Chaos is a Ladder
Vladimir “Little Finger” Putin’s Foreign Policy
What does Vladimir Putin actually want? To what aims does he actually aspire? Is he playing chess to our checkers, or is he practicing judo while we play chess? Who is Putin, and what is he trying to do?
The world’s foremost spy and intelligence agencies struggle to answer these questions, and I don’t have access to any information or insights they don’t, so take my analysis for what it is worth, which is likely very little. However, since it seems to me that intelligence analysts are more likely to make their evaluations based on real world evidence and less likely to consider the influence of pop culture, I wanted to share a theory of Putin based on Little Finger from Game of Thrones. Those who watched the show will likely agree that, if forced to describe Little Finger in one word, ambitious would be a good choice.
This is a trait Little Finger shares with Vladimir Putin: ambition. Both are wildly, if perhaps nebulously, ambitious. Little Finger desires power, ostensibly to sit on the Iron Throne, although he remains vague and shadowy about his end game and how he intends to reach it. Putin similarly desires power, ostensibly the end of the American-led international order, although he also remains vague and shadowy about his end game and how he intends to reach it. Still, both men root their respective efforts in the fomentation of chaos. Little Finger, in conversation with Lord Varys channels his inner Putin and tells Varys, “chaos is a ladder.”
In lauding the importance of chaos as a means to an end, Little Finger was responding to Varys’s claim that “chaos is a pit.” Indeed it is, for the overwhelming majority of people all over the world, chaos is undesirable, disruptive, and detrimental to happiness and well-being. In fact as a species, we have spent much of our history building socio-political structures to keep chaos at bay, beyond the wall and in the wilderness with the White Walkers, if you will.
But if chaos ruins life for most people, it also creates the conditions for the creation of new ideas, structures, and products. In economic terms we would even classify disruption as a positive driver of innovation. But that belies the fact that most people — regardless of where they are from — crave and work toward stability, the polar opposite of chaos.
However, for the ambitious who seek a new and different set of systems than the status quo, chaos is indeed a ladder. If one aims to overturn an entrenched power be it the American-led global order or the great house politics of Westeros one needs — or at least greatly benefits from — distraction, disruption, despair, and desperation, the conditions conjured by chaos. In such conditions many are at their most vulnerable, and the ambitious can act, playing the role of the strongman offering structure and a return to normalcy.
The structures and stability being peddled by Putin and Little Finger are narrowly-defined and self-interested, but no matter how bad they end up being in the longterm, in the near-term they are better than chaos by the virtue of the fact that as structures they offer at least a degree of certainty amid the turmoil. When Putin invaded Crimea, he created chaos, and the alternative structure he offered to many in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea — Russian governance — while undesirable in a vacuum, was still a better alternative than the danger and destabilization caused by little green men.
As western intelligence agencies seek to analyze and predict Putin’s behaviors and actions, they should consider how, where, and when he might most effectively foment chaos. More so than trying to determine where, when, and how Putin may chip away at the American-led order based on geography, history, and troop build ups — not to discount these factors — perhaps western agencies should also consider where, when, and how Putin is able to create the most instability and disorder whether that means using cyber weaponry, little green (or little blue) men, disrupting oil and gas shipments to his neighbors, or something altogether unforeseen — and thus even more chaotic.
Putin’s goal, to undermine the American-led order, cannot be accomplished by traditional means. Russia’s military is too weak and its economy too sclerotic to challenge the United States in any of the traditional realms. But the US, and its military, are built to deal with structured and formalized conflict that is governed by international law and the rules of war. When Putin invites conflict by creating the muddled conditions inherent to chaos he evens the playing field and makes it more likely that he can propel Russia up the ladder while the rest of the world struggles to make sense of what is happening.