There is something psychiatrists call overcompensation. For example, a guy with ED problems goes out and buys a Hummer or goes out of his way to get in fist fights to show how manly he is and bolster his wounded ego. Well, Russian President Vladimir Putin is a textbook case of someone with a serious inferiority complex.
How can Putin have an inferiority complex? He staged an impressive Olympic show in Sochi, then annexed Crimea and started a stealth war in eastern Ukraine, all the while seemingly running circles around other world leaders like Obama and Merkel. And there are all those photos of him riding a horse shirtless, the very embodiment of tough guy manliness.
Well, it’s all overcompensation for Putin’s very real and very deep insecurities. In fact, Russia is a third rate power with ridiculously inflated pretensions of super-power status. And Putin’s own hold on power is much more vulnerable than it may appear. Behind his bravado is a man trying very hard to convince himself and others that he is the master of his fate and a force to be reckoned with. The truth is starkly different.
Russia has an economy a mere one tenth the size of either that of the U.S. or the EU, and it is falling behind even further.Under Putin’s incredibly poor stewardship, Russia suffers from serious structural economic problems. When oil prices were high, the petrodollars masked Russia’s inability to compete in the global economy. Those days are over. The last fifteen years under Putin are an era of squandered opportunities to turn Russia into a modern, prosperous and stable country.
The Russian government spent $50 billion on Putin’s Hummer - the Sochi Olympics. In 2010 Vancouver spent $3 billion. Almost that entire difference can be explained by theft, corruption, and wasteful inefficiency. So instead of investing in the economic and social infrastructure Russia desperately needs, Russia has gotten a white elephant that will never recover its investment costs.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea have sent his popularity ratings soaring. He also started a secessionist war in eastern Ukraine which has claimed thousands of victims, including 298 innocent passengers and crew of Malaysian Airways Flight 17 who were shot down by Putin’s proxy soldiers. This is in many ways a replay of Putin’s glorious little war against Georgia in 2008 and the very ugly and inglorious war he waged against Chechnya when he first came to power.
Meanwhile, his state propaganda machine has convinced the vast majority of Russians that they are surrounded by a hostile West determined to subjugate their country and steal its natural resources. In the Kremlin’s narrative, Russia is the innocent victim of nefarious foreign schemes to deny it its rightful place as a major world power, and not in fact an aggressor menacing its weaker neighbors. Having convinced the Russian public they are under mortal threat, now Putin can’t afford to appear weak.
But by his own actions, Putin has turned Russia into an isolated pariah state. Its only military allies are tiny Armenia and the two minuscule and internationally unrecognized statelets of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And in place of genuine diplomatic partnerships, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues empty press releases about BRICS solidarity against the West. When push comes to shove, it is hard to imagine Beijing choosing Moscow over Washington as its strategically important relationship.
Putin will feel compelled to engage in yet more overcompensation for his weaknesses to maintain his fake image of strength. And with the once plentiful oil spigot going dry, foreign aggression is the only way to do so. More Kremlin aggression and threats against not only its weak neighbors like Ukraine, but possibly also against NATO itself, are a real possibility. Putin’s raging insecurities and his increasingly urgent need to appear tough may make him even more recklessly dangerous than he already is.