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.
He then quoted from the 20th-century Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin: "'We trust and are confident that the hour will come when Russia will rise from disintegration and humiliation and begin an epoch of new development and greatness,' Ilyin wrote.
"Three great ideas run through this work," said Brooks. "The first is Russian exceptionalism: the idea that Russia has its own unique spiritual status and purpose. The second is devotion to the Orthodox faith. The third is belief in autocracy. Mashed together, these philosophers point to a Russia that is a quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy destined to play a culminating role on the world stage."
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quoted by reporter Karen Robes Meeks of the Long Beach Press Telegram on Tuesday providing background and context.
"Now if this sounds familiar, it's what Hitler did back in the 30s," Clinton said. "All the Germans that were ... the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they're not being treated right. I must go and protect my people and that's what's gotten everybody so nervous."
According to Robes, Clinton noted that Putin is a man "who believes his mission is to restore Russian greatness. When he looks at Ukraine, he sees a place that he believes is by its very nature part of Mother Russia."
As we think through Putin's actions and reactions regarding Ukraine, we must remember that it is not enough to put ourselves in Putin's shoes. We also need to put ourselves in his mind. His mind is different than ours. It's his mind that drove him to pose shirtless on his horse -- and we'll have to stretch our imaginations and understanding to put ourselves there as well.