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Vladimir Putin’s search for ‘Moby Dick’

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There is little about Russian President Vladimir Putin that hasn’t been said. His defiant attitude.  Autocratic ambitions. Disdain for world order. Propensity for displays of virility. Vanity Fair claimed he lied about his height, implying a Freudian compensation motive. Psychology Today claims his personality and thinking are “grossly distorted.” 

There’s no question that Putin is paranoid, anti-social, narcissistic and obsessive-compulsive. This is not speculative. It is evidentiary. In the 20th century alone, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Idi Amin, among others, possessed those same characteristics. Putin is an echo of an ancient and enduring persona: self-absorbed and bent on self-aggrandizement, whatever the costs. 

To understand Putin, we could turn to literature. A palpable parallel is Captain Ahab in “Moby Dick,” Herman Melville’s 1851 classic. We all know the famous first line: “Call me Ishmael.” We know the boat was the Pequod, and that it incessantly pursued a leviathan to its own end.  

But for the purposes of this essay, President Putin and Captain Ahab are our quarry.   

Ahab’s story is fairly linear. His leg was taken by the Great White Whale Moby Dick. Out of spite, he had that leg replaced with a whalebone. When opportunity arose to chase down his nemesis, he became reckless in a fanatical mission. He felt his reckoning was righteous, even as his vessel and most of his crew spiraled into the dark water.  

Captain Ahab has a personal vendetta. In pursuing it, Melville clearly depicted the captain as paranoid, anti-social, narcissistic and obsessive-compulsive. He cared little for the destruction that his revenge caused. He was the apotheosis of a monomaniacal, 19th century man.

Vladimir Putin is similarly bound. Ukraine has not bowed to his influence, and it has resisted his savage military assault. It insists on independence, promotes its own unique culture, aligns with Europe, and petitions for European Union and NATO membership. Putin’s oligarchic disposition shrieks — not whispers — in his ear every night that Ukraine is part of Russia’s birthright, and that if he doesn’t recover it, he is a failure to all who have sat on his throne, because a throne it is. 

Ukraine is the second largest country by size in Europe. It has ports on the Black Sea, allowing it swift access to the Bosporus and the Mediterranean, cherished trade routes that Russian forces honed in on. It is a successful agricultural nation, which is something that Russia — with all its natural energy resources and centralized control — has never achieved. Ukraine is a prize.  

Ukraine is Putin’s lost leg. He has replaced it with a metaphorical whalebone. And more than anything, his psyche wants to have what he believes it deserves. And if he can’t capture his whale, he’ll go down with the ship.  

The parallels between Captain Ahab and Vladimir Putin are striking, and perhaps provide insight into what’s going to come next.  

Putin embodies the same qualities as Ahab. He is putting his country at risk with little concern for his citizens who will suffer greatly from sanctions imposed by the international community. He has a personal vendetta against Ukraine, which for generations has steadfastly resisted Russia’s attempted influence. 

And, most importantly, Putin thinks that land is better than money. That’s a critical mistake. The world is run by money — New York, London, Zurich, Hong Kong, and other cities. What income does Russia have? When was the last time you turned over a product to read a marking “Made in Russia”? Likely never. When was the last time you turned over a product to read “Made in China”? Probably today. 

Putin, like Ahab, has made the mistake that the land (i.e., the whale) is the object of advance.  Russia has abundant energy reserves, to be sure. But, though it would be difficult, the rest of the world could do without those resources, if necessary. With seven Russian banks removed from the SWIFT international system, and with other sanctions, Russia can’t access or transfer funds. Much like the Pequod in the South Seas, Russia is alone. 

Putin is a man of the 19th century, just as Ahab was. But here’s the kicker: Putin can’t control the narrative. There are too many sources in today’s media world that he can’t control. Ahab could control what his seaman knew. It was just him and his little floating world. And even with his enormous controls, Ahab still faced mutiny. His twisted personality and personal vendetta turned his sailors against him. He was able to quell that mutiny, but he was on a small ship, adrift in the Pacific. 

Will Putin be able to put down a mutiny? Surely the people around him can see his dysfunctionality. How long will they suffer from it? Social media is not in Putin’s favor. He likely will get the whale (i.e., Ukraine), but in the process of winning the battle, he’ll lose the war. If that happens, it will be a Pyrrhic victory by a 19th century man.

James R. Bailey is a professor of leadership development at the George Washington University School of Business. He is the author of five books and hundreds of articles, and the founder and editor of Lessons on Leadership. Follow him on Twitter @ProfJamesBailey.

Tags Russian invasion of Ukraine sanctions on russia Vladimir Putin

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