We keep trying to understand Putin. Why do we keep getting him wrong? -WP

Here are a couple of articles trying to explain Russian foreign policy in terms of Vladimir Putin’s personality because, as the first article puts it, “how hyper-personalized his government is”. This article laments our poor understanding of Vladimir Putin, and highlights some of the problems associated with focusing on personality and the individual level of analysis:

“There’s no world leader as over-analyzed as Vladimir Putin. Just last week, we learned of a 2008 Pentagon study that concluded the Russian president’s “neurological development was significantly interrupted in infancy” and that Putin probably had Asperger’s syndrome. He’s also been called a narcissist, diagnosed with “pleonexia” (the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others), and simply been accused of being a “thug.””

The alternative it suggests, which focuses on Putin’s world view, also sounds a bit simple:
“Putin’s frame of reference for how the world works is totally different to ours. He lives in a different world”. But there is a little more nuance to it, suggesting the roots of his world view can be found in Russia’s historical experience rather than Putin’s early childhood or a neurological disorder.

The second article, entitles “The Accidental Autocrat”, is more detailed, arguing: “Understanding Putin requires exploring three core aspects of his political and personal character: the fighter, the Chekist, and the believer. These roughly correspond to Putin’s instincts, his professional training and methods, and his religious and patriotic convictions. The parts may seem not to fit, but that is often the case with Russia’s rulers. (After all, Stalin, the “Red Czar,” was trained in a Georgian seminary.) Putin is best understood not as a divided character but as an integrated if complicated one: the Russian in the Kremlin.”


When reading either or both of these articles, you should keep a couple of questions in mind: First, how much of Putin’s personality as it is reported is manufactured for consumption. Secondly, even if Putin’s persona is entirely genuine, did political conditions in effect ‘select’ that type of leader. That is to say, if Putin had not come to power, the way Russian politics have been working, someone else exactly like him would have. Finally, how much autonomy does Putin have as a decision maker? Is he constrained by state institutions (probably not), powerful constituencies and/or political opponents, or public opinion? Ultimately, Putin may actually have a great deal of autonomy, but you should always ask yourself this question before you accept that the individual is the key to the decision-making process.