As Americans, we have the unfortunate habit of thinking about others by seeing their actions and reactions from our point of view. We put ourselves in their figurative shoes, i.e., we know about their situation, constraints, advantages and options, but we don't know what is going on in their minds. This may be due to our relative lack of diversity, the geographic size of our nation or our relatively insular upbringing.
This inability to put ourselves in others' minds, to understand their different beliefs, philosophies and reasons for action, led to our inability to predict and prepare for the attack on Pearl Harbor by Kamikaze pilots, the attacks of 9-11, the horrors carried out by Hitler and, as my 14-year-old daughter, Maggie, noted, allowed us to fete Castro after he initially took over Cuba.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops into Crimea, in Southern Ukraine. This week, Putin denied that troops were in Crimea, while Secretary of State John Kerry expressed disbelief. "He really denied there were troops in Crimea?"
To understand Putin's actions, it's important to understand the man. It's not enough to put ourselves in his shoes; we need to put ourselves in his mind. The question is not what we would do in his situation, but what he will do, based on his history, personality and experiences.
Putin spent 16 years as a KGB agent. This means his natural bias is likely not to be open and understanding, but to be planning three, four or five moves ahead of his opponent and using propaganda to provide cover and reason. Putin's denial of the troops' presence should not be surprising.
Putin has been in the top tier of Russian politics for decades, serving as either prime minister or president of Russia since 1999. During the past few years, Putin has engaged in a non-stop campaign to shape his image, one that has included riding shirtless on a horse, diving for antiquities (which were later revealed to have been planted), and writing an Op-Ed that was published last fall in the New York Times warning the United States to "return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement." Putin's last press relation win, the staging of the Sochi Olympics as grand host, with Russia leading the medal count, must have filled him with pride in his nation.
Why does this matter? David Brooks reminded us this week in his New York Times column, "Putin Can't Stop," that a man's beliefs and actions are based on his beliefs and philosophical foundations.
"To enter into the world of Putin's favorite philosophers is to enter a world full of melodrama, mysticism and grandiose eschatological visions," Brooks wrote.