The question of who Vladimir Putin really is and what drives him is not easy to answer. In any case, so far there is nothing to suggest that he could have lost his mind in a clinical sense. At the same time, many forget Putin’s second, more insecure side – and his mysterious character transformation between 2007 and 2008.
For some, he is simply crazy, “completely insane”. To others, he is a cynical, coldly calculating strategist who carefully considers his moves and uses the currency of brute force to execute them whenever it promises him an advantage. Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is once again baffling the world.
Is it just a madman – otherwise there would be no more wars today? – or a ruthless, cold power politician, what difference does that make, some might object, it does not change the fact that Putin is obviously doing something very crazy with this war and bringing death and ruin to countless people.
But the question is not trivial, it is once again a matter of understanding Putin, of unraveling him, of reading him, because from this follows the answer to the question in which direction things could go further. So: Crazy, or an expert in ice-cold, cynical power poker? Neither one nor the other, as it seems.
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So far there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to suggest that Putin could have lost his mind in a clinical sense. He speaks clearly and distinctly, coherently and understandably and takes coherent positions that he also took before the start of the war. He seems a little more aggressive than he used to be when he threatens nuclear weapons, he seems more tense, he may seem a little indignant or angry here and there, but nothing about this is unusual for a head of state who has started a major offensive war and is making a lot of noise about it placed a card.
Putin has often been compared to Hitler in recent times, but the comparison is wrong in many places. So far he hasn’t completely lost his mind, hasn’t staked everything on just one card, hopelessly overplayed his hand and irresponsibly weighed the fate of his entire people.
However, to try to interpret Putin in the opposite way with the image of the ice-cold strategist who makes highly rational moves is now just as misleading. Any cost-benefit calculation of the current Ukraine war speaks against it.
The first question must therefore be: which Putin are we talking about? It is undisputed that there is something like a basic disposition in the life of all people, something that belongs to the life of the individual, is part of his being and accompanies him in a relatively stable way despite all the change processes in his life: one is extroverted, the other introverted , one is lively, the other quiet and reserved and almost always remains so for life.
We know from Putin that he wanted to assert himself and assert himself from the start, and that for him the key to this was always the affirmation and use of violence. That’s what he learned in the backyard brawls of post-war Leningrad, that’s how he’s kept it. When his teachers rebuked him when he broke the leg of a classmate, the reply was that some people only understood the language of violence.
He never gave up that attitude. Barely appointed prime minister, one of his first acts in 1999 was to launch the second Chechen war to force the insubordinate people on Russia’s borders into submission to his will. In addition, large cities such as Grozny and later Aleppo and today Mariupol and Sieweodoneszk were mercilessly reduced to rubble along with tens of thousands of their inhabitants, and it was not uncommon for survivors to be cruelly massacred.
dr Joachim Weber is a senior fellow at the strategic think tank CASSIS at the University of Bonn and deals with questions of strategic foresight. He is an expert on Russia and the Arctic, studied Eastern Europe history and has been dealing with security policy issues for decades. Recent publications include two books on geopolitical developments in the Arctic.
No one should expect pardon from anyone who messes with Putin, whether dissidents at home or foreign nationalities. But this is the acting Putin, and he is of secondary importance. But what does this Putin want, and what kind of ideas are actually driving him? The answer is complex.
In contrast to his long-lasting patterns of action, it quickly becomes apparent that Putin would not have followed a clear policy line from the start and worked through it. The awkward, extremely insecure-looking politician, who appears to have been led to the presidency in 2000 by the whims of fate, but not by a big plan, initially lacked a clear plan.
It takes years in which he tries to orient himself and in which he doesn’t seem averse to working with the West. NATO expansions to the east bother him little in this phase. It seems certain: from the beginning he felt the desire to make Russia strong and big again. His phantom pain as a result of Russia’s decline in the 1990s – the word of the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century – remains the guiding principle, he wants to get Russia back on its feet.
But which Russia? The Soviet Union, the Tsarist Empire, something new? Does the “flawless democrat” have a new, Eastern form of authoritarian democracy in mind?
The fact is that towards the end of his second term as president, in 2007 and 2008, Putin saw himself increasingly under pressure from the West and began to criticize him harshly. But he respects the constitution and becomes prime minister again for four years. When he officially returned to power as president in 2012, he was clearly transformed, at least that’s what everyone who has seen him personally or dealt with him for a long time and intensively says. The influences and ideologies he increasingly succumbed to in these years can be summed up in the thought structure of Russkij Mir, the Russian world, about which more will have to be told elsewhere.
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But what has Putin been striving for ever since then, what are his role models, what are his goals?
No historically coherent, clear line can be discerned, it is an ideology made up of arbitrarily assembled set pieces that the man in the Kremlin is pursuing. Everything that has increased the size of Russia is good: strong tsars like his role model Alexander III, but also Lenin and Stalin. But the same Lenin is heavily criticized in Putin’s speech at the beginning of the war on February 24, 2022, because as Russians he and the Bolsheviks artificially created this actually non-existent Ukraine.
With such historical misrepresentations, which are often contradictory in themselves, the Kremlin ruler constructs a picture puzzle of Russia in which only size, power and violence are the guiding stars, a firmly established ideological world view that is internally coherent but is characterized by strong historical distortions. This is called historical politics: all political efforts are subordinated to the goal of returning to a glorified, (pseudo-)historical world of former greatness, which did not really exist in this form. And to which there can be no return either, because, as is well known, nothing that once was returns unchanged, and certainly not in the idealized blend of the best of all times.
Elements of rational planning and cool calculation remain recognizable in Putin, as he skillfully demonstrated to the West in Syria and elsewhere. But one thing is clear: This man only wants one thing, to increase Russia’s idealized greatness as the seemingly greatest power in the world, and all this under him as the one who restored this power to Russia and led the country to the top of the nations.
An army psychiatrist who was able to observe Hitler regularly for a long time once diagnosed “defective psychosis with overvalued ideas”. A parallel seems to be opening up here, even if Putin may not yet have dived completely out of reach into these worlds, and yet it remains an unsettling thought.
It is true that most of the great nations have repeatedly indulged delusions of their chosenness, not just Hitler. But it always depends on how far these thoughts are from reality: The British, for example, really ruled large parts of the world with their empire for a long time, and the USA also achieved mid-and – after the collapse of the Soviet Union – towards the end of the 20th century even more clearly an unchallenged and prominent role in the world.
In the case of Russia, however, it has never come close to doing so, because the other side, apart from the ability to use force, has always been missing: trade, innovation, legitimate institutions and the rule of law. You can’t build an empire on violence alone. But it remains more than questionable whether such differentiations will still reach Putin and his circle of leaders in their ideology beyond sober rationality.
In Putin’s head: the logic and arbitrariness of an autocrat