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Putin the Great: Struggling to Hold on to a Crumbling Empire

What is driving Putin's aggressive actions in Ukraine? Putin's behavior has prompted Madeline Albright to characterize the Russian leader as "delusional" and Germany's Angela Merkel to state that Putin is "living in another world." Our assessment of Putin's personality and political behavior suggests that he is not delusional, but rather an intelligent and decisive individual driven by a strong need for power and control. Many view Putin's actions as an attempt to restore the Soviet Union, but Putin knows the USSR cannot be reconstituted and has stated, "Those who want to bring it back have no brains." Yet, as the portrait of Peter the Great hanging in his office testifies, Putin views himself as a modern day czar, finding threats to his empire intolerable. Seeing himself and Russia as one and the same, Putin is a consummate narcissist whose every move is calculated to protect his image and goals, which are severely threatened by the current crisis.

In his autobiography, Putin describes himself as selfless and indifferent to power -- governed instead by patriotism and a desire to serve his country. But his actions say otherwise. Putin appears to believe that only he can lead the former superpower, creating a political machine to ensure the survival of his rule for decades. In 2008, when Putin "stepped down" as president, his successor, Dimitry Medvedev, increased the presidential term to six years. Medvedev then resigned after one term, paving the way for then-Prime Minister Putin to regain the presidency in 2012, with the possibility of retaining power until 2024. Moreover, Putin established his so-called vertical of power by abolishing the direct election of regional governors and making them Kremlin appointees. Rather than viewing Yanukovych as the deposed president of a sovereign nation, Putin appears to see him as a failed governor of the province of Ukraine.

Teased and bullied at school, in response to any insults or criticism, Putin immediately responded viciously to his tormentors. This was an early example of narcissistic dynamics -- an exaggerated defense overcompensating for his underlying insecurity. Putin was also incapable of handling criticism from teachers, openly expressing outrage at being reprimanded. As president, Putin continues to react intensely to criticism as any oligarch or journalist who criticizes or opposes him is likely to find themselves in prison or dead. From boyhood on, Putin has been intensely ambitious, setting his sights on becoming a KGB spy and staying doggedly focused on the path to achieve this. Putin explains that he was drawn to this career by the realization that "one spy could decide the fate of thousands of people" -- reflecting his narcissistic dreams of glory.

Arranged stunts and photos showcasing his machismo are indisputable evidence of Putin's extreme narcissism. These include riding horseback while bare-chested and fitting a tranquilized tiger with a GPS satellite transmitter. Each stunt is intended to convey the image of Putin as fearless, powerful and in control. It also is notable that these photo-shoots increased dramatically in 2008 when Putin became Prime Minister and was replaced by Medvedev. It appears this was a carefully calculated move to remind the Russian people and the world who was really in charge.

Putin's ruthless brutality was exhibited in his handling of the situation in Chechnya in 1999. The western Russian province had become ungovernable, with Chechen rebels attacking major Russian cities. When then-Prime Minister Putin was named acting president after President Yeltsin resigned, Russian forces had begun to bring the Chechen situation under control. However, instead of implementing an armistice, Putin engaged in total warfare with large-scale combat operations in Chechnya. In his autobiography, Putin indicates that the loss of the Chechen conflict would have meant the collapse of Russia -- an outlook that would underlay his brutal response to the uprising in Georgia.

Putin's tendency to see a challenge to his control in such apocalyptic terms can be traced back to his time serving as a KGB officer in Dresden, East Germany when he witnessed the breach of the Berlin wall. This signified the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. Putin characterized this loss as "the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century" and understood it to be a consequence of Moscow's inaction, "a paralysis of power." It appears that, in his view, had there been decisive action, the USSR could still be alive today. It is this bitter memory that prompted swift action with Ukraine to forestall further erosion of his empire. He would not let Ukraine fall as the Soviet Union had.

Trained as a lawyer, Putin understands full well the commitments Russia made in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum -- to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine in exchange for relinquishing their nuclear arsenal. This is why Putin carefully crafted a justification for occupation of Crimea as "absolutely legitimate" and a response to the "official request" for help from Yanukovych, whom he characterizes as the legitimate president. Clearly arranged by Putin, the referendum for Crimea to split from Ukraine and rejoin Russia appears to be another pseudo-legal justification for his aggressive land grab, as Putin has stated that he cannot "ignore calls for help" and will "act accordingly, in full compliance with international law." Almost immediately after the referendum passed, Putin announced the annexation of Crimea to Russia saying, "In people's hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia." The massing of Russian troops and equipment on the eastern Ukrainian border indicates that Crimea may not be enough for Putin.

It appears Putin has two goals that are difficult to pursue simultaneously. On the one hand, Putin yearns to be viewed as a respected first-tier world leader, as evidenced by the extravagance of the Olympic games in Sochi. On the other hand, "Putin the Great" views any potential loss of influence in the Ukraine as an intolerable threat to Russian preeminence. Putin has continuously demonstrated his willingness to defend his power and influence at any cost. He believes the loss of Ukraine would be a death knell for his Russian empire, yet his aggressive destabilizing actions could oust him from the community of respected world leaders.