The Many Faces of Vladimir Putin: A Political Psychology Profile

| Kenneth Dekleva
Kenneth Dekleva
Former Regional Medical Officer/Psychiatrist, U.S. Embassy in Moscow

In 2000, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, then a relative unknown outside of Russia, visited Japan.  Part of his trip included a visit to the Kodokan, the historic Judo school founded by Jigoro Kano. Putin participated in a demonstration, showing off his martial arts skills with a young Japanese student, who threw him using a classic hip throw.  Afterwards, Putin bowed formally to her with grace and good cheer, and the crowd gave him a proper ovation. 

Several years later, after the tragic terrorist attack in Beslan, where over 300 schoolchildren lost their lives in its carnage, an emotionally-distraught Putin spoke to a sorrowing nation, reminding Russia that it had been beaten because of its weakness. 

These vignettes reveal different sides of Russia’s leader, who grew up in the shadows of Leningrad’s World War II  siege– where dinner-table conversations with his traumatized, war-weary parents were few and far between –and whose rise to power paralleled Russia’s rise back to previous glories.  While Putin is no stranger to U.S. policy-makers, he remains – even after 16 years in power – an enigmatic and somewhat poorly-understood leader.  In part due to such misunderstanding, tensions between Russia and the West – especially the U.S. – have heightened, increasing the risk of further conflict.  Recent events involving allegations of Russian cyberwarfare, hacking with respect to the 2016 U.S. election, and military action in support of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad have highlighted a key dictum:  understanding Russia’s political actions, especially in the foreign policy sphere, requires a keen and sober analysis of President Putin’s political psychology.  This presupposes a deeper sense of President Putin’s many faces, sensibility, and humanity – and of what makes him tick.

Many profiles of Putin have missed the mark, labeling him as a “thug” or seeing him as a mere tool of larger, more intricate power structures or groupings, such as the siloviki, Russia’s military, law-enforcement, and intelligence communities.  Such analyses of Putin’s political behavior have at times led to a lack of predictive power regarding Russia’s actions or to heightened emotional predictions of a new Cold War or military conflict between Russia and the West.  A careful reading of Putin’s writings, interviews, and speeches offers analysts a treasure-trove of material, which can – if soberly assessed –reveal the many faces of Vladimir Putin, including those of a politician, intelligence officer, martial artist, and diplomat.

As a leader, Putin has made great strides in bringing Russia out of its political and economic morass of the 90s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he has referred to as “one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.”  While rising oil and natural gas prices during the 2000s positively impacted Russia’s economy, allowing for a rise in standards of living, Putin’s sense of organization, discipline, and deft management of domestic policy also played a significant role in Russia’s political and economic restoration. 

What many analysts have tended to miss is Putin’s revanchist, powerful sense of renewal of Russia’s pride and place in the world, and the strong social, emotional, and psychological appeal that this has for Russians.  This accounts for Putin’s pervasively-high political popularity ratings –above 70-80 percent for most of his tenure—which no other politician in Russia can match.  While his style of management smacks of a strong, decisive, authoritarian streak – he can be perceived as Russia’s [French President Charles] De Gaulle – Putin has shown an ability to amass many of Russia’s politicians, economists, diplomats, military, and intelligence personnel into Russia’s power structure. 

As a leader, Putin respects strength, discipline, and control, and he exudes it, best showcased during his annual Valdai retreats and news conferences.  In 2003, when asked by a journalist which foreign country he respected the most, he tellingly replied, “Israel, because they built a country out of nothing, out of the desert, and resurrected a dead language.”  Lastly, while Putin has often been seen by western media as an overly-disciplined, unemotional politician, he has on occasion shown otherwise.  For instance, following his 2013 return to the presidency, TV revealed a different side of Putin, showing him tearing up during his victory speech given to his core supporters.

Putin’s background as a KGB intelligence officer has colored his entire professional life.  The KGB shaped his ethos and his sense of identity—the embodiment of a boyhood dream.  Less useful commentary – either vilifying his KGB service or downplaying it – misses a more important question, having to do with how Putin’s skills (“I am a specialist in human relations”) manifest themselves.  Many have tended to see Putin as merely tactical, rather than strategic, but such a view is mistaken.  Seeing such labels as dichotomous, rather than as two sides of the same coin, loses sight of Putin’s adaptability regarding foreign-policy challenges, such as the Ukraine, Georgia, Syria, China, India, the U.S., and Europe.  At times, Putin has shown masterful flexibility, often reversing course and shifting priorities, while not deviating from key strategic concerns and his sense of Russia’s national interest.  A different concern has to do with Putin’s inner circle of advisors – many of whom he has known and worked with for decades – and the question of whom does he trust and listen to?  How do strategic decisions get made?  The recent changes in personnel within the Kremlin and key ministries bear careful study in this regard.

Martial arts and the study of Judo has likely shaped Putin’s personality as much as any other activity.  A student of Judo since age 10, Putin eloquently spoke (in a video made by him in 2008) of its virtues of discipline, respect for one’s teachers and fellow students, and humility.  Holder of an 8th-dan rank, Putin is the highest-ranking non-Japanese judoka in the world and a true ambassador of the art.  Videos of Putin demonstrating Judo showcase not only his immense talent, but also a flexible, playful, and competitive style, which for Putin – for whom Judo is a way of life – colors his political behavior as well. 

And lastly, Putin’s lifelong friendships with not only his long-time Sensei (his martial arts teacher who passed away a few years ago) but his fellow martial artists have impacted his political, personal, and business life, as several of his close judo associates are not only billionaires, but also on the current sanctions list following the 2014 annexation of Crimea.  Putin has cleverly utilized ‘martial arts diplomacy’ to further informal, highly-publicized, personal relationships with well-known martial artists, such as the U.S. actor and martial artist Steven Seagal (who holds a 7th-dan rank in aikido and whom Putin granted honorary Russian citizenship in 2016) to further his own political and strategic goals.  This was highlighted most saliently during Congressman Dana Rohrabacher’s 2013 official trip to Moscow, in which he traveled with Seagal and praised the actor for “going out of his way” to set up meetings (including with Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin) for the congressional delegation in Russia.

Putin’s diplomatic panache gets overlooked in many published analyses.  But throughout his tenure, he has shown nimble diplomatic skills and the ability to form close, valued, personal relationships with other world leaders.  One of the major disappointments during President Obama’s tenure had to do with the inability of both Presidents Obama and Putin to establish any sort of a personal relationship, which could thereby result in fewer diplomatic mishaps.  By conceptualizing the “reset” as being independent of its distinct, key personalities, the Obama administration missed a beat.  For a deeply reflective student of Russian history such as Putin, such an approach possibly came across as lacking. 

While Putin’s foreign language abilities may be “old school,” they highlight the importance of relationships and of a human approach to political relationships.  A student of German – the language of the enemy – since his childhood, his fluency in the language and his ability to capture its power, emotion, and beauty showed in his marvelous 2001 Bundestag speech, in which he spoke of his desire to address his audience in “the language of Goethe, and Schiller, and Kant.”  He has also studied English and made efforts to use it to impress, as he did during his presentation to the IOC (International Olympic Committee) with respect to Russia’s Sochi Olympic proposal.  In summary, Putin’s blend of language skills and personal relationships in diplomacy is part of a lengthy tradition within Russian diplomatic and intelligence circles.

The new administration of President Donald Trump has hinted at a desire to establish improved relations with Russia.  Such an approach has obvious strategic value, although Mr. Trump would not be the first U.S. President to pursue such an approach.  Russia – for all of its economic, political, and demographic weaknesses – has far too much strategic import for America to ignore it.  During a 2011 official visit to Moscow, Vice President Joseph Biden eloquently stated that a strong, prosperous Russia is in America’s national interest.  Such a proclamation is no less true today.  Traditional political science approaches to understanding Putin, via the workings of the Kremlin, are less likely to bear fruit.  A better way to comprehend Putin is to engage in a highly-personal, old-fashioned style of diplomacy, with its emphasis on mutual respect, strength, an appreciation of Russia’s deep sense of history, and shared understanding based upon mutual national interest.  Such an approach may well suit President Trump, who – based upon his statements, writings (in The Art of the Deal), and recent political actions – also values personal, transactional, business-like relationships, and who highlights his own intuition regarding such relationships.  And both leaders keenly value the symbolism, pomp, and splendor of high-level summit meetings.  For President Trump, a keen understanding of Putin’s leadership style, psyche, and political psychology seems a good place to start as he seeks to improve relations with Russia.  Students of Putin’s leadership style might rather begin by watching Hubert Seipel’s 2012 documentary film, “Ich, Putin,”and consider viewing Putin through the prism of Russian history and cuture.  Perhaps they may thereby arrive at a deeper truth—that to truly understand Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is to accept his quintessential Russian qualities, and to engage with him on a more diplomatic, and personal level as “the Russian in the Kremlin.”

The Author is Kenneth Dekleva

Dr. Kenneth Dekleva served as a Regional Medical Officer/Psychiatrist (including 5 years at the U.S. Embassy Moscow, Russian Federation) with the U.S. Dept. of State during 2002-2016, and is currently Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Director, Psychiatry-Medicine Integration, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX.  He has previously published political psychology/leadership profiles of Radovan Karadzic, Slobodan Milosevic, and Kim Jong il.  The views expressed in this paper are... Read More

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2 Replies to “The Many Faces of Vladimir Putin: A Political Psychology Profile”
  1. I have read Kenneth Dekleva’s political psychology/leadership profiles for both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

    These types of profiles are undoubtedly difficult to write, requiring such an eclectic understanding of where the leader resides in the socio-political sphere—both in the present and historically.

    Dekleva’s stated goal is “a keen and sober analysis of President Putin’s political psychology,” because apparently less keen and sober analyses “of Putin’s political behavior have at times led to a lack of predictive power regarding Russia’s actions.” His analysis of Xi Jinping appears to have the same goal.

    Predictive power is undoubtedly hard to come by; any purveyor of social science is tragically aware of the complicated behavior of human beings. Nevertheless, I am not convinced that Dekleva’s current analysis adds much to prognosticating future behavior or framing methods of doing so.

    First, Dekleva’s writes: “Traditional political science approaches to understanding Putin, via the workings of the Kremlin, are less likely to bear fruit.”

    ‘Traditional’ political science has a long, varied history, producing scholars such as the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer. Mearsheimer’s work is distilled clearly in his “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics” and very much in the vein of “traditional political science;” his theory has impressive predictive power. In other words, focusing on the “workings of the Kremlin” is not the only traditional approach to understanding Putin’s behavior, nor even one with much standing currently in policy circles. Likewise—pivoting momentarily to Dekleva’s article on Xi Jinping—Richard McGregor’s recent book, “Asia’s Reckoning,” relies on a close reading of Mearsheimer’s scholarship on political structuralism; and McGregor’s approach undoubtedly offers predictive power in his analysis of East Asia.

    By contrast, statements like the following from Dekleva regarding Xi lack a broader understanding of the power of social science, namely: “While Xi is no stranger to U.S. policymakers, he remains – even after five years in power – an opaque and seemingly-inscrutable leader. In part due to such misunderstanding, tensions between China and the U.S. have escalated.”

    From a structural perspective, there is nothing “seemingly-inscrutable” about Xi Jinping; he is simply an actor in a structure much greater than himself. Dekleva’s analysis of either Putin or Xi would likely benefit from branching out from psychology-cum-history and engage all the social sciences in an inter-disciplinary fashion. In doing so, he may gain a more holistic methodological approach to illuminate the escalating troubles between the U.S. and China, predictively, convincingly. Mearsheimer would be an excellent start.

    A next excellent read would be the Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Dekleva’s analysis of the influence of Judo on Putin’s development would benefit from a close reading of Pierre Bourdieu’s “Distinction.” Bourdieu’s statistical analysis of the Sociology of sport would enable Dekleva to objectively place, first, the sport of Judo historically in Russian society, then extend that analysis to why a young Putin would gravitate to such a sport. This would help to provide the predictive power Dekleva apparently craves.

    Dekleva may also benefit from a thorough reading of the work of the famous Russian-British Oxford Scholar, Isaiah Berlin. Recently, Dekelva has pivoted from a position of specialist psychiatrist in the Foreign Service to a research-based academic position. Dekleva’s approach—both with Putin and Xi—is to focus on his area of expertise, the individual, and fold that into a smattering of historical and cultural observations. He has a tendency to be essentialist in his analyses in the tradition of the 18th century Germans, Johann Hamann and Johann G. Herder. A kind of cultural essentialism pervades Dekleva’s work, as one may observe from a reading of just these two articles, though his much earlier work from a decade ago reveals the intellectual predisposition was there pre-State. This penchant to be essentialist in his analytical employment would worry someone like Berlin, and a reading of Berlin is the best antidote for it.

    Lastly, Dekleva, oddly, repeats sentences for both Xi and Putin: viz., “[a]s a leader, Xi respects strength, discipline, and control. He exudes it…” and “[a]s a leader, Putin respects strength, discipline, and control, and he exudes it…”

    These are aesthetic observations, statistically probable for any leader on the planet.

    In another instance, Dekleva emphasizes Xi’s “charm, grace, and excellent diplomatic abilities…” in contrast to “his predecessor Hu Jintao, who was seen as dull and pedantic.”

    This is another aesthetic observation, a vein of appreciation born from the corridors of State—not an analysis of an individual. Again, Pierre Bourdieu’s structural analysis of aesthetics would benefit Dekleva’s future work. Indeed, the first paragraph of “Distinction” has Bourdieu illuminating the tension between the ‘Mondain’ and the ‘Pedant.’

    This same observation applies to Dekleva’s final sentence regarding Xi Jinping. A Sociological analysis of “the child is father to the man” is in order. That is to say, rather than lionizing Xi the man, try to objectify him in social space. Ask the crucial questions: “What is the probability that a man like this came to power? How many other men are just like him and could occupy the same position? Charisma is everywhere—why did this particular man’s charisma succeed? Are there not other equally improbable events in history, such as Albert Einstein rising from a lowly patent clerk, or an uneducated Leonardo Da Vinci obtaining a crucial apprenticeship and escaping scurrilous charges of sodomy? If so, is there anything necessarily ‘special’ about this particular man, Xi, or Putin, and their personal histories however dramatic in drama, or are they merely a statistical probability—easily replaceable by that charismatic Xi-2a hither or the “grace and good cheer” Putin-4b thither?”

    Otherwise, one is hazarding spending one’s precious time reading and writing ‘Just So Stories’ in an academic bubble.

    I make no apologies about my intellectual bias vis-à-vis Dekleva, though of course concurrently do not intend any kind of ‘ad hominem’ here. I am a former generalist FSO and a graduate-cum-fan of University of Chicago social science.

    That said, according to sources on the web, rendered by simply ‘Googling’ Dekleva’s name, Dekleva apparently has some degree of fluency in Bosnian, Russian, Spanish, French, Serbian, and German.

    I could list the same smattering of languages. The question really is: Am I able to pick up a clinical forensic evaluation written, say, on sluggish schizophrenia (an actual diagnosis in the former Soviet Union, often employed against dissidents), and read it in the original Russian, sensing the subtle interstitial belief on the part of the Soviet clinician who really believes, as a Soviet psychiatrist, that sluggish schizophrenia is real?

    Yes. I could, easily. And can Dekleva?

    If he wants to be an “expert,” with all the bells and whistles, he needs to. Again, that is not an ‘ad hominem’ attack; it is just a fact of scholarship. There is a real need currently for a structural approach to gain insight into international behavior, because the Putin’s of this world will continue to abuse psychology against dissidents. That is to say, Putin is a thug, and there are so many thugs in Russian history. Dekleva might specialize on real cross-cultural psychiatry (a stated primary interest on his professional university biography web page), learn Russian, and really understand how that system works under Putin; or, equally, broaden his social science understanding to take in the whole structurally, as Mearsheimer, Bourdieu, and Berlin have done.

    Or, of course, both—but that takes work. Lots of it.

  2. I found this very refreshing. I have only read books that he has personally spoken in or his views. I find him to be upright and honest and I wish him well in all his endeavors. I tend to disregard any negative posts. We should be able to sense how a person is by our own inner truth and not rely on others. I believe that because if him we will not engage in nuclear war. He sees and appreciates the folly of that.