Tsar Putin the Crazy or Master Manipulator? Maybe Both.

He features himself a history expert, even if he gets accounts of Russia’s past wrong. He throws judo masters to the mat, scores goals against professional hockey players, scuba dives, pilots planes above Siberian wilds and exposes his pecs while riding a wild steed.

He’s President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s Mr. Tough Guy.

Or perhaps behind Putin’s many masks stands a less macho if equally frightening personality that would explain his cruel, chaotic and incomprehensible invasion of Ukraine.

Maybe he’s crazy?

As the war in Ukraine drags into a sixth week, wonder and fears about Putin’s mental health are being voiced ever more frequently.

It is no wonder that politicians, intelligence agents, scientists,  and journalistic pundits are trying to fathom Putin’s mindset. Long after Stalin’s widespread persecutions, Hitler’s systematic murder of millions, and the more recent, if smaller-scale assaults by Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic on civilians in Bosnia and Kosovo, mass graves are again being uncovered in Europe.

This war was supposed to last a few days. Yet outrages mount up. In advance of  apparent retreats to regroup, Russian soldiers have fired on refugee caravans and shot civilians at point-blank range. Dead bodies line town streets.

Putin says that wily Ukrainians did it, to gain sympathy. No, it was done by his troops. By the way, he has also threatened to unleash nuclear war.

How to explain it all? Western officials are tuning to esoteric psychology for an explanation. After attending an intelligence briefing in Washington, US Senator Marco Rubio, from Florida, suggested “something is off” with the Russian leader. “He has always been a killer but his problem now is different and significant,” adding that Putin “appears to have some neuro-physiological health issues.”

Psychotherapist Joseph Burgo took the argument further: Putin’s self-love narcissism obscures a deep feeling of inferiority that can be exorcised only by exerting superiority over others.

It’s not enough for Putin to be victorious, Burgo wrote in The Atlantic magazine. He must also expose his rivals’ inferiority. This type of narcissist is also a bully. “All bullies are narcissists, with an inflated sense of self-importance and a marked lack of empathy for their victims’ suffering,” Burgo said.

Presumably, that explains the wanton destruction of Ukrainian towns. Putin not only wants to defeat the Ukrainians but make them feel worthless—they’re so low they can’t defend themselves.

Putin biographer Masha Gessen wrote that one of Putin’s childhood chums recalls that, if someone crossed the future Russian leader, he “would immediately jump on the guy, scratch him, bite him, rip his hair out by the clump—do anything at all never to allow anyone to humiliate him in any way.”

Russia’s regional dominance and ability to challenge the West.”

Scott Radnitz, a University of Washington Russia expert, suggests that Putin, rather than suffering a psychological malady, is putting on a calculated theatrical production. Putin’s actions may show that he “is deranged,” Radnitz said. “But they are also consistent with another possibility–that Putin is still merely engaging in brinkmanship, and rationally so.”

Searching for patterns in Putin’s reasoning is difficult, given his chronic secrecy. Proekt-media, a Russian-language investigative group, has tried to link his mental state to reports of an array of physical maladies.

Proekt came up with a host of health problems. He damaged his head twice, once when he fell off a horse and another time when he slipped on the ice during a hockey exhibition. He was seen limping in Red Square. He disappears from public view for days at a time, while being visited by physicians.

Platoons of doctors visit him at his palatial retreat near the seaside retreat of Sochi. One of his physicians is a cancer specialist; another treats him for a thyroid problem. Up to nine specialists travel with him on trips. He also occasionally bathes in a broth of reindeer blood, said to be some sort of elixir.

The array of maladies feeds comparisons with Hitler, who also suffered from several chronic illnesses. In 1998, psychiatrist Fritz Redlich published an exhaustive study of Hitler’s health called ”Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet.” Yet Redlich declined to link Hitler’s physical problems to  mental issues that might explain his monumental cruelties.

It would not be very useful to do so, Redlich argued. Studying Hitler felt ”as if I were in a cheap clothing store: Nothing fits, and everything fits.”  Redlich acknowledged that the Fuhrer suffered from paranoid delusions that ”could be viewed as a symptom of mental disorder.”

“But most of the personality functioned more than adequately.” Hitler ”knew what he was doing and he chose to do it with pride and enthusiasm,” Redlich concluded.

It’s possible the same can be said of Vladimir Putin.


Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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