Dr. Heath King: Putin Aggression Rooted in His Childhood

Thursday, 24 Jul 2014 04:38 PM

By Heath King

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Russian President Vladimir Putin's behavior during the Ukraine crisis has been widely denounced, yet the inner workings of his mind have remained opaque.

Three presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — have seen Putin, each in their own way, through the lens of selective perception. Each time it has ended in disillusionment.

If the West is to effectively counter the current crisis in the Ukraine and find a viable solution, it must enter the psyche of Putin to grasp his strategy.

One cannot understand Putin without considering the historical malaise that has faced Russia for centuries. It is indelibly ingrained into the psyche of Russians that it has been the continual target of foreign invasions, beginning with the Mongols in the 13th century.

Today Putin is reacting to a perceived territorial threat of another, more abrading nature: the gradual diminution of the Soviet power bloc and the expansion of NATO. As a nationalist he is playing on the collective memory of the past in order to reactivate nationalist pride among the Russian population.

Nationalism has historically been a powerful mobilizing impulse. That is why though the ruble has been devalued and the stock market is dovetailing during the Ukraine crisis he still retains an 80 percent favorability rating among Russians.

On a personal level, Putin's aggressive posture and recalcitrance against perceived adversaries is deeply rooted in his childhood.

This is clear from passages in his little known schoolboy grade book, recently found in a dusty attic of a small house, a dacha, in the village of Tonso outside Petersburg, where his family spent summers.

One teacher complains, "Before class [Putin] threw chalkboard eraser at the children." The budding bully also got into several fights, including with his gym instructor. He was not intimidated by the size of the bigger boys or indeed the authority and brawn of his gym instructor.

This inborn boldness of character remains intact and is making itself felt in his defiance of America's sanctions and whatever the Europeans may muster. His strategy is to keep his adversary off-balance.

This strategy can be seen in his personal negotiations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Putin reportedly brings his large black Labrador, knowing she has a fear of dogs since being bitten as a child.

By keeping his adversary off-balance, Putin has been able to carry out his designs. For example, he assured Merkel he had no designs on Crimea — and four days later he signed a manufactured referendum to re-appropriate that peninsula.

By the same token, Putin is also adept at manipulating religious sentiments to draw an opponent into his gravitational field. Bush made his now well-known declaration about looking into Putin's "sincere soul" in their first meeting in 2001, just after Putin, aware of Bush's Christian sentiments, told him that only a cross given to him by his mother remained when his house caught on fire.

Putin's political strategy is actually prefigured in judo, in which he holds a highly advanced eighth-degree belt. As a martial artist myself from Shotokan karate, I have observed films of Putin's preferred judo techniques demonstrated at an official state visit in Tokyo at the Kodokan judo headquarters.

They are predominately those used by smaller men like him when facing larger opponents — an inner leg sweep throw that dumps the opponent backward, and the hip throw.

In annexing Crimea, Putin has thrown his much larger opponent, America and the European Union, backwards with a leg sweep.

Putin's psychological savvy is also reflected in what are reportedly his favorite books. One is "The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam." I find this particularly significant, as Khayyam was a Persian Sufi Muslim who transcended Orthodox Islam — and Putin has rigorously countered Islamic extremists.

Also among his favorite reading: Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" and "Crime and Punishment," both classics in human psychology.

Of significance, too, is that Dostoyevsky sought to preserve the cultural values of Russia against what he saw as its loss of identity in an increasingly secularized West.

Western sanctions against Russia will fail to reshape Putin. Since they were imposed, a $400 billion, 30-year gas transaction with China has been signed, thus highlighting the global expanse of Russia's economy. As Europe is dependent on Russian oil and gas, he rightly calculated that European sanctions would not be rigorous in any case.

The way to effectively counter Putin is to outsmart him, as did the chess genius Garry Kasparov, former world champion and the highest ranked chess player in history.

Kasparov succeeded in mobilizing a democratic movement within Russia. Democracy is still in its early stages, and Kasparov is now in exile, but he succeeded and still succeeds in drawing international attention to the oppression in Russia.

As the keynote speaker at the Heritage Foundation Kasparov reminded us: "Here in the U.S., your elections have fixed rules and unpredictable results. In Russia, we have unpredictable rules and fixed results."

If Putin is banking on the dependence of Europe on Russia's oil and gas, we should send oil and gas to make them more independent and thereby fortify their opposition to Putin's aggression, not insist on innocuous sanctions that will only elicit spiraling deleterious counter-measures.

Simultaneously, for the same reason we should send oil and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, as we sent humanitarian aid to Georgia in 2008. This would highlight to the world a decisive difference between American and Russian global strategy, and allow Putin an avenue to save face and disengage from his military pursuit in the ensuring period of stabilization and restoration.

G. Heath King, Ph.D, is a psychoanalyst and former professor of interdisciplinary studies at Yale University. He is the author of "Existence, Thought, Style: Perspectives of a Primary Relation, Portrayed Through the Work of Søren Kierkegaard."


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