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Understanding The Mind of Vladimir Putin

Updated on January 1, 2015

Russian President

Photo of Vladimir Putin
Photo of Vladimir Putin | Source

Political Psychology: Introduction

"Political psychology is an interdisciplinary academic field dedicated to understanding politics, politicians and political behavior from a psychological perspective," (Wikipedia).

Three concepts that are essential to understanding the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and the future of the Russian federation’s national security initiatives are personality traits, operational codes and his use of legitimate power. Grasping these three concepts will assist the United States to understand his actions and behaviors as a leader and help predict what he is capable of.

Personality Traits

Personality traits are characteristics of a person that remain constant over time and through various situations. Personality traits produce various thoughts, feelings, and actions in a specific pattern “toward people, events, and situations” (Cottam 2010, 19). These characteristics are key to understanding how individuals react to their surrounding environment (2010, 19). Vladimir Putin exhibits profound leadership characteristics that resemble fear of weakness, aggression, lack of emotion, determination and controlling type qualities, which contribute to his decision making abilities and behavior as political figure.

These qualities tend to impact his thoughts, feelings, and reactions in the pursuit of his political agenda, which is reverting Russia back to its communist past. In 2000, Putin described himself as “aggressive, vengeful and has a lot of trouble controlling his temper” (National Public Radio 2012). His vengeful and aggressive nature has encouraged him to attack his “political rivals and independent journalists, making it nearly impossible for opposing platforms to compete in the elections (National Public Radio 2012). His determination and fear of weakness was highlighted in October 2003, with the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovskiy who publicly criticized Putin’s behavior and financed anti-Putin political parties.

The politically motivated arrest aimed to set an example for the rest of the Russian population, noting his fear of weakness and need to control the situation (Nichol 2011, 4). Sergei Kovalev, a psychologist who specializes in profiling politicians stated once Putin becomes determined on a course of action he wont let anyone stand in his way (Bush 2005). His personality traits coupled with analysis from his past actions can help the U.S. national security establishment to learn, predict, and understand his behavior and reactions to his surrounding environment.

Political Career of Vladimir Putin

Operational Codes

Another important concept to deciphering Vladimir Putin’s behavior toward national security are his operational codes. An operational code is a network, which represents “the overall belief system of leaders about the world”, and are the basic issues regarding “politics and political action” (Cottam 2010, 32). Operational codes can be defined by understanding a leader’s philosophical beliefs and instrumental beliefs. Defining Putin’s philosophical and instrumental beliefs can help predict his behavioral patterns and assist national security experts to understand his national security goals. Dyson’s (2001) analysis of Putin’s operational codes revealed that he believes in the need to choose goals that are “achievable and measureable,” allowing for a systematic approach towards a goal (Cottam 2010, 33).

The findings suggest he mirrors his surrounding environment and is unlikely to follow the rules if another person is allowed to deviate. He prefers to maintain flexibility and freedom of maneuver to remain his plausible deniability, unless a “clear success” takes place, promoting his political image (Cottam 2010, 33). U.S. policymakers can use his operational codes to understand his decision making process and provide insight into his political outlook on Russia’s national security policy (Cottam 2010, 32). Vladimir Putin is known for his contradictions and not following the rules when the outcome will benefit him. For example, he emphasizes the need for law and order, but in certain cases such as the Chechnya insurgency and the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, he believes in the rights of the government rather than individual rights (Sakwa 885). He continues to thrive on his dual agenda, leaving him enough room to maneuver freely without any restrictions in the political arena.

Political Psychology
Political Psychology | Source

Legitimate Power

Another central component to understanding Vladimir Putin is his use of legitimate power to achieve his political goals and objectives. Legitimate power is defined as someone with the “right, by virtue of their position, to require compliance” (Cottam 2010, 76). Putin has the ability to leverage and exercise his power due to his political position within the Russian Federation. Putin is running for the Russian presidency and under the new law, he would be elected for six years. The power of this position will entitle him to legitimate power due to the fact that he holds “more than 50 percent of the seats, and there is no other way that Putin can be removed” (Radzikhovsky, 2012).

His legitimate power tactics have been used to promote his agenda and political outlook, balancing “positive logic…with a negative dynamic” (Sakwa 2008, 886). For example, he used his past presidency to develop a more effective party system; aiming to establish a smaller amount of parties. However, he set strict limitations on the “type of parties allowed,” set high entry fees, ensured tedious registration processes, and micro-managed the election process, which undermined the purpose of the development of the party system (Sakwa 2008, 886). He used his power to ensure rival parties would not pose a threat to his regime. Vladimir’s position granted him legitimate power and provided him with an unparalleled type of support from his constituents.



Putin's National Security Plan

Understanding the personality traits, operational codes, and use of legitimate power that make up Vladimir Putin and his direction for national security policy will help provide further understanding into Russia’s national security objectives in the next five years. Russia’s national security strategy through 2020 is pursing “an equal relationship with the United States” regarding the “progress in nuclear disarmament” (Russia, 2010). Russia’s national defense heavily relies on their nuclear technology to maintain its image as a major regional power and to “guarantee its national security” (Russia, 2010). The United States and Russia agreed to the reduction of nuclear weapons, which was outlined in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The U.S. government is pursuing a “world free of nuclear weapons” whereas Russia remains skeptical of the feasibility and the undercutting of power.

The Russian armed forces are concerned with the balance of power between them and other nations, that Russia would lose second strike capability, and obtaining nuclear weapons “compensates for Russia’s inferior conventional capabilities” (Russia, 2010). Putin’s fear of weakness coupled with his operational codes exemplifies Russia’s inability to lower the nuclear weapon count below 1500, due to the perceived shift in power toward another nation. (Russia, 2010). In the next five years, the Russian Federation’s national security strategy will focus on national and state security, improving living conditions, establishing unwavering international cooperation, and economic development (Liaropoulos 2010). The Russian Federation plans to restructure and remodel their armed forces in an effort to transform to a modernized army that can bring stability to the region. To secure the Russian Federation, Moscow is moving towards conventional means rather than unconventional by emplacing a stronger military presence along its borders to prevent “regional conflicts and illegal trafficking” (Liaropoulos 2010). This shift in conventional warfare will assist in nuclear disarmament and potential equality with the United States, aiming to rid the world of nuclear weapons (Liaropoulos 2010).

Despite U.S.-Russia tension, the Russian federation is realizing that to sustain national security, they will have to accept international partners and move toward a multilateral approach to combat transnational global threats. The national security strategy highlights the importance for “global collaboration and openness” with Europe, China, India and the United states to achieve their national security objectives (Liaropoulos 2010).


Bush, Jason. Deciphering Putin. Bloomberg Businessweek. February 28, 2005.

Liaropoulos, Sophia. Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020: A Great Power in the Making? Caucasian Review of International Affairs 4 no. 1 (2010) 35-42.

National Public Radio. Masha Gessen: How Vladimir Putin Rose to Power. Philadelphia. March 1, 2012.

Nichol, Jim. Russian Political, Economic, and Security Issues and U.S. Interests. Congressional Research Service. November 4, 2011.

Russia-Formulation of a New National Security Strategy. East Asian Strategic Review. 2010.

Sakwa, Richard. Putin’s Leadership: Character and Consequences. Europe-Asia Studies 60 no. 6 (2008) 879-897.


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    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 12 months ago from Philippines

      Very interesting article. Highly informative, and compellingly written from start to finish.

    • pramodgokhale profile image

      pramodgokhale 3 years ago from Pune( India)


      Putin is not communist and a crude dictator. Russia is India's friendly country but not now as she was during communist regimes. Putin is for national interests of Russia and nothing more. While dealing with India he acted very tough in negotiating defense deals, Aircraft carrier deal, he wrested 2$ Billion instead 1 $ billion from India.

      Russia and society is not open book like US and for India it is difficult to deal with this dictator.Yes, Russia has material and resources so in this century they would bargain with importing nations.

      This article is top quality study material in brief and your writing gave in depth view of global political scenario.

      Expecting more issues.


    • Romanian profile image

      Nicu 3 years ago from Oradea, Romania

      Let's hope everything it's all right with Putin's mind and he won't start a war.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Very interesting and complex Hub, Jill. I hope you are right about the Russian federation. Putin's aggressiveness and arrogance are quite troubling. I hope you are right and he is rational enough not to do anything foolhardy that will lead to a catastrophic war.

    • Dr Billy Kidd profile image

      Dr Billy Kidd 3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      That was a very interesting way of analyzing political motivations.

      Putin's character is built on control and retaliation--agreed.

      He does have those who disagree with him assassinated, particularly journalists, or jailed. He has had people killed living as far away as London, as well as attempting to take the life of a Ukrainian president (pre-election).

      So, one might think of him as a murderer, who enjoys killing. Putin installed another person who enjoys killing to be the prime minister in the Republic of Chechnya. That was after Putin leveled the populated capitol with bombs.

      It's interesting that this has given Putin legitimacy in Russia, as you noted, because so many Russians are nationalists--who particularly relish his nationalizing the Crimea by force.

      So, Putin sees the world as a game where those who are not afraid of exercising force win out over others. He's alliances are only those of convenience. He will upgrade Russia's nuclear force, not dismantle anything but older missiles. And now he has declared NATO to be the biggest threat to peace! His people love it and his ruthless character.