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(Photo: Abode of Chaos/Flickr)

How Putin’s Image Obsession Helps Explain the Situation in Ukraine

• March 11, 2014 • 12:14 PM

(Photo: Abode of Chaos/Flickr)

While the crisis in Crimea might seem anything but rational, when you look at it through the lens of Putin’s past actions, it starts to make some sense.

Angel Merkel said Vladimir Putin was “in another world,” while Hillary Clinton likened him to a little historical sociopath named “Adolf Hitler.” He recently gave a press conference that has been called “strange,” “rambling,” an indicator that he’d “lost his mind,” and a coming out party for the “world’s largest troll.” He rides—or at least “has ridden”—a horse without his shirt on. He’s staged a Winter Olympics in a place with palm trees. He’s turned life for homosexuals into a rough equivalent of what it was like to be a witch in colonial Massachusetts. And he’s just generally done so many things that make a Westerner wonder just what the hell is going on.

Now, Russian troops are in Ukraine, as you surely know. (Go read about it here, if you’ve been in outer space for the past two weeks.) And, with the uncertainty of a massive nation camping its troops inside a divided and unstable one, there’s still the question of: “Why is he doing this?” Sure, there are the obvious and immediate answers for why Russian influence over Ukraine is important to Russia, but there’s still no obvious answer for why the largest nation in the world thinks the way to achieve that in the year 2014 is by doing something so seemingly reckless. In other words: you can’t just take over another country on a whim anymore, man.

Well, as Steven Ward wrote at The Monkey Cage yesterday, one explanation is “status.” While it’s maybe difficult to comprehend, could Putin be doing all this in an effort to achieve some kind of intangible self-image of Russia both within its borders and abroad? And honestly, would you put it past this guy? To get some more insight, I spoke to Thomas Lindemann a political science professor at Artois University in France and an author of multiple books on “image” in global politics.

You’ve done a lot of work with regard to the ideas of “image” and “reputation” in international relations. Pursuits of these things often trump more rational-seeming concerns like, say, the economy or national security. Is there any actual, somewhat tangible value in the leaders of nations pursuing a certain kind of image, especially when it leads to losses in other areas? Or is it often just a mistake?

“He displays himself like a Russian James Bond who can handle terrorists and disrespectful Western countries. As a former apparatchik, his ‘virile outlook’ seems to me quite calculated in order to secure domestic support.”

It is often presumed that the quest for a positive self-image from a leader and its state is somewhat “irrational.” Indeed the will to preserve a positive self-image can be linked to basic human needs such as the conservation of self-esteem. We all know that we will feel shame or anger if we believe that others are slighting us. Especially domestic audiences are sensible to emotional and moral aspects of international politics because state symbols are associated to the idea of self-determination and “collective interest” and are therefore invested with affectivity. As for political decision makers, their actions are obviously often linked to “strategic” considerations such as reelection and domestic legitimacy. Thus, a “positive self-image” in domestic audiences can be essential for political domestic survival. It is possible that decision makers accept strategic and economic losses for their nation in order to preserve a hubristic national narrative such as the leaders of North Korea when they provoke the Western world with their nuclear tests.

Is there a certain kind of psychology or profile that tends to cause leaders to make decisions based on the way it makes them/their country look?

It is possible that narcissistic personalities such as Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi are more sensible to symbolic gains (in terms of confirmation of an inflated and grandiose self-image) than to material gains. However, I would insist on the fact that it is not human psychology but the political system and its type of legitimacy, which determines whether decisions are made on the basis of the confirmation of “hubristic” self images often implying risk taking behavior in order to confirm charismatic legitimacy.

How does Vladimir Putin fit in to this? And is there anything unique about him when compared to some of the research and writing you’ve done?

Putin is a leader who fits a “virile” type of charismatic legitimacy. He displays himself like a Russian James Bond who can handle terrorists and disrespectful Western countries. As a former apparatchik, his “virile outlook” seems to me quite calculated in order to secure domestic support. Unlike Gaddafi and Hussein, he seems able to make compromises if necessary for his political survival.

How much do you think his desire to project/create a certain image of Russia plays into the crisis in Ukraine?

This symbolic motivation is absolutely crucial in his decisions because we all know that the occupation of Crimea is economically costly. (It is a quite poor area and Russia is clearly risking Western sanctions.) Russia’s political authorities have at least two problems. First of all, there is the protector narrative of ethnic Russians. It is difficult to stay insensible to appeals of help of its own minority. (Think even of Western countries such as France intervening in Côte d’Ivoire in order to protect their “citizens.”) Secondly, there is the more general problem of Russia’s standing in the world. Russia is marginalized in Europe (even its former republics belong now to the NATO) and not fully integrated in international institutions. Such a position is always explosive for a great power. (The most extreme cases are Germany’s and the Soviet Union’s exclusion from the League of Nations.)

If much of this, then, is about creating an image of Russia, how should that affect the way we look at the situation in Ukraine? Does it make things seem even more volatile? And as an outsider, is it even possible to take a rational look at things when one side is motivated by such concerns?

The main consequence of this analysis is that we should empathize more with Russia and be sensible to their narrative dilemma: It is impossible for them to drop Crimea without loosing the “protector role” identity and its links to legitimacy. It would be rational to take into concern the emotional aspects of this crisis and to start with a politics of recognition based on the respect of cultural identity and equality of rights especially directed toward the Russian minority in Ukraine. The main challenge to preserve peace is the preservation of the other faces, and a policy of deterrence or threats is totally unadapted to Putin’s self-presentation of Russia as a virile great power.

Ryan O'Hanlon
Senior Digital Editor Ryan O’Hanlon joined Pacific Standard from Outside, where he was an assistant online editor. He is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, and his writing has appeared in Deadspin, Grantland, The Awl, New York, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @rwohan.

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