Many of us, myself included, feel great relief that Fiona Hill, a Putin critic, has been appointed to advise Trump on things Russian. This is not because I entirely agree with her. It is because many of us have been fearful of the possible presence of a persistent, subversive Russian presence in the new administration. The major news outlets have responded to Hill’s appointment by purchasing clip-art from AP and others that show Putin sucking his thumb. The implication of this “new-new journalism” is that, somehow, the press monitors Putin’s thoughts, and snaps a picture at exactly the moment when he is regretting the appointment of Hill.
I agree with Hill on one thing: Putin does not understand us any more than we understand him. In Should Fox Apologize to Putin?, I wrote,
In this milieu, there is a significant minority of completely modern people who have hybridized themselves with the west. They are just like us, a confusing veneer.
Putin is part of this group, but the traditional Russian ethos dominates his mind. His formative years occurred within the Russian autarchy, which had much continuity of attitude with the communist Russia that was supposed to replace it. Putin, like the Soviet leaders who preceded him, is, partially in his case, a product of a system that makes a clear view of the West very difficult to achieve. This has resulted in the recent tragedy of military reawakening. Perhaps, if the West had treated Russia more kindly during Perestroika, the tragedy would have been averted. But neither can we blame ourselves for the fact that Vladimir Putin is not the person to drag his people toward a future he incompletely understands.
The above contains my understanding of where Hill and I agree.
But I preceded this with,
After I had studied Vladimir Putin for a while, I realized that it is impossible to separate the man from the world in which he is embedded. It is an ethnocentric world of corrupt institutions and extrajudicial punishments, coexisting with a western yearning that willed the city of St. Petersburg into existence.
This is the crux of my disagreement with Hill, who with her coauthor Clifford Gaddy, have created an elaborate psychoanalytic theory of Putin. To simulate the mind of the adversary is one way of predicting the initiatives and responses of that adversary. A sample chapter (pdf) of Mr. Putin; Operative in the Kremlin, attempts a working model of Putin’s mind, which can be used for that purpose.
One problem I perceive with the psychoanalytic model itself is that it is a model of a mind, not of a mind embedded in society. Hill’s analysis is referent to Freud and Jung. Mine is referent to Vilfredo Pareto, and his work, The Mind and Society. In my analysis, Putin is inseparably bound into a matrix of unconscious influence that flows both from him, and to him.
I use psychoanalysis in a limited way, trying to understand what the subject might be thinking about the current question. But Occam’s Razor, the “simplest explanation is most likely to be correct”, is more important. As a therapy, the patient can tell if psychoanalysis helps, and determine the use. But many therapies, this one included, do not rise to the level of science. Psychoanalysis has many doubters, even when the subject is in the clinic. The distance with which Putin is observed and “experienced” makes him a more difficult object than a patient on the couch.
Next: How our observations and predictions differ in very substantial ways.