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Putin’s Contempt for the West

February 24, 2015


In June 2005, Vladimir Putin saw a diamond-studded Super Bowl ring on the finger of Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots. Kraft was in St Petersberg for a gathering of business leaders, and the ring was worth $25,000. Putin asked to see it, tried it on, and said: “I could kill someone with this.” Then, allegedly, he put it in his pocket, drew his security guards around him, and left the room.

What does this incident tell us about the psychology of the man who rules Russia? On the day that both government troops and Russian-backed rebels are supposed to begin withdrawing heavy weapons from the fron tline in eastern Ukraine as part of the Minsk agreement, this question is of special importance.

In democracies which have checks on leader’s power, psychology may not play a crucial role in statecraft. But Putin’s control over the Russian media, judicial system and business world means that his personal psychology plays a much more important role in state policies than is the case for other countries.

We don’t know exactly how much control Putin has over the rebels, but it is likely to be considerable, despite their protestations. Putin’s troops operate in Ukraine, and we know he believes himself to be the true leader of Russian-speakers in former Soviet satellites from Ukraine to Lithuania. Just read his speech to the Russia parliament on April 25, 2005:

“Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century… Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.”

Three months after the incident with Robert Kraft’s ring, while visiting the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Putin was shown a glass replica of a Kalashnikov gun filled with vodka. According to one biographer, Masha Gessen, Putin nodded to one of his guards, who, to the astonishment of all present, simply pocketed the piece.

Such incidents give us a first, important clue about his personality: Putin does not feel bound by the ordinary rules of civility. This, in turn, suggests that he may not be inclined to respect bigger rules – for instance those of the Minsk agreement.

To be fair, Putin almost certainly believes that the West has breached much bigger understandings with Russia regarding the integrity of the empire he formally served. The sight of NATO fighters patrolling Russian borders in what was formally Soviet territory is galling for him. Similarly, the flirting of former colonies such as Georgia and Ukraine with NATO membership is likely infuriating. From this distorted perspective, he feels justified in breaching more trivial rules of personal property in what he regards as a weak, decadent West.

A second key aspect of his personality is contempt. At a joint German-Russian cabinet meeting in Siberia in 2006, German Chancellor Angela Merkel chided Putin that he should treat his cabinet ministers with respect rather than contempt. Contempt is the emotion reserved for those we regard as inferiors, and it is likely that Putin regards the West – particularly Western Europe – as inferior in many ways, not least militarily.

Yet contempt is a very problematic emotion because it abolishes empathy. Empathy is the crucial ingredient of negotiation: compromises and trust arise when people begin to see things from the other point of view. But contempt negates the other perspective and the object of contempt is just that – an object. Objects do not have a point of view.

There is a third factor underlying Putin’s psychology: fear. A small, thin-skinned man who grew up in poverty in a Leningrad haunted by memories of starvation and death, he was personally witness to what was for him another catastrophe – the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Undoubtedly he suffers the torment of all autocrats – the fear of losing power and the consequences which follow. This is no abstract fear. He fended off a KGB agent’s nightmare when hordes of rebellious East Germans besieged his compound in Dresden in 1989. As a result, he can all too easily envisage such a collapse in his own country should his iron grip loosen.

Putin almost certainly craved respect from the West in the past, but many perceived humiliations – senior US figures describing his country described as “Upper Volta with missiles” for instance – may have pushed this humiliation-sensitive man to a position of existential, Cold War-like opposition to the West, if indeed he ever held any other view.

This is a major problem because it means that we cannot be sure that President Putin will behave entirely predictably according to some logical notion of cost and benefit. Too much power, for too long, has changed his brain to a point where his ego and country are one.

People go to enormous and sometimes self-destructive length in order to protect their egos. This is why humiliating put-downs of Putin and Russia should be ruled out of diplomatic discourse. People behave less defensively, and hence less self-destructively, when their egos are not threatened and their good points emphasized.

But no amount of praise for Russia will dissolve its president’s contempt for the West. Eliminating humiliation can only reduce the chance of some disastrous act of ego-defensive self-destructiveness on the part of Putin.

In the end the only thing which will deter him from trying to save his lamented Russian-speaking diaspora from the clutches of the West is firmness and deterrence on the part of Europe and the USA. Putting those grim, Cold-War sounding words into action is going to be expensive.

This article was first published in the Daily Telegraph on 24th February 2015

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Simon M permalink
    March 19, 2015 10:23 pm

    While there are many reasons for this contempt -which you have noted- one you could have included is contempt from hypocrisy. Early on Putin tried to reach out to the West, but when he found out -after being called out for Russia’s continued human rights abuses in Chechnya- that it only a select few like the US who can commit human rights abuses for their own geopolitical ends and get away with it. He no longer saw the need to give respect to those who don’t deserve it. Being snubbed combined with hypocrisy is always a respect killer.

    BTW enjoyed your book.

  2. March 19, 2015 10:49 pm

    Simon, I have to agree that actions like the invasion of Iraq make it hard for the West to take the high moral ground vis a vis Putin. But no man or woman can tolerate that much power for that long and Russia (and, I fear, we) will suffer because of this. Thanks for your kind words about the book. Ian

    • Simon permalink
      March 20, 2015 12:00 am

      I agree Ian throw in cultures with high machismo and I think its even worse.

      I think towards the end of your book you talk about the need for greater study of power-induced illnesses and hope it will be so. But like so many other cognitive biases people often just don’t see they have it and I imagine people in power are even worse. & in fact are insulted that it could happen to them. Maybe in a few decades this could be combined with a historical analysis of where humanity has gone wrong. We just don’t learn the lessons of history and seem doomed to endlessly repeat it.

      “1308b: 31-33: It is of the greatest importance in all systems of government to have laws and the rest of governmental administration so arranged that magistrates cannot profit financially from their offices. ”


  3. March 20, 2015 10:19 am

    I agree completely Simon – these factors are underestimated as real players in history. In fact, power does actually reduce insight and self-awareness, because it inhibits activity in the right frontal lobe of the brain, which is a crucial centre for self-monitoring. Ian

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