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Putin is on a quest for historical significance by invading Ukraine and gambling on his own and Russia’s glory

A person wears a vest with a photo of Vladimir Putin.
A pro-Russia demonstrator wears a vest bearing a depiction of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the words “Motherland! Freedom!” during a rally in Donetsk, Ukraine, in 2014. AP Photo/Andrey Basevich

When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, most Russian officials in St. Petersburg’s mayor’s office were quick to replace the portraits of the Communist revolutionary heroes Vladimir Lenin and Sergei Kirov with the portrait of Boris Yeltsin, the new Russian president.

Not everyone, however.

The mayor’s personal assistant, young Vladimir Putin, chose for his wall a portrait of Peter the Great: one of Russia’s most important czars, who made Russia into a major European power.

This incident now seems like a portent. It bears on an aspect of Putin that 30 years later has made him the alarming center of global attention.

I am a social-political psychologist who studies extremism. Even though I haven’t met Putin personally, from all that is known about him I believe that he illustrates the intriguing motivation we call the “quest for significance.”

The human desire for significance and dignity is universal. No one wants to be humiliated. But very few are willing to risk all for the sake of glory.

Putin appears to be one of those select few. When appointed prime minister in 1999, for example, Putin described his new job as a “historical mission,” the task of saving Russia from “bandits” – the Chechen Islamists who had attacked the Russian Republic of Dagestan. “I realized I could do this only at the cost of my political career. It was a minimal cost to pay,” he said in an interview, alluding to his audacity as a newly minted leader to take on a risky mission.

Putin has often presented himself as savior of the Russian homeland from a scheming West bent on destroying “our traditional values.” In a Feb. 24, 2022, speech, he claimed he had no choice but to invade Ukraine, as “a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a nation.”

Putin’s quest for significance extends to the economic domain as well. Though the Russian leader’s assets have been opaque for years, estimates of his secret wealth have put it at more than US$100 billion.

A poster covered in red marker shows Vladimir Putin's face with a red line through it.
A demonstrator in Paris holds a poster showing Russian President Vladimir Putin during a rally in protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Feb. 26, 2022. AP Photo/Adrienne Surprenant

Call of destiny?

Significance is a sense of one’s social worth, one’s dignity and the feeling that one matters. A person earns it by being committed to a value cherished in one’s society. It could be wealth, it could be power, it could be courage. The more important the value, and the more sacred it is in one’s community, the greater the significance bestowed for affirming it.

In most cultures, Russia and the United States included, one of the most sacred values is patriotism. Serving one’s country through both hardship and triumph, with utmost devotion and self-denial, gives a person a great sense of social worth, a place in history and the aura of a hero.

Patriotism is particularly put to the test when one’s country is in dire straits, threatened or humiliated by detractors. For those who crave significance, this offers a golden opportunity for greatness, a unique occasion to show their true colors – with glory awaiting.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin soared on the scene of Russian politics at just such a propitious moment.

The humiliated loser of the Cold War, Russia in 1991 saw its vast empire that encompassed much of Eastern Europe quickly coming unglued. For many Russians it was a crisis of shattering proportions, a cultural trauma that lasted for decades.

The loss of empire and world status offered an opportunity for Putin to reverse that catastrophe, and thus to attain greatness. He has seemed determined not to let it slip away.

In 2005, Putin, by that time reelected as Russia’s president, proclaimed that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He saw it as a profound loss of significance, a precipitous fall from greatness.

Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron stare at each other across a long table.
French President Emmanuel Macron, right, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Feb. 7, 2022, in a failed effort to find common ground on Ukraine. SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

The West, too, and the United States in particular, just kept rubbing it in, in Putin’s view. Refueling his plane at Moscow’s airport in 2006, U.S. President George W. Bush refused to visit Putin at the Kremlin, forcing him to trek to the terminal for a meeting. And in 2014, then-President Barack Obama dismissed Russia as a mere “regional power.”

These slights poured oil on the flame of Putin’s discontent and reinforced his resolve to make Russia great again.

Strongman strategy

In Putin’s belief system, there was one way of doing so: through a show of force.

As a child immersed in his parents’ tales of strife and grit during World War II, a black-belt martial artist and a KGB colonel during the Cold War, Putin came to respect physical aggression as a formidable tool to get things done.

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His world escapades thus far contain little to prove him wrong. The war he waged against separatists in Chechnya from 1999 to 2009 ended in victory. In Syria, Russian support has succeeded in keeping the dictator Bashir al Assad in power despite the West’s aim to see him toppled.

Putin’s 2014 invasion of Crimea went largely unpunished and hiked his popularity in Russia by nearly 25 percentage points. So far, at least, Russian public opinion has backed him in the current Ukraine crisis as well.

Anything is permissible

But the universal quest for significance can turn toxic if it is carried to the extreme.

The psychological study of extremism offers two profound lessons. First, when the quest for significance is the burning issue, other needs are crowded out. One is then ready to sacrifice all those needs to that one dominant quest. Second, anything then is permissible, no holds barred.

Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine and “let slip the dogs of war,” as Shakespeare puts it in “Julius Caesar,” vividly illustrates both implications.

He did so despite the near certainty of severe sanctions that might seriously damage the Russian economy. He did so despite the overwhelming international opprobrium that met his aggression. He did so despite the grave risks that a potential debacle in Ukraine poses for his political career.

Yet this has been Putin’s choice, in answer to the siren call of glory.