Vladimir Putin's brain from a psychiatrist's point of view

What in the world ails Vladimir Putin?

Vladimir Putin's bloated appearance; pale skin; rambling, apocalyptic speeches; and chilling threat of "consequences greater than any you have faced in history" have made the world wonder what's in his cold heart and twisted mind.  Increasingly, people are saying, "Something is off."  He's a "madman."

As a psychoanalytically-oriented psychiatrist, I have some insights into what's going on here.  They don't bode well for an end to war, especially if Biden is going to keep baiting Putin instead of being more psychologically astute about how he relates to him.

To understand who someone is, we have to go back to his childhood.  Vladimir's was rife with mind-twisting traumas that don't excuse, but might explain, who he is today.

Vladimir Putin was born on October 7, 1952, in war-torn Leningrad.  Putin's father fought in the war and was left with a limp.  His mother once fainted from hunger, and townspeople, thinking she was dead, laid her out with the corpses until she woke up.  World War II left psychological scars on his parents that must have taught him that the world is a dangerous place.

He was their third son, born after two older brothers had already died.  So he was considered a "miracle baby" and had both the good fortune to be spoiled by his parents to the extent they could and the misfortune to have all the weight of their expectations thrust upon him.

The harsh realities of war could well have made it difficult for his parents to show warmth and love.  A photo of Vladimir, aged 5, on his mother's lap says a lot.  Looking off vacantly, she has one arm stiffly around him, his arms and legs crossed as if trying to protect himself, his eyes looking up at the camera in a fearful, distrusting way.

From that boy, we now have a man who seems to be obsessed with presenting an intimidating image, from trendy leather jackets as a teen to macho poses of him fishing, hunting, and riding horses bare-chested as an adult.

His childhood communal home was literally cold, with no hot water or other basic amenities.  His parents worked around the clock, so he was left to take care of himself.  Small for his age, and a bit odd, he was bullied until he learned martial arts and could fight back.  He's said the "street taught me a rule: if a fight is inevitable, you have to throw the first punch," as he did with Ukraine.

Putin's first war was against the rats that infested his dreary home.  He's written about how he chased rats with sticks, and once, he drove a particularly huge rat into a corner.  Little Putin was thrilled that it was now his prey to kill, until the rat suddenly threw itself at him, terrifying him.  He barely managed to slam the door on its nose, but he "got a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word 'cornered.'"  Undoubtedly, this is affecting his current decisions, as a paranoid Putin sees rats on all sides.

Psychiatric Problems

Anyone living through Putin's childhood — shrouded in death and destruction — would have the groundwork laid for a Paranoid Personality Disorder.  On top of that, Putin is forced to confront his own mortality.  He's 69 years old, one year before a dreaded milestone birthday and two years shy of the life expectancy of a Russian male.  The clock is ticking ever louder for him to leave his mark on the world.  His dream to put the USSR back together seems as though it's slipping away.  Perhaps he feels it's now or never.

What do you get when you cross a paranoid Putin with a demented Biden?

Nuclear war?  At least one can hope Congress will take action on Biden before it's too late, but there's nobody in Russia who can make Putin lay down his nuclear weapons.  Putin has made good on any promises he made to himself never to be that vulnerable again.  From martial arts for schoolyard bullies to nuclear weapons for "rogue" countries, he's armed himself against all perceived enemies.

So Biden's personal attacks and threats will only provoke Putin's retaliation.  Backing him into a corner won't work.  His childhood encounter with the rat, doubtless still vivid in his memory, taught him to do the unexpected...with possible "consequences greater than any we have faced in history."

Dr. Carole Lieberman, M.D., MPH, known worldwide as America's Psychiatrist, is the host of Dr. Carole's Couch on VoiceAmerica.com and The Terrorist Therapist® Podcast.  She is a forensic psychiatrist/expert witness and a bestselling award-winning author of four books — two on terrorism and two on relationships.

Image: World Economic Forum via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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