Inside Putin’s Head
Is he crazy? Or at least moving in that direction? If so, what's pushing him?
Is Vladimir Putin crazy?
Over the last few days, two credible people—Russian oligarch-in-exile Mikhail Khodorkovskytk and former Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev—have assured us that he’s not. They say that, however badly the invasion of Ukraine has gone, however catastrophic it could turn out to be for Russia and even Putin himself, the decision to invade was a miscalculation, based on flawed assumptions, not evidence of insanity or irrationality.
I was glad to hear that—mainly because I prefer that people who control thousands of nuclear warheads be sane, but also because, before the invasion, I was in the Putin-isn’t-crazy camp; it’s always good to hear your beliefs affirmed.
But even I have to admit that the question of Putin’s rationality isn’t settled. The invasion of Ukraine was an extreme act—much larger in aspiration than most people who expected an invasion had envisioned. And it’s been accompanied by rhetoric from Putin that is unsettlingly emotional and ominously grand. The invasion was pretty clearly the result of something intense going on inside Putin’s head. What was that thing?
There are lots of reasons it would be nice to know.
For one thing, Putin is prosecuting an increasingly barbaric war, and figuring out a way to make him stop—which presumably is easier if we understand his motivations—could prevent immense suffering.
There’s also the intrinsic value of figuring out why bad things happen in the first place. If we had understood Putin better, could we have prevented the invasion and hence the current slaughter? To put a finer point on it: Those of us who argued for making more generous diplomatic offers to head off an invasion—like agreeing not to expand NATO any further—were viewing Putin as a rational actor pursuing what he saw as Russia’s national security. Does Putin’s behavior over the past few weeks mean we were wrong?
My post-invasion view of Putin’s psychology hasn’t crystallized. I’m still doing research (I’m making my way through a biography of him), so the theory of Putin I put forth in this piece is subject to revision. But for now my view has moved a bit away from the rational actor model, an increment or two in the direction of crazy. I’m happy to say it isn’t yet approaching the midpoint of that spectrum.
The idea that Putin is crazy, or at least starting to drift from his moorings, was one I first started taking seriously two weeks ago, after he delivered the speech that set the stage for the Ukraine invasion. The speech was long and emotional, at times angry. It listed lots of indignities visited on Russia by the West and by Ukrainian leaders, and it took a long detour through Russian and Soviet history as a way of raising questions about the validity of Ukraine’s national identity.
The speech was seized on by Russia hawks who had been saying all along that Putin’s real grievances weren’t about NATO so there was no point in negotiating with him about that. Julia Ioffe said on WNYC, New York’s NPR affiliate, “The speech was… about historical grievance, about the end of the cold war, about Ukraine being a separate country and a fake country in his mind. NATO barely merited a mention.” Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo agreed that “Vladimir Putin barely mentioned NATO.”
Actually, Putin mentioned NATO 40 times in that speech. And he got pretty intense about it. So Ioffe’s claim that the speech “proved what a lot of us have been suspecting, which is that NATO was just the pretext” seems like an overstatement at best.
That said, the speech did suggest that in Putin’s mind the narrative that justifies invading Ukraine is bigger than “invasion will keep NATO out of Ukraine.” He does, for example, seem to think of himself as someone who will restore some of Russia’s former glory and cultural integrity, and to see the Ukraine invasion as part of that mission.
But what I think people like Ioffe don’t appreciate is that these aspirations may be related to the NATO issue. In fact, if you want to understand how Putin’s narrative got so grand and intense, I think it helps to focus on that issue, but from a new angle. Whereas Ioffe’s interpretation of the pre-invasion speech is basically, ‘Putin’s psychology isn’t only about NATO by a long shot,’ my interpretation is more like, ‘In Putin’s psychology, NATO isn’t only about Russia’s national security by a long shot.’
One way to explain what I mean by that is to take a brief detour into international relations theory.
I think we need to recognize a shortcoming of the school of thought known as “realism”. I call myself a “progressive realist” because I identify with much in the realist perspective, but I don’t buy one assumption that undergirds strict forms of realism. Namely: that we should think of national leaders as purely rational actors—and, what’s more, as actors whose rationality is devoted to pursuing the nation’s interests on the geopolitical stage, maximizing its power and security.
National leaders are human beings, whose ends and means can be influenced by emotions, and who have goals other than trying to maximize their nation’s power and security—such as trying to maximize their own domestic political power and security.
So what parts of human nature—aside from the rational faculties that realists emphasize—should we focus on in trying to understand Putin’s motivation? I think a big part of the answer lies in a conversation I had on my podcast, the Wright Show, two weeks ago with Steven Ward, a political scientist at Cambridge who wrote a book called Status and the Challenge of Rising Powers.
Ward shares my belief that the realist model of human motivation is incomplete. The main ingredient that he and like-minded scholars want to add to it is status-consciousness. The basic idea is that national leaders want their nations to be treated with respect. So they try to raise or at least maintain their nation’s status on the world stage. And trouble can arise when those attempts don’t result in the level of respect that was hoped for. Nations can get disruptive and aggressive; they can show “defiance of the international order,” as Ward put it.
A nation’s conviction that it isn’t getting the respect it deserves can materialize in various ways. Resentment over perceived mistreatment can arise from the grassroots and drive the political leadership to demand better treatment on the international stage. Or political leaders can foment grassroots resentment as a way of galvanizing nationalism and thus increasing their public support. And of course both of these can happen at once.
And there’s a third thing that can enter the mix: National leaders may take things that happen on the international stage personally. They may feel that, when their nation is being disrespected, they are being disrespected. And, as Russia expert Fiona Hill said recently of Putin: “He’s been in power for 22 years. After a period of time… you and the state, and particularly in the case of Putin, have become fused together.”
The psychology of status is what I had in mind when I said that the role of the NATO issue in shaping Putin’s psychology goes beyond national security. The relentless expansion of NATO toward Russia’s borders has, I think, been seen not just as a threat to Russia’s national security but as a series of acts of disrespect. Disrespect of Putin’s nation and disrespect of Putin.
Russia is a vast nation with an epic history, and it’s one of only two nuclear superpowers in the world. So when Putin tells the West that Russia considers NATO expansion a threat—which he’s been doing emphatically for at least 15 years—it’s not surprising that he’d expect to be taken seriously. And when he’s not taken seriously, it’s only natural that he’d feel disrespected.
The psychology of status is to humans kind of like what water is to fish—so pervasive, and so subtle in its dynamics, that you could go through life barely aware of its existence, even as your behavior is shaped by it. But if you look for its effects, they show up in all kinds of little ways. If you say (or, more to the point, feel), “Who does he think he is to treat me that way?” you’re saying that the two of you disagree about your relative status.
The effects of the psychology of status can show up in bigger ways, too. How many mass shooters have been people who failed to find a social milieu in which they got respect? The psychology of status can literally drive people crazy.
In a previous piece I laid out a series of thresholds in NATO expansion, and in the expansion of NATO’s mission, that Russia found threatening. It starts in the 1990s, before Putin was Russia’s president, and it’s a pretty long list.
And it didn’t even include the Trump years, when the US started supplying Ukraine with weapons. One thing Putin obsessed over in his Feb. 21 speech (the speech that “barely mentioned” NATO) was how these weapons, along with Ukraine’s increasingly close military collaboration with NATO countries, had turned Ukraine into a kind of de facto NATO outpost—and were turning it into a more substantial one with each passing month. Here are a few fragments from the speech:
In the last few months, there has been a constant flow of Western weapons to Ukraine, ostentatiously, with the entire world watching...
The United States and NATO have started an impudent development of Ukrainian territory as a theater of potential military operations. Their regular joint exercises are obviously anti-Russian…
Ukraine is home to NATO training missions which are, in fact, foreign military bases. They just called a base a mission and were done with it.
The intensity with which Putin spoke about NATO in that speech would make a fair amount of sense if you saw NATO expansion as just a challenge to Russia’s national security. It makes even more sense if you see NATO expansion as also a series of insults, as signs of disrespect.
I’d guess that an especially important insult came in 2008. Not just because that’s the year NATO, at George W. Bush’s insistence, promised eventual membership to Ukraine and Georgia. But also because the previous year, in a high-profile and much-noted speech at the Munich Security Conference, Putin had made it clear that Russia considered continued NATO expansion a national security threat. Bush was basically saying to Putin, “Shut up, you little runt”—or at least, it wouldn’t be beyond the bounds of normal human psychology for Putin to have taken it that way.
Obviously, we can’t say with much confidence what impact all of this had on Putin’s psychology. In that sense I’m putting forth a pretty conjectural hypothesis here. But we do know that the feelings that can be invoked by the psychology of status—resentment, humiliation, pride, revenge—can be explosive. We also know that perceived slights can add up until a person reaches a breaking point, after which they can lash out or develop an intense commitment to future retaliation.
Was there such a breaking point for Putin? Who knows? But as long as we’re in conjecture mode:
Four months ago, on November 10, the US and Ukraine signed the Charter on Strategic Partnership, which reaffirmed Ukraine’s right to pursue NATO membership—a document that Russia scholar Robert Service recently called “the last straw” for Putin. That same month Russia’s troop movements started assuming a form that led Michael Kofman, one of the foremost authorities on the Russian military, to predict the invasion of Ukraine.
Farida Rustamova, a Russian journalist who worked at TV Rain, one of the media outlets forced out of operation after the invasion, recently published a compilation of things Russian officials had said to her anonymously since the Ukraine invasion. Here’s a comment from someone she describes as “a good acquaintance of Putin’s”:
“Here he is in a state of being offended and insulted. It's paranoia that has reached the point of absurdity," he says. According to him, Putin sincerely believes that, at least in the first years of his rule, he tried his best to improve relations with the West.
Part of the psychology of status is having a story about yourself that confirms your status—and these stories can change in accordance with social feedback. If you don’t make the varsity basketball team, your status-confirming story may go from “I’m a good athlete” to “I’m a good student” or “I’m a good skateboarder” or even “I’m a good drug dealer.”
And what if you don’t make the varsity team of world leaders? What if the Americans and Europeans don’t treat you as a member of the club? Well, you can always become the man who will restore Russia to its former glory. And that would make particular sense if it wasn’t just you who was deemed unworthy of the West’s esteem but also Russia that was deemed unworthy. The Americans and Europeans will find out that they were wrong on both counts!
Russia hawks often portray Putin as having just this kind of grand self-conception, and some of them have been doing it for so long that, if they’re right, this self-conception couldn’t be a product of slights that reached critical mass only in recent years. But listen to this post-invasion assessment of Putin, from a Russian who co-hosts a podcast called Russians With Attitude:
I feel like he probably conceives himself to have a historical role in all this, like really as a—You know, [the] great man theory of history, that it’s individuals who shape the course of history?—and I have started believing in recent times that Putin does consider himself to be one of these individuals who has the power to influence the course of history. And he is acting in that sense now. But this seems to me to be a relatively recent development.
Again, this is all pretty speculative. My psychology-of-status theory about Putin isn’t even really a theory; it’s a hypothesis. But its plausibility doesn’t depend on exotic assumptions. The main thing you have to assume is that Vladimir Putin is a human being, complete with human psychology.
That’s not to say he’s a typical human. He seems to have long been more ruthless than the typical human, for example. And if the standard armchair theorizing about his youth is correct—that as a small kid he was pushed around, and he compensated by learning martial arts and has been compensating in other ways ever since—then maybe he has more of a chip on his shoulder than the average person. But if so, that would make my hypothesis more plausible, not less.
My hypothesis doesn’t by itself explain the Ukraine invasion or its magnitude—the aim to not just recover ethnically Russian lands in the east but to achieve regime change for the whole country. To fully explain that you have to add in various other factors. Such as Putin’s growing isolation—his reliance on a small number of advisers who apparently allowed him to believe that, as Khodorkovskytk, the oligarch-in-exile, put it, Russian troops would be “received in Ukraine with flowers.”
Another thing my hypothesis doesn’t do is excuse Putin from responsibility for invading Ukraine. The invasion was a clear and egregious violation of international law, and Putin is the one who did it. Bill Clinton didn’t do it, and neither did George W. Bush or Barack Obama or Donald Trump or Joe Biden.
True, in all five of those administrations there were policies that Putin could have taken both as threats to Russia’s national security and as signs of disrespect. And I think these policies were big mistakes. But the point of saying that isn’t to shift blame for the invasion away from Putin.
The point is to suggest that maybe, going forward, American presidents should do a better job of putting themselves inside the heads of foreign leaders and seeing how the world looks from there.
That can be hard to do. Sometimes you can only do it well if you know a lot about those leaders’ eccentricities. But a good opening assumption is that they’re human beings, so their minds include the various hot buttons that are part of human nature. A good second assumption is that, human variation being what it is, their hot buttons stand at least some chance of being hotter than average—so maybe you should err on the side of caution, especially if the leader in question controls nuclear weapons. In the case Putin, those two assumptions might have been enough.