The media (at least here in Germany) mostly comment on the war between Ukraine and Russia in 2022 in a way that somehow insinuates that Putin does not know what he is doing. Some say he's like Hitler (who is known today for his delusions regarding world domination), that Ukraine 2022 is like Poland 1939, he's senile, he's irrational, he's a psychopath, he's plain crazy, and so on and so forth.
There is not the slightest doubt that the war in Ukraine is disgusting and wrong. But in my experience, calling somebody crazy is a little too easy and clouds one's sight of their true motives, which might actually be very rational. Hence, we are probably harming our own rational judgement if we light-heartedly call him a lunatic.
The first question one has to ask is, what benefit is the Ukraine war to Putin and Russia? It is easier to answer this and other related questions with respect to what it is not.
- it is certainly not a significant gain of territory (like Hitler's "Lebensraum im Osten"/living space in the east) was; Russia already occupies enough space for all the Russian population
- it is not a gain of many natural resources (of which Russia already has enough, at least if managed properly)
- it is not a military advantage, because if Putin's greatest fear was really NATO, then by moving closer to NATO, he has the responsibility of defending borders that are even more in 'danger'; and if it would really be Putin's desire for world domination, then he can't really expect it to be successful by invading Ukraine; in Soviet times, the spreading of communism all over the world was a plausible threat, but Putin has no such ideology to offer, besides power (of which he has less than he wants everyone to believe)
- it is not an economic advantage, because convincing the people of Ukraine to happily work for the Russians will undoubtedly be a difficult task, and Putin himself called Ukraine a "failed state" which puts him in the responsibility of rebuilding the state before he can profit economically
- it is hardly any extension of political influence to the people of Ukraine, because if we suppose Putin is well aware of the (self-created) political challenges in his own country, it doesn't make sense that he burdens himself with yet another difficult job, which has a very high likelihood of failure, not least because the Ukrainians are already opposed to Putin due to the war and occupation of eastern Ukraine
If all these items are unsuitable as a rational background for the attack on Ukraine, what rational reason could there be?
If we suppose that things are going more or less exactly like Putin wants, we just have to look at the effects:
- Putin gets constant, daily attention from the rest of the world
- the West is scared of Putin because "he might push the red button", or extend his crusade further west
- the West (which Putin decries as "wimps") is furious at his blatant aggression towards Ukraine, so this gives him a differentiator against the West and makes him proud
- by leaving his intentions in the dark, he formally has a lot of options for action; he can enjoy always being the one that imposes "Zugzwang" on the West
I think that is pretty much reinforcement for a guy that has messed up his own country for more than 20 years now, and who desperately wants to conclude his political career with something spectacular. Maybe it also helps him in paving the way for a possible successor, someone who might otherwise have been in danger of being too indulgent with the West, but who will now be forced to be tough in face of the pre-existing conflict.
So, Putin's actions could possibly be viewed rather rationally, couldn't they?