The verb мочь is one of the most basic words, actually a central modal verb, but I am so much confused about it. I am often at a loss as to how to interpret it in particular sentences, and I avoid using it when I write and speak in Russian. I am overwhelmed by inconsistent examples of its use and by how it drastically changes its meaning. To me, this verb is like a wild animal I cannot tame.
This verb may be so natural to you that you have no idea how I could be unable to understand it, but I apparently have different thinking patterns, as I belong to a very different culture.
I would like to humbly explain you my difficulties in understanding this verb and to kindly ask you to explain this verb in a way tailored to my difficulties.
I would like to start with the following sentences, which I just found in Google as illustrative examples:
(1) "Никто не может подвергать опасности жизнь своего ребенка, или других детей, — заявил губернатор, — а в случае с корью сложилась именно такая ситуация, когда поведение одних угрожает здоровью других." (Source)
(2) Роман Абрамович может за один раз доставить на своей яхте в Крым до 3000 отдыхающих. Может, но не хочет. (Source)
(3) Потому что он человек долга, - ответил Гарман. - Он не может предать свою батарею, не может предать свою полусумасшедшую жену и своих девочек. (Source).
(4) Савченко может выйти на свободу в ночь на 15 апреля. (Source).
(5) Окружающие считают Карла Уорнера слегка странным: он может часами разглядывать овощи в супермаркетах. (Source).
(6) Не забудьте написать ваше имя и, да, вы можете пользоваться калькуляторами, - говорила миссис Ланкастер, раздавая листочки с тестом ученикам. (Source).
In these sentences this verb appears to mean entirely different things: In the first sentence it appears to mean an ethical norm, in the second - a physical ability, in the third - a character quality, in the fourth - a possibility that cannot be excluded, in the fifth - habitual behavior, in the sixth - a permission.
With such a great span of the meanings, I am at a loss as to what the concept of this verb is and what else this verb can mean. English has separate modal verbs for ability and possibility - can and may, respectively; ethical norms are expressed in English rather by using the modal verb should, and habitual behavior - rather by using the modal verb will.
Whilst in sentences (1)-(6) the meaning of может is more or less obvious to me from the context, in many other cases it is not. To illustrate this, I would like to show you an example that made me seriously puzzled some time ago, when I browsed the Internet to see what the Russians think about the Northern Territories. This is the title of a material published by Radio Svoboda:
(7) Может ли Путин передать Японии 2 острова Южных Курил? (Source)
If you follow the link I provided, you will see that there is no context at all and that this question is used in a survey, so the question as it stands by itself must be very clear to every Russian, but how could it be clear if может has so many very different meanings?! What is this question about - an ethical norm, a physical ability, a character quality, or a possibility that cannot be reasonably excluded? In other words, which of the following interpretations is most accurate:
(7a) Does Putin have a moral right to transfer two islands of the Northern Territories to Japan? (For example, a moral right in regards to the inhabitans of the islands or the whole population of Russia.)
(7b) Does Putin have enough actual power in Russia to transfer two islands of the Northern Territories to Japan if he just decides to do so?
(7c) Is Putin wise, stupid, brave, unscrupulous, or backboneless enough to be capable of deciding to transfer two islands of the Northern Territories to Japan?
(7d) Can't it be excluded that Putin actually transfers two islands of the Northern Territories to Japan in the future (for example, as a result of some possible geopolitical or economic event sequence that may prompt Putin to transfer the islands in exchange for something)?
How do you understand Question (7) and why?
Let's assume that Putin can easily transfer the two islands to Japan if he just decides to, but is absolutely resolved not to transfer. How should I then answer Question (7) - да or нет?!
Now let us consider the following example, which is the title of another article:
(8) Непобедимый Чапаев: тайна гибели легендарного комдива. Мог ли он выжить? (Source)
This title must be very clear to every Russian already by itself because it is a title, yet I got puzzled as to which of the following two intepretations is correct:
(8a) Invincible Chapaev: The mystery of the legendary commander's death. Could he have survived?
(8b) Invincible Chapaev: The mystery of the legendary commander's death. May he have survived?
Question (8a) is whether he had an opportunity to survive, that is, about a missed opportunity, whilst Question (8b) is whether it cannot be excluded that he actually survived, that is, about a possibility.
My original interpretation was (8a), because the title contains the word гибели suggesting that the very fact of his death is not disputed, but I proved to be wrong. Reading the article itself, I realized that the author writes about conspiracy theories in which Chapaev survived. So yet again I was tricked by this wild verb, which I just cannot "domesticate."
What adds to the mystery is that there is an article entitled "Мог ли СССР выжить?" (Source). This title has the same grammatical construction, but the opposite meaning, as we know that the USSR did not survive.
So how could you explain this wild verb to a learner who is eager to finally tame it? What is the exact concept behind it, the concept that logically unites so many entirely different meanings under a single umbrella? And how do you always succeed in unmistakenly interpeting this verb, especially in sentences like the above ones about Putin and Chapaev?