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Putin Psychology 101: The World Tries To Get Inside Russian Leader’s Head

Experts in geopolitics and the workings of world leaders have accelerated a two-decade long quest to understand the motivations of the enigmatic man in the Kremlin.

Vladimir Putin during the president's annual press conference in Russia

Vladimir Putin during the president's annual press conference in Russia

Anna Akage

PARISVladimir Putin’s origin story, fed by Russian propaganda into the Western media, centers around his rise to lead Russia after a strategic KGB posting in the closing years of the Cold War. Understanding his current geopolitical ambitions would thus require that we imagine the mindset of a Soviet spymaster ready to manipulate world politics for the past two decades as he attempts to build a new Russian empire.

But what if Putin was nothing more than a desk clerk in his late 1980s posting in the eastern German city of Dresden? If the young functionary was simply a convenient tool plucked by the circle of oligarchs formed around then Russian president Boris Yeltsin to secure their own status? That indeed is the reading from influential Russian blogger and political analyst Maxim Katz, who last year exposed recently declassified documents that Putin was a minor player who went by the codename of “Moth” — not a bear or tiger, or even a hamster!

Katz’s theories are just one in a chorus of Russian and international analysts joining a global quest to decipher the psychology of Vladimir Putin, who has remained largely unknowable during more than two decades on the world stage — and now may be preparing for a full-fledged military conflict with the West. How, the world wants to know, can we get inside the head of the enigma in the Kremlin?

Playing with fear

In an article for the British magazine UnHeard Harald Malmgren, geopolitical strategist, negotiator and former aide to four U.S. Presidents, shares his observations of Putin, which began in his pre-presidential era as the oligarchs and Russian mafia were vying for power after the collapse of Communism. Putin told Malmgren that only fear could unite the opposing sides.

Putin is a master at muddying his game

This is exactly the argument Putin is using now, and it seems to give him a certain pleasure, Malmgren posits: "The idea of forcing his opponents to face terrifying alternatives seemed to thrill him. In essence, he was describing to me (what became) the current Ukrainianimpasse between the United States and Russia.”

It is possible that Putin, brought to power by oligarchs desperately fighting for every inch of power, sees things forever in purely cynical terms: that the conditions of the collapse of the USSR has required a constant “conquer and divide” strategy, following the laws of mafia rather than calculating the long-term consequences of his actions.

French magazine L’Express sees Putin as a poker player whose decisions are difficult to anticipate, “a master at muddying his game."

L'Express: fire in his eyes

"How Far Will Putin Go"

Napoleonic complex

Western experts often stress the idea that Putin sees himself as a great historical figure — and some contrast that with his physical stature. He is, it should be noted, the same height as Napoleon - 168 cm (5ft6)

“He is personally, deeply and emotionally invested in recovering Russia’s former power over his neighbors,” writes Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

This means that the damage Russia could suffer as the result of war counts less than the fear of a future where his own power deteriorates. Without the military operation in Ukraine, writes Greg Yudin is a sociologist, philosopher and professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, Putin will never become an emperor of “all Russian lands.”

Putin with President Boris Yeltsin on 31 December 1999, when Yeltsin announced his resignation

Putin with President Boris Yeltsin on 31 December 1999, when Yeltsin announced his resignation


“Mother” issues with Kyiv

The motivation of restoring a past empire includes a kind of obsession with the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, writes Peter Pomerantsev, a Senior Fellow at SNF Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins University

“Firstly, there’s the obsessive stalking of Kyiv, which is deified as the “mother of all Russian cities,” and then castigated either as a prostitute who has sold out to the West, or a sort of zombie-mummy, manipulated by “dark forces” who have turned her into a tool against Russia.”

Perhaps the war is a course Putin has already chosen

Benoît Vitkine, the Moscow correspondent for French daily Le Monde, came to a similar conclusion, explaining that Putin's sense of time is also pushing him to take more decisive action against Kyiv: his political ambitions, like his age (he turns 70 in October), are coming up against the shortage of time left to build that empire. Putin, Le Monde writes, “is aware that he is mortal and wants to leave a clean legacy, in line with what he considers to be his historical mission."

There is an unchanging message in the daily propaganda through the Putin years: the West is the enemy of Russia, doing everything it can to keep it on its knees. The Russian leader sees himself precisely as a hero who must defeat the rival (the U.S.) and protects the mother (The Big Rus, which is not just Russia, but all lands of the Empire). Here can be another key to understanding Putin - a banal Oedipus complex.

Hero identification

“If primary narcissism is structural and necessary,” explains psychoanalyst and University of London Professor of Literature Josh Cohen, “and is basically our investment in our own self-preservation, secondary narcissism involves specific character traits and habits—vanity, self-inflation, superiority, all of the course masking an underlying fear of one’s own inadequacy.”

If guided by such emotion, Putin may be the scariest enemy, because then war is a sacred mission. Michael Kimmage and Liana Fix of the German Marshall Fund think tank argues that Putin has already made his choice. “Perhaps the war is a course Putin has already chosen. If so, it cannot be a small war."

Early in Vladimir Putin's first term in office, after his first meeting with then-President George W. Bush in 2001, Bush said: "I looked the man in the eye...I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul. A man deeply committed to his country."

Though nobody doubts his Russian patriotism, few have had a glimpse of Putin’s soul since. Michael Sturmer, of the Berlin daily Die Welt, is less interested in Putin’s soul or psychology, focused instead on his objective to redefine the geopolitical scene on Moscow's terms. It’s a puzzle, Sturmer writes, and “perhaps the strongman in the Kremlin himself doesn't know what to make of the puzzle.”

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