What Is Inside Putin’s Head?
“Once I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me…Now the rat was chasing me.”
On February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his military to invade Ukraine. The illegal and ruthless attack is dominating global attention. It is also raising pressing questions about Putin’s leadership, goals, and judgment.
Who is Vladimir Putin? Although the question has never been fully answered, Putin’s personality and outlook have been shaped by the merger of powerful personal experiences and historic events. Taken together they help explain his improbable rise from the streets of war-torn Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to the pinnacle of power in Moscow.
The Cornered Rat in Leningrad
Putin was born in 1952 in Leningrad. His parents barely survived the brutal Nazi siege of the city. The Putin family lived in a small 215 square foot room inside a communal building with a makeshift toilet in the stairwell. Putin called this place home until he was 25 years old.
Putin faced a constant battle for survival. He later recalled using a stick to chase rats around his dismal apartment building: “Once I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me…Now the rat was chasing me.”
This vivid incident shaped Putin’s outlook on life and war. He concluded that if cornered and there is nowhere to retreat, he must always be prepared to “fight to the finish” and attack his opponent like the cornered rat from his childhood.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall
Putin’s difficult childhood produced a fighter and a bully. The next phase in his life as a KGB agent stationed in East Germany convinced Putin that power is the key to success.
In 1975, Putin graduated Leningrad University and became an agent for the KGB, the Soviet Union’s feared security agency. Posted in Dresden, East Germany, he watched with growing alarm as protests in East Berlin signaled the collapse of Soviet authority in East Europe. While the world celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 as a triumph of democracy, Putin viewed it as a humiliating disaster.
From Putin’s point of view, Russia’s geopolitical position became even worse when the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991. This historic event seemed to vindicate America’s Cold War policy of containing Soviet expansion and influence. President Bush envisioned a “new world order” where American leadership would promote democracy and economic growth. But Putin did not share Bush’s vision. He later described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Humiliated by the unraveling of the Soviet Union, Putin vowed to restore Russia’s position of power in the world.
The New Russian Czar
Putin returned to Leningrad and became involved in politics in the city now renamed St. Petersburg. While Putin’s political career steadily rose, Russia experienced a tumultuous decade of inflation and economic collapse. “I had the feeling,” Putin later recalled, “that the country was no more. It had disappeared…I wanted something different to rise in its place.”
Putin soon had an opportunity to achieve his goal. Russian president Boris Yeltsin viewed him as a loyal, energetic, and strong leader. On December 31. 1999, Yeltsin unexpectedly announced his resignation and appointed Putin as acting president of Russia.
Putin now held the reins of Russian power. He quickly consolidated his position by making himself synonymous with the Russian state. He revived a historic narrative of Russian glory that began with the 10th century rule of Prince Vladimir, founder of Kievan Russ, and ended with his own position as a new 21st century Vladimir.
Convinced that the United States wanted “to push us back into a corner,” Putin rebuilt the Russian military. As a new and all-powerful Russian czar, Putin expanded Russian influence by intervening in the Syrian civil war and by seizing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. When the United States offered only token opposition, Putin cast covetous eyes on resource-rich Ukraine.
The New Cold War
Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine represents a blatant attempt to redraw the map of Europe. Horrific images of death and destruction from Bucha and Mariupol demonstrate how far he is willing to go to reclaim Russia’s lost glory. But fierce Ukrainian resistance has thus far thwarted Putin’s plan. He may feel that like the rat in his childhood story, he is cornered with nowhere to retreat. Determined to finish every fight, Putin may turn to chemical, biological, and even tactical nuclear weapons. In recent testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, General Mark Milley warned, “We are entering a world that is becoming more unstable and the potential for significant conflict between great powers is increasing, not decreasing.”
FOR FURTHER DISCUSSION AND WRITING
- Explain how the “cornered-rat incident” affected Putin’s view of war.
- Given Putin’s mind set, do you think a negotiated settlement of the Ukraine War is possible?
- “The potential for significant conflict between great powers is increasing, not decreasing.” – Do you agree or disagree with General Milley’s assessment? Explain your answer.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
Today’s Commentary drew upon insights and information from the following sources: “Putin’s Personality Disorder,” by Clifford Gaddy and Fiona Hill; “Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin” by Michel Eltchaninoff; “How Putin’s rat-infested childhood shaped his philosophy of war,” by Rebeka Koffler; and The Man Without a Face, by Masha Gessen.
Author · Instructor