Like other dictators before and contemporaneous to him, Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “pathological narcissist” who only looks at the world through the lens of his own self-interest with no regard for others. And, that explains his brutal actions in Ukraine and other countries where he has deployed his nation’s military forces.
That assessment was offered by Center for Homeland Defense and Security instructor Dr. Fathali Moghaddam, Professor and Director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Cognitive Science at Georgetown University, who served as guest speaker for CHDS’s April Alumni Hour entitled “Putin and Other Dictators: A Psychological Portrait” held on April 21.
Moghaddam, who originally hails from Iran and authored Threat to Democracy: The Appeal of Authoritarianism in an Age of Uncertainty, addressed the appeal of Russia’s Putin and other modern dictators, their psychological profile, and what should be expected as events play out in Ukraine.
The event, which drew a large audience of CHDS alumni, included a presentation by Dr. Moghaddam and a lively question-and-answer session with CHDS alumni who tuned in to the online session.
Moghaddam, who noted that the topic is “unfortunately” timely due to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, started his presentation with a review of historic dictators’ rise to power including what he called the “springboard” to taking over, and then discussed how Putin fits into that model and how he compares to other dictators. He noted that the resurgence of authoritarianism is also contributing to a re-consideration of globalization.
According to Moghaddam, the history of human civilization is marked by strong central leadership, and the phenomenon of democracy is “new and relatively fragile,” and “it’s not clear it will survive.” The battle between democracy and authoritarianism, he said, “could be a fight to the death; [it’s] not inevitable democracy will win, [we] have to fight for it.”
Turning to Putin, Moghaddam noted that he was born in the Soviet Union about 70 years ago to a working-class family and was not remarkable as a child. He attended Leningrad University and was recruited there by the KGB. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 was considered a tragedy by Putin, who believed in the historical importance of Russia and the proposition that Russia should be great again, and was attempting to fight his way to the top of his profession during a difficult time for his country as it was losing satellite states and global influence, Moghaddam said.
Within ten years, though, Putin vaulted from a low-ranking KGB agent to president of Russia, Moghaddam noted, and asked how he managed that—what was the “springboard” that allowed him to rise to power?
Moghaddam said Putin benefitted from two main societal conditions: the threat of decline and the search for a savior. He noted that Putin served in the KGB under former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who was instrumental in privatizing state-controlled properties by selling them at low prices to his friends and family, and was faced with the challenge of handing over power to someone who wouldn’t prosecute him.
While Putin fit that bill, and ultimately protected Yeltsin and his family, Moghaddam said Putin was also linked to building bombings that killed many Russians and which Putin blamed on Chechen rebels and promised to go after them if he was elected. Analysts later suggested that it was likely Putin and his supporters who were responsible for the bombings.
Moghaddam compared that to Adolph Hitler and the Reichstag fire that helped bring him to power in Germany, Benito Mussolini’s march to Rome in the wake of fascist-backed violence in Italy, and Ayatollah Khomeini’s closing of the universities after the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
One of the problems Putin now faces, twenty years after taking power, is he needs a successor who will protect him from all his criminal activity that has occurred under his regime, Moghaddam said.
Moghaddam noted the “rising authoritarianism” around the globe that has stretched beyond Russia and China to countries where it once seemed there was an opportunity for democracy to take root, including Brazil, India, Venezuela, and Turkey, and said “objective sources” now assess that democracy is weaker today than it was thirty-forty years ago, including “in the U.S.”
As a “classic” dictator, Putin demonstrates tendencies such as “pathological narcissism” and belief in conspiracies, and is “utterly ruthless,” Moghaddam said, comparing him to Khomeini, Stalin, and Mao. Hundreds of thousands of lives lost are “irrelevant” to dictators because they believe they know best, he said, noting that Ukraine is just the latest Putin brutality and has only drawn global attention due to Ukrainian resistance, surprising Putin since he has been doing the same thing elsewhere in the world before.
At the same time, Moghaddam pointed out that there was hope during the rise of the internet that it would democratize the globe because it would offer everyone access to information and dictatorships that relied on keeping their people subjugated and uninformed would fall.
“We were completely wrong,” Moghaddam said, noting that Russia and China had learned to use the internet for their own goals and had even weaponized them against their adversaries, influencing democracies and elections.
Moghaddam also discussed the dynamics of internal support for dictators like Putin by leveraging external threats, as well as the promise of group participation in recaptured glory.
During the Q&A session, Moghaddam addressed what he called a “turning point” for globalization and the battle between global and local identity, noting that Europeans are now second-guessing their reliance on Russia and the U.S. is similarly concerned about its entanglements with China.
Moghaddam also argued that change can only occur “incrementally” in societies and that revolution against dictatorships nearly always simply results in a different kind of authoritarianism, noting the Russian and French revolutions resulted in Tsars and Kings being replaced by Lenin and Napoleon.
Asked how the U.S. should support Ukraine and how to deal with a nuclear-armed dictator, Moghaddam said the U.S. should be “absolutely clear” that this is a serious fight with Russia and China who want the “annihilation of democracy.” He said the U.S. should quickly move to arm Ukraine while remaining wary of threatening Russia to the point where Putin uses nuclear weapons, calling that “extremely difficult.”
He noted that former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was dedicated to keeping a wedge between Russia and China, suggesting the U.S. might consider a return to that policy goal.
At the same time, he said the U.S. should both strengthen its civic education system so Americans won’t be misled by authoritarianism but will rely on themselves while redoubling our efforts to reach out to those living in authoritarian countries with information.
He noted that Radio Sputnik operates openly in the U.S. while Putin doesn’t allow opposing voices in Russia and regularly shuts down the internet and social media.