March 16, 2018

Vladimir Putin’s Multiple Identities

Russian President Vladimir Putin is best understood as a composite of several multiple identities that stem from his life experiences, and which help explain his improbable rise from KGB operative and deputy mayor of St. Petersburg to the pinnacle of Russian power. Of these multiple identities, six are most prominent: Statist, History Man, Survivalist, Outsider, Free Marketeer, and Case Officer. None of the single-word labels people usually attach to Putin — KGB thug, kleptocrat, autocrat — offer a satisfactory explanation for the phenomenon of his rule. It is the combination of all his identities that made Putin an effective behind-the-scenes operator in Russian politics and helped propel him into the Kremlin. Today, however, these identities have become a source of weakness. The country has changed since 1999; Putin has not.

StoneMoss Group will explain the “Putin Psyche” by explaining him through six different “identities” – divided into two groups. The first group includes identities labelled “Statist,” “History Man,” and “Survivalist.” These are labels that reflect the views and values of many ordinary Russians.

Putin’s statist persona appeals to the Russian political tradition of the strong state and allows Putin to portray himself as a figure above the political fray, “selected…to serve the country on a permanent basis and believing only in the state itself.” Similarly, Putin in his “history man” identity makes appeals to Russia’s heritage and Russians’ sense of the country’s greatness to build support for his policies. In his Survivalist mode, he reminds the country that “Russia constantly battles for survival against a hostile outside world…Russia is always put to the test by God, fate, or history” and so must always be prepared for the worst.

Putin’s rise to the Russian presidency in 1999-2000 was partially the result of an elite consensus about the importance of restoring order to the state after a decade of domestic crisis and international humiliation. Reflecting the national mood, Putin used one of his first major political statements — his so-called “Millennium Message” of December 29, 1999 — to present himself as a statist. In Russia, individuals exist to serve the state and their rights are therefore secondary. From his earliest days in the Kremlin, Putin has pursued the goal of restoring and strengthening the state — by rediscovering and taking back Russia’s fundamental values, re-energizing its historical traditions, and abandoning the practice of blindly copying abstract Western models. He has stressed communitarianism over Western individualism, promoted the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church, and drawn direct links between the modern Russian presidency and the pre-Revolutionary Russian tsars.

In Russian political culture, each of these identities reinforces the others. Putin draws on them as needed to gain the support of various constituencies for his centralized and authoritarian economic and sociopolitical domestic policies, and his neo-imperialist, strong anti-American positions abroad. Overall, Putin is a very clever politician.


In the second set of identities, we examine Putin as an “outsider,” “Free Marketer,” and “Case Officer.” The idea of Putin as an outsider may be the most intriguing. In the  CIA’s view, Putin has been an outsider during every phase of his life – as a native Leningrader in a country run from Moscow, as a KGB officer assigned to East Germany and Leningrad rather than outside the Bloc or at Moscow Centre, and then as the man who came from the provinces to Moscow. Even after 18 years in power, Putin still manages to use populist language and cultural references to portray himself as apart from Russia’s corrupt elites.

This is an image Putin cultivates with care and, as when he promised to “pursue terrorists into their outhouses”, combines effectively with his survivalist persona. In contrast, we can use a free market analysis to show that Putin is a dismally ignorant student of economics. Even though Putin has not reversed the basic market reforms of the early post-Soviet years, StoneMoss Group would point out that he received his formal education in economics during the Soviet era and learned practical business methods in the corrupt, lawless environment of the early 1990s. Consequently, Putin has no true conception of how modern economies and businesses operate.

Capitalism, in Putin’s understanding, is not production, management, and marketing. It is “wheeling and dealing”…personal connections with regulators…finding and using loopholes in the law, or creating loopholes. In other words, his view of capitalism is simply that it provides an excuse for looting the country. Whatever prosperity Russia has enjoyed in the 2000s, is almost entirely the happy result of high global oil prices, not smart or effective policymaking.

Putin’s case officer identity is the longest and richest in our prior works in the Intelligence Community. Here, we place Putin in context as part of the so-called Andropov levy, a generation of KGB officers recruited during the long chairmanship of Yuriy Andropov (1967 – 1982). Andropov saw himself as an enlightened, liberal secret policeman who emphasized the need to “work with people” – that is, to try persuade dissidents to change their minds and support the Soviet regime, but with obvious coercive threats looming in the background. We see Putin as adapting this approach to Russian politics today, trying to win through persuasion, but always ready to bring the full force of the state to bear on any opponent who does not see the wisdom of agreeing.


Most notably, Putin used this method to bring the oligarchs to heel. Putin made it clear they would be allowed to make their fortunes but had to become apolitical, pay their taxes, and follow Putin’s policy line. He made it clear that their “property rights were ultimately dependent on the good will of the Kremlin,” with former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkhovskiy’s fate – a long jail term and seizure of his assets – serving as an example of what would happen to anyone who stepped out of line. It is the same method that Andropov used with dissidents, who knew that psychiatric hospitals and labour camps awaited anyone who failed to be persuaded by the KGB’s arguments.

Putin’s rule has been disastrous for Russia and, in a sense, for the rest of the world. Putin has shown himself to be a narrow-minded man schooled mainly in the ways of the thug, lacking any concept of how to run a 21st century country. At home, he sees politics not as a contest for influence, but rather as a primeval struggle for survival in which the threat of force is all that matters. With Putin preoccupied with continuing the balancing act that maintains his personal power and wealth, Russia drifts along without coherent social or economic policies, plundered by its elites, and its political and governmental institutions hollowed out. Given that Putin’s only significant experience abroad was as a KGB officer in East Germany – hardly the place to develop an understanding of international politics – it is not surprising that his foreign policies are driven by an urge to maintain the status quo rather than by a willingness to accommodate or take advantage of change.