In the backdrop of the Ukraine War, many in the West call Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions irrational. However, upon careful consideration, taking into account some ideas from social sciences, this can be seen as taking place because they fail to understand Putin’s true motivations, something that is vital for Ukraine to succeed against Russia.
Putin’s motivations can be considered as something individual, but it would be a grave mistake not to examine them as largely based on the configurations of the culture to which he belongs “genealogically”. This is not easy because unlike Putin, whose actions are driven by the desire to be honorable, the western individualistic as well as collective culture is mostly conditioned by the desire to be dignified. Someone with dignity commands respect because of intrinsic qualities, such as morality or integrity supported by modern social institutions. Those with dignity are free to ignore those who insult them because of these institutions, the free democratic state will protect them from harm. Unlike in the free world, in Russia the rule of law is not as secure, giving honor, the more traditionalist value, more importance since it intimidates potential opponents. Putin’s surrounding culture of honor is well-described by Svetlana Stephenson, as adherence to the patsan’s code (ponyatiya) of Russian street gangs. The patsan will defend his place on the social hierarchy at all costs, often resorting to violence when necessary, because faltering in the face of an opponent is the same as becoming the victim.
From such a cultural analysis perspective, Putin’s greatest concern is presenting himself to the Russian public by carefully crafting a specific impression of honor. Putin’s honor relies on the public’s respect, so he curates an image as a strongman and, what is so characteristic of some traditionalist cultural groups, a bully. He did this early on in his response to the Chechen separatists and the same premise applies today to the Ukraine War. While the main existential cause of Putin’s war is to by all possible means maintain his unlimited power in Russia, the invasion of Ukraine is a cultural instrument of protecting Putin’s honor by retaliating against those who can be presented as offending him. Since the history of Putin’s discontent with the free world is longer than that with Ukraine, it is rather the mythological West than Ukraine that, as we see through the development of the war, transpires to be his main departure point of “defending honor”. At the same time, he indeed saw Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity as an insult to his honor which prompted his earlier invasion of Crimea.
Here is where a sociological perspective comes in handy as Putin’s actions to craft his image are best explained through Erving Goffman’s theory of impression management. He establishes that the individual attempts to influence how others perceive him when interacting with them, known as the individual’s performance. The individual and those who help him craft his image are actors, trying to create a specific impression in the thoughts of the audience.
There are a number of dimensions to it. Putin manages his image within his inner circle to prevent defection. Starting in 2003, he began repressing oligarchs that questioned his authority (the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky), thus sending a clear message to the other powerful Russian politicians and businessmen.
Maintaining the performance as actors working together is applicable here because even if “members of a team have different formal statuses and rank, there is “mutual dependence created by membership in the team” that serves as a “source of cohesion for the establishment” (Goffman 82). Putin depends on his inner circle to provide their support, and they rely on Putin for their roles and, in more mundane terms, their salaries, benefits, and other rewards within the realm of patrimonialism.
The interdependence of Putin and his inner circle creates cohesion, however, those with less power are afraid to disagree with the powerful, fearing they will give away the performance of loyalty. Once the subservient decides to play the part of a yes-man and agree to anything the leader says, they cannot tell the leader the plan is faulty if it fails. An example of that is when Russian military officials were too scared to report Russian failures during the war, damaging Russia’s military objectives.
Similarly, with the world stage dimension, Putin has crafted the impression that he will never back down from a fight so that other world leaders are scared to confront him, worried that it will lead to further escalation. For example, a psychologist and former U.S. Department of State official profiled Putin, warning to not “put him in a position of feeling weakened or beaten or humiliated because that can lead to further problems down the road” (Morell). Those in the West fear provoking Putin because they view him as someone who will always retaliate to any perceived slight. This is an example of how successful impression management can be hiding the reality of motivations and capacities.
The value of such a cultural approach to Putin’s behavior consists in being able to see the reality where Putin will back down if confronted or cornered, such as with the Black Sea grain initiative, his indifference to Sweden and Finland’s entry into NATO when it comes to it, or his preparedness to face the humiliation in Samarkand from his Central Asian ex-inferiors when he has to beg support where he used to reign supreme.
On the micro-level, Putin utilizes various impression management methods to maintain his tough image. One is when he distances himself from world leaders during a conversation. He does this in the literal sense when he puts a physical “table distance” between himself and, for example, President Macron. The long table enables “the maintenance of social distance,” which holds the audience “in a state of mystification in regard to the performer” (Goffman 67). The mystification permits Putin to continue to project a tough persona since the audience receives less information, decreasing the likelihood that Putin will make any mistake that would give the performance away. As to a similar information reduction technique, going back a decade, one can recall Putin’s behavior during a meeting with Russian intelligentsia when he pretended not to know the name of the rock star Yury Shevchuk.
The image of Putin is carefully managed to make others afraid of retaliation if they confront or humiliate him. Putin desires to be seen as honorable, so he must create the impression that he responds swiftly and ruthlessly to threats, even if he may never resort to this in reality. So while Putin presents a foreign threat, the reality is as stated by Sergei Erofeev in his interview with Radio Liberty: “Putin’s main enemy is the population of the Russian Federation”. His deceptive techniques of impression management are most ultimately aimed at convincing Russians that he is their true leader so he can retain power.
Changing the system that allowed Putin to rise to power in the first place is vital to ending the war in Ukraine and preventing further Russian military aggression. As stated previously, Putin operates within Russia’s culture of honor, forcing him and any other Russian leader to use impression management techniques to project an image of toughness and honor. The necessity to be viewed as honorable stems from an absence of the rule of law, so subsequently, if the rule of law is strengthened in Russia, it would be reasonable to expect that there would no longer be the need to defend one’s honor, as the government’s protection of people’s dignity would be sufficient for the country’s self-preservation as well as civilized interaction with the outside world. A strong rule of law is necessary to prevent another dictatorial leader from continuing Putin’s regime once he is gone.
To facilitate the demise of Putinism and “a Beautiful Russia of the Future”, as Alexei Navalny puts it, it is important for the West to overcome the difficulties of understanding Putin’s impression management, the failure to see the difference between the cultures of honor and dignity, and the false dangers preventing from fully confronting Putin on the world stage. Putin is a rational terrorist (Erofeev, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ki07pFWCgFI) who will not totally unpredictably retaliate to a slight like the madman the West often portrays. If strategists keep in mind Putin’s ultimate goal which is simply staying in power within his own mafia domain of Russia (Erofeev, https://www.idelreal.org/a/32162592.html), it is possible to push back much more efficiently against Russian aggression without risking escalation to a nuclear war. In order to truly make possible the coming of a democratic Russia dropping its imperialist shell, it is necessary to discern the truth between reality and what a rational terrorist impression manager wants the world to see.
Note: This opinion piece is a result of my participation in the course “Ukraine, Russia, and the Current Crisis” taught at Rutgers University by Professor Sergei Erofeev.