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Getting into Putin's head
What I expect…
My last post (The invisible impact of the war against Ukraine) must’ve touched a nerve in many. Thank you all for emailing me and sharing your stories. I hope I answered all of your emails. If I missed yours, please forgive me. I received A LOT.
This and my last post are not what I usually publish but I hope they are just as helpful and impactful. If you received this as a forward from a friend, or stumbled upon it some other way, please subscribe. Life Intelligence is a weekly publication and free!
And just like that, the world now knows Ukrainian geography, NATO and the EU are stronger and more united than ever, European nations are uber interested in speeding up green energy investments, and we are back where we started after WWII – about to hear an iron curtain fall and amid a nuclear threat.
But what of it? And are we missing something about Putin?
Just like many from that part of the world, my initial reaction to the Ukrainian situation was visceral and emotional. I've spent almost every free moment I have, and some I don't have, tracking the conflict and pondering if I should go find a cave to hide in case a nuke drops on my town or go fight in Ukraine as a volunteer. I can't see well, so I'll probably be more trouble than useful to the Ukrainians. Do I still remember my one-month military training from high school? Does it matter? I might still hit something if I'm shooting in the right direction. I considered going to Bulgaria to tell my mom goodbye and driving to Ukraine. It's a nine-hour trip. I checked.
But I am still here and constantly hearing "no one knows what's really in Mr. Potin's head" from every journalist and analyst. But if you observe someone for a while, you get a sense of what's in their head. So I chose to undertake the challenge. I could observe him through past appearances and listen to him. I could also use my FACS skills (facial action coding system) which I've used in the past, to code emotional expression and suppression for a research project I did for Cal Poly. Why not?
What we know now is that Putin seems to have changed. Even people in his inner circle have mentioned that he's becoming more "erratic." For the last two years, they say, he's been increasingly isolating himself and imposing stringent quarantines for those who want to speak to him. The world has seen him sitting 50 feet away from advisors and negotiators on long tables or across the room speaking through a microphone. He's "paranoid" and "afraid for his safety," they say. He's probably not vaccinated either because his Sputnik vaccine is about as useful as piss.
We also know that he fully committed to the "Ukraine belongs to Russia" theory in the last two years. I can write a whole new paper refuting his bogus claims, but others have done a great job fact-checking and explaining the false narrative, so I'll just do my thing.
Here's what Dr Björn Alexander Düben , who is an Assistant Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University and has previously taught International Relations and Security Studies at LSE and King's College London. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the LSE and graduate degrees from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, wrote on the subject:
Putin's statements (which he has reiterated on various occasions) are wrong on two counts: For one, the claim that present-day eastern or southern Ukraine should have been considered part of "the historical South of Russia" or "primordially Russian territories" in the 1920s seems preposterous, since there had been no substantial Russian presence in these territories at any time prior to the 19th century. Secondly, Putin's assertion that Ukraine's south-eastern borders were established "with no consideration for the ethnic make-up of the population" is equally false. The first Soviet census in 1926, a few years after the eastern borders of the UkrSSR had been finalised, showed that in all territories of eastern Ukraine, including those that are now contested, ethnic Ukrainians still far outnumbered ethnic Russians. What ultimately changed this in the 1930s was the demographic devastation wrought by Stalin's agricultural genocide, the 'Holodomor'.
Before the pandemic, Putin appeared cool as a cucumber, poker-faced, smirky, and confident. The world knew him as calculating, conniving, manipulative, ruthless, and a control freak. He retaliated aggressively against opposition and descent, threatening anyone who opposed him with prison, ruin, and death and making good on the threats to deter others. He played people and countries against each other, waging war in cyberspace, meddling in others' political business, and snatching territories whenever he got a chance, seemingly undeterred by anyone in any meaningful way. After the annexation of Crimea, and the few sanctions from the West amounting to a slap on the wrist, Putin felt successful in his trajectory to reunite the Soviet Union/Soviet Block and destabilize NATO. He was becoming the 900-pound gorilla no one wanted to really upset because they needed petrol and natural gas.
They say Putin likes winning. It sounds like someone else I had the displeasure of watching for four years just recently. Putin also has an army of yes-men to assure he continues to feel that way. He's won all those little victories, but also big ones too. He made himself a de facto president-for-life of Russia.
Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Did you know that February 23, 2022, is a Russian national holiday – The Day of Defense of the Fatherland, which used to be known and celebrated as the Red Army Day in the USSR. That's the day massive manifestations (parades) would take place on the Red Square in Moscow with uniformed personnel marching in unison, waving flags and weapons in a proud display while communist leaders soluted them as they went by.
Putin attended the wreath-laying ceremony at the Monument of the Unknown Soldier, as per tradition, and addressed veterans and servicemen in a speech in which he also laid his grievances about NATO breathing down his neck. Reality check: NATO has never threatened Russia, but his feelings don't care about the facts.
He wants to feel like a winner—a formidable one.
I came across a press conference from two months ago when invading Ukraine looked like a stupid move to the world. Not so to Putin. Two months before he invaded, he told the world what was going on in his head. The world should have listened more carefully.
This Sky News video shows an interchange between Putin and a Sky News journalist. He appears emotionally upset, animated, defiant, and clearly reveals the state of his mind. Putin throws a temper tantrum because he sees a non-existent little green man on his front porch.
1) He does not guarantee to NOT invade Ukraine.
2) He does not care for negotiations. "Our actions will not depend on the negotiations," he states. "It is not the negotiations that matter. It's the outcome, the result."
3) He thinks that NATO is moving to the East, when in fact Ukraine is moving to the West and WANTS to be part of NATO and the EU, both of which take many years to accomplish. Meaning, the threat he envisions is NOT there.
4) He does not live in the same world as the rest of us. He lives in a world of his own imagination. "It's like we live in two different worlds," he says. "I am speaking about very obvious things. How can you not understand that?"
5) He speaks with deep conviction. He's drinking his own Kool-Aid. And yet…there are cracks.
He asks, "Who created the situation? Who started it?" pointing as far back as Lenin, but his shoulders keep shrugging. He leans back a little, a gesture of distancing. Together, they portray uncertainty, an incongruence between what is said and what is known. So perhaps, he's not sure about his "Ukraine belongs to Russia theory," but he is sure that the world is closing on him, and he wants his way or the highway! So he's figured that Ukraine is a good enough excuse to get things going.
When he speaks again about his demands from the West, he leans forward and shows an angry, forceful face. He also points at himself when he says, "That's what we are talking about," and "They came to our borders." He's actually taking the whole thing personally. It's not about "we, the Russian people." It's about "me, Putin" Perhaps, he thinks Russia is his personal possession.
He sees the West, USA in particular, as intrusive, unfair, and determined to destroy Russia. He gets particularly emotional as he relays the "facts" as he sees them – the US not keeping their promises and personally ignoring him.
Perhaps, he doesn't feel like a winner after all. He's very adamant about "YOU must give us guarantees. RIGHT NOW."
Perhaps it's hindsight, but just this one interview should have sent the West scramming to arm Ukraine to the teeth and think of creative ways to get rid of him. But he is still around. Ukraine may be on its last legs but making him look bad as the world speculates about his miscalculations. Every day the resistance continues, it makes the mighty Russian army look bad. He'll be a loser even if he takes Ukraine at the end. The world is isolating him and not just financially.
Meanwhile, more people in power are noticing and questioning his mental health. Here, the report states that President Macron observed a "different man" when he met him last just before the invasion attempting to negotiate. The two of them have seen a lot of each other prior to the pandemic. According to Macron, Putin appeared "stiff and more isolated." He does not listen to any advisors who may be raising concerns about the situation. There's even speculation that his closest advisor now, the Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu is telling Putin what he wants to hear and not appraising him of the actual situation on the ground. He has surrounded himself with ex-KGB agents who are now in government positions, all products of the Cold War and the ex-Soviet mentality.
Therefore, we can expect him to think along the same line – divide and concur. He's proven it so far with his meddling into foreign politics, cyber misinformation wars, destabilizing governments in countries who were part of the ex-Soviet Block, and supporting authoritarians who he can control, like Lukashenko in Belarus.
According to this report, the latest escalation of his nuclear readiness by beefing up staffing in all the branches of his nuclear force came after he watched a speech by the UK Defense Minister who questioned Putin's sanity. This British reporter then asked the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, if Putin has gone "full tonto," quoting the defense minister. I suppose Putin must get his news from his news agency these days if his advisors won't let him know what is going on. It also reminds me of someone else who watched TV and tweeted policy reflexively. The only difference is that Putin also controls his media, sooooo… the whole thing is even weirder.
"Full tonto" is not what he wants to be called.
He's threatening to bomb someone now. Why else would you get your nuclear capabilities ready? It seems the world kind of takes him seriously but doesn't really believe it will happen. The world still treats him as a rational actor. I believe it will happen because he is no longer a rational actor and doesn't have anything else left on the table. He has brainwashed himself.
If Ukraine falls, he can't keep it. The severe sanctions will stay and cause his regime to implode from the inside. But not after a lot of agony for the Russian people and the senseless death of countless Ukrainians resisting his occupation. The country will be in ruins, from buildings to infrastructure. He won't be able to afford rebuilding it any more than he can afford to maintain the size of a military contingent necessary to keep in check all those Ukrainians with guns hiding under every tree and behind every door. The world will know him as an evil dictator with a lame army who couldn't take care of the Ukrainian resistance, so he had to call the Chechnya and Belarus forces to help him out.
If he loses Ukraine – well, he'll be a loser. He'll stand trial for war crimes. He'll be a crazy fuck who threw Russian children against Ukrainian for no reason other than his diluted ideas. He won't have the money to pay reparations or whatever he'll have to pay to make things right. His own cronies will oust him.
From his perspective, he better throw everything he's got at this and try to come out with less mud on his face. Therefore, nukes.
But who will he hit? NATO doesn't kid around. They've said it many times, if he as much as enters one inch into NATO territory, they will obliterate his forces. NATO has better forces than the demoralized Russian army. The US alone will teach him a lesson they've wanted to for a long time! Also, right now, the only source of substantial revenue he still gets is from his European Union customers where his pipelines lay. He won't bomb his money train and his gas lines.
To make a point, he'll bomb someone out of the EU, away from his gravy train, and not in NATO. How about Azerbaijan? Why you ask! Because they are neither in the EU nor in NATO. Also, they are a major competitor – they have a natural gas pipeline reaching Europe through Greece and Albania for cheaper. I am nervous about Azerbaijan. No one will care. They are somewhere out there where most people don't ever look. They also share a border with Turkey to make NATO nervous and teach Tukey a lesson for being the first to recognize Azerbaijan as an independent country after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Will hitting a defenseless country with a nuke make the point that he's serious? Appease him? Help him save face? I don't know, but I do know that he'll feel justified and blame it on the West because they "just don't understand."
Never underestimate the death twitch of a deranged mind. Putin is now the equivalent of the villains in James Bond movies. I believe we need non-standard approaches to the situation, and I think we should be expecting and preparing for further escalation while somehow trying to avoid an all-out nuclear conflict.
Maybe he'll do himself in. Or someone will do him from the inside because he's becoming awful for business. Won’t that be nice?
I stand with Ukraine.
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I hope to return to my regular content next week.