What happened to Vladimir Putin?
Juliet Kaarbo investigates the psychology behind the Russian president’s decision to invade Ukraine
Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine — surprising to many Russia-watchers, dangerous and risky to most observers, and condemned by a broad range of international actors — has prompted many questions, including: Why did Putin choose this option? And why now?
Prominent answers focus on the perceived threat of NATO expansion to Russian security, Putin’s need to look strong to domestic audiences, and the evolution of Russia’s ‘near abroad’ policies. But given Putin’s dominance in Russian foreign policy decision-making, attention has also turned to Putin himself — his interpretations, his psychology and his particularities.
Here I consider the role of Putin’s personality in the invasion of Ukraine — specifically, how his personality may have developed over time to influence this risky, aggressive behaviour. Previous research on Putin has demonstrated an opportunist and pragmatic personality, at least on most issues, with beliefs more similar to ‘mainstream’ than ‘rogue’ leaders. But many have noted that Putin has changed in recent years, that he is somehow ‘off’. Indeed, the relative pragmatism that once characterized Putin’s foreign policy choices appears to have evaporated in light of the ongoing invasion.
New directions for leader personality research: breaking bad in foreign policy
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Why might Putin have changed?
Research indicates that some long serving leaders may be at risk of ‘breaking bad’ — of becoming more authoritarian in their leadership style, more distrustful, more risk-prone, more intoxicated by power and more isolated. In my recent IA article, I highlighted four psychological reasons behind changes in leaders’ personalities over time. I believe these reasons may indeed apply to Putin, who has been in power for over 20 years.
1) Age. Research suggests that, as leaders get older and spend more time in power, the likelihood that age may have significant psychological effects on them increases. These effects can include shorter time horizons, medical conditions that inhibit cognitive processes, a heightened awareness of mortality which may enhance motivations to leave a grand legacy, and efforts by advisors to ‘protect’ an aging or ill leader through increased insularity. There has been speculation that Putin has experienced significant covid-related isolation which has led him to depend on a shrinking circle of advisors. This has elicited accusations of paranoia and has not gone unnoticed by outsiders. French President Macron has recently stated that compared to December 2019, Putin in 2022 was ‘more rigid, more isolated’ and more ideological. If true, research on previous leaders suggests that his decision to invade Ukraine may indeed have been influenced by a desire to cement his place in history, age-related rigidity in thinking, impairment in planning and high emotionality.
2) Experience. While experience has its benefits, more time in office can transform leaders from novice ‘foxes’ to experienced ‘hedgehogs’ who may overestimate the importance of their experience. Long-serving leaders are more likely to interpret new information through their own beliefs, and less likely to seek advice from others. With more than twenty years of rule, Putin is a seasoned foreign policy decision-maker and may have changed, over time, from arbiter between different perspectives to an advocate of his own preferences. This more ‘top-down’ way of processing information and more advocacy-based style of leadership may have narrowed the advice he received and limited the options he considered when deciding to invade Ukraine.
3) Change in beliefs. Over time, leaders’ beliefs about the world do change, partly in response to events during their tenure. This change is often in a particular direction: seeing the world in more conflictual and simplistic terms and believing it is easier to control. These changes can lead decision-makers to prefer more conflictual, risky and aggressive policies. A study by Dyson and Parent showed that Putin’s beliefs about NATO, the EU and Ukraine became much more hostile after the 2014 invasion of Ukraine. These changes in Putin’s beliefs over time would have affected his perceptions of threats and his calculations for war in 2022.
4) Power effects. Numerous studies in psychology, politics and philosophy confirm the adage ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’. A position of power increases individuals’ self-confidence, hubris, their motivation to dominate others and their sense of superiority, while reducing their ability to empathise with others. The longer the leader is in power, the more these effects influence policy choices. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine may have come from a growing confidence in past ‘successes’, or at least in decisions that went well enough to keep him in power. As a result, he may have experienced over-confidence in his ability to swiftly control Ukraine, a lack of empathy to anticipate others’ reactions, and a strong need to exert power over others.
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These four mutually reinforcing ways in which leaders’ personalities change over time are based on robust research on leaders in diverse settings. They are powerful micro-foundations that help explain the tendencies for leaders to ‘break bad’. Not all leaders exhibit these changes, of course, (some leaders may ‘break good’), but many seem to be affected, at the psychological level, in these ways over time. Russia’s choice to invade Ukraine in 2022 was undoubtedly shaped by a number of factors, but given Putin’s concentrated power, it is crucial to understand his state-of-mind and how it may have changed as a result of his long tenure.
Juliet Kaarbo is a Professor of Foreign Policy at the University of Edinburgh.
Her article ‘New directions for leader personality research: breaking bad in foreign policy’ was published in the March 2021 issue of International Affairs.
All views expressed are individual not institutional.