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Inside Putin’s brain

Associated Press/Mikhail Klimentyev- Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo

Is Russian President Vladimir Putin irrational and unstable? Is he operating with a set strategy and plan based on Russian interests? Or is there another explanation?

While the American Psychological Association prohibits making a psychiatric diagnosis without physically examining the subject, that does not preclude using a cultural analysis to deduce how Putin may be thinking. A well-known piece of Russian lore makes this point. 

Centuries ago, two poor Russian kulak neighbors, living side by side on barely arable plots, detested each other and resented when one did better than the other. One was called Vlad; the other Boris. Vlad was working his hard-scrabble land when he came upon an ancient brass lamp. Picking it up and while rubbing off the grime, a genie appeared. 

“Vladimir, for freeing me, I will grant you one wish,” the genie said. “But I will double your request for your neighbor Boris.” Vlad thought hard for a minute or two and, turning to the genie, said “Pluck out one of my eyes!”

That is a relevant insight into Russian culture.

Putin’s list of grievances accumulated since the Soviet Union imploded 30 years ago is well known and well documented. His Feb. 24th address to the nation announcing the “special military operation” in Ukraine to protect Russians and Ukrainians from “neo Nazis and fascists” running the government in Kyiv, presumably including the Jewish President Volodymyr Zelensky, repeated many of them. These first appeared in the extraordinary lecture Putin delivered at the 2007 Munich Security Conference railing against the “unipolar world” dominated by the United States that degraded, dismissed and downgraded Russia.

Putin’s judgment has been overwhelmed by the resentment, distrust and animosity that has accumulated towards the U.S., NATO and much of Europe like bad cholesterol chokes the circulatory system. This has led to the misjudgment that only military force, in this case applied brutally, inhumanly, barbarically and illegally, can force his will on Ukraine first and then more broadly to expand Russian influence on Belarus, Georgia and Moldova.   

Ukraine has refused to bend and seems prepared to fight if not to the death certainly close to it as long as the ammunition, food, water, related logistics and fuel last. All this carnage is being recorded and transmitted in real time on cell phones, social media and the scores of media correspondents reporting on scene.

If this analysis or supposition is correct, misjudgments as opposed to irrationality and mental instability can change. So how can Putin’s will and perception be affected, influenced and even controlled? While Putin told French President Emmanuel Macron last week that the offensive will continue, his fallback may be to divide the country in half roughly along the Dnieper River, retaining the eastern portion into a new Ukrainian Republic. Where Kyiv would end up is uncertain.

What must or can the U.S., NATO and the EU do and what might Ukraine’s strategy be? President Zelensky has two choices: capitulate or fight. Zelensky has clearly announced his position, which draws heavily from Winston Churchill.

Addressing parliament for the first time as prime minister on May 13, 1940, as the Nazi war machine was targeting France, Churchill took the English language to war using words as powerful weapons. “You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air…with all our might and with all the strength God has given us. …You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word…victory. Victory at all costs.”

Ukraine’s strategy must emulate Churchill’s “to wage war at all costs,” and those costs will be extreme and even disastrous. But what is the choice?

No matter how risky, only this strategy will compel Putin to withdraw or negotiate. And Ukraine might remember President Franklin Roosevelt’s surprise bombing raid of Tokyo in early 1942 to shock and awe Japan. Thirty-seconds over Moscow could have a similar effect. 

The U.S./NATO response must be to strengthen NATO, consider admitting Finland and Sweden as members and make long-term binding commitments to support Ukraine as the U.S. supported Churchill and Britain with Lend Lease during World War II.

Ukraine, with U.S. and NATO help, must stay the course, committing “to wage war at all costs” to counter Putin’s terrorizing and killing Ukrainian civilians and gobbling up the eastern part. This may be the only exit strategy. Clearly, the outcome of a drawn-out guerrilla-like war will be bloody and catastrophic for Ukrainians and Russians. But it may be the only way to force Putin to come to his senses and reverse his misjudgments or be replaced as Russia’s strong man.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the primary author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and that World at Large.”

Tags Emmanuel Macron Reactions to the 2021–2022 Russo-Ukrainian crisis Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Russia–Ukraine relations Vladimir Putin

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