Social Psychology

Putin in Ukraine: Predicting a Personalist Ruler using Groupthink


In a newish piece in The Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage, political scientists, Erica Frantz and Joseph Wright, write about Putin’s mental state that led him to invade Ukraine. They describe him as a “personalist” leader, meaning that he has successfully cast off any of the checks and balances that accompany the leadership of most countries. The governmental and societal institutions that might could have checked or balanced his decisions have all been gutted, neutered, or otherwise silenced. Any advisor or administrative office holder that once would’ve said no to him have all committed suicide or had fatal accidents. He has successfully reserved all powers for himself leaving him isolated and out of touch.

If this has started to sound like the product of groupthink to you, then you get a gold star! Let’s psysplain! First, we’ll outline what they mean by personalist rulers. Second, we’ll look at how well it matches up with groupthink. And, then, we’ll round the whole thing out by matching up the usual outcomes of groupthink with things that Putin is doing now. Isn’t psychology wonderful?!?

Personalist Rulers

Personalist rulers are authoritarian dictators who rule by their own wits and guile and without interference from advisors, government agencies or institutions, or other organs of society like a free press. In other words, there is no one there to tell them no. Their rule is characterized by paranoia and erratic decisions. They often initiate conflict and errors in their relations with other countries.

Personalists don’t arrive at their individual and undisputed rule overnight. It takes years of hard work and effort to isolate all state power in their hands. However, their rise to power seem to have several commonalities. They come to power in one of two ways either by a coup led by junior military officers or by rising to the head of a weak political party.

This is significant because the governments these people take over are characterized by fractured institutions and a weak security apparatus. For junior officers to be able to take over, their senior officers must be weak and the military divided. Well organized professional militaries will channel the ambitions of their officer corps into more productive outcomes of leadership. Similarly when law enforcement agencies and the courts have their powers clearly defined, delineated, and enforced, it is difficult to do away with them or subvert their activities.

We were fortunate to have witnessed the Ol’ Pussy Grabber’s attempt to subvert the FBI and Department of Justice. We saw how successful, how far he was able to come in four years. Had he been re-elected, he would, no doubt, have completely coopted the Department of Justice for his personal needs. We were equally fortunate to have a very professional and independent military, but Mike Flynn and his brother General Charles Flynn demonstrate how easily the military can be bent to the will of an authoritarian.

Weak fractionalized governments still have power centers that seek to expand their spheres of influence and control. The would-be authoritarian ruler has to overcome their resistance by either winning them over or replacing them with more willing individuals. No authoritarian dictator comes to power without the help of many willing people. Just remember that.

The other route to power is through a weak political party. Frequently, these parties are organized by the rising dictator. This route requires them to be democratically elected and then the members of the office holders abandon the rule of law in favor of the personalities diktat. It takes time to take over a sufficient number of offices through election or appointment to end the rule of law. It is also the way most democracies are taken over.

The Ol’ Pussy Grabber used a weak Republican Party to get into office. They were so weak that their 2020 platform was whatever Trump wanted. The problem for us is that Republicans still hold many offices and are willing to use them to undermine our elections.

Putin rose to power in this way, too. It has taken him twenty-two years to consolidate his power to the point that he can invade a European country.

Groupthink

Human beings form our opinions and beliefs based upon what those around us believe to be true. While it is somewhat circular — I’ll believe what you’re believing and you’ll believe what I’m believing — it works by persuasion and perception. We’ll work out together what we believe in a weird feedback loop. But, we also listen to voices other than our own and incorporate their beliefs and opinions into our own. As a group we balance any single bad decision or misinterpretation with those of others. It’s worked pretty well for over 40,000 years with only a few thousand really bad group decisions being recorded in the anus of history.

However, this is why group decisions are often more radical and extreme than individual decisions. We feel our individuality get swept away into the group. Our desire to belong overcomes any moral qualms we might have about what the group is doing and any individual responsibility is drown in the sea of people participating. Perceiving group consensus makes us less likely to voice our dissent.

When a group coalesces around a dominant leader who cannot brook any dissent, they often will silence any of their number who disagree. They stop looking for contradictory information. Even if members disagree, they won’t say anything and go along to get along.

Kinda sounds like the modern Republican party, don’t it?

When this happens it is known as groupthink. As groupthink picks up steam the group takes on certain common characteristics:

Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
Illusion of invulnerability –Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.

WHAT IS GROUPTHINK?

The decisions coming out of groupthink are increasingly reckless, dangerous, and immoral. The group experiences fewer and fewer checks on its behaviors and, as a result, becomes more self destructive. We see this taking place with the Republican party right now. And, we’ve been seeing this in Putin as he’s become increasingly isolated and hears fewer dissenting voices in his circle of advisors.

Predictions

We should expect Putin to make erratic and paranoid decisions. We should not take him as a good-faith negotiator or actor as the Ukrainians seeking refugee corridors out of souther Ukraine are finding.

Putin has made several statements that should be concerning:

He is relying on barbaric tactics to achieve his goals. He is attacking Ukraine cities indiscriminately bombing population centers and destroying civilian infrastructure. He will continue to up the ante as long as Ukraine continues to resist, but, of course, Ukraine will resist him, what choice has he left them?

We should expect war crimes and crimes against humanity to be committed by Russian forces. They will raze the ground of Ukraine cities. The execution of the war by the Russians will be more brutal and inhumane than anything on modern record.

Yet, the West cannot completely join the war. To do so would risk a nuclear escalation. Eventually, though, Putin will come to see the West’s resupply of Ukrainian forces as an act of war much like Germany did in World Wars I and II. And, like Germany, he will attack our supply chain. Hopefully, Biden and other Western leaders have already thought about their reaction when the first allied transport plane is shot down or convoy shelled.

The most efficient way to deter Putin is to sanction his oligarch allies and the officer corps of his military. People change when they are in enough pain to change. We have to inflict pain upon the Russian elite and offer them a way out of the madness in order for them to stand up to Putin.

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Image Attribution

War in Ukraine” by tkachukphoto is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

34 replies »

  1. Whatever he does what he has done is left his backdoor open to expansionism and territorial reclamation by (surprise!) Japan and/or (no surprise) China’s three-million-man army. Now, it may just be me, a Stumbler on The Way with more than a passing familiarity with Tzu’s Art, but I’m starting to think he may not be the brilliant tactician we’ve all been led to believe.

    Insanity is a hallmark of inbreeding …

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Ten Bears!

      I think you’re onto something there. He’s no military tactician or strategist. He came out of the KGB. He’s used to working people. Now that he no longer has anyone who will tell him know, he’s left with only his own thoughts and ideas. He’s lost touch with reality. Literally.

      I’m hoping the Chechens and Georgians start up again now that he’s committed so heavily to Ukraine. What’s he going to do to prop up his friends when he’s got so much already dedicated to one war already.

      One thing that has probably scared the hell out both Russia and China is that the US not only fought two wars simultaneously, we did it for 20 years. We have the only field tested and trained armed forces and weapons systems around. It’s one reason that the Russians are bogged down in Ukraine — our anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems work too well.

      Your other point is well taken, too. China is hoping that Russia and the West take each other out and leave them to pick over the carcass of the world.

      Huzzah!
      Jack

      Like

  2. Thanks. Psy analysis that highlights similarities between
    Russian war criminals and
    GOP criminals was brief, brilliant, and frightening.
    We can’t afford to ignore it.
    Please continue to spread
    the word.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy King!

      Thank you for the kind words. They are much appreciated. I’ve been talking about the criminals that make up the GQP quite a bit. Now that Putin’s making news, it’s his turn in the barrell.

      Huzzah!
      Jack

      Like

    • Howdy Carol!

      I hadn’t seen that one, but it sounds like he’s trying to keep it light and non-threatening. It is priming. Seeing all the pretty young women primes the mind for safety and care the exact opposite of brutal scorched earth warfare that he is conducting in Ukraine.

      Putin is not a military man and it shows. He’s all head games and disinformation. He’s got to gaslight the Russian people into accepting the war as necessary and surgical.

      As Bob pointed out in another comment, he’s not shelling downtown Kyiv. He’s preserving the landmark and government buildings for the transfer of power ceremony so that he can show Russians that it wasn’t a terrible thing.

      Huzzah!
      Jack

      Liked by 1 person

  3. One feature of Putin’s attack on cities in Ukraine which media commentators have been noticing in recent days is that the Russian artillery and bombers have left the center of Kiev, the government buildings and ceremonial items (main square and cathedral) untouched. They wonder why. The answer is photo shoot, the video Putin plans to broadcast when he installs the new government. He needs to be able to say, “Look, see, it’s beautiful, no destruction like you’ve been told …. etc.” The trouble with that fantasy is that President Zelenskyy and his government and people are going to make the Russian troops fight and pay for every inch, every office in every building, and dig them out to kill or capture, or bury them in the rubble. There will be no pretty pictures of an apparently almost peaceful transfer of power.

    I remember our Joint Chiefs pondering what to do if Trump ordered a nuclear strike of whatever size in a fit of pique, and how to refuse to obey. This included more than one observer pointing out that the military officer who carries the “Football” is armed at all times. It seems unlikely that such a position exists in the Kremlin, but at least the Big Red Button is a metaphor, and even in Russia an order to fire has to travel down a chain of command.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!

      This is a really good point. I hadn’t realized that Kyiv was being spared the destruction that is being visited on to other cities.

      One thing that is increasingly clear to me is that Putin is not well versed in military strategy. He’s too much of a controlling personality to leave it completely up to his generals, too. The tactics that worked in Chechnya and Syria aren’t going to work as well in Ukraine in part because the Western world cares much more about Ukraine than they did about either of the other places. Also, Chechnya and Syria are far from being subdued. He mistakes a lack of active fighting for victory. Both are just waiting for an opportunity to strike back. These razed earth tactics just piss people off to a degree that they never forgive, never forget, and always seek revenge.

      Putin’s game is in disinformation and propaganda. He’s trying to wag the dog in Russia. He’s trying to convince the Russians that the war is surgical and clean and necessary. I don’t think it is going to work, but the dictatorial class is going to learn a lot about how to control internet-based information in order to control what their population knows from this no matter how it turns out.

      China already has an advantage in the domestic information war because of the Great Fire Wall and harsh penalties for violating it.

      Huzzah!
      Jack

      Liked by 2 people

      • In terms of military strategy, Putin also has the problem that he is in a hurry and has already lost the “quick, easy, and cheap” window. How long can he maintain this level of mobilization, especially in the face of the sanctions?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Howdy Bob!

          I read the other day that he is thinking of sending those arrested for protesting the war to fight in Ukraine. Talk about a self-defeating strategy. That’s one of his biggest problems: the lack of motivation amongst his own troops versus the hyper motivation of the Ukrainians. Sending those people in will just worsen his problems, but it is an idea that only a sadistic psychopath would enact.

          So far, he hasn’t actually escalated things into really attacking Europe, but he’s threatened to by releasing nuclear fallout from Ukraine’s power plants or actually using his own nukes. He is attacking civilians and targeting the refugee routes. How long before he starts the widespread use of thermobaric bombs, chemical weapons, and attacking the supply routes of Ukraine? If and when he shoots down an American or European supply plane or foreign volunteers are killed in the fighting, real questions about escalation will have to be answered.

          Huzzah!
          Jack

          Liked by 1 person

            • Howdy Bob!

              I think there were plenty of Warner Bros cartoons based on this premise. Here come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly. Luckily, he’s fooled exactly no one.

              Putin is committing crimes against humanity the way he is besieging Ukrainian cities. It is ungodly. He’s going to force someone’s hand. Hopefully, it will be something like massively arming the Ukrainian armed forces and sending in thousands of volunteers that will finally push Putin out of Ukraine. But, it is only going to get uglier before it gets better.

              We knew about the Jews in concentration camps long before the end of WWII and did nothing to stop it. Here’s hoping we don’t make that mistake again.

              Huzzah!
              Jack

              Liked by 1 person

              • In the immediate sense for Putin the “come into my parlor” offer is a win-win. Like many of his demands in negotiations, he knows that only a fool would accept it. So, because the Ukrainians refuse to go to Russia, he gets to bomb them.

                Liked by 1 person

                • What he’s doing in Ukraine is a crime against humanity. Either we prop Ukraine up, so they can stop him, or we’ve got to threaten him with annihilation, which might not be possible. I just don’t see how this ends if Ukraine loses. Putin will keep going thinking that the West won’t stand up to him, which will eventually trigger a nuclear exchange.

                  I don’t know, maybe Biden can pull China and India into pressuring him, too? Maybe?

                  Other than just completely isolating Russia and Putin and keeping Ukraine armed is there to do?

                  Huzzah!
                  Jack

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • Without risking the ultimate escalation, there isn’t much else.

                    Picture two men who each have a gun at the head of the other. The stakes on a bet that the other guy is bluffing are very high.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • Howdy Bob!

                      Did you have the opportunity to watch this public conversation between Timothy Snyder and a Ukrainian history professor? It is well worth watching because of the history that it reveals, but also Snyder’s unequivocal statement that Putin’s war has so destroyed any chance of help from the West in the future no matter the outcome of the war, that the only other ally they have is China, which is so much “stronger” that Putin will be dependent on them and not an equal partner. Some really great analysis and well informed on the long history of the world.

                      Huzzah!
                      Jack

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Thanks for the link. I’ll watch it tomorrow (It’s late here).

                      I was thinking about Sun Tzu’s statement that the best way of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. One way to do that is for him to fight somebody else. Right now there are an increasing number of western companies either leaving the Russian market or cancelling partnerships there. I heard a report that Putin put a law through the Duma to allow the confiscation and seizure of those assets, rather than allow the owners to sell them. So, the Russian government (Putin) would have to either take over running them, sell them (very cheap) to favored oligarchs, or auction them off. I can picture the Chinese seeing an opportunity to get some of it a fire sale prices, and end up owning a significant portion of the Russian economy. Of course, they wouldn’t be paying in dollars, but in their own currency, which Russia could only spend in China. Sun Tzu would approve.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Howdy Bob!

                      I can’t see how Putin and Russia are anything but the big loser in this. It is the last gasp of the dying USSR. The best Russia can do is be a spoiler for the West.

                      China will see this as an opportunity. Hopefully, we can limit the benefits that they reap for it.

                      The struggle for world resources continues.

                      Huzzah!
                      Jack

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • One way to see Putin is as a ruler who is in charge of an economy almost entirely dependent on extractive resources that must go out of style, gas and oil. Even China will not absorb the fossil fuels that Europe has determined to get away from or get elsewhere for long. They know they have to get off them too, just on a longer time line. Russia and it’s ruler have done nothing toward a post-fossil fuel system.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Unlike other fossil fuel dependent economies, like those of the Middle East. If anything Putin’s war will speed up the European move away from fossil fuels. You know a decision is driven by narcissistic wound, when it so completely works against every facet of the decider’s self-interest. Putin is doing this out of a fit of pique over the dissolution of the USSR and his own isolation from reality.

                      Huzzah!
                      Jack

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Exactly. I expect that the Chinese will take what advantage of that they can while giving minimal actual support for the quixotic enterprise. They may invest in Russia, but not so much in Putin.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Putin’s days are numbered, I think. Anyone who can really help him will wait to see if there are signs he’s going to survive before committing to anything that will really help. On the other hand, Russia will be around a lot longer and there’s worth in making sure it still is producing the things you need it to.

                      Jack

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Assuming that the world does manage to get off fossil fuels without a general economic & industrial collapse, somebody is going to have to shift Russia away from depending on gas and oil for it’s income. I can’t see Putin or anybody of his same way of thinking being the one to do that.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Howdy Bob!

                      Shifting the world away from fossil fuels is going to take more political wherewithal than Putin and many of our politicians have. The biggest obstacle is resisting the corrupting influence of fossil fuel money and the ease of maintaining the status quo.

                      Huzzah!
                      Jack

                      Liked by 2 people

                    • Thanks for the link. It looks interesting. My experience in Africa is that Africans were willing to take Chinese money and the infrastructure they’d build, but they weren’t interested in anything else from them. They actually prefer their European colonial master (except for Belgium and Germany, nobody preferred them) in terms of foreigners. The US was also accepted as being reasonable or accepted. But there is no love for the Chinese.

                      Huzzah!
                      Jack

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • One of the items in that report is that a Congo court is considering cancelling some of the Chinese deals because a lot of the promised infrastructure improvements have not happened. They don’t like getting cheated. Although I know DRC is a big country, they seem to be tearing up some big chunks of real estate with the mining. I wonder about the eventual environmental costs.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • The Chinese don’t have a very good track record with environmental costs. They’re willing to break a few eggs to get what they want. And, they don’t really care about legality, either. They will cheat if they think they can get away with it. And, they don’t think very highly of Black people in general and Africans in particular, so it doesn’t surprise me that they went into the DRC, didn’t deliver, did a lot of environmental damage, and are trying not to pay for any of it. I really don’t like China very much. Respect them. They’re dangerous. But, I don’t care for the country as it is currently constituted.

                      Jack

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Howdy Bob!

                      The history of Africa has been one of exploitation from the time Europeans started the Age of Discovery or Exploration. Discovery of how to exploit the rest of the world for their personal gain. I’ve studied the world before then. Asia and Africa functioned fairly well with trade and exchange between them. There was a more equal exchange between them. Europeans demanded subservience and a one way trade.

                      Huzzah!
                      Jack

                      Liked by 2 people

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