balance and worried and this gives him an edge.

    Being crazy is bad, but having people think you are crazy is good.

    And no, I don’t know what’s going on in his brain at this moment. I also think that if he were to use a nuke, he wouldn’t live another day, nor would any Russian within 5 miles of him. I think they all know that.

    Yes, that would be bad.

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  24. @CSK:

    Is threatening nuclear war rational, i.e., calculated to bring about a desired end, or is it irrational, knowing that everyone loses, including Putin?

    Threatening nuclear war is 100% rational. The only reason that the US and NATO are unwilling to commit to ground troops and air support within the border of Ukraine is that they know that directly engaging Russia in that manner could trigger a nuclear war.

    I think (hope?) that this fact also keeps Russia out of NATO territory.

    A substantial amount of global foreign policy since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nakasaki has been been made in the context of the threat of nuclear exchange.

    Threatening nuclear exchange is rational. Fighting a nuclear war is perhaps another matter if one assumes that MAD (mutually assured destruction) is actually in play. But the question very much becomes a calculation of what level of escalation will emerge. It is a dangerous and frightening calculus.

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  25. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Fair enough. FWIW, I don’t suspect he is irrational myself, or even mistaken, but fear he is acting out of desperation. He threw a Hail Mary, damn all the consequences, because he feels the walls closing in. I don’t have proof for that, just my own gut instinct.

    1
  26. Modulo Myself says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    All rationality is constrained or bounded in some way. But the process of constrained or bounded rationality still follows an understandable pattern linked to an assessment of evidence and conditions and choices makes as a result.

    Sure, but Putin is in a position where he can have handed to him any evidence he wants. The question is has his ability to outfox his own position’s power changed? Think of King Lear–demanding from his daughters proof of how much they loved him as he handed over power. The one who loved him refused to answer; the two who conspired against him gave him the proof his reason wanted. But it’s clear that his reason is tainted; that he’s falling as a human.

    It’s not hard to believe that Putin was tempted with evidence to do this before, but refused, because he knew the perils of his own power.

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  27. JohnSF says:

    If you have a perception of reality that is sufficiently filtered through a set of preferences assume current situation is unacceptable., you may well end up using (what you think) are rational means, to pursue irrational ends.
    And may fatally mistake your preferences in prediction, planning and execution for what is actually occurring.

    Shorter: “Don’t believe your own bullshit. It seldom ends well.”

    The classic example, Poe’s law notwithstanding, are the actions of Germany and Japan in the Second World War.
    From the point of view of execution, the Pearl Harbour attack was a model of rational planning and indeed execution.
    However from a perspective of strategic reality, it was totally bug-buggering insanity.
    Which in turn derived from the entire Japanese chimera of an empire in east Asia.

    Completely possible; if only neither the Chinese nor the Americans had been so obnoxious as to exist and resist; i.e. absurd.

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  28. @Steven L. Taylor:

    Threatening nuclear war is 100% rational.

    Well, probably nothing is “100%”

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  29. @Modulo Myself: Is acting on bad evidence, that you think is accurate, irrational?

  30. drj says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I suspect that you might be somewhat overly rigid in the use of your categories.

    Nobody here, I think, is arguing that Putin is a raving madman.

    At the same time, his calculations have clearly been faulty (on multiple levels) in an area where he commands significant resources and external expertise.

    So what’s the reason?

    My purely speculative guess is that he has been radicalized, that he has partially been swept away by his own (or his close advisors’) rhetoric.

    Professionally, I’ve seen this happen (to a different degree) with political consultants and lobbyists when they started believing their own bullshit.

    Assuming this is what happened, we are dealing with a radicalized individual.

    Radicalized individuals defeat the rational-irrational dichotomy IMO.

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  31. Modulo Myself says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It’s not a binary decision. Knowing your worst impulses and working to keep them in check because the impulses present themselves as rational is what it is. I think when people say Putin is being irrational they’re saying the invasion was akin to a self-destructive act. He could have seen through his own self, but elected not to. And very few people believe that self-destruction is reasonable, except for the self-destructive, who are going to point to the evidence.

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  32. JohnSF says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    If you are selecting and filtering the evidence through non-rational assumptions in pursuit of a non rational goal, there is a rather high probability you will end up doing something you think is entirely rational (and indeed IS, given your premises and goals), but is actually monumentally stupid.

    2
  33. dazedandconfused says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    I suspect Putin’s calculation was that Ukraine would back down, but he resolved that he would use force, if need be, to accomplish his goals, and precisely what those goals are is unclear.

    I suspect the support for the Maidan riots by the West stuck in his craw, he wants to send a message. Ukraine was never considered a Soviet bloc state during the cold war. If Putin is rational and as smart as he’s always been, he anticipated there would be sanctions. A possible course of action that he might have considered is that, at 70, his days as Russia’s leader are numbered anyway, and if he resigns or is deposed (and that can be staged) everybody would consider it a great chance for a general re-setting of relations and the sanctions would probably go away fairly soon if he was no longer in the picture.

    His successor would be left with either a defeated Ukraine or one that would probably seek to be something other than a dedicated enemy of Russia, having experienced the price.

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  34. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Threatening nuclear war is 100% rational. The only reason that the US and NATO are unwilling to commit to ground troops and air support within the border of Ukraine is that they know that directly engaging Russia in that manner could trigger a nuclear war.

    I don’t think that’s true. NATO has no brief to defend Ukraine, and the idea that the Germans and the French would be ready to go into Ukraine is ridiculous. That was never in the cards.

    As for threatening nuclear warfare, it’s only (barely) rational if the West believes Putin is rational. If the West believes Putin is irrational, then his threat makes the possibility of a NATO first strike more likely.

    It is not rational to have irrational fears. It is not rational to cope with your fears by enhancing those very fears. If you’re scared of ghosts then moving into a haunted house is not rational.

    Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

    Hmm, that’s catchy, and totally original.

    1
  35. DK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    My position is basically a political science standard, FWIW.

    This. Putin seems irrational based on how most people colloquially use it. They are not political scientists.

    Dictionary.com on irrational: not logical or reasonable.

    Merriam Webster on irrational: lacking usual or normal mental clarity or coherence

    Is Putin irrational? Is he coherent? Does he have abnormal mental clarity right now? Is he being unreasonable?

    I mean maybe? Maybe not? Political scientists will hash it out in years to come. But right now the Turks are sacking Constantinople, so who cares how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

    1
  36. @DK:

    so who cares how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

    I take the general point. However, it does matter if Putin is generally rational as understood by political science or whether he is a raging nutter. This is not an impractical question nor some abstract debate.

  37. Lounsbury says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I rather doubt, as the new evidence is evident in the invasion and a manner of escalation. Putin’s decision process up to launching full invasion seemed to me immoral but entirely rational, however launching the full invasion and the manner which it was drawn, as well as subsequent acts rather lead me to question the rationality overall. Putin began rationally, but the new evidence on his having transitioned to an irrational in part or whole path is occuring now. An arch academic posture on “new evidence” is rather … impractical as what you would doubtless find as proper academic evidence is not going to be available until well after the fact (barring Putin doing some film villian style breakdown on TV).

    @JohnSF: indeed Pearl Harbour as planned was tactically rationally planned on an essentially irrational foundation.

    @CSK: I fear that while one can lay out some rational although rather high-risk calculations for the threat, in the overall context, it may also be signs of an irrational path has been taken.

  38. @Michael Reynolds:

    NATO has no brief to defend Ukraine, and the idea that the Germans and the French would be ready to go into Ukraine is ridiculous.

    Because it isn’t in NATO and part of the reason it isn’t in NATO is that no one, including the French and Germans, is willing to defend it. This is part of the point.

    If Putin incurs into Lativia, Estoniam or Lithuania (or Poland) that will be another story entirely.

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  39. @Lounsbury: Sunk costs often lead to bad decisions. None of that changes my general assessment.

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  40. I still think a lot of people here are using “irrational” to mean “mistaken.”

    These words are not synonymous.

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  41. JohnSF says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Indeed, it is a long-standing notion by both Russians and non-Russians alike that control of (Ukraine) is to Russia’s advantage. This is a centuries-long idea.

    It was similarly a long standing idea the ruling Ireland was vital to Britain.
    That controlling Alsace-Lorraine was essential for Germany.
    That dominating Belgium was crucial for France.
    The Spain was nothing without the New World.

    Turns out to have been a load of cobblers.

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  42. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    A lot of it may be tone and demeanor. If I calmly say something, people are more inclined to accept it as rational. If I storm around the room and scream the exact same thing, people are more inclined to view what I’m saying as irrational.

    1
  43. JohnSF says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    To be mistaken is not to be irrational.
    However, to persist in such error in the face of evidence that circumstances are not as you would prefer them to be, is.

    You may be trying to use calculated means to achieve your ends; but ignoring objective indications of their success, and of the feasibility of them achieving your ends, or those ends being achievable at all, is sidling up to irrationality and thinking it looks rather attractive.

    “All that’s needed is more effort and willpower!”

    4
  44. Lounsbury says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I should be rather surprised if you did change barring some academic level of access to data.

  45. gVOR08 says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Putin’s strategy of “information warfare” means that he throws a lot of stuff out there, many, many statements, some of which are contradictory. This let’s him do trial balloons, and means he is less committed to any of them, which helps him bluff, keeps people off-balance and worried and this gives him an edge.

    Sounds like a U. S. “leader” of recent memory.

    5
  46. CSK says:

    @gVOR08:
    I was thinking the same thing.

  47. Stormy Dragon says:

    Again, how all this plays out remains to be seen, but I don’t see evidence of the Russian government, let alone Putin himself, behavior irrationally.

    Please describe a series of events leading from the decision to invade that ends with Russia better off than they were before the invasion?

  48. MarkedMan says:

    @DK: I suspect, as is almost the norm, much of the disagreement has to do with terminology. Per Steven, his field has a rather precise definition of “irrational” that differs from colloquial use. I think the more common understanding is something along the lines of, “failure to recognize what is easily discernible because you don’t like that reality”.

    I get it. I’m an engineer and the common public use of the terms “bug” or “beta” differ substantially from the very narrow and specific meanings as used by engineers. But I recognize this difference, while inconvenient (and even dangerous at times), doesn’t make the non-engineers wrong.

    4
  49. Andy says:

    Thanks for this post. Political leaders are very rarely irrational, at least at the beginning. Your examples of North Korea and Iran are especially relevant here.

    Another thing to add is that leaders of authoritarian regimes are often isolated – not just physically and socially isolated but also isolated from accurate information. In authoritarian regimes, the bureaucracy gradually adjusts to keep the authoritarian leader from getting “bad news.” In any hierarchy, no one likes to deliver bad or unwelcome news or information, but in authoritarian systems, this deception often becomes institutionalized. The best recent example of this is Saddam Hussein before he was toppled. Even his own children routinely lied to him about what was going on and Iraqi capabilities to defend against a US attack. Saddam was not irrational – in fact, he had a much firmer grasp of middle-east politics than American – but he miscalculated.

    5
  50. charon says:

    a) Putin lives in fear for his safety.

    b) Putin has concerns his close associates might like to be rid of him.

    But is this rational?

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/FMngSNMWYAEXqPV?format=jpg&name=900×900

    Anyone who wants him to sustain a close encounter with a open window will not hesitate to get as close to him as necessary.

  51. Andy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Putin’s actual goal – recreating the USSR and becoming Tsar Vlad the Shirtless – is an emotional goal, not a rational one. He did not sit down with a calculator and a ledger book and conclude that Russia could and should regain superpower status, that was a fantasy driven by his emotional needs.

    The problem here is that your assumptions are wrong, or at least questionable.
    – While it’s frequently alleged that Putin wants to “recreate the USSR” that is not the case.
    – Your estimate that Putin is driven by emotion or fantasy is – at best – speculation on your part.

    @drj:

    Motivated reasoning can become so egregious that there is not much actual reasoning going on.

    That is very true. I would point out two additional things:

    – Motivated reasoning isn’t irrationality.
    – Motivated reasoning doesn’t just affect enemies or opponents, it’s endemic in our species. There are plenty of people in the west who are engaged in motivated reasoning when it comes to this conflict, particularly claims about Putin’s emotional needs what Putin really wants that are based largely on conjecture.

    4
  52. DK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    If Putin incurs into Lativia, Estoniam or Lithuania (or Poland) that will be another story entirely.

    Hopefully? Europe’s hesitation to sacrifice even economically to punish Putin and help Ukrainians does not inspire confidence.

  53. @JohnSF: Don’t mistake my point. I am not saying it justifies Russian actions. I am saying, however, that it helps explain why we are where we are.

    The idea of Russia needing Ukraine is not at all like Michael’s analogy about the lot next to his house.

    3
  54. @CSK:

    If I calmly say something, people are more inclined to accept it as rational. If I storm around the room and scream the exact same thing, people are more inclined to view what I’m saying as irrational.

    Sure. But from an analytical POV your calmness does not make you rational anymore than your rant makes you irrational. Tone isn’t the issue, content and how you reached your conclusions is.

  55. @JohnSF:

    However, to persist in such error in the face of evidence that circumstances are not as you would prefer them to be, is.

    That may we be the case, but we are talking here about how all this started, not how it might end.

  56. @MarkedMan:

    Per Steven, his field has a rather precise definition of “irrational” that differs from colloquial use. I think the more common understanding is something along the lines of, “failure to recognize what is easily discernible because you don’t like that reality”.

    Honestly, I think most people think that “irrational” means crazy to one degree or the other/it means “some behavior I don’t like.”

    BTW, I fully understand the difference between colloquial and academic language. What often baffles me, however, is the way readers of this site often rebel when I want to use such language precisely–after all, shouldn’t that be the expectation for the authors here?

    6
  57. @Stormy Dragon:

    Please describe a series of events leading from the decision to invade that ends with Russia better off than they were before the invasion?

    I could do that, but I am not sure what the point would be, especially as it related to the point I was making.

    Again, trying for X and not getting X does not mean you acted irrationally in trying to get X.

    Again, failure is not evidence of irrationality.

    1
  58. gVOR08 says:

    Charles Sanders Peirce stated what became known as the “pragmatic maxim”,

    Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our concept to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

    To which an appropriate response is, “Huh? But in this context it means don’t waste your time arguing about whether Putin fits the category “irrational” or not. Argue based on what Putin does. Arguing about whether Putin is rational is as pointless as arguing whether MAGAtry is a cult or W lied about WMD. Don’t assign a symbol or a word to Putin and then argue about a word, argue about Putin.

    Putin has behaved in ways we collectively failed to predict. Does that mean he’s irrational? Or that he holds beliefs we don’t understand? Or that he has information we don’t have? Or that sycophants are blocking information from him? Or that he’s subject to domestic political pressures we don’t understand? Probably all of the above and more. All we really know is that he’s behaving in ways we failed to predict and will likely continue to do so.

    So all “we”, meaning people who actually have some power, can do is apply pressure to behave as we want and offer him a line of retreat if we can. Which is what “we” would do whether he’s rational or not. Does calling him “irrational” or not really improve our understanding of him?

    3
  59. @Andy: Thanks for the comments. And yes, Saddam is another good example.

    @Andy:

    Motivated reasoning isn’t irrationality.

    Indeed.

    1
  60. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Oh, I know. I was speaking about perception.

    1
  61. @gVOR08:

    Putin has behaved in ways we collectively failed to predict.

    Did he?

    Maybe I am missing something, but the US government and others have been predicting an invasion for weeks.

    And, again, Russian interests vis-a-vis Ukraine are not a surprise.

    What am I am missing in your assessment?

    1
  62. @charon: As weird as that photo is (and the other meeting last week), it is awfully hard to draw conclusions.

    Maybe simply doesn’t want anyone else in the frame of the video. Maybe he is social distancing. Maybe the generals stink.

    Trying to infer anything from that photo is rather difficult to do.

    1
  63. gVOR08 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: It looks like we predicted short term based on pretty thorough comm intercepts, surveillance, and other intel. If we’re predicting so good, why are we having this little discussion of whether he’s rational?

    1
  64. drj says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Well, if even egregious motivated reasoning doesn’t rise to the level of irrationality then your argument basically boils down to “Putin isn’t clinically insane.”

    While I agree with that assessment, it is so obviously true that it’s not much of a point at all.

    2
  65. Mimai says:

    Another level of consideration is the functional nature of the word use. The word “irrational” gets thrown around a lot (this issue and others). In addition to debating the definition of the word – which btw I think is a necessary condition of fruitful discussion – one might consider the function of using that word choice. Here are a few possible functions (not mutually exclusive):

    -to dismiss, slander, delegitimize, etc the person
    -to reduce causal uncertainty (ie, to simplify the “why”)
    -to reduce uncertainty about remedial actions (ie, limit the “what shall we do” options)

    Also of relevance to this discussion, the word “assume” (eg, “Putin assumes…”) is similarly fraught.

    2
  66. Raoul says:

    It appears to me that Putin’s actions get him further away from his goals (a Slavic union but even Russian speaking Ukrainians must be dismayed at the situation), so they do seem irrational.

    2
  67. dazedandconfused says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Putin may be reacting to talk in the press of placing a no-fly zone over Kyiv, which would mean air-combat between Russian and NATO.

    It’s rational for Putin to fear a rash response from the West right now, and seek to show that the escalation ladder can become an express elevator in a big fat hurry.

    1
  68. JohnSF says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Oh, I don’t think you are saying it justifies the actions.

    What I do think is that a sizable number of influential Russians, very likely including Putin, have worldviews grounded in concepts that reached their sell by date by the end of the 19th century, never mind the 20th.

    It really strikes me how many parallels there are to British attitude re. Ireland pre-1921.

    An important point a lot of people miss is that traditionally elite Russians, swhether Tsarist or Soviet, based in Moscow and St Petersburg, have had a contemptuous view of Ukrainians as “backward peasants”.

    And also the Ukrainian response to this in terms of their own national identity and politics.
    Short version: Ukrainians by and large (and including most Russian speaking ones) have had it up here with the rule of Muscovites.

    This is a reality that I think Putin’s world-view was incapable of apprehending.

    4
  69. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Again, trying for X and not getting X does not mean you acted irrationally in trying to get X.

    If someone jumps off the top of a skyscraper, and we later find out that they thought they could fly, it would be strange to say that it was more rational for them to jump than take the elevator based on this belief and that “trying for X and not getting X does not mean they acted irrationality”.

    You’re creating a definition of irrationality so narrow that “X is behaving rationally” is basically un-falsifiable.

    2
  70. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    Then it would also be rational for the West to expect a a combination of rashness and savagery by Russia, and go to DEFCON 2 as a gentle hint?

    Or maybe not.
    Especially as no government has proposed a no-fly zone, and have mentioned it only to dismiss it.

    If Putin is reacting to some twitter comments, then he really is losing his grasp on reality.

    Statements like this are enough to put e.g. the RAF interceptors over the North Sea on near-war alert.
    Should a Tu-95 now breach UK airspace (and they quite regularly play footsie with the perimeter), there is now a quite high risk it will be shot down.

    Same probably goes for Russian air patrols breaching Turkish airspace in the Black Sea.

    2
  71. a country lawyer says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Maybe simply doesn’t want anyone else in the frame of the video. Maybe he is social distancing. Maybe the generals stink.
    Maybe he’s thinking of Colonel Staufenberg’s briefcase.

    2
  72. dazedandconfused says:

    @Andy:

    Appreciate your posts, and on the subject of Putin’s rational and tactical goals, I suspect the push down south is not simply a diversion, he seeks to take control of the Kozatske Dam so he can get the water turned back on in Crimea.

    The map shows they pushed out that far already.

    1
  73. JohnSF says:

    @a country lawyer:

    “Maybe the generals stink.”

    I suspect they may be perspiring quite heavily in that situation.

    2
  74. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:

    The mentioning of a no fly has nonetheless been in the press, as a google search will show you. I saw Cohen convince Wolf Blitzer it was possible on CNN myself a day or two ago, which also spawned a pondering irrationality in my at the time. I think it likely Putin is monitoring major western press outlets.

  75. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    What often baffles me, however, is the way readers of this site often rebel when I want to use such language precisely

    It doesn’t surprise me at all. I would be willing to bet you and I use the common term “bug” in different ways. I could explain what it means to an engineer and how it differs from a design insufficiency or a poor requirements choice. Given your predilection and mine, if it was just the two of us we would reach a common understanding. But I have no expectation that the several hundred people who read these comments are going to invest the time it takes to parse such distinctions. Truth be told, there aren’t many cases when talking to non engineers where the distinctions have a practical effect.

    I think you had a larger point that was very valid and interesting: people shouldn’t assume that because an outcome is bad that the actor (in this case, Putin) wasn’t following a logical plan. But because it grated on you to have people use “irrational” in a way that differed from social science usage, the conversation got sidetracked.

    6
  76. MarkedMan says:

    @Andy:

    There are plenty of people in the west who are engaged in motivated reasoning when it comes to this conflict, particularly claims about Putin’s emotional needs what Putin really wants

    I agree with this. But I find it ironic that just above you said:

    – While it’s frequently alleged that Putin wants to “recreate the USSR” that is not the case.
    – Your estimate that Putin is driven by emotion or fantasy is – at best – speculation on your part.

    Truth be told you can’t know that anymore than anyone else can know the opposite.

    The people working out our responses have to take all of these possibilities into account and play out the repercussions of each. And, at least to some extent, they are going to have to make a best guess about what is going on in Putin’s head.

    2
  77. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: Well, sure. But what’s a blog for if not to replace the old Bible college dorm room debates about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin for people who didn’t go to Bible college?

    3
  78. @Stormy Dragon:

    If someone jumps off the top of a skyscraper, and we later find out that they thought they could fly, it would be strange to say that it was more rational for them to jump than take the elevator based on this belief and that “trying for X and not getting X does not mean they acted irrationality”.

    You’re creating a definition of irrationality so narrow that “X is behaving rationally” is basically un-falsifiable.

    Sigh.

    No. You are suggesting a counter-example that is obviously problematic. It is known humans can’t fly, ergo believing one can fly is a basis for assuming some level of mental problems.

    The notion that a country can invade another country and control that country, however, has happened one heck of a lot more times in human history than a human being spontaneously flying.

    Again: Crimea, 2014 comes to mind.

    2
  79. @gVOR08: I guess I just don’t understand your point.

  80. @drj:

    Well, if even egregious motivated reasoning doesn’t rise to the level of irrationality then your argument basically boils down to “Putin isn’t clinically insane.”

    Well, no. But if you feel like those are the only options, you are entitled to that position.

  81. @Mimai: Yup.

  82. MarkedMan says:

    @gVOR08:

    Arguing about whether Putin is rational is as pointless

    I disagree. The people developing our response have to consider whether he is acting rationally, meaning that he will alter his tactics to try to reach the best possible outcome, or he is acting irrationally, meaning he is simply going to lash out regardless of consequences. And they have to consider at least one other option: that he is acting out of personal desperation, acting on a long shot that, while it has a very low probability of success is the only way he sees to personally survive. All three of these cases lead to very different responses (and different hedges if the analysis is wrong or insufficient).

    2
  83. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    .

    ..control of the Kozatske Dam so he can get the water turned back on in Crimea.

    Honestly, do you still think this is the “rational” explanation for this war?

    If it is, Russia will need a lot of men to secure the Crimea Canal, the Kozatske Dam etc from now to eternity.
    Unless you think after this the Ukrainian will forgive and forget?
    If you think so, you really need to check your default assumptions.

    1
  84. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I think you’re correct in your basic assessment, too, but that doesn’t mean that the faith of those who think you are incorrect is any less potent. A lot of the time, these discussions turn into quarrels rather than staying disagreements or arguments/exercises in persuasion. (The difference being that in a quarrel, no party will ever acknowledge that he or she is incorrect–because their beliefs show them they’re not.)

    1
  85. @MarkedMan:

    I would be willing to bet you and I use the common term “bug” in different ways. I could explain what it means to an engineer and how it differs from a design insufficiency or a poor requirements choice. Given your predilection and mine, if it was just the two of us we would reach a common understanding. But I have no expectation that the several hundred people who read these comments are going to invest the time it takes to parse such distinctions. Truth be told, there aren’t many cases when talking to non engineers where the distinctions have a practical effect.

    If this were an engineering blog and you were one of the authors and you wrote a post about what “bug” means, it would strike me as odd for the readers to then turn around and bemoan the fact that an engineer writing at an engineering blog would want to talk precisely about the states raison d’etre of the blog itself.

    But perhaps I am wrong in assuming that people would be coming to an engineering blog written by an engineer to hone their understanding of said craft.

    (And I am now curious about what meaning of bug I may be getting wrong).

    1
  86. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:

    It is a rational explanation, one of several which are not mutually exclusive, not the reason. I never said it was the reason.

    1
  87. @MarkedMan: Exactly.

  88. @Just nutha ignint cracker: Your point about quarreling is a valid one (and was kind of what I was getting at above about competitive commenting).

    My challenge is this: obviously I think I am right about whatever I have posted, else I wouldn’t have posted it. Hence, if someone disagrees in a way that does not make me rethink the point, I try and explain, further, why I took the position I did. Perhaps I should not engage and let the piece speak for itself. While, like everyone else, I want to win the argument, the honest truth is that I am trying to explain my position because I think there is value in it (and because, as an occupational hazard, I think that more explanation leads to better understanding, although as a practical matter that may not ultimately be the case).

    2
  89. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Stormy Dragon: That Russia’s condition does not improve doesn’t make the decision irrational. Only short sighted or mistaken. Now, if in your communication models and syntax “mistaken” and “irrational” are synonymous, you and I will have failure to communicate adequately because our models don’t match.

    1
  90. Andy says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    That’s a good map, thanks!

    @MarkedMan:

    Truth be told you can’t know that anymore than anyone else can know the opposite.

    Fair enough, let me rephrase to say that I think my theory fits the known facts and history and those others do not. And what I predicted a month ago has come to pass.

    1
  91. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @charon and @Steven L. Taylor: It’s even possible for the generals to be sitting at the far end of the table by their own choice.

    1
  92. Andy says:

    Ok, here’s a test for the “rationality” argument.

    Let’s assume two cases, one in which Putin is acting irrationally and one where he is acting rationally. Assuming one case or the other could be definitively proven, then what is the appropriate policy to pursue in each case?

    Or said another way, for those who think that Putin is acting irrationally, what do you think should be done differently if Putin is actually acting rationally?

    I’m firmly in the camp that Putin is acting rationally. Because I think he is rational, my fear of a potential nuclear war is based on the potential consequences of a mistake, miscalculation, an escalatory spiral, or positioning Putin where the risks of nuclear war become acceptable. Strategic messaging, in all its forms, are effective signaling measures. Etc. All the stuff we worried about and did during the Cold War.

    If I thought he was irrational, I would be much more worried about playing into his fears, and be much more concerned that he might mentally lose it and start a nuclear war for no reason, or for some psychological reason that we cannot predict. The problem with an irrational person is that you can’t predict what they will do and how they will react to changing circumstances. An irrational Putin would put several potential options on the table, such as a decapitation strike against Putin himself and/or promoting a coup against Putin so that he is killed or removed from office.

    I bring this up because I see a disconnect here. In my view (and I could well be misperceiving this), it seems that a lot of people who are asserting that Putin is irrational, delusional, or Krazy with a capital K are also supporting the normal means of punishment and deterrence that are used on rational opponents.

    2
  93. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Hmm, I see what you are driving at, but perhaps a more precise analogy would be if my hypothetical engineering blog is primarily meant for the general public and it is normal to discuss with laymen about how engineers analyze various real world problems and opportunities. And then I started off a post by saying, “ It is a common mistake for people, from commentators to common observers, to assert that a program that doesn’t behave in expected or useful ways has a bug”. I can pretty much guarantee that a not insignificant number of commentators will take that to mean I am blaming the user for not understanding how to use the program, and the discussion will start off on that tack and never get back windward.

    A more productive way to start the post might be, “In general use the term “bug” indicates a program or a device that is behaving in an unexpected or non-useful way. Interestingly, to an engineer the term bug is much narrower and we have a lot of other terms for why the program or device might be causing frustration. While not important to the average user, these distinctions are very useful to us because each category requires different techniques to resolve the issue.”

    1
  94. Moosebreath says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    “If this were an engineering blog and you were one of the authors and you wrote a post about what “bug” means, it would strike me as odd for the readers to then turn around and bemoan the fact that an engineer writing at an engineering blog would want to talk precisely about the states raison d’etre of the blog itself.

    But perhaps I am wrong in assuming that people would be coming to an engineering blog written by an engineer to hone their understanding of said craft.”

    That depends on whether the people coming to an engineering blog written by an engineer are there to learn engineering (in which case the engineer’s definition matters), or to apply engineering principles to the world they live in (in which case it matters less).

    Tying it to this discussion, since I don’t view OTB as a political science blog, but rather a politics blog, I don’t view the raison d’etre of this blog is to learn political science. I view it as a place to discuss politics.

  95. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Years ago, I used to do an exercise with my students that (I hoped) would help them understand the difference between argument and quarrel (based in part, on a department policy that a handful of topics, “abortion is murder” being one, were not arguable, therefore inappropriate paper topics). I would have students pick a topic and I would play the role of opponent. Students, in turn would make a point for the position and I would give some reason (not necessarily particularly reasonable either, but always plausible) for discounting the point, or in the alternative, simply reject the point as untrue. About 4 or 5 steps in, a student would invariably ask if the point of the exercise was that I was going to object to whatever was offered and I would end the exercise noting that what we had done was how quarrels work. (And indirectly, why the department policy was what it was.)

    I would certainly HOPE that none of our cohort would take the same road I did in my exercise but have to note that it is available, so undoubtedly, someone will.

    2
  96. MarkedMan says:

    @Andy:

    The problem with an irrational person is that you can’t predict what they will do and how they will react to changing circumstances.

    I don’t think that is necessarily true at all. Whether rational or irrational, motivations can be understood and acted upon.

    1
  97. @Moosebreath:

    since I don’t view OTB as a political science blog, but rather a politics blog, I don’t view the raison d’etre of this blog is to learn political science. I view it as a place to discuss politics.

    This sincerely raises an interesting question in terms of who determines what something is, the person who produces it, or the person who consumes it. On one level, perhaps the answer is both, but on another, it seems kind of weird to assert to the person doing the writing what the raison d’etre of said writing is. (Although your perspective explains, in a way I really had only passingly considered, as to why people react as they do sometimes),

    Beyond that, if one’s goal is to understand politics, wouldn’t doing so from a political science POV be the way to do so?

    It is kind of like saying we want to talk about health with an MD but not from a medical science POV.

    1
  98. Moosebreath says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    “Beyond that, if one’s goal is to understand politics, wouldn’t doing so from a political science POV be the way to do so?”

    No — people discuss politics at the bar, or barber shop, or wherever, and try to understanding what is happening politically without bringing political science in to their discussions.

    “It is kind of like saying we want to talk about health with an MD but not from a medical science POV”

    Most people, when they talk about medical issues with an MD are remarkably uninterested in the fine details of anatomy, or cellular biology, or other specifics of medical science.

    1
  99. Moosebreath says:

    Ack — “understand” not “understanding”.

  100. de stijl says:

    I think Putin is irrational in that he thinks he has the implicit, eternal endorsement of the hyper wealthy oligarchs. He might have overstepped the leash with Ukraine.

    A lot of Russian oligarchs are about to get totally boned because of Putin’s fascination of recreating Soviet borders for no gain.

    1
  101. @Moosebreath:

    No — people discuss politics at the bar, or barber shop, or wherever, and try to understanding what is happening politically without bringing political science in to their discussions.

    True. But I am not a barber, nor is James, and this isn’t a barbershop.

    And I would suggest that people chatting at a barbershop are unlikely to really increase their actual understanding of politics, even if they may have a pleasant chat.

    1
  102. Andy says:

    @MarkedMan:

    I don’t think that is necessarily true at all. Whether rational or irrational, motivations can be understood and acted upon.

    Then what is the practical difference? To me, irrationality suggests that motivations cannot be determined. Without reason in the decision matrix, emotion and other factors control decision-making. Perhaps this is my bias, but I think of my sister with dementia as an extreme example. Or someone who is bipolar.

  103. de stijl says:

    If Putin succeeds in Ukraine he gains nothing. They already took Crimea and Black Sea ports worth having.

    This push into Ukraine is hubris. There is little to no benefit to Russia if they win. Short term or long term, this a buster move. The oligarchs are gonna be really passed off he made them into unacceptable pariahs in the West.

    Russia will be an isolated nation and branded a naked aggressor. This will not be forgotten or forgiven.

    Would that we had maintained discipline against Russian aggression and expansion after Crimea.

    Putin is a cancer. He is metastasizing.

    1
  104. drj says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I actually think it’s you who is arguing for a too limited set of qualifications to judge Putin’s behavior.

    Looking at the actual situation, for Putin’s gambit to have succeeded, three separate things would need to occur:

    1) an easy Russian military victory
    2) Ukrainian acceptance of a Russia-imposed regime
    3) a manageable western response

    Even if we assign each individual element a 90% chance of success (which is already hopelessly optimistic), we end up with a 27% chance of failure – without a viable off-ramp in sight.

    Considering the stakes, is it rational to take that gamble?

    Now, one could say (as you do) that “irrationality” has a narrow, precise meaning that doesn’t apply here.

    Fair enough.

    But in that case you lack the vocabulary to describe how much of an obvious gamble Putin’s actions were.

    How is it helpful to narrow down the term “irrational,” if one simultaneously broadens the term “rational” to include utterly reckless behavior?

    Same thing, btw, with the “cult” argument.

    Sure, Trump voters didn’t wear white robes while chanting his name in a darkened cellar. So not a cult. Again, fair enough.

    But also: not politics as usual. You did admit, after all, that there was some cult of personality going on.

    In short, if you insist on narrow, precise language (because political science), you can’t do so for only one side of a dichotomy.

  105. de stijl says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Speaking of Bible Colleges, I knew a girl who went to to Bethel in St. Paul.

    She certainly knew what sin was. It was intense. I tried quite hard not to broach boundaries applicable to students at Bethel, but I was not immune to bending the rules consensually.

    I met her at a dance club. She was purportedly a Baptist Bethel student where dancing, drinking, and smoking were prohibited and subject to discipline per the bs agreement all students were obliged to sign.

    Getting nasty in her dorm room had an intense frisson of hormonal rebellion. For her, directly. Me, I always thought Baptists were dumb as rocks – the most blinkered of the Protestants. No dancing, really? (Not A. who was clearly trying to break free of all that. Not all Baptists are idiots.)

    Soon after, I was banned from campus. Like that stopped anything. We just changed venues.

    It didn’t turn into a lifelong relationship, but that’s okay. It was a cool relationship while it lasted. We were good to one another. It ended well and quite amicably by her choice. A was definitely on the path of “I don’t want to be artificially restrained anymore.” I might have helped that along.

    I am not looking to ruffle anyone’s personal feathers, but the way Baptists treat their young women is beyond incredibly ignorant. They are grown women. Deal.

    I kinda, sorta stand by my assertion that Baptists are dumb as rocks and dumber than most Protestants. Systemic, institutionalized misogyny is not acceptable in my book.

    Also, you could not smoke on campus even if you were a visitor. Looking back a super minor inconvenience and understandable, but at the time it annoyed the crap out of me. Their property, their rules.

  106. @drj: The issue of rational v. irrational has to do with decision-making processes, not outcomes.

    You are talking about probabilities (which, in fairness, you are pulling out of the air) and whether this is politics as usual or not. None of that determines that Putin is irrational.

    Again, just because you don’t like his actions doesn’t make them irrational.

    In short, if you insist on narrow, precise language (because political science), you can’t do so for only one side of a dichotomy.

    No, not “because political science”–although making a general appeal to a larger body of study should have more weight than passing musings in a comment box, but granted one’s mileage may vary.

    As to precision on both ends of the dichotomy, you have lost me there.

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  107. @drj:

    Considering the stakes, is it rational to take that gamble?

    What is the percentage change for a given outcome to occur for a high-risk choice to be “rational” or “irrational”?

    And if I make a choice with a low probability and high risk, but I succeed does that prove me rational?

    Do you see my point? You are focusing on the level of risk, the possibility of success, and whether one is successful or not. None of that is about the mental state of the actor making the decision.

    And, again, like a lot of other folks in this thread, you are predicting the issue of rational/irrational at least in part on the outcome.

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  108. drj says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    You are focusing on the level of risk, the possibility of success, and whether one is successful or not. None of that is about the mental state of the actor making the decision.

    If you don’t consider the presence or absence of proper (or at least plausible) risk assessment to be part of an actor’s mental state then you would be in disagreement with the vast majority of mental health professionals. This is a typical symptom of various mental illnesses!

    And please note that I never suggested that successful outcomes can retroactively make a decision rational. Winning the lottery doesn’t improve the rationality of the prior decision to buy a ticket.

    As you are not engaging with what I’m saying, this is pretty pointless.

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  109. BugManDan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Can you give some examples of irrational political figures and why?

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  110. Stormy Dragon says:

    This conversation is making me wonder if Political Science is suffering from the same problem Economics has: everything is based around this highly technical definition of “rational person” that makes for easy analysis, but is being abandoned as it becomes increasingly obvious that it’s useless as a model for actual human behavior.

    Most of the big gains in economics recently have been made be abandoning rational analysis in favor of more behavioral approaches.

    Maybe Poly Sci needs a Daniel Kahneman to shake things up?

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  111. Andy says:

    @drj:

    If you don’t consider the presence or absence of proper (or at least plausible) risk assessment to be part of an actor’s mental state then you would be in disagreement with the vast majority of mental health professionals. This is a typical symptom of various mental illnesses!

    For me, at least, a big part of irrationality is not considering risks at all or, in the case of mental illness, being incapable of assessing risk.

    If you look at people who do high-risk extreme sports like free solo climbing, or wing-suit base jumping, those people have a statistically high chance of getting killed. They take extreme risks but they understand the risks, so they are not irrational, even though I think they are crazy and often irresponsible.

    And again, I think the evidence that Putin is irrational is very thin. It boils down to not being able to understand his motivations, priorities, and risk calculus and then assuming that must mean he’s irrational.

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  112. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    Whether he is rational or not I can only see the situation getting far worse. He painted himself into a corner (which seems irrational but he almost certainly didn’t think he was doing so, so is it rational or not?).

    At this point does anyone just see him backing down? Of course not. Full credit to Ukraine for defending more effectively than expected–but I don’t see an off-ramp for Russia and Putin from the current state. If things continue to go poorly for them they still have multiple military escalations available: They have a lot more forces to commit; they have not gone full “Chechnya” on Ukraine’s cities or even come close (not denying they have attacked civilian areas, just pointing out that they have not yet engaged in scorched earth tactics designed to destroy cities and kill everyone); and perhaps most frighteningly, Russia has never eliminated the use of tactical nuclear strikes in their military doctrine.

    The only thing more frightening than Russia making quick work of Ukraine, may be a Russia struggling in Ukraine but unable to back down and admit their expectations were dead wrong. There are very few non-military escalations left for the rest of the world. Complete SWIFT cutoff as opposed to partial, asset seizures, and China’s displeasure (which we have no control over at all). Any others?

    At some point, we are looking at a Russia and authoritarian Putin that is as much of a pariah as it’s going to get, and if they haven’t won, what happens next?

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  113. Mu Yixiao says:

    I guess where I’m confused on your definition of rational/irrational is based on this:

    Irrational assumes that the actor in question is not assessing evidence as they see it before acting. Irrational assumes no cost/benefit analysis has been made. Irrational assumes no logic or process in decision-making.

    So… If I assess the evidence as I see it before acting, make a cost-benefit analysis, and have a logical process for defending myself from the flying laser monkeys living in my back yard… am I being rational?

    It’s that italicized part that’s the disconnect for me. Can the person be described as rational if their reality doesn’t sync with the reality as we know it? I’m not referring to mistaken or incomplete information, but a reality that isn’t “real”.

    Kim Jong Un is acting on a reality that is real–he knows that if he throws a tantrum, he gets given a sweet to calm him down. Xi Jinping is acting on a reality that is real–he knows that he can bluster and thump his chest inside his borders, and nobody is going to do anything about it.

    Putin’s reality, however, seems questionable. I can’t say if it’s real or not, but based on how things are turning out–and the reactions of world leaders and experts–it’s certainly reasonable to question if he’s seeing the same world as the rest of the world is.

  114. @BugManDan:

    Can you give some examples of irrational political figures and why?

    Off the top of my head, no. But it tends to be the case that people don’t get to become major politics figures by being irrational–especially not the kinds who run countries for two decades.

  115. @Stormy Dragon:

    This conversation is making me wonder if Political Science is suffering from the same problem Economics has: everything is based around this highly technical definition of “rational person”

    The thing is, despite a lot of assertions to the contrary in this thread, I have not offered up some highly technical definition of rationality. What I have mainly done is point out the problems with most definitions “irrational.”

    Indeed, I am not sure why so many folks are fighting this fight, same that they don’t like Putin and calling him “rational” rankles.

  116. @drj: But you are basically saying that because you don’t like what he did that he is irrational.

    That is not a helpful definition.

    As you are not engaging with what I’m saying, this is pretty pointless.

    I think that I am, but that you are so wedded to you position that don’t see it.

    Above all else, I only engage with people if I think there is some chance of getting through. I certainly don’t get paid for this.

    If you don’t consider the presence or absence of proper (or at least plausible) risk assessment

    Are you asserting that there was no plausible chance of success by Russia in Ukraine, and therefore only an irrational person could have launched the attack?

    FWIW, while agreeing that it was risky, there was a chance of success (there still is, but at a high cost). As noted in the OP: the attack was immoral, but there was a clear rational calculation made in my view.

    Look, I will lose no sleep if I can’t convince you, so we can let it rest.

    1
  117. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The thing is, despite a lot of assertions to the contrary in this thread, I have not offered up some highly technical definition of rationality.

    You’re using a definition of “rational” that doesn’t at all mesh with how the word is used in normal English, and assuring us that you usage is how it’s used in the political science field.

    So I think people are calling it a “technical definition”, because they are deferring to your expertise and accepting that the word just means something different within political science than it does in general society.

  118. @Mu Yixiao:

    So… If I assess the evidence as I see it before acting, make a cost-benefit analysis, and have a logical process for defending myself from the flying laser monkeys living in my back yard… am I being rational?

    On balance, yes. All rationality is bounded or constrained in some way. None us have perfect knowledge nor utter clarity of thought. We are all affected by narratives and half-understood bits of information.

    Granted, there are limitations to your description. If I an truly insane, or tripping on LSD or various other conditions apply, my reality is so warped as to not allow truly rational decision-making.

    Your caricatures of Kim and Xi are such, that I am not sure how to address them.

    it’s certainly reasonable to question if he’s seeing the same world as the rest of the world is.

    In some ways that is true for every human assessing every other human, yes?

    But, beyond that, that is why we need experts on areas of the world, their cultures, and also broad understanding of long-term patterns of human behavior so we can do our best to assess others (and even then we can never 100% know what someone else thinks).

    Hence, the need for systematic study of things, and not (to riff off another comment above) just chats at that barber shop, yes?

  119. @Stormy Dragon:

    You’re using a definition of “rational” that doesn’t at all mesh with how the word is used in normal English, and assuring us that you usage is how it’s used in the political science field.

    God help me, but let’s use the dictionary (Webster’s):

    Definition of rational (Entry 1 of 2)
    1a : having reason or understanding
    b : relating to, based on, or agreeable to reason : REASONABLE
    a rational explanation
    rational behavior

    Definition of irrational (Entry 1 of 2)
    : not rational: such as
    a(1) : lacking usual or normal mental clarity or coherence
    (2) : not endowed with reason or understanding
    b : not governed by or according to reason
    irrational fears

    How am I not using these words more or less as per above?

  120. To clarify: I don’t think I have used, at all, some especially complex definition of “rational.”

    Mostly, this entire thread is simply about the fact that a lot of folks don’t think that Putin is behaving rationally and so object to me saying so (mostly, I think, because most people, myself included, don’t like what he has done and/or because they think he will fail and/or risked too much).

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  121. Mimai says:

    Methinks it is subrational to continue to engage in this “discussion.” YMMV.

    4
  122. BugManDan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: If there are no irrational actors in politics, then why is there a “political science” definition of the term that needs to be strictly defined.

    This may seem like a snarky comment, but I am seriously curious.

    1
  123. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    b : relating to, based on, or agreeable to reason : REASONABLE

    a(1) : lacking usual or normal mental clarity or coherence

    In terms of how it is used outside political science, I think the “reasonable” and “coherence” are the sticking points here. If Putin is basing his decisions on beliefs that are sufficiently detached from reality, do they remain reasonable and coherent?

    And while I accept that Putin may be rational as political science uses the term, backing out to general social use, you argument becomes much less persuasive. English is ultimately a non-prescriptivist language, so the “everyone is using the word ‘irrational’ wrong” argument is self-defeating.

  124. Andy says:

    I think this weird argument that Steven is wrong because of semantics is a distraction.

    At the end of the day, I think it’s incumbent on those who want to declare or argue that Putin (or any other leader, or any other person actually) is irrational to present evidence and make their case. Declaring it to be so doesn’t make it so. How can we tell he’s irrational now? What’s the evidence? How is that different from, say, Putin 10 years ago?

    And I’ll note that no one has yet taken up my test above.

    1
  125. @BugManDan:

    If there are no irrational actors in politics, then why is there a “political science” definition of the term that needs to be strictly defined.

    This may seem like a snarky comment, but I am seriously curious.

    I never actually gave some super-special political science definition. That came into play, when I said above, “My position is basically a political science standard, FWIW.” Which then morphed in Stormy Dragon and drj asserting I had given a special, narrow def of “rational” and Moosebreath asserting that this is a politics blog, like a barbershop chat, and not a polisci blog (despite being written by political scientists).

    I never asserted a complex definition. I am basically saying in the OP the Putin is not insane and is not functioning on pure emotion and that calling behavior one doesn’t like (or that is above some level of risk) as “irrational” is making a normative judgment that I don’t think is a correct usage of the term “irrational.”

    Can’t we just call it dumb, foolish, and immoral?

    And it isn’t that political actors can’t be irrational, it is that on balance the presumption is rationality, especially from someone who has managed to rule a massive country for 20 years. That is hard feat for a rational actor, let alone an insane one.

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  126. @Stormy Dragon:

    I think the “reasonable” and “coherence” are the sticking points here

    His actions are coherent and I can explain his actions within his own reasons, and hence is reasonable in that sense. I suppose we can really dig down on “reasonable” if we want to act that clearly immoral acts aren’t “reasonable.”

    I would argue you are parsing for the sake of winning an argument, rather then to come to understanding.

    1
  127. @Andy:

    I think it’s incumbent on those who want to declare or argue that Putin (or any other leader, or any other person actually) is irrational to present evidence and make their case. Declaring it to be so doesn’t make it so. How can we tell he’s irrational now? What’s the evidence? How is that different from, say, Putin 10 years ago?

    This.

    1
  128. @Mimai:

    Methinks it is subrational to continue to engage in this “discussion.” YMMV.

    This is exceedingly likely.

  129. Moosebreath says:

    @Mimai:

    “Methinks it is subrational to continue to engage in this “discussion.” YMMV.”

    Yep. I got there already.