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Psychologies of Putin and USA · 14 August 2012

Vladimir Putin as an individual and the USA as a country have a lot in common – although they would both hate the comparison. Both Putin and the US are very fearful of the changing world around them. They do not fully understand it and have the same basic – and all too human —reaction to the feeling that they are facing reduced ability to influence, if not control, events.

In this sense, countries are like individuals when it comes to power; it is addictive and no individual or country wants to give it up or see it reduced.

Putin and the USA see themselves as bulwarks against anarchy and injustice in Russia and the World; and to a certain degree both are right. For several years after his election as president of Russia in 2000 Putin was – on balance – an anchor of stability for Russia, and for much of the post-Second World War period the US was – again, on balance – the mainstay of a more stable and better world.

These achievements, and the resulting accolades of others, have contributed to both Putin and the USA feeling “indispensible” for the future well-being of, respectively, Russia and the World.

Time is also a factor here. The longer an individual or a country has power, the harder it is to cede.

The second chapter of my book, “Dictatorial CEOs & their Lieutenants – Inside the Executive Suites of Napoleon, Stalin, Ataturk, Mussolini, Hitler and Mao”, is entitled “The Power Personality” and has sections on self-belief, passion and focus, and will-power. I think that these categories can be used to examine countries as well as individuals.

Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian Government insider and now head of a PR company, recently wrote in a Moscow Times article that Putin is “quite sincere” when he emphasizes “the importance of continuity of government as a prerequisite for development” and sees his “job swap with Dmitry Medvedev as an efficient way of combining change with continuity”:

“He honestly thinks he is acting in the nation’s best interests and that nobody else has a better plan. Maintaining the continuity of his rule is the best long-term strategy for Russia. A change of regime means upheaval and would be bad for the country. Therefore, those who advocate a Russia without Putin are Russia’s enemies, and their coming to power should be prevented.”

An article by Condoleezza Rice, published in the Financial Times on July 26, 2012, seems to nicely summarize the basic US attitude. She wrote that:

“American pre-eminence safeguards rather than impedes global progress. … The US is not just any other country: we are exceptional in the clarity of our conviction …. and in our willingness to act on those beliefs. Failure to do so would leave a vacuum, likely filled by those who will not champion a balance of power that favours freedom. That would be a tragedy for American interests and values and those who share them.”

In many ways, there is little difference in the basic attitudes of Putin and the US.

No matter how much Putin and the US may wish for a better Russia and a better World, their fears are blinding them to the obvious: that their self-belief and intransigence is likely to eventually promote, rather than reduce, what they most fear. That is – uncertainty and instability!

Unless pushed into an absolute corner, neither Russia’s domestic protesters nor country regimes, such as China, are interested in a “death struggle” with Putin or the USA. Both are trying to achieve recognition of what, they believe, are their legitimate aspirations which have been boosted by their economic success. And, this means greater control over their own lives and environment.

The new claimants for political power in Russia and the World are not totally united, and in some cases are even fearful of each other. This opens the possibility for both Putin and the US to engage in certain “divide and rule” tactics.

Both there are other reasons for much of the support that Putin and the US still enjoy.

In my book, I divided the reason that a lieutenant serves a dictator (or a very powerful leader of any sort) into the following categories: lieutenant’s respect, admiration and attribution for the leader; the leader makes lieutenant feel personally needed; the leader shows loyalty to lieutenant; the lieutenant is nothing without the dictatorial leader; love of the country, the company, or the organization; and excitement, ambition, money, prestige, power to boss others.

Anyone with experience in organizational life should easily see how these reasons might cause many people around Putin to support him. Of course, in reality, no one reason accounts for why one individual will support Putin; there will be some sort of mixture.

However, it may be less obvious how these categories can be applied in international relations and/or in the case of the relationship between the US and other countries.

But consider the following:

“Lieutenant’s respect, admiration and attribution for the leader”. The US certainly garners are lot of support for its many admirable attributes, ideas, and actions – both historical and present-day. But, there is also often attribution of positive qualities to the US that exist only in the mind of admirers;

“The leader makes lieutenant feel personally needed.” Hints by US leaders of “special relationships” and various (although ultimately self-serving) signs of a willingness to consult is something that the US seems particularly good at;

“The leader shows loyalty to lieutenant”. The most stark example of this is probably the willingness of the US to support unsavory governments if it feels that these governments will support US interests;

“The lieutenant is nothing without the dictatorial leader”. The UK seems to be an example of this. As a country it is under almost no conceivable threat, but clings to its so-called “special relationship” with the US to try to contain the continual slide in its own international influence;

“Love of the country, the company, or the organization”. In international relations terms, such sentiments are probably best thought of in terms of a feeling of being part of “something bigger”, and that the welfare of this something is promoted by cooperating with its most powerful individual element. While any organization or country cannot function without some explicit or implicit concept of cooperation, people who fear change often become excessively attached to (in love with) the organization, country, or World as it is (or as they think it is);

“Excitement, ambition, money, prestige, power to boss others.” There can be no doubt that many non-US leaders are attracted by the excitement and prestige of personal meetings with high-ranking US officials. In their own countries this helps to further their ambitions and maintain power to boss others. As far as money is concerned, the US can be quite generous to those countries which offer it support.

But, where does all this lead? Can personal and organizational psychology help understanding of relationships between countries?

It needs to be recognized that the aspirations of Russia’s domestic protesters and of other countries, such as China, cannot be eliminated. They can only be suppressed for a period of time.

But, how long is the period? And, how best to suppress? What will the end result be?

Each of the dictators covered in my book held power for a prolonged period. While many of the circumstances are different, there are commonalities. Based on my knowledge of them (and others such as Castro, Mugabe) I offer the following thoughts on Putin (who as yet, remains more authoritarian than dictatorial):

Firstly, Putin will cede power only when he feels that he has no choice, and then will try to recoup the losses. Secondly, his psychological hold over others is such that he will remain top dog for longer than non-psychological factors would suggest. Thirdly, once that psychological hold is sufficiently disrupted, change can come quite quickly—and possibly violently. Fourthly, Putin can best prolong his power, and avoid the use of reactive force by others, by eschewing overreach and excessive abuse of power.

I suggest that the same thoughts could apply to the US when dealing with the changing world.

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