Inside the Mind of the World’s Most Enigmatic Leader
if all the world’s public figures, Russian President Vladimir Putin is among the most famous, and somehow remains the greatest enigma at the same time, even to members of his inner circle. This is a man who is the face of Russia, or to be more accurate, Russia is Putin.
After more than two decades of leadership, it is no secret that the former staff officer of the KGB, the Soviet-era spy agency, is a cold, ruthless, violent man who doesn’t hesitate to impose force in steering things in his favor, as seen from his track record on human rights violations. Putin has been linked to the deaths of political opponents and journalists critical of his policies, clamping down on independent media, and making policy and administrative changes to strengthen his seat of power, including amending Russia’s constitution to ensure he can remain in power until 2036.
It’s also a well-known fact that since coming to power, oligarchy has become even more rife. After all, oligarchs were his greatest supporters when he initially took office amid the political chaos following the resignation of former President Boris Yeltsin.
In January 2000, William Safire (an American author, columnist, journalist, and presidential speechwriter) wrote a column in the New York Times under the headline, ‘Putinism Looms’, when Putin was acting president of Russia for just a month. What Safire observed was the politician’s tendency to create a ‘cult of personality’ and ‘suppress the truth’ for the ‘resurgence of Russian power.’
To political analysts, the invasion of Ukraine (described by Russia as a ‘special operation’) has been a huge shock. Who would have thought that the ‘Putinism’ in him would manifest itself in this way? Despite his growing obsession about the return of a mighty Russia, they believed his calculations and commitment to dominate the world’s economy wouldn’t allow him to make such a reckless move. They couldn’t have been more mistaken. This is yet another occasion when the world has misread Putin.
In fact, Russia’s attack on Ukraine wasn’t entirely surprising, considering its 2008 invasion of neighboring Georgia, described as a ‘peace enforcement’ operation. Moscow’s rationale for both attacks is the same – neutralize any ambition for NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) membership. In Putin’s eyes, Russia was justified in instigating the conflict as Ukraine’s potential membership of NATO would pose a threat to Russia’s security due to its strategically geographical location. He even challenged his opponent’s accusations about his lack of rationality, believing he is on the ‘right path.’
This ‘right path’ is obviously designed to restore Russia’s international clout, which explains the Kremlin’s past actions and rifts with its neighbors, from the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, and deployment of troops in Syria, to the ongoing feuds with Japan, The Philippines, and Vietnam over territorial and maritime borders.
Nobody knows exactly what has caused Putin’s obsessive ambition over these matters, but they are certain that the man was deeply humiliated with the downfall of the Soviet Union. In 1993, its economic collapse was so dire it needed urgent humanitarian aid and assistance from the West. The most telling sign of his intentions was when he stated that “the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” during his State of the Nation address to the country’s politicians and parliament in April 2005.
Christoph Heusgen, chief diplomatic adviser to Germany’s former Chancellor, Angela Merkel, between 2005-2017, remembers Putin’s first political manifesto was about reversing Western efforts to decentralize power to the private sector. While he isn’t a Marxist, he clearly believes a strong state poses no threat, compared to a free market.
Diplomats, senior government officials, and his Western counterparts agree that decades of absolute power have changed Putin from bad to worse. He has used his fifteen years’ service as a KGB spy, and talent for charming and lying, to maneuver his way to the top. Political insiders agree that the man, who usually looked stoic and menacing, is accomplished at adapting to his environment. Former US President George W. Bush described him as “very straightforward and trustworthy” after their first meeting in June 2001. In recent years, Putin has also carefully crafted an image of macho embodiment of conservative Orthodox Christianity with traditional values of family and morality.
An analysis in The New York Times, entitled The Making of Putin, quoted Condoleezza Rice, the former US Secretary of State, as saying, “I’ve seen Putin go from a little shy, to pretty shy, to arrogant, and now megalomaniacal. When I first met him, I had to lean in a little to understand what he was saying.”
For many, the 69-year-old’s audacity is seen as a strength that Russia needs for its future prosperity. Former US President Donald Trump, Italy’s former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, and President Rodrigo Duterte of The Philippines have all publicly praised his leadership style, saying it is decisive, swift, and clear. However, these leaders are known for their approval of ‘the cult of personality’ approach. Even Chinese President Xi Jinping is Putin’s public admirer, both known for their autocratic style. With China’s backing, the likelihood of Russia withdrawing is even more remote.
It doesn’t appear that the Ukraine-Russia conflict will end anytime soon, despite international sanctions and pressure. The rising casualty rate and death toll in Ukrainian cities don’t influence his mind either. For him, these are minor concerns compared to his grandiose ambitions for the Motherland, the largest country on Earth that stretches across 11 time zones.