BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — For some, he’s the man without a face. For others, he has too many. He’s a thug, a killer, a statesman, a dude. He’s widely admired and even more widely reviled.
One thing is certain: Russian President Vladimir Putin is not an easy man to fit into clear categories. Rather, he is a human Rorschach blot into which the observer projects a revealing chunk of his or her own worldview.
Since Ukraine erupted last fall, with rioters eventually toppling the country’s pro-Moscow president and Russia moving to secure Crimea, a lot of time and energy has been devoted to plumbing the supposed depths of Putin’s psyche. Every armchair strategist worth his or her salt has a theory about why the king of the Kremlin is behaving in such a brazen, bizarre or bemusing fashion.
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Amateur shrinks have tied Putin’s behavior to his diminutive stature — by some accounts he’s only 5 feet 5 inches tall, others say he is 5 foot 7, but since he supposedly wears lifts in his shoes it’s difficult to tell.
What’s beyond doubt is that photos of Putin with the ousted president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, who is 6 foot 4, have uncomfortable “mini-me” associations.
This led one web forum on Ukraine to ponder the age-old question: “Does Putin's short height help explain Russia's aggressiveness toward Georgia and Ukraine where the leaders are much taller?”
Mainstream media outlets have been more reserved, but the recent rash of analyses comparing Putin to Napoleon are surely not accidental. The French general was well known for his small stature, and has given his name to a complex whereby a male overcompensates for lack of height by bouts of aggressive behavior.
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Much more serious, if a bit less fun, is the detailed dissection of Putin’s psyche by Russia specialists Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy of Washington, DC’s Brookings Institution.
Their book, “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” attempts to divvy up the Russian leader’s personality into multiple facets.
In so doing, Hill says, the duo hopes to provide a guide for US policymakers on how to deal with Moscow.
“No one in Washington really knows what to make of Russia's famously immodest and opaque leader … He is a man from nowhere, who can appear to be anything to anybody,” Hill and Gaddy wrote in a piece for Foreign Policy magazine, tellingly titled “Putin’s Personality Disorder.”
Putin’s life experiences — growing up in postwar Leningrad, to parents who had weathered the horrors of the siege, becoming fascinated with the secret service and eventually making his way to Moscow and the heights of power — have given him six distinct facets, they say. These are: Statist, History Man, Survivalist, Outsider, Free Marketeer, and Case Officer.
Taken together, they boil down to a man committed to returning Russia to former greatness through intimidation and manipulation, preparing for worst-case scenarios through self-reliance and the tough-guy stunts that have so caught the popular imagination.
Photos and videos of Putin guiding young Siberian cranes on their migration, frolicking with tigers, and riding bare-chested in Tuva have given him cachet as a real “muzhik” — a manly man — at home while making him the butt of jokes abroad.
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TV comedy-newsman Jon Stewart regaled viewers with tales of Putin’s Crimea venture, which he called “blatant, naked aggression … or at the very least, disturbingly shirtless aggression,” while blasting conservatives for falling prey to Putin’s propaganda.
“Who would be fooled by this guy’s bullshit?” he asked.
Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin sounded almost wistful when comparing Russia’s president to America’s.
“Lookit, people are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil,” Palin told Fox News’ Sean Hannity. “They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.”
The tiger stunt was carefully arranged, however. Journalist and author Masha Gessen, who lost her job as a magazine editor for refusing to cover Putin’s animal antics, interviewed the president after she was sacked.
Putin readily admitted that his stunts were staged.
“Sure, the leopard had been sedated,” he said. “But what’s important is that I was the one who came up with the whole leopards project! And the tigers.”
Gessen has written her own book on Putin: “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin,” which portrays him as a monster: “emotionless and cruel, so clear and so merciless, so corrupt and so utterly void of remorse.”
David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker and a Russia specialist, gave a slightly more sympathetic portrayal of Putin in the magazine’s March 3 edition.
“Amid all the brutality and corruption of his regime, his historical mission has been to assert himself as the country’s singular, irreplaceable leader and to reclaim Russia’s globe-bestriding status. In Putin’s eyes, Russia had allowed the West to humiliate it, by expanding NATO to its frontiers, by luring former Soviet republics — especially Ukraine — westward … and as the self-proclaimed power in a unipolar world, by dancing in the end zone at every opportunity.”
Remnick echoes Stephen Cohen, the renowned Russia expert who’s been making the rounds poking holes in the general narrative of Putin and Russia. Like Remnick, Cohen sees Putin as a patriot, trying not so much to remake the Soviet empire as to restore luster to a once-great country.
“[Putin’s] not a neo-Soviet imperialist who’s trying to recreate the Soviet Union; he’s not even anti-American,” Cohen told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “What he is is intensely, historically pro-Russian. His mission, as he sees it, is to restore Russia from the disaster of 1991, the collapse of the Russian state. He did not create this Ukrainian crisis; it was imposed on him, and he had no choice but to react.”
This is not a popular view in the halls of power, where Putin enjoys a short and not very sweet sobriquet.
“He’s a thug,” says House Speaker John Boehner.
Whatever he is, the world had better figure it out, and soon. If, as Sun Tzu said more than 2,500 years ago, the first rule of war is to know your enemy, the West is already pretty far behind.
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