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Beware the Injured Beast: Another Look at Putin's Psychology

Beware the Injured Beast: Another Look at Putin's Psychology
By Dr. Karyne Messina  • Issue #13 • View online
“[I]f anybody thinks that Putin wouldn’t use something that he’s got that is unusual and cruel, think again. Every time you think, ‘No, he wouldn’t, would he?’ Well, yes, he would. And he wants us to know that, of course.”
(Fiona Hill, Former Senior Director for Europe and Russia at the United States National Security Council, in a February 2022 interview with Politico.)
“Now, almost every day, the [Ukrainian military] are shelling settlements. They have amassed large troops. They are using vehicles and other heavy machinery. They are torturing people, children, women, elderly people. It does not stop. We have seen no end to it.”
(Russian president Vladimir Putin in a speech to the Russian people on February 21, 2022)
Last month–which seems so far ago now–this space was dedicated to exploring Russian president Vladimir Putin’s mental state. My prognosis then was that the situation was dire and that splitting and projective identification served as potent psychological tools in his unprovoked attack on Ukraine. To recap, by splitting people into absolute categories–making them all good or all bad–Putin cannot integrate various characteristics of people or countries into his thinking. This is because he is in what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position (Spillius, 2007). In this persecutory state, people think others are out to get them. They also employ projective identification as an intrapsychic process. Expulsion of these feelings brings fleeting relief but must be repeated—and often escalated—to be sustained.
I believe the majority of my readers here are familiar with the concept of the paranoid-schizoid position as defined by Klein, but please visit the Melanie Klien Trust’s website for a full explanation of this complex mental state.
In the opening quote, Russia expert Fiona Hill warns us that Putin knows precisely what he is doing–and that although the current military campaign has been disastrous, he is likely ready to dig in his heels and stick it out for the long haul, whatever the costs to his people. Meanwhile, atrocious stories of butchery and torture coming out of places like the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, where images of dead civilians with their hands and feet bound testify to what appear to be war crimes and a total disregard for civilian welfare in wartime. Researchers at Amnesty International have verified violations of international humanitarian law and the Russian military’s tactics indiscriminately attack civilians. Ukranian Volodymyr Zelensky called the massacre in Bucha and elsewhere as “genocide.”
Putin, meanwhile, continues to argue that this war is, among other bogus claims, a retaliation for Ukrainian hostilities on Russian settlements as well as a desire to rid the country of its Nazi leadership, both claims that are utterly unfounded by facts. President Biden suggested recently that Putin may have put his advisers under house arrest or fired them. (In response, the Kremlin’s spokesperson said that Biden’s assertion was “a perfect example of disinformation of a head of state.”)
Psychoanalytic theory would suggest that if Putin is indeed operating from a paranoid-schizoid position, that his actions and beliefs are stemming from feelings of intense persecution and distrust. When humans experience tremendous stress, our cognitive perception can be dimmed or even damaged, meaning our ability to work through complex problems is hindered. Assuming that Putin is in this mental state, I fear Hill’s assertion that he might do anything is well-founded. How we proceed with this information remains unclear to me. Putin appears to be using negotiations as stall tactics and fodder for his propaganda machine. His threat of launching nuclear weapons is real, but I imagine he would turn to chemical warfare first. Further, Ukraine would not be the end of Putin’s war–other countries must recognize and prepare for potential attacks.
Should we fear nuclear war? I end with Hill’s analysis in Politico: “It’s not that we should be intimidated and scared….We have to prepare for those contingencies and figure out what is it that we’re going to do to head them off.”

Poem by Ukrainian Poet Yevhen Pluzhnyk
Novelist and poet Yevhen Pluzhnyk (1898-1936) was considered one of Ukraine’s finest poets in the 1920s, after a novel he wrote was banned in 1934, Pluzhnyk was arrested by the Soviet Union’s NKVD and sentenced to execution by firing squad, which was commuted to ten years hard labor in a prison camp in the Solovets Islands–another death sentence of sorts. Pluzhnyk died there in 1936 of complications from tuberculosis, which had afflicted him for nearly a decade.
Met a bullet in the dell.
That’s where I sowed rye!
Oh dear what the hell
I’ve lived through so much time!
Old lady cried for an hour.
A hole in the ribs is umber.
Well, of course—beauty and power
Marche funébre!
Our Democracy in Peril: An Excerpt from "Resurgence"
Hungarian president Viktor Orban declared victory in the presidential elections this past weekend, and throughout the Russian invasion of Ukraine Orban has declined to condemn Putin–whose country provides Hungary with much of its energy needs– instead deriding Volodymyr Zelensky as an “opponent” Orban needed to overcome during the election campaign. My forthcoming book, “Resurgence” examines Orban’s rise to power in Hungary and how projective identification has fueled his rise. Below, an excerpt:
In Hungary, policies are often changed without public support. In this case, many legal but questionable changes occurred after democratically held election brought Orbán to power. In a space of a few short years, he refashioned the government in his image.
Similarities Between Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump
Viktor Orbán, like Donald Trump, appears to say and do what he wishes without being concerned about any potential negative consequences of his actions. A vehement critic of the European Union Hungary is a member of, he once compared immigration to a “flu epidemic,” and has surrounded himself with “loyal parliamentarians” who ensure that he can “rule by decree indefinitely and without any parliamentary oversight” (Bociurkiw, 2020).
In 2020, Orbán’s chief of staff accused the European Commission of applying double standards in the way it treats EU member nations. (AP, 2020). “The latest report of the rule of law by the European Commission highlights that we can’t talk about the rule of law but the rule of blackmail,” said the chief of staff (AP, 2020). The suggestion being that Hungary is mistreated and maligned—a country aggrieved—and its leaders aren’t going to take it.
When discussing their enemies, Trump and Orbán echo each other in tone and content. In a 2019 New York Magazine article, Jonathan Chait observed the methods each uses to attack their proclaimed enemies—people characterized as being part of “a shadowy cabal of globalist financiers.” Trump, he writes, casts his enemies as, “these people that don’t have your good in mind…It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed us of our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.” Orbán, Chait asserts, frames his nameless foes similarly, that they, “…do not fight directly, but by stealth. They are not honorable, but unprincipled. They are not national, but international. They do not believe in work but speculate with money. They have no homeland but feel that the whole world is theirs” (Chait, 2019).
 In the statements above, both men appear to psychologically split groups of people into two categories and then project aspects of their own ways of being onto their perceived foes: the “global financiers” (Trump could be one of them) and those who “feel that the whole world is theirs,” (characteristics that have been attributed to Orbán)….
In 2014, Orbán gave a speech declaring that Hungary would turn away from liberal democracy and follow the time-tested practices of Eastern-style autocracies, including Russia and Turkey. His behavior embodied this shift since the Hungarian government controls most news outlets including radio and television channels as well as news websites. According to a source cited in the New York Times, the Hungarian media is “beginning to resemble state media under Communism because of the level of control and consolidation” (Kingsley, 2018). Most other institutions in Hungary have been affected as well, including schools and universities, the Hungarian Academy of Science, and cultural institutions. Most industries and enterprises are also increasingly coming under the control of the government.
Mental Health Notes
Mental health professionals became experts at providing virtual care via telehealth sessions during the worst of the pandemic, and now that experience is being put to humanitarian use to provide psychological support for Ukrainians. The Washington Post ran an article last month on how mental health experts in the United States and elsewhere are providing virtual care to those in crisis. Mental health experts are working in coordination with NGOs like UNICEF and universities to avoid resource strain or hampering other recovery efforts.
Here are a few ongoing efforts:
UNICEF launched a project aimed at providing online support groups to parents and teens experiencing trauma in Ukraine. The application can be found here.
ViveoCares Foundation (the nongovernmental arm of Viveo Health) launched Telehealth without borders, which aims to connect Ukrainians with medical practitioners, including mental health providers. Learn more here.
In July 2020, the World Health Organization created a situational assessment of Ukraine, its mental health care system, and various strengths and challenges to consider when providing mental health services.
Green Notes: Developments and Setbacks
Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change (ipcc.ch) An overdue report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was published this week, explaining what countries must do to combat climate change.
Kenya′s green pencils | Eco Africa | DW | 07.01.2019 Over 14 billion pencils are used worldwide every year. Kenyan companies are using recycled newspaper to produce environmentally friendly writing nubs.
Inside Just Stop Oil, the youth climate group blocking UK refineries | Climate crisis | The Guardian Young people across the United Kingdom are protesting oil refineries. Here’s what they want.
The Case for Good News in Climate Coverage | The New Republic The news may often seem grim, and some stories feel a little too upbeat to be true, but Liz Featherstone at the New Republic argues why we need to hear genuine stories of climate victories.
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Dr. Karyne Messina

This newsletter will explore theories based on psychoanalysis and promote the development of the mind and human relationships while also advancing scholarly and social progress.

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