Skip to main content

The Russian leader’s personal background and thirst for wealth offer clues to his state of mind - and the things he could do next – as his armies amass on Ukraine’s borders

Open this photo in gallery:

A demonstrator holds a picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin with the word 'murderer' at a rally in Kyiv on Jan. 8, after Russia's military activity along the Ukrainian border raised fears of a coming invasion.Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Amy Knight is the author of six books on Russian history and politics, including, most recently, Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder. She is currently working on a book about Vladimir Putin and Boris Berezovsky.

As the Biden administration and its Western allies decide how to respond next to Russia’s threatening military presence on the borders of Ukraine, it’s worth probing Vladimir Putin’s psyche. Is he a rational leader who grasps the realities of his country’s current standoff with the West? Does he fully understand what is happening within Russia and the world outside? Or is he operating under serious delusions?

This is not the first time the question of his rationality has come up. After a frustrating telephone call with Mr. Putin over Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told U.S. president Barack Obama that the Russian leader seemed out of touch with reality and was living “in another world.”

Jake Sullivan, now U.S. President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, recalled in a 2017 interview that, when he was an adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, both Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton tried “to dispel Putin’s paranoia” about NATO. But Mr. Putin misinterpreted just about everything they tried to convey to him. “The very effort of reassuring Putin that the United States was not up to something nefarious vis-à-vis Russia merely reinforced his view, because he saw it as a form of subterfuge to cover actions he viewed as antithetical to Russian interests.”

Mr. Putin’s paranoid distrust of the U.S. and NATO was on full display at his annual news conference in December, when he accused the West of trying to break the Russian Federation apart. It all began, he said, when the Soviet Union was dismantled: “In 1991, we divided into 12 states – and we did this ourselves. Still, it seems that this was not enough for our [Western] partners. They believe Russia is still too big today.”

Open this photo in gallery:

A Russian tank takes part in military drills at Molkino training ground in the southern Krasnodar region on Dec. 14.The Associated Press

The Kremlin’s unreasonable and unobtainable demands for guarantees that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO and that NATO troops and weapons will be removed from Eastern European member countries reflect Mr. Putin’s misguided conviction that states once belonging to the Soviet empire should still be under Russia’s sphere of influence.

Putin critic Gennady Gudkov, who served in the Russian parliament for 11 years, observed recently that Mr. Putin is “captivated by his own illusions. … He perceives the world, Russia, relations with countries in a completely different way from what they actually are. And it’s scary. It’s not funny when the leader of a great nuclear power is completely out of touch with reality.”

The problem is compounded, Mr. Gudkov said, by the fact that Mr. Putin is surrounded by yes men. He is told only what he wants to hear because, when his advisers have told him the truth, he has exploded in anger. And his main foreign policy consultants are allies from his KGB days, such as Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev, who is so bellicose toward the West that he has openly advocated for Russia’s military doctrine to include a pre-emptive nuclear strike option.

Mr. Putin and his Kremlin team are not motivated by the ideological convictions that propelled the KGB when the Soviet Union was at the height of its power. When Mr. Putin served in Dresden as a low-level KGB officer in the late 1980s, all he and his comrades cared about was getting their hands on Western goods. (One of Mr. Putin’s prize acquisitions was a Blaupunkt stereo for his car, pilfered for him by a German contact.)

An insatiable thirst for material gain has been the driving force behind Mr. Putin’s kleptocratic regime, which views democracies in bordering states as Western-inspired threats to its power and vast wealth.

Open this photo in gallery:

A customer at a Moscow souvenir shop holds a Russian doll of Vladimir Putin this past December.Pavel Golovkin/The Associated Press

Mr. Putin’s “geopolitical anxieties” also stem from his personal background.

Small in stature – about five-foot-six without his shoe lifts – he grew up in a rough Leningrad neighbourhood, where he had to defend himself against larger, tougher courtyard thugs. According to his biographers, he reacted by becoming a bully himself, lashing out against anyone who tried to humiliate him. Later, in an apparent effort to cultivate a macho image, he took up martial arts.

Ms. Merkel had an experience with him in 2007 that gave her a valuable insight. The Chancellor, whose fear of dogs is well known, was visiting Mr. Putin at his presidential residence in Sochi when he called for his large black Labrador retriever to be sent into the room and watched, grinning, as the dog went over to sniff the very frightened Ms. Merkel. Afterward, she explained the motive for the deliberately hostile act: “I understand why he has to do this – to prove he’s a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Mr. Putin strokes a Kyrgyz greyhound in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, in 2019.Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Mr. Putin’s sense of danger doesn’t stop with NATO or with democracies, such as Ukraine, that border Russia. He is so terrified of COVID-19 that journalists who attended his December news conference had to pass through specially constructed disinfection booths, where they were sprayed with silver particles, then forced to don protective masks that had been treated with an “antibacterial solution of nanosilver.” In October, 2021, Russian Olympic medalists had to spend a week in quarantine before meeting the President at a reception.

Russian democracy activist Alexey Navalny, confined to the gulag a year ago, apparently still causes Mr. Putin such anxiety that he will not even utter his name in public. Instead of facing up to the fact that Mr. Navalny had a genuine following, Mr. Putin chose to believe the crackpot theory that he was a secret CIA agent. But sanctioning a plot to have Mr. Navalny poisoned in August, 2020, by a bunch of bungling Federal Security Service (FSB) officers was an extreme reaction, given the consequences.

The stiff sanctions imposed by Western governments on Russian officials made the venture a costly one. Even Mr. Putin’s decision to imprison Mr. Navalny could backfire, as it has elevated him to the status of a hero who could at some point re-emerge on the national scene.

Open this photo in gallery:

Protesters march in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny in downtown Moscow in January of last year. The placard with an image of the Kremlin critic reads, 'Freedom to Navalny!'KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

Mr. Putin has in the past been successful in directing Russians’ discontent with their dismal economic plight toward the West, prompting fear and hostility. Thanks to incessant propaganda on state-sponsored television, many Russians have accepted the idea that Russia’s woes can be blamed on foreign powers bent on undermining or even destroying their country and approve of Mr. Putin’s macho nationalism.

This strategy worked when Mr. Putin, the little-known FSB chief, was appointed prime minister – and designated heir to the presidency – by the highly unpopular Boris Yeltsin in August, 1999. After declaring without evidence that Chechen terrorists backed by Osama bin Laden were behind apartment bombings that killed more than 300 people, Mr. Putin launched a cruel and senseless war in Chechnya that saw his popularity skyrocket.

In 2014, when his approval ratings were especially low because the economy was doing poorly, Russia’s seizure of Crimea led Russians to rally around their leader, pushing his ratings up 20 per cent.

But it hardly makes sense for the Kremlin to be following this playbook again by threatening a conflict with the West over Ukraine.

The presence of almost 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border has already served to draw NATO countries closer together and motivated them to send much-needed military equipment to Ukraine. If Russian troops were to actually invade Ukraine, it would not be a bloodless operation, as it was in Crimea, even though the Russian military would prevail. The Kremlin would be hard put to justify the loss of Russian lives to its public.

Then, of course, there would be even more crushing economic sanctions from the West, which would further harm the Russian economy. Worried about rising prices, stagnant wages and high unemployment, Russians are getting tired of confrontations with the outside world. A poll in October by Russia’s Levada Center found that two-thirds of Russians want Russia to be first of all “a country with a high standard of living, even if not one of the most powerful countries in the world.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Vladimir Putin attends a virtual conference with government ministers in Moscow.Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS

None of this seems to matter to the Russian President. Holed up in the Kremlin and isolated from his people, he feels besieged. In his mind, he will always be the undersized kid in a Leningrad playground, surrounded by tough punks, or the hapless KGB operative in Dresden, shuffling papers and scouring for Western goods while KGB officers of higher ranks hunted foreign spies. As Ms. Merkel observed, Mr. Putin will always have to prove himself. And, unfortunately for the West, that means he will continue to be a bully, shielding his personal insecurities behind unrealistic demands and threats.

Even worse, as Russian political commentator Andrei Piontkovsky pointed out this week, there are no constraints on Mr. Putin, as there were in 1962 when Nikita Khrushchev had to consult with other Politburo members during the Cuban missile crisis. Mr. Putin’s most trusted advisers see things the same way he does: “They pathologically hate the West with the hatred of the nouveau riche who feel like parvenu despite all their castles, palaces, harems, yachts, gas networks and nuclear warheads.” And they yearn for a chance to take revenge for the demise of the Soviet Union.

But Mr. Putin and his clan also have a strong instinct for self-preservation. If NATO governments stand firm on threatened sanctions and continue to provide Kyiv with crucial weaponry, it is always possible that the Kremlin will back down and confirm what it has been saying all along – that Russia is only conducting military exercises. After all, the narcissistic Mr. Putin has already achieved one of his main goals: placing himself back in the centre of the world stage.

Russia’s Ukrainian standoff: More from The Globe and Mail

The Decibel

Hope for a peaceful solution to Russia and Ukraine’s standoff is fading fast, senior international correspondent Mark MacKinnon tells The Globe and Mail’s news podcast from Kyiv. Subscribe for more episodes.

The Globe in Ukraine

Ukraine urges Canada to provide military supplies to defend against Russian aggression

Activists in Ukraine scour the internet to track Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military manoeuvres

‘War is already here’: On the Russian border, Ukrainian troops wait for Putin’s big push


David Collenette and Hugh Segal: On Ukraine, let’s not forget what history teaches us about appeasement

Robert Rotberg: Biden’s timidity is only emboldening Russia

Nina L. Khrushcheva: Putin’s adventures ignore a historical truth: empire comes at a cost

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe