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Putin’s Contempt For Us Must Not Be Appeased.

March 17, 2014

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At a joint German-Russian cabinet meeting in Siberia in 2006, German Chancellor Angela Merkel unsuccessfully tried to persuade President Vladimir Putin that cabinet ministers should be treated with respect rather than contempt. Resentment is the emotion for superiors while anger is reserved for equals. But contempt is the emotion reserved for those we regard as inferiors.

Now, Putin’s contempt for others is spreading far beyond his cabinet to include the entire western leadership, from Cameron to Obama. Putin’s personality and thinking have become grossly distorted by the effects of enormous, largely unfettered power on his brain. Since then, Putin has invaded the Crimea and engineered the swift dissolution of a country.

Interpreting political behaviour in psychological terms is always a risk: Ukraine’s ethnic balance is a fragile one and there is the scent of possible Crimean oil reserves as a juicy incentive for Putin’s political adventurism. But perhaps most politically-useful of all, is the whipped-up nationalist fervour to bolster Putin’s hold over a decaying Russian economy with its ageing workforce and corrupt institutions.

But, after 15 years in power, psychological factors have to be taken into consideration in analysing Putin’s actions and, more importantly, in deciding how to respond to them. And contempt must be considered as one of the most important elements of his psychology. It is not only contempt for what he almost regards as weak – and, possibly in his macho world view, effeminate – western leaders. More important is his contempt for their institutions such as international treaties and laws.

Putin was brought up under a Marxist-Lenninist worldview where there was a strong tradition of regarding such things as instruments of capitalist or bourgeois oppression, to be treated with, well, contempt. He grew up in a culture where the ends justified the means. And this is why he could so easily tear up an international treaty with Ukraine guaranteeing its independence in return for giving up its nuclear weapons.

I do not have the slightest doubt that Putin intends to stay in power at least until 2024 and perhaps beyond. There can be little doubt that his brain has been neurologically and physically changed so much that he firmly and genuinely believes that without him, Russia is doomed. Absolute power for long periods makes you blind to risk, highly egocentric, narcissistic and utterly devoid of self-awareness. They also make you see other people as objects and the emotional-cognitive consequence of all this is … contempt.

It is very likely that he feels contempt for the potential political leaders who might succeed him, just as much as he feels contempt for anyone – for instance Ukrainians – who thwart him. A recent report said that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has talked with Putin more than any other leader in the last few weeks, reported feeling “bewildered” by Putin. After speaking with him, the report claimed, she said she was not sure he was in touch with reality, telling US President Obama that Putin was “in another world”.

This makes sense, neuropsychologically speaking: Progressive isolation and a contempt for anyone else’s opinion are classic signs of the “hubris syndrome” – that acquired personality disorder to which some world leaders are susceptible.

The fear factor

There is of course another psychological factor playing out in this very dangerous game – fear. Putin knows that he and his regime would be vulnerable to prosecution by a successor government if they were to relinquish power. That is another reason why he will try to exceed Stalin in the length of time he will have held power in Russia.

But there is an ideological aspect to his psychology also. He wrote in his biography: “I consider it to be my sacred duty to unify the people of Russia, to rally citizens around clear aims and tasks, and to remember every day and every minute that we have one Motherland, one people and one future.”

There is something about the metre and cadence of that “One Motherland, one people, one future” which sends shivers down my spine.

The bottom line is that the current psychological trajectory of Vladimir Putin is one of a feeling of historical destiny leading him to reclaim the dignity and respect due to his great Russian empire. This is a journey which is as much personal as political, because once the hubris syndrome takes hold in the brain, the personal and the national are identical because the leader is the nation and its destiny.

How to handle a man like Putin

I have little doubt that Putin feels personally humiliated by the fall of the Soviet Union and its empire and that, fuelled by power and with a blindness to risk, he will work ever harder to make good that humiliation through further dangerous adventures. He will be all the more driven by his feeling of personal and national superiority to the contemptibly weak, decadent and cowardly western powers – as he probably sees them.

So how should the West respond? Psychologically speaking, the very worst response would be appeasement because this will simply fuel his contempt and strengthen the justification for his position. Strong consequences have to follow from his contempt for international law and treaties. This will cost the West dearly, economically speaking, but the longer-term costs of appeasement will make the costs of strong, early action appear trivial in retrospect.

This was first published in my column in The Conversation 

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. John Foxe permalink
    March 17, 2014 8:46 pm

    “Strong consequences have to follow from his contempt for international law and treaties.” I am in full agreement, but can you be more specific about what should be done? Should the military option be on the table?

  2. March 17, 2014 8:51 pm

    Military option not tenable: Obama has switched strategically to the east and Europe has very weak military. But probably just as well: economic and political sanctions are probably the only way to go, but Germany will have to get its gas from somewhere else….

  3. Jake permalink
    March 18, 2014 1:12 am

    Ian, I enjoy your articles immensely but this is strange territory for you to get into. Are we now appeasing Britain because the majority of people in Northern Ireland wish to remain in the UK? Are the Scots to be coerced if they decide to leave the UK?

    From a Russian perspective, these events have been building up for some time. When they made the same arguments about the sundering of Kosovo from Serbia that the West is now making about Crimea – even with a UN Security Council guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Serbia – they were brushed aside and had this ‘fait accomplis’ rammed down their throats, on what they consider to be their geographic doorstep. They also felt humiliated when Britain and France manipulated (in their view) a UN security council resolution they had signed up to, to change the regime in Libya.

    Whatever way we look at it, there has been a ‘coup’ in Ukraine and its naive to think that Russia is going to sit back and allow chaos to develop along its frontier with the West and NATO. It is indeed a spectacular piece of opportunism by Putin to ‘seize’ Crimea but he’s only playing the game as he sees it being played by the rest of the world powers who manipulate so-called international Law to sit their own ends. This is usually accomplished by changing regimes far from their home territories which mean they can bombard their own populations with any kind of propaganda to justify actions in these ‘faraway places’.

    To conclude, your observations about Putin’s psychological traits may indeed be close to the mark and he undoubtedly does see Western leaders as weak and venial but Russia’s vast frontier, proximity to several insecure and dangerous regimes and historic fear of encirclement makes him a shrewd interpreter and judge of events in his own part of the world…

    • March 18, 2014 4:37 pm

      Jake thanks for this thoughtful analysis. I do agree that there have been western adventures – Iraq being the most blatant – which have breached international law. But what concerns me is the the combination of disregard for these laws and the very considerable disregard for individual human rights which Putin’s regime shows. The unrest in Ukraine was not simply a Western-contrived plot, it was a large number of people expressing the desire to be part of the EU.

  4. March 18, 2014 8:11 am

    On behalf of all fair and democratic fellow Canadians, I would like to congratulate the new Republic of Crimea for its historic referendum to achieve nationhood: CANADA CONGRATULATES CRIMEA!!! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!! It is ironic that Crimea’s Birthday happened today on 2014 March 17 – on Saint Patrick’s Day – a day on which we Christians celebrate the life of this Christian Saint who banished all of the snakes in Ireland into the sea. Likewise, Crimea is now free of its snakes! But alas, who now will help the poor, brainwashed Ukrainians to banish the Blackwater Snakes of Monsanto’s American Academi? Perhaps you?

  5. March 18, 2014 8:30 am

    When international treaties are torn up, and a referendum rushed through without any chance of debate or free campaigns, in an atmosphere of military and militia intimidation, small independent countries across the world should be very worried.

  6. Jake permalink
    March 19, 2014 2:13 am

    Ian, thank you for responding to my post. I’d better not clog up your blog by posting a long, detailed critique of the subject at hand, but if you’ll indulge me, I’ll just respond to the points made in your reply.

    The concept of so-called ‘International Law’ is a nebulous one, as a conversation with any passing Palestinian will verify. In fact, it’s debatable if any such concept exists in the objective sense, anyway. What we do have are a number of treaties, international bodies and precedents that pass for a code of international problem-solving protocols. The problem is that these mean whatever the protagonists decide they mean as we saw in Iraq when Russia, France and Germany dissented from the way that the UK and USA interpreted the security council motion and latterly when Russia and China objected to the French and British justification for direct intervention there. It’s been obvious since then that Putin and his team have come to the end of the road with that way of doing business, Syria being the first manifestation of a harder, less accommodating approach on the world stage.

    I take your point about human rights but the time to lance this boil was when Putin was slaughtering Chechens in their tens of thousands (no referendum for self-determination there!) but in fact, the opposite was almost the case as Russia was seen to be an ally in the so-called ‘War on Terror’ and there was minimal interest and condemnation from the West.

    I would conclude by pointing out that there was a huge difference between the original nature of the protests in Maiden in late 2013 and the paramilitary mob that took over early this year. Let’s not forget that when the 3 EU foreign ministers brokered a deal accepted by Yanukovich AND Opposition leaders which included elections for 25 May, this deal was scuppered by the hard-right militia in control at Maiden; at which point the EU walked away, Yanukovich fled and Moscow sat upright and made their intentions clear.

    As someone who has visited both Russia and Ukraine several times and has good friends in both countries, I could write a lot more about the current situation, the eastern Slavic mind-set and the position Putin now finds himself in, but reading back, I feel I’ve already exceeded the desirable amount of content that you should reasonably be expected to tolerate on your page so I’d better wrap it up!

    If you do wish to continue the conversation, Ian, you know where to find me:)

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