What’s on Putin’s Mind?

NEW YORK – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to order a full-scale invasion of Ukraine defies any and all political logic, even his own hardened authoritarian reasoning. With his unprovoked assault, Putin joins a long line of irrational tyrants, not least Joseph Stalin, who believed that sustaining his power required a constant expansion of it. That logic led Stalin to commit horrific atrocities against his own people, including causing a famine that starved millions of Ukrainians to death.

Another twentieth-century mass murderer, Mao Zedong, famously declared that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun – or, it seemed, a nuclear missile. Mao demanded that my great-grandfather, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, provide China with nuclear weapons, so that Mao could effectively hold his adversaries, foreign and domestic, hostage.

Only similar thinking can explain Putin’s actions in Ukraine. He says that he wants to “denazify” Ukraine, but the senselessness of that claim should be obvious, not least because Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish. So, what is Putin’s endgame? Does he want to punish NATO by destroying Ukraine’s military infrastructure? Does he hope to install a puppet government, whether by replacing Zelensky or by turning him into a Ukrainian Philippe Pétain, France’s collaborationist leader during World War II?

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