J Michael Waller
National security professional. Focus on unconventional conflict.
Published Dec 6, 2021
Nursing Injustices: An unsparing psychological profile of Vladimir Putin will reveal a deeply vulnerable Kremlin leader
J Michael Waller
National security professional. Focus on unconventional conflict.
Published Dec 6, 2021
Co-authored with Fredo Arias-King, Occasional Paper, Center for Security Policy, July 2021.
Since seizing control of the Kremlin 21 years ago, Vladimir Putin has waged an image-making campaign to build himself as the savior of Russia. The country’s leadership has always been enigmatic to outsiders, but Putin has presented special riddles as to his actions, motivations, and goals, even today. Many critics, at home and in the West, paint him as nearly invincible.
- Some astute observers say he nurses profound personal vulnerabilities ripe for exploitation.
Effective exploitation of Putin’s weak points requires a certain degree of political incorrectness that few Kremlin-watchers or geostrategists seem willing to risk.
That reluctance has squandered endless opportunities to hem in the Russian dictator without risking harm to the Russian people, or armed conflict beyond Russia’s borders.
While Russian leaders generally have had a mysterious outward persona, Putin seems to present special riddles as to his actions, motivations, and goals. Indeed, the Kremlinology profession has gotten no closer to understanding Putin today than it did more than twenty years ago, when many of those experts welcomed Putin as a focal point of order after the unpredictable rule of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. As such, policymakers must ask themselves if their strategy has weakened Putin’s iron grip on power or, to the contrary, has strengthened it all along. The old carrot-and-stick approach to the Kremlin leader, resting mostly on ever-tightening sanctions that have caused considerable economic damage but failed to open Russia, have indeed failed.
In the more than two decades of Putin’s rule, descriptions of him and prescriptions about what to do with him, if anything, have played into his propagandistic image of himself as all-powerful and even invincible. Many observers seem to forget that, of course, Putin is only a man. As with all human beings, Putin has his own inner psyche. Yet there has been little attempt to exploit, let alone understand, Putin’s inner psyche for purposes of statecraft.
The idea is nothing new. The late Jerrold M. Post, who founded and for years ran the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, explained the importance of understanding the inner psyche of world leaders, citing a 1969 work on personality and politics:
“A leader’s personality may be especially important under four conditions: when the actor occupies a strategic location, when the situation is ambiguous or unstable, when there are no clear precedents or routine role requirements, and when spontaneous or especially effortful behavior is required. These conditions stress the importance of the context in which the actor is operating, observing that the impact of leader personality increases to the degree that the environment admits of restructuring.”
The only consensus is that Putin is paradoxical. It takes no particular training or skill to reach that conclusion.
Concomitantly, the reaction to Putin by other world leaders, whether German Chancellor Angela Merkel or any American president, be it Barack Obama, Donald Trump, or Joe Biden, is also paradoxical.
The usual explanations for the Kremlin leader’s actions fall into one of four categories: Putin seeks to increase his power and political longevity; enrich himself and his cronies; reimpose Russia as a serious Eurasian if not global power; and make a world “safe for autocrats” by corrupting or coercing foreign elites; or a combination of the above.
Kremlinologists then make predictions based on these assumptions. But then Putin somehow baffles them once again. An example at the time of this writing is how the Kremlin moved toward completion of its signature geopolitical project, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany, while bypassing Ukraine and Poland. Moscow craftily overcame waves of opposition and sanctions, through much perseverance, political cooptation, influence money, and intelligence tradecraft. Then came the poisoning of opposition figure Aleksei Navalny, an incident that got senior German politicians (usually shy towards, when not receptive to, Moscow’s machinations) talking openly about cancelling Nord Stream 2. And just when Putin was vehemently denying poisoning or harassing Navalny, and gaining echo among influential European apologists, came the news that Navalny’s properties were being seized by the authorities in Moscow as the poisoned victim was barely emerging from his coma in Berlin. Navalny then was arrested upon his return to Moscow under clearly trumped-up charges, sparking protests across the entire breadth of Russia.
So then Kremlinologists recur to admitting that Putin’s quirky personality may affect policy outcomes that are otherwise not easily explained, and may even put at risk larger political goals. Understanding them can lead to more positive outcomes.
Psychological profiling has been described as more of an art than a science, since it almost never permits clinical study of the person being studied. Non-clinical psychological assessments are insufficient to draw medical conclusions. The four psychologists consulted for this study emphasized this. A 2008 “movement patterns analysis” study by the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment—the office that performs deep research to develop long-range strategic military planning—tentatively concluded that Putin suffers from a “neurological abnormality” developed before he was born, an autism spectrum disorder called Asperger’s syndrome. The military researchers, who based their assessment on Putin’s unique physical motions, said that they were unable to prove their theory without being able to “perform a brain scan on the Russian president.”
One of the researchers, Dr. Stephen Porges of the University of North Carolina, disagreed with the Asperger’s assessment but did advise, in the words of a news report, that American officials “needed to find quieter settings in which to deal with Putin, whose behavior and facial expressions reveal someone who is defensive in large social settings.” In Porges’ own words, “If you need to do things with him, you don’t want to be in a big state affair but more of one-on-one situation someplace somewhere quiet.”
Ian H. Robertson, a neuropsychologist at the University of Texas in Dallas, wrote “After 15 years in power, psychological factors have to be taken into consideration in analyzing 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.”
Betraying his image of confidence and strength is Putin’s nursing of grievances, real and imagined.
Nina Khrushcheva and Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, among others, have written brilliantly on Putin’s knack for injustice-collecting. A Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy biography on Putin, an open-source psychological profile, contains chapters on Putin’s multiple and made-up identities. Anders Åslund has elaborated extensively on Putin’s grand theft and neurotic relation to money. Samuel A. Greene and Graeme B. Robertson have an entire book on Putin’s inordinate malice.
Something about Putin personifies Russia and Russian-ness, or at least that’s how Putin’s image-makers have wanted it to seem. Yet there is something about Putin that is decidedly unacceptable in Russian culture, particularly in the grand tradition that he purports to guard and revive. It is this aspect of Putin’s internal being—that the Russian leader likely believes that the real Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin never would be accepted in his own country—that merits careful study.
In this article, we can only begin to launch a discussion of the subject, a learned speculation based on the art of psychological profiling and the impolite trades of psychological warfare and political subversion.
Psychological profiling is part of the political psychology field of “leadership analysis,” an interdisciplinary approach that creates psychobiographies of leaders to understand their traits, thought processes, worldviews, strengths, and weaknesses. Every aspect of the leader’s psychological life is dissected and studied: neurological, cultural, philosophical, spiritual, moral, habitual, rational and irrational, even sexual.
For intelligence purposes, psychological profiling generally permits no personal access, or “evaluation and consent,” to the figure being profiled; here it is an assessment for national security policy, not a medical diagnosis. As with medical psychology, psychological profiling makes no value judgments about traits and behaviors, but unlike medical psychology, psychological profiling is intended as a tool to exploit or manipulate the traits and behaviors of the profiled individual. The late Yale- and Harvard-trained psychiatrist Jerrold M. Post founded the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior to profile foreign leaders as an aid to diplomacy and decision-making.
President Jimmy Carter used Post’s psychological profiling of Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to shepherd the 1978 Camp David peace agreement between both countries. Usually the U.S. does not acknowledge its psychological profiling of foreign leaders, but the practice has been an important tool of U.S. intelligence since the United States became a world power.
It began with the war to defeat Nazi Germany. During World War II, the U.S. initiated psychoanalysis as an intelligence discipline to assess the psychology of Adolf Hitler, understand the man and his innermost motivations and fears, and exploit Hitler’s personal vulnerabilities to win the war. OSS produced two major reports: one led by Harvard psychoanalyst Walter C. Langer, and the other by Harvard psychologist Henry A. Murray who had begun his work independently in 1932.
Langer apparently had no access to or even knowledge of Murray’s earlier work, yet the separate profiles accurately predicted Hitler’s behavior as the war would turn against him, his fear of facing the public in the midst of failure, his behavior that would provoke an insider assassination attempt, and his suicide.
Decades later, Jerrold Post commented on the Murray study, which was more detailed but less organized and analytical than Langer’s assessment: “the author observes that Hitler’s ‘sex life is as dual as his political outlook. He is both homosexual and heterosexual; both Socialist and fervent Nationalist; both man and woman.’”
Langer stated in his preface that his report “represents an attempt to screen the wealth of contradictory, conflicting and unreliable material concerning Hitler into strata which will be helpful to the policy-makers and those who wish to frame a counter-propaganda,” what today would be called a counter-narrative.
The Langer psychoanalysis consists of five parts: “Hitler as he believes himself to be,” “Hitler as the German people know him,” “Hitler as his associates know him,” “Hitler as he knows himself,” and a “Psychological analysis and reconstruction.”
The Langer and Murray reports deeply explored Hitler’s sexuality and “psychosexual development,” with Langer going into vividly explicit detail, ranging from Hitler having no interest in sex at all, to being a “chronic masturbator,” a voyeur, or impotent.
“Others, and these are perhaps in the majority, that he is a homosexual,” Langer wrote, “It is probably true that he is impotent but he is certainly not homosexual in the ordinary sense of the term. … He is an extreme masochist who derives sexual pleasure from a woman” performing extremely degrading functions on him, which Langer detailed.
All four participants in the Langer study, along with a fifth scholar who learned from other sources, “agree that the information as given is probably true in view of their clinical experience and their knowledge of Hitler’s character.” Langer concluded that Hitler’s psychosexual repression resulted in him not having permitted himself “to a really intimate relationship with either man or woman,” that he performed a submissive role with both men and women into his early adulthood, and that he was likely a physically impotent heterosexual and a passive but inactive homosexual.
According to Langer, despite affairs with at least two actresses and a relationship with Eva Braun that began in 1932, “It does seem that Hitler feels much more at ease with homosexuals than with [heterosexual] persons, but this may be due to the fact that they are all fundamentally social outcasts and consequently have a community of interests which tends to make them think and feel more or less alike.”
That community developed “during the early days of the [Nazi] Party [when] many of the inner circle were well-known homosexuals,” according to Langer.
Said one former Hitler associate cited in the OSS report, “Surreptitious relationships, substitutes and symbols, false sentiments and secret lusts—nothing in this man’s surroundings is natural and genuine, nothing has the openness of natural instinct.”
The conclusion of the OSS report was that Hitler had a profound fear of ostracism about his sexuality, and that that fear could be exploited by the Allies to win the war and secure the peace. Of all likely scenarios for Hitler’s demise as the war dragged Germany down, the psychological profile concluded, “Hitler might commit suicide. This is the most plausible outcome.”
Putin’s Psychological Profile
As harsh as criticism of him can be, Putin is no Hitler. In Putin’s case, however, where issues of war and peace are at stake, they represent personal vulnerabilities that, properly exploited, constitute weaknesses in his personalist regime. As such, the disorders of the Russian leader are, in the end, a matter of geopolitics and statecraft and merit serious discussion.
[Article continues at length. For the complete article, including footnotes, click here.]
The Russian version, Лелеющий обиды. Детали психологического портрета Владимира Путина указывают на глубокую уязвимость кремлевского лидера, is also available as a PDF. https://www.academia.edu/60339250/%D0%9B%D0%B5%D0%BB%D0%B5%D1%8E%D1%89%D0%B8%D0%B9_%D0%BE%D0%B1%D0%B8%D0%B4%D1%8B_%D0%94%D0%B5%D1%82%D0%B0%D0%BB%D0%B8_%D0%BF%D1%81%D0%B8%D1%85%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%BE%D0%B3%D0%B8%D1%87%D0%B5%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%BE%D0%B3%D0%BE_%D0%BF%D0%BE%D1%80%D1%82%D1%80%D0%B5%D1%82%D0%B0_%D0%92%D0%BB%D0%B0%D0%B4%D0%B8%D0%BC%D0%B8%D1%80%D0%B0_%D0%9F%D1%83%D1%82%D0%B8%D0%BD%D0%B0_%D1%83%D0%BA%D0%B0%D0%B7%D1%8B%D0%B2%D0%B0%D1%8E%D1%82_%D0%BD%D0%B0_%D0%B3%D0%BB%D1%83%D0%B1%D0%BE%D0%BA%D1%83%D1%8E_%D1%83%D1%8F%D0%B7%D0%B2%D0%B8%D0%BC%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%82%D1%8C_%D0%BA%D1%80%D0%B5%D0%BC%D0%BB%D0%B5%D0%B2%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%BE%D0%B3%D0%BE_%D0%BB%D0%B8%D0%B4%D0%B5%D1%80%D0%B0
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