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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

Putin's Elephant

A Mind that Doesn't Know Itself

It was a threat so divorced from its obvious repercussions as to be unbelievable. Since pulling the trigger, the world has been scrambling to figure out just what Vladimir Putin was or – more crucially is – thinking. True, his sort of mind has got to be a fairly murky place, straining as it is with the power, paranoia, and the insecurity of a man who hasn’t heard the word “Nhet” this century. Given its single-mindedness, it might be a pretty straightforward place too. Spend any time in college bar, or with middle schoolers, and you soon learn that behavior can be straightforward and baffling at the same time.

An obscure book from 2000 – the year Putin came to power – called First Person, a sort of accidental auto-biography made up of interview transcripts, is now being reread for clues. The most theatrical being a passage wherein the wee Vlad is tormenting a gigantic rat in his family’s apartment block. He manages to corner the terrified animal only to have it turn and attack. The wee Vlad flees. The lesson appears to be that cornered animals are dangerous and little boys are morons, something most of us already know. More compelling is Putin’s frank admission that his rise in the old KGB was stymied because personality tests showed that he was both reckless and lacked human empathy or, more to the point, a bold and thoughtless psychopath. Sixty days into this war, that is self-evident as well. 

Putin has sold himself to the world as a shrewd, Machiavellian strategist, but his invasion of Ukraine shows strains of a panicked kid in the grip of an emotional, ultra-violent PR stunt. The logistics were a mess, until recently there was no uniform command, and any point to it all is lost in a revolving shell-game of war aims. The man was never a soldier, and while he worked for the KGB, strictly speaking he wasn’t a spy. He was a liaison intelligence officer who mostly worked with the East German Stazi. As happens with badly planned operations, his “home-by-the-weekend” victory didn’t materialize and now a survivable climb down without a protracted war seems impossible. 

The world desperately wants to know what the man is thinking. Who knows? You could make a fairly strong argument that Putin himself doesn’t seem to know what he’s thinking either. This is more common than you might imagine.

The Rider and the Elephant

In his “intellectual memoir Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winning phycologist Daniel Kahneman described the lopsided interplay between our conscious and subconscious minds in human decision making. He constructs a metaphor of the brain as two “systems”: System 1 is so fast as to appear automatic and requires no conscious effort or voluntary control, it pumps your heart. System 2 is the conscious, analytical mind. It requires mental effort, it is tiring. It’s the process of which we’re aware. 

Social psychologist Johnathon Haidt describes the two systems more organically as “a rider and an elephant.” Simply put, the rider is our conscious brain; a little guy who can plan, scheme, calculate odds and talk to others. He sits astride a very large creature that can’t communicate well and just wants what it wants. The elephant is capable of operating on fairly complex patterns, but is no good at dealing with abstracts. The two have a convoluted relationship as the rider, thinking he can tell the elephant where to go and what to do, assumes he’s in charge. He’s not. The puny rider is calls the rational shots insofar as the elephant hasn’t come up with contradictory ideas of its own. Yet. Should the creature get spooked, horny, or hungry – it is going to do what it’s going to do. When the elephant acts on reflex, the rider is left post-rationalizing the actions and trying to convince everyone around that had been the plan all along. And here’s why….

The elephant perceives danger much differently than the rider. It senses danger on the weight of pattern recognition and uncertainty, not detailed analysis. While the rider is apt to take the evolutionary risky strategy of trying to sort out exactly what is happening, the elephant simply lashes out or it flees. It’s the famous fight or flight reflex and it is well-nigh impossible to control consciously. There is a very good evolutionary reason for this. Say you are walking in the wild and you hear a growl from the brush. Or, for that matter, you step out into a busy Atlanta street and get an unsettling sensation that something is about to crush you. You don’t stop to consider if the approaching vehicle is a Ford or a Chevy, you just step out of the way. You don’t think, you do. The brain’s amygdala, the part responsible for fight or flight short-circuits your ability to think through the details until it perceives that the danger has passed. To ponder the make and model vehicle (or what is crouching in the brush) will only get you killed. 

Kahneman even supposes that most of what we perceive to be critical thought is likely mere post-rationalization for things that our subconscious elephant has already decided. To simplify further still, legendary ad man and fashion icon Rory Sutherland said, “We think that the conscious brain is the executive office when it’s really the press office.”

Still a Great Power

Trying to dissect a mind like Vlad’s is probably a low percentage thing to do. His words are misdirection, but they aren’t entirely useless. You can tell a lot about someone by the lies they tell, provided you understand that the lie is the key to what is being lied about. His actions are much clearer (painfully so) and they show us a guy who has developed a paranoid hatred of a club he feels didn’t give him a bid. There is a reason that comic-book villain origin stories are full of this sort of thing.

According to the Guardian, George Robertson, NATO Secretary General from 1999-2003, met Putin shortly after his rise to power. Robertson made it clear that Russia was an important part of Western Europe. So Putin asked him “When are you going to invite us to join NATO?”

“Well,” Robertson said “we don’t invite people to join NATO, they apply to join NATO.”

To which Putin reportedly replied, “Well, we’re not standing in line with a lot of countries that don’t matter.” Still reeling from Russia’s Great Power hangover, the man didn’t want to ask to join the gang, he wanted to be asked. And why not? Even dictators want to be treated like a princess from time to time. And if that isn’t an elephant issue, I don’t know what is.

Just how good a fit Russia would have been in NATO is debatable. Putin is clearly a child of the USSR, which had its own answer to NATO, the Warsaw Pact – an alliance noted for its invasion of other Warsaw Pact countries.

At any rate, all those countries that don’t matter like Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania did stand in line and joined the NATO in 2004; Ukraine’s Orange Revolution street protests the same year didn’t help, both it and Georgia were promised membership in 2008, but the process stalled. Croatia and Albania followed in 2009. Germany, a NATO ally and France, very nearly one, both thought the expansion was a terrible idea on the grounds that it would stir up the Russians.

Which is exactly what happened when Putin’s elephant got the sensation that something was about to crush it. All those former Warsaw Pact countries were all going over to the other side. Even worse, apparently, no one took the trouble to send tell Putin “Hey, don’t worry about that Iron Curtain, Vlad, you’re still a Great Power to me.”

Putin lashed out at Ukraine because he had the opportunity and nothing much happened when it threw a fit in 2014. What planning there was for the full-scale invasion doesn’t seem to have been with the military at all, but the FSB, the intelligence arm of the internal secret police, of which Putin was director in the 1990’s. These were his cronies, people who are almost by definition paranoid and at least half-crazed. They also told him exactly what he wanted to hear: That Ukraine was riddled with agents and would implode with a good scare. He was so confident that a massive Victory Day sized fireworks display was held in Moscow the weekend before anyone even knew the invasion was planned. Russian officers packed their parade uniforms in tanks heading to Kyiv for a quick victory lap. Most tellingly, three days after the invasion, Ria Novosti, Russia’s largest online media outlet, ran 20 minutes of a pre-scheduled story that reported “there will be no more Ukraine, as the anti-Russia” and the entire fracas had been a “virtual civil-war.” The piece went on to say was Russia “restoring its historical fullness, gathering the Russian world, the Russian people together…” and Ukraine had returned to Russian.

Meanwhile, as heavy fighting bogged invading forces down outside of Kyiv and captured Russian soldiers seemed to have been under the impression that the whole thing was a military exercise on Russian soil, the story was quietly taken down. Russia’s formidable propaganda machine changed tack and, domestically, it is largely working. 

At the top (and in Russia the top is the only thing that matters) things are different. After two years holed up in a bunker hiding from COVID Putin emerged out of touch with reality. He has an “inner circle” despite forcing it to sit 20 feet away from him for security reasons. Which is the behavior of an unhinged paranoid, but also of a man who can see the epic scale of a miscalculation. This wasn’t the knock-out blow he’d been promised, and someone must pay. Of the planners of the “Special Military Operation,” there have been a handful of arrests, including a general and a deputy chief of the FSB. There are reports of grumbling within the inner circle, even from 20 feet away. Anyone as obsessed with World War II dates as Putin would be aware of 20 July Plot, where Hitler’s own generals tried to snuff Der Führer. It is time for the rider to come up with an explanation the power-brokers will buy. 

The entire military operation has been put under the unified command of General Aleksander Dvornikov, a veteran whose battlefield nickname is either the “Butcher of Grozny” or “Butcher of Aleppo” depending on who you ask. The army’s only real advance thus far has the city of Mariupol, now a smoking ruin with the scraps of the Ukrainian resistance trapped in the Azovstal steelworks. In a televised interview with Defense Minister Sergi Shoigu, Putin ordered him not to send Russian troops into the steelworks to finish off out the last beleaguered resistance. We can assume that General Dvornikov told Putin that the maneuver was impossible or pointless and left the president to sort out the politics.

And they are tricky – the arc of war aims has morphed from a) victory parades in a strangely grateful Kyiv, until the Russian army was forced to retreat. To b) said retreat was framed as a good-will gesture during smoke-screen peace negotiations. To c) liberating the Donbas Region for Russian-speaking Ukrainians, also strangely grateful for their own destruction, had always been real the objective. Until it was d) making Ukraine into a landlocked country by extending Russian control to Transnista, a Russian-speaking breakaway republic in Moldovia which no one but Moscow recognizes. 

What this tells us is that Vladimir Putin doesn’t know what he wants, only that he is in a fight and his life depends on declaring victory. 

What that victory might look like is anyone’s guess. Putin has brought the Russian system out of balance without the institutional strength to right itself. He can’t find his equilibrium. There is speculation that this might lead to dissolution of Russia itself, but it could just as easily lead to a tactical nuclear strike. The odds of a wider nuclear war are longer – but sickeningly plausible. In Russia, they have three “footballs” carrying the nuclear launch codes to American’s one – or at least so far as Western intelligence services can tell. One of which is held by President Putin, one by the Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and one by General Staff Chief. Under Russian law, they don’t all have to verify to launch, but two out of three do. Shoigu seems very unhappy about the war, and Kremlin watchers point hopefully that he just might lead a helpful palace coup. That is probably wishful thinking. If Putin gives the order for a nuclear strike, and it doesn’t happen, it will likely be over for him from the inside. Not exactly comforting, but it does somewhat take the elephant’s trunk off the button.

What both Putin’s rider and elephant must see is that if Ukraine wasn’t a nation before the invasion, it is now. It also must be becoming clear that with Finland and Sweden almost certainly joining the NATO alliance, he’s at now at war with the entire industrial/military might of the “West.”

Perhaps young Vlad’s cornered rat story is useful here. In his mind, Putin has felt cornered since NATO didn’t roll out the red carpet and the old Warsaw gang stood in line to join up anyway. We already know what a cornered Putin is like when his fight reflex is triggered. He only has one weapon left up his sleeve to maintain what’s called “escalation dominance”, and if he can use it, it will take Russia down with him. The best thing now is to show the elephant which way to take flight.

And leave the door open.

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