The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Perhaps Putin thinks acting crazy is a good strategy. My research says otherwise.

‘Madness’ isn’t a common leadership trait

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, second left, and Head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia and First Deputy Defense Minister Valery Gerasimov, left, in Moscow on Feb. 27, 2022. (Alexei Nikolsky/AP)
6 min

This post has been updated.

Is Putin crazy? Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted comments from numerous U.S. observers — from White House press secretary Jen Psaki to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), as well as former U.S. officials such as Condoleezza Rice and HR McMaster — and speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin has become unhinged, perhaps due to pandemic isolation or illness.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson noted that Putin may not be acting rationally. And French President Emmanuel Macron, who met with the Russian leader last month, reportedly was struck by the change in Putin’s demeanor.

Some analysts argue that Putin wants to be viewed as insane because it will help him achieve his goals. My research helps to explain how Putin developed a sudden reputation for madness but casts doubt on whether it will benefit him.

‘Madness’ isn’t a common leadership trait

In an analysis I did of madness reputations based on press reports, I found that less than eight percent of leaders in office from 1986-2010 were ever accused of insanity — and that’s counting even casual language. Press reports labeled less than two percent of leaders as madmen with any regularity.

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Putin was not among these. Indeed, my coding — which focused on major English-language news sources around the globe — turned up only a single description of Putin as irrational between 2000 and 2010. What’s happening now reflects a major turnaround in Putin’s reputation.

My ongoing research suggests that most leaders acquire madness reputations through wacky or emotional behavior that appears spontaneous. Kim Jong Un’s relationship with basketball great Dennis Rodman is a good example.

Until recently, Putin had not displayed such behavior. But some observers noted that his behavior at a recent summit meeting and a televised Russian government meeting appeared bizarre.

Strange behavior isn’t always enough to convince people that a leader will behave insanely when it comes to using military force. For example, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s madness reputation waned over time when he did not follow through on his emotional tirades with forceful action.

Putin, in contrast, has shown his willingness to use force in a situation where many Western analysts predict that it could go badly and undermine his domestic support. He is also apparently willing to target civilians, suggesting that his values fall outside of typical Western norms. This has helped to cement his madness reputation.

But what about the ‘madman advantage’?

The classic “madman theory” holds that being viewed as crazy is beneficial for international leaders because it makes their threats credible and causes their enemies to back down. The theory was first proposed by Daniel Ellsberg, but got its name from President Richard Nixon. Nixon believed that his reputation as an out-of-control anti-communist with a hand on the “nuclear button” would make the North Vietnamese beg for an end to the Vietnam War.

Is Putin using a similar strategy? If U.S. officials fear that Putin might be crazy enough to do anything, including use the nuclear weapons that Putin recently put on alert, then they might be more cautious about aiding Ukraine and sanctioning Russia.

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It’s often bad to be mad

Despite the claims of the madman theory, my research finds that most types of perceived madness don’t actually increase the likelihood that a leader’s adversaries will back down. More often than not, madmen do not get their way. Here’s why.

First, it is not always predictable what madmen will do. Putin’s relatively sudden switch from two decades of more subtle efforts to influence Ukraine to an all-out invasion makes him seem unpredictable and erratic.

But erratic leaders may or may not escalate conflict. Therefore, while the appearance of madness can give them some credibility boost, their threats are not always as credible as those of leaders who can convey calm certainty about what they will do. This limits their ability to prevail over opponents who are willing to run some degree of risk. For example, my research shows that U.S. officials did not bow before Khrushchev’s 1958 threat over Berlin, even though they thought there was some chance he would follow through.

What about credible commitments?

An even bigger problem for perceived madmen is that they cannot make credible commitments to peace. As Andrew Kydd explains, persuading an adversary to concede to demands requires not only credible threats, but credible assurances.

Madmen typically cannot make such credible assurances. A leader who is viewed as being either a megalomaniac or out of touch with reality cannot promise peace — nobody will believe it. Even if his opponents gave him whatever he asked for today, an unpredictable mental state or insatiable desire for more gains could make the mad leader turn around and attack the next day regardless.

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For this reason, opponents will often resist making concessions to perceived madmen. Since they view conflict with such leaders as virtually inevitable, they prefer to fight in the present rather than make concessions that would weaken them for a future fight. My research suggests this is why the United States sought to remove Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi from power rather than compromise with them.

There are now signs that Western officials have begun to view Putin along similar lines. Biden said that Putin wants to “reestablish the former Soviet Union,” and the White House press secretary said that Putin has “ambitions beyond” invading Ukraine. Of course, Russia’s military strength and nuclear capability make it very unlikely that the United States would seek to topple the Russian leader, as it did Saddam and Gaddafi. Still, fears about Putin’s future ambitions and mental instability will create an incentive for Western leaders to stand firm against him, lest he grow even more dangerous.

Ultimately, Western governments will weigh the present risks of escalation against the future danger posed by Putin in deciding how firm that line will be. But the perception that Putin is a madman is more likely to harm than help him as they make this calculation.

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Roseanne W. McManus is an associate professor at the Pennsylvania State University and author of “Statements of Resolve: Achieving Coercive Credibility in International Conflict” (Cambridge University Press, 2017). She is working on a second book on the madman theory.