Diagnosing Vladimir Putin: Not insanity, but hubris syndrome - opinion

The real reason Putin behaves the way he does has more to do with power than it has to do with narcissism, ego or toxic masculinity.

 RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin holds a video meeting last week with officials and cultural workers, including recipients of prizes for cultural achievements. Surrounded by yes-men, Putin appears to be suffering from hubris syndrome.  (photo credit: Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin holds a video meeting last week with officials and cultural workers, including recipients of prizes for cultural achievements. Surrounded by yes-men, Putin appears to be suffering from hubris syndrome.
(photo credit: Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)

Russian President Vladimir Putin is, by all accounts, a strongman who rules with an iron fist. He is unashamedly narcissistic and this narcissism fuels his megalomaniacal obsessions, or so we have been led to believe. However, such insights from so-called experts leave a lot to be desired. In fact, such insights are both lazy and unhelpful. Designed to titillate rather than inform, such articles do little to answer the following question: What fuels Vladimir Putin’s dangerous behavior?

Narcissism appears to be the default answer. Like Putin, this personality style has a bad reputation. A very bad reputation. But narcissism isn’t all bad. In fact, narcissism is a bit like salt. A little bit of salt isn’t just good for the body, it’s vital. Likewise, a little bit of narcissism, in the right quantity, is absolutely vital. A complete lack of healthy narcissism is associated with lower self-esteem and lower levels of self-worth. The demonization of narcissism has close ties with the demonization of the ego. Putin, we’re assured, is driven by his ego. Newsflash: most of us are. In fact, without a functioning ego we would be hopelessly lost.

Of course, one cannot discuss powerful men without discussing the notion of toxic masculinity, a term often used to deride members of the “unfairer sex” who exhibit traditionally masculine qualities. Naturally, Putin has been accused of toxic masculinity and according to one author, he “frequently engages in hyper masculine performances of power.” This vulgar display of manliness includes riding bare-chested on horseback. In truth, there’s very little toxic about riding a horse shirtless. Odd, Perhaps; toxic, No.

Then again, maybe Putin is crazy? Some are asking if Russia’s leader has completely lost it. After all, he decided to invade a sovereign nation, something only an insane person would do. But, Putin is not insane. As Vladimir Gel’man, a Russian political scientist, recently wrote, “to analyze the essence of this decision” to invade Ukraine, “one should not succumb to the temptations to deny Putin and his entourage rationality.” But, trying telling that to the great many authors who have done just that.

Sending troops into Ukraine was not driven by emotion, contrary to popular belief. Putin is a savvy strategist, not a stroppy teenager. “In any case,” added Gel’man, “most of the steps taken by the Kremlin, both before and after February 24, look quite rational.” It “should be assumed that this decision fits into the general logic of public administration in Russia.”

 RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in Moscow on Tuesday. (credit: Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters) RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in Moscow on Tuesday. (credit: Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)

The real reason Putin behaves the way he does has more to do with power than it has to do with narcissism, ego or toxic masculinity. To be more specific, his behavior is the product of unbridled power. Surrounded by yes-men (and women), he appears to be suffering from hubris syndrome, a disorder that stems from the possession of unlimited, uncontested power and minimal constraint on its use.

In 2009, in a rather interesting paper, the academics David Owen and Jonathan Davidson asked an important question: “How may we usefully think about a leader who hubristically abuses power, damaging the lives of others?” Although some see it “as nothing more than the extreme manifestation of normal behavior along a spectrum of narcissism,” the matter could and should be formulated differently. Hubris syndrome, the authors warned, “can affect anyone endowed with power.” Yes, ladies, you’re not immune to hubris syndrome.

The authors discussed business leaders, artists and religious gurus that have succumbed to hubris syndrome. The financial collapse of 2008, for instance, was instigated by international bankers who “displayed marked signs of hubris.” Former US president George W. Bush, a man who oversaw the disastrous invasion of Iraq, succumbed to hubris syndrome, according to the authors. Former British prime minister Tony Blair, one of Bush’s primary enablers, also suffered from hubris syndrome, they added. Other notable politicians who were consumed by hubris include former British prime ministers Arthur Neville Chamberlain and Margaret Thatcher.

The former “developed hubris syndrome in the summer of 1938, only a year after taking office.” Meanwhile, the latter “did not develop hubris syndrome until 1988, nine years after becoming prime minister.” Putin has been the president of Russia since 2012 and previously from 2000 until 2008. In total, he has been the most powerful man in Russian for almost two decades. Chances are he will remain the most powerful man in Russia for years to come, even if others, including US senators, desperately wish otherwise.

In their paper, the aforementioned authors concluded by discussing the possibility of hubris syndrome having “an environmental onset, akin to a stressful experience.” Perhaps, they wrote, it “disappears in response to environmental change.” For Putin, an environmental change would require him leaving office. Will this occur? Don’t hold your breath.

The writer, a contributor to Newsweek and the New York Post, holds a doctorate in psychosocial studies.