Psychoanalyzing Putin

According to reports, 32 tanks and assorted howitzers have been deployed by Russia to the Ukraine. An obvious target is  the Donetsk airport, recently the site of some Ukrainian success. But with Russian artillery, unless the Ukrainians have since been supplied with counter battery radar and plenty of throw-weight, it could quickly become a graveyard. Only high resolution satellite imagery can inform whether the Ukrainians have prepared for this level of challenge. In the past, they have not.

This battlefield warmup may pique reader interest  in what makes Putin tick: the psychological makeup, and perhaps, his “philosophies.” Very few world leaders are favored with as much press coverage as Putin, making him an excellent and timely subject. My interest in this actually goes back to 2012, when I published a paper, “Putin’s Character and the Intersection with Russia”, downloadable from With Putin as an enigma, any number of outcomes of the Ukraine crisis, and subsequent evolutions of Russia-West relations, are possible, freely chosen by the prejudice of the predictor. It’s wired into us to decide that any so-and-so is a “force for good”, or “evil incarnate.” A simplification would be to imagine that the outcome lies along a line, as a kind of function,

Outcome = Function(some personality characteristic)

What we would like to know has an analogy in radio direction-finding. Imagine you are trying to find a spy who is surreptitiously transmitting in your territory. If you have a single radio, you rotate your antenna until the signal of the spy is in the “null.” His location is determined to lie along a line, that extends both in front of and in back of you. By adding to your surveillance a second radio, you almost know where he is, unless he is located along a line that passes through your two radios. But if you add a third radio, the spy’s position is almost pinpointed, subject to some irrelevant technical caveats. This example, requiring three radios, is intended to remind the reader of the hopeless inadequacy of plotting Putin’s position along some “axis of evil.” Believe it or not, people have actually used that phrase.

Consider the compatibility, with the facts as they are known, of the simplistic assumption that Putin is benignly concerned about the fate of Russian speaking minorities in eastern Ukraine. This view could be coherently supported by the historical embrace of Fascism by the Ukrainian speaking population, and the continuing, active political presence of Fascism as a minority viewpoint. The imposition of the Ukrainian language as the only official language smacks of petty intolerance. This case also draws energy from the current political landscape of neighboring Hungary, where Fascism is more than a taint. And the breakup  of Yugoslavia suggests that the ingredients for extreme ethnic conflict exist in the current Ukraine.

Unfortunately, the above does not exclude the possibility that Putin is,  in our moral system, genuinely malevolent, challenging the West with every possible grab not repelled by forceful response. Nor does it exclude that Putin, furthering what he considers Russia’s national interest, may now be a permanently painful, annoying blister on the foot of European serenity. The Ukraine scenario admits the whole spectrum of possibilities, which the reader may be inclined to fill in with his own prejudices.  It is difficult  to like someone who is disturbing what had become a very peaceful place.  Bullets in Europe? Who would have thought! But foreign policy is too expensive to rely  on personal prejudices.

With the exception of the Balkans, the history of Europe since the founding of the EU was a refreshing break from Realpolitik, which is, at heart, an amoral (not evil, there is a difference!) system based upon Cardinal Richeliu’s principle of survival of the state, raison d’État. Have we now gone full circle to October 1938 ?

Only Putin On the Couch can tell. To be continued…