Those of us who have been watching the torrent of news from Ukraine find ourselves nervously speculating about how Russia’s vicious act of unprovoked aggression will end. Unfortunately, political pundits and professors of military history agree that none of the possible outcomes appear to be positive. Examining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mental state from my perspective of 30 years of experience as a psychoanalyst leads me to believe that they are right: the prognosis is dire.
Based on publicly available materials, Putin is exhibiting classic signs of splitting and projective identification. These mechanisms, often associated with people diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, are also common traits found in successful authoritarian leaders. (Donald J. Trump and Jair Bolsonaro come to mind.)
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. He identifies the U.S. and NATO as bad and his own regime as good. 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 in which people who dislike something about themselves find relief by casting the unwanted elements of their persona onto a targeted person or group. Expulsion of these feelings brings fleeting relief but must be repeated—and often escalated—to be sustained.
Elsewhere, I have argued that projective identification enables a person who employs this mental maneuver to blame-shift, labeling the “other” as responsible for negative situations they actually caused themselves. This primitive defense mechanism does not exonerate Putin from his atrocious behavior, but is included here to help people understand the psychological underpinnings driving some of his actions and that may provide important insight about how to approach the situation he has caused.
Specific moments in Putin’s past and his reaction to those events likely formed his drive and behavior. His story has emerged, in fits and starts, over the past 20 years, but a full, objective biography of the man remains elusive. I believe there could be at least two factors we can examine (though I suspect there are many more) that contributed to his decision to wage war in Ukraine.
Putin is the son of survivors of the siege of Leningrad. Nearly one million people died during that 872-day military blockage led by the Nazi Army during World War II. Though Putin was not born until 1952, the siege traumatized his family; his older brother died of diphtheria in 1942. Putin spoke candidly about his family’s experience in the 2000 book First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin
. He described a bleak postwar existence that included using sticks to chase rats through freezing communal housing stairwells. Armed with this experience, Putin is the epitome of that classic Russian trope, the survivor. No matter the costs, Russia and its people survive.
Putin has been in political survival mode for years, especially since annexing Crimea in 2014.He has shored up national energy reserves, modernized the Russian armed forces, and become fluent in the language of digital warfare. His current war with Ukraine may seem rash and his tactics miscalculated, but I do not doubt that he feels prepared to engage in a drawn-out and bloody battle. Why? To end NATO expansion, certainly, and to re-expand Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe. Also, Putin said in a 2014 speech
that his goal was a “reunification” of Ukraine with Russia. This war is the latest manifestation of that endeavor.
Second, people who employ projective identification often believe they—or the people they govern—have been grievously wronged by “others,” and Putin is no exception. In this case, Putin blames the United States
for Russia’s fall from global grace in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He is prudently reluctant to engage in all out cyberwarfare—or nuclear war—with the United States, so Ukraine serves as proxy.
Aggrieved and backed into a proverbial corner, Putin may now be at his most unstable and dangerous, and approaching him the wrong way could push him even further. To resolve this conflict before it gets worse, Putin will likely need a way of saving face to deter him from his current trajectory. If he finds himself with no rational escape, he may embark on “gambling for resurrection,” a military historian’s phrase for overreach that proves oneself powerful. Or, he might take some extreme action akin to what Bismarck termed “committing suicide out of fear of death.” In such a desperate act, many more perish than the narcissistic actor himself.
As sanctions expand, oligarchs’ ill-gotten fortunes are frozen, global businesses abandon their interests in Russia, airspace is closed to Russian planes, Russian banks are shut out of global systems, the Russian economy tanks, and prominent Russians and local officials denounce Putin’s war and call for an end to the slaughter, the world finds itself in a more dangerous place than it has been since the last world war. Compromise at this point is not in Putin’s psychological interest. It begs the question: Who, if anyone, can stop him from inflicting global pain?