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‘Is Putin insane – or ill?’ Cambridge emergency debate on Ukraine asks



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The University’s Centre for Geopolitics convened an expert panel in Cambridge on Monday for an emergency event to discuss the ramifications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and ended up spending an inordinate amount of time assessing Rusian president Vladimir Putin’s mental and physical health.

From left are Dr Rory Finnin, associate professor of Ukrainian Studies, University of Cambridge; Bridget Kendall, master of Peterhouse and former BBC diplomatic correspondent; Prof Jonathan Haslam, emeritus professor of the History of International Relations at Cambridge; Prof Brendan Simms (chair), director of the Centre for Geopolitics; Charles Clarke, former home secretary and co-founder of the Baltic Geopolitics Programme at Cambridge; and Edward Stringer, air marshal, director-general UK Defence Academy. Picture: Keith Heppell
From left are Dr Rory Finnin, associate professor of Ukrainian Studies, University of Cambridge; Bridget Kendall, master of Peterhouse and former BBC diplomatic correspondent; Prof Jonathan Haslam, emeritus professor of the History of International Relations at Cambridge; Prof Brendan Simms (chair), director of the Centre for Geopolitics; Charles Clarke, former home secretary and co-founder of the Baltic Geopolitics Programme at Cambridge; and Edward Stringer, air marshal, director-general UK Defence Academy. Picture: Keith Heppell

The emergency debate was chaired by Prof Brendan Simms, the director of the Centre for Geopolitics. A panel of five consisted of Dr Rory Finnin, associate professor of Ukrainian Studies, University of Cambridge; Bridget Kendall, master of Peterhouse and former BBC diplomatic correspondent; Prof Jonathan Haslam, emeritus professor of the History of International Relations at Cambridge; Charles Clarke, former home secretary and co-founder of the Baltic Geopolitics Programme at Cambridge; and Edward Stringer, air marshal, director-general of the UK Defence Academy.

The panel was joined via video link by former senior Ukrainian diplomat Iuliia Osmolovska and by Svitlana Zalishchuk, foreign policy advisor to the deputy prime minister of Ukraine. Both stressed the importance of a geopolitical solution for the entire Baltic sector – while the panel speculated more on Putin’s motives.

“When we assessed whether the Russians would use a full-scale invasion I was quite sceptical about them resorting to this strategy,” said Iuliia Osmolovska, “because logical and rational calculations said that the losses they would suffer by using this strategy of full-scale invasion would be much higher than the gains, and still they opted for this strategy. That means that the way they take decisions right now are driven mostly by some emotional considerations – the emotional triggers that drive Mr Putin.”

Rory Finnin, left, associate professor of Ukrainian Studies, University of Cambridge, and Bridget Kendall, master of Peterhouse and former BBC diplomatic correspondent, at the Centre for Geopolitics’ emergency event on the Russian invasion of Ukraine at The Babbage Theatre. Picture: Keith Heppell
Rory Finnin, left, associate professor of Ukrainian Studies, University of Cambridge, and Bridget Kendall, master of Peterhouse and former BBC diplomatic correspondent, at the Centre for Geopolitics’ emergency event on the Russian invasion of Ukraine at The Babbage Theatre. Picture: Keith Heppell

So have these emotional considerations – such as the conviction Putin has that Russia has a historical claim on the Ukraine (odd, given that Ukraine was something of a superpower itself before Russia existed, so this is akin to suggesting the US had a pre-existing historical claim to the UK) – have these triggers triggered some kind of full-blown episode for the Russian autocrat?

Dr Rory Finnin, associate professor of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Cambridge started off by pointing out Britain’s threadbare response to issuing visas to Ukrainians fleeing their homeland.

“At the moment as I understand it this morning it’s very difficult for Ukrainians to even apply for a visa to the UK unless they have very very close family connections here – we should be following Ireland’s lead and opening the doors,” he said, he said, adding that it is crucial “for us to be clear-eyed and be doing as much as we can” to help the people of Ukraine.

Prof Jonathan Haslam, emeritus professor of the History of International Relations at Cambridge, said the invasion had its origins in the first speech of Putin’s presidency in 2000, when he said he “wanted to restore the borders of the former Soviet Union”.

Putin has essentially used Russia’s oil and gas as levers for Russian power,” he said, before launching into a discursive analysis which took in Stalin, current Russian generals, the response of the international financial community.

His conclusion?

“There is a Moscow rumour that Putin has cancer and when you watched him on TV it looked like he was pumped with drugs and the rumour is extended to say that he would give up in 2023 and there is talk about who might replace him.”

Brendan Simms (chair), director of the Centre for Geopolitics, and Charles Clarke, former home secretary and co-founder of the Baltic Geopolitics Programme at Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Brendan Simms (chair), director of the Centre for Geopolitics, and Charles Clarke, former home secretary and co-founder of the Baltic Geopolitics Programme at Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

This guessing game seemed curiously out of place when there’s more than enough facts to get on top of, however the intense focus on Putin’s behaviour was picked up by Bridget Kendall, master of Peterhouse and former BBC diplomatic correspondent, who noted that the Russian leader “has become more aloof, around 2011/2012 he stopped having dinner with Russian foreign experts”.

“We’ve seen in the last two years, with Covid, he’s withdrawn even more and he’s very isolated,” she said. “He’s pulled back. I have a sense that his own identity is more and more wrapped up in Russia’s historical mission. As far back as 2007 when he was asked what he would do when he was no longer president he said: ‘I still want to be father of the nation’.”

Charles Clarke, the former home secretary, had a slightly wider lens, saying that for “for the Baltic states the Second World War didn’t end in 1945, it ended in 1991” (when the Soviet Union was dissolved). His analysis was somehow more academic than the actual academics could muster and all the more powerful for it.

Edward Stringer, air marshal and director-general of the UK Defence Academy, analysed the military position, noting that “we don’t know what his actual political end state is” while being confident that “he has not achieved his three day shock-and-awe plan”.

Former senior Ukrainian diplomat Iuliia Osmolovska and by Svitlana Zalishchuk, foreign policy advisor to the deputy prime minister of Ukraine, attended by video-link
Former senior Ukrainian diplomat Iuliia Osmolovska and by Svitlana Zalishchuk, foreign policy advisor to the deputy prime minister of Ukraine, attended by video-link

The session opened up to questions from the floor, where the audience wanted to know what was going to happen with the nuclear weapons, a question expertly turned away by Edward Stringer who said he “had no clinical insight” into whether Putin is mentally unstable but noted drily that “what Joseph Heller [Catch 22 author] tells us about sanity and war is probably worth going into”.

The key factor, militarily, he added, is that “I think you will continue to see an under-performing army and it’s quite possible that morale will plummet further”.

“I don’t think he’s clinically insane,” ventured Prof Haslam, though Edward Stringer’s reminder that Russia could use its tactical nuclear weapons as part of its ‘escalate to deescalate’ strategy is pure Dr Strangelove ie as bonkers as it’s possible to be – though one might want to draw a line between an insanity of statecraft and the insanity of one man.

What about a Kremlin coup, asked another questioner? Bridget Kendall believes there are people in the Putin inner circle who are thinking “hang on, we’ve got to stop this man, but what’s the barrier [for a coup] from those around him?”

Charles Clarke, former home secretary and co-founder of the Baltic Geopolitics Programme at Cambridge, left, and Edward Stringer, air marshal and director-general of the UK Defence Academy. Picture: Keith Heppell
Charles Clarke, former home secretary and co-founder of the Baltic Geopolitics Programme at Cambridge, left, and Edward Stringer, air marshal and director-general of the UK Defence Academy. Picture: Keith Heppell

Charles Clarke seemed to think that a coup may not be necessary. He expressed delight at how quickly a counter-punch has been organised by the West and stressed that the next step must be for “key players such as China – China is central, India is central, the Gulf is central... to isolate still further Putin”. He stressed that the West has to set out clear goals for what it wants to achieve as the quagmire goes on.

“Maintaining international pressure is absolutely key to helping Russians solve this problem,” he concluded.

To all these matters, the answer might usually be ‘time will tell’. However, in terms of the situation on the ground, time is something we are all in short supply of.

Watch the full debate here. Check out this week’s print edition of the Cambridge Independent – on sale now – for further coverage.



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