Narcissism, characterized by grandiosity, pride, egotism, and a lack of empathy, has increasingly been studied by psychologists and political scientists to understand its impact on political leaders and their decision-making. This phenomenon has received particular attention in analyses of authoritarian rulers due to their frequently observed tendency toward self-aggrandizement, lack of concern for others, and projection of infallibility.
Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia since 2000, is one leader who has often been characterized as exhibiting strong narcissistic traits and motivations. This article will provide an in-depth analysis of how narcissism shapes Putin’s political behavior and decision-making. It will begin with an overview of narcissism as a psychological construct and then review evidence indicating Putin displays numerous narcissistic tendencies. The main body of the article will examine how Putin’s narcissism influences his leadership style, use of power, relationships with in-groups and out-groups, self-image, and strategic decisions concerning domestic and foreign policy. It utilizes Putin as a focused case study to demonstrate the far-reaching implications narcissism can have when concentrated in the highest position of political power.
Narcissism as a Psychological Construct
Narcissism is a personality trait reflecting an individual’s predominant focus on the self and prioritization of egoistic needs and desires over concern for others. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) delineates narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which is characterized by “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy” (1). Freued originally conceptualized narcissism as excessive self-love rooted in an underdeveloped, immature libido (2). Later psychoanalytic thinkers described it as a defense mechanism for profound underlying insecurity and fragile self-esteem (3).
Modern psychological research frequently utilizes the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) to assess narcissistic tendencies and rank individuals on this attribute. The NPI evaluates narcissism as a continuous personality trait on which all people fall on a spectrum from low to high. Individuals scoring high on the NPI exhibit tendencies including grandiose self-views, fantasies of success and power, exhibitionism, exploitation of others, entitlement, lack of empathy, envy, and arrogant attitudes (4).
A number of experts have delineated different subtypes of narcissism that manifest in distinct behavioral patterns. A key distinction is between grandiose/overt narcissism associated with extroversion, aggression, and impulsivity versus vulnerable/covert narcissism reflecting hypersensitivity, anxiety, and feelings of inadequacy (5). Another framework distinguishes agentic narcissists focused on power and achievement from communal narcissists prioritizing warm communal relationships (6). Furthermore, narcissism has been linked to Machiavellian manipulation of others and psychopathy characterized by callousness, erratic impulsivity, and antisocial behaviors (7).
Evidence of Putin’s Narcissism
Though he has never undergone formal clinical evaluation, many political analysts and psychologists have observed Putin exhibiting numerous behaviors associated with narcissism based on his public statements, interviews, policies, and interpersonal conduct over his two decades in power. For instance, leadership expert Barbara Kellerman has described Putin as “off-the-charts narcissistic,” stating: “he sees himself as the leader of the biggest power on the planet, he sees himself as infallible” (8).
Putin displays a clear fixation on power and adulation that has intensified the longer he has ruled Russia. He has constructed a personalist regime dedicated to his own exaltation through totalitarian control of information, suppression of dissent, and punishment of critics (9). Putin expects deference from all around him; subordinates often appear fearful in his presence. In staged photo ops such as the infamous pictures of him shirtless on horseback, Putin projects an image of virile masculinity and liberated ego (10).
The grandiose self-importance Putin conveys aligns with narcissistic tendencies like entitlement, perfectionism, and envy. He portrays himself as the only leader capable of restoring Russia’s glory after the Soviet collapse, which wounded national pride and left Putin feeling Russia had been disrespected (11). Putin resents NATO expansion and EU encroachment on what he perceives as Russia’s rightful sphere of influence. He also harbors personal vendettas against those he believes showed disloyalty or insufficient fealty such as oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was jailed after funding Putin’s political opponents (12).
Putin exhibits arrogance and rage when defied, along with vindictiveness toward those he perceives have insulted or criticized him. Domestic opponents often end up imprisoned, exiled, or killed. On the international stage, Putin harbors resentment toward Western powers like the US for not treating Russia as an equal since the Cold War’s end. He strives to regain superpower parity by challenging Western dominance and violating international law with acts of aggression (13). Putin cannot abide disrespect or perceives slights to himself or Russia.
A lack of empathy is also characteristic of narcissistic leaders like Putin. He demonstrates little remorse for the human costs of his repressive policies and military actions. Putin remains detached from the suffering of ordinary Russians and seems largely indifferent to public opinion (14). He appears to view both Russian citizens and people in territories like Chechnya or Ukraine as either tools to enhance his own power or obstacles to be crushed. Putin’s lack of empathy facilitates his ruthlessness against perceived enemies.
Overall, the combination of Putin’s grandiose self-image, excessive need for admiration, hypersensitivity to criticism, fixation on power, willingness to overstep norms and constraints, and lack of remorse for harming others align closely with expert profiles of narcissistic leaders. The remainder of the article will analyze how these traits shape Putin’s governance of Russia and decision-making in domestic and foreign affairs.
Narcissism’s Influence on Putin’s Leadership Style
The broad contours of Putin’s leadership style show strong indications of a narcissistic orientation focused on projecting strength, demanding absolute loyalty, and securing his personal supremacy. Putin has constructed what amounts to a cult of personality that pervades Russian society and culture. His annual address to parliament is treated like a “tsarist speech from the throne” during which deputies are not permitted to interrupt or stray from approving applause (15). Giant posters and billboards of Putin dominate public spaces, while state television constantly covers his official activities and rehashes Putin’s masculine exploits (16).
This propagandistic myth-making serves to enhance Putin’s grandiose public persona as a flawless strongman guiding Russia’s resurrection. It provides narcissistic supply to satisfy his cravings for adulation and reinforcement of self-importance. As analysts note, “For Putin, the national interest essentially means what is good for himself and for preserving his power and position” (17). Pursuit of ego gratification takes primacy over the needs of everyday Russians.
Putin demands absolute loyalty from advisors and subordinates in the pursuit of his personal interests. His circle of close confidants is small and long-serving; turnover in his inner circle is exceedingly rare since that could bring alternative perspectives threatening Putin’s authority (18). Open disagreement with Putin has been described as “political suicide” by insiders (19). This insistence on personal loyalty over competence or restraint on power has enabled the escalating corruption that enriches Putin’s cronies while ransacking the state (20).
According to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Putin exhibits a narcissistic desire “to be seen as the leader who restored Russia’s glory, in some cases by illegally annexing the territory of other countries… He buys into his own propaganda. And he seems to get high on his own supply” (21). His paranoid intolerance of dissent and obsession with total information control indicate fear of challenges to his inflated but unstable self-image. Putin’s quest for ongoing narcissistic supply to validate his grandiosity makes power an end in itself rather than a means to improve Russian society.
Narcissism and Putin’s Use of Power
Putin’s wielding of power, both formally and informally, strongly reflects his narcissism and associated values of hypermasculinity, draconian order, and little tolerance for legal or ethical constraints on his actions. Putin has concentrated near-absolute authority in the presidency, neutering all other institutions and checks that could challenge his autonomy (22). Parliament, political parties, and courts all answer to Putin with minimal independent powers. He has also built a vast security state apparatus with intelligence services like the FSB and military forces focused on suppressing internal dissent more than fighting actual enemies (23).
Putin similarly co-opts big business to serve his regime’s interests through informal power networks. Loyal oligarchs are granted permission to operate profitable enterprises so long as they finance Putin’s patronage machine, while independent businessmen face hostile takeovers or imprisonment if they resist Putin’s expanded state capitalism (24). This fusion of authoritarian politics with crony capitalism permits maximum extraction of wealth to keep the regime and Putin personally awash in cash.
Both formally and informally, Putin diligently eliminates any alternative sources of power or dissent which could pose an ideological threat. Regime resources are concentrated on monitoring and repressing intellectuals, activists, journalists, NGOs, and opposition leaders to prevent coordinated resistance (25). Perceived threats are met with disproportionate punishments like arbitrary arrests, torture, forced labour, or exile. Putin desires a public performance of domination over anyone who would speak truth to his power.
Putin similarly rejects international institutions and laws that could restrain his freedom of action or require transparency and accountability. He denigrates Western-style checks and balances as weak and chaotic compared to his centralized authority model (26). Putin withdrew Russia from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights to avoid its judgements against his repressive measures (27). He exploits institutions like the UN veto and Security Council to shield himself from consequences for international law violations.
Thisdismissal of institutional restraints and norms paired with merciless responses to opposition demonstrates Putin’s narcissistic sense of impunity and entitlement. His power serves to enrich himself and a close circle of loyalists while suppressing citizens’ basic rights and freedoms. Putin’s narcissism requires expressions of strength and domination as proof of his potency and Russia’s might.
Narcissism’s Role in Putin’s In-Group/Out-Group Dynamics
The ingroup vs. outgroup distinctions Putin draws, both domestically and internationally, also reflect his narcissistic tendencies. Narcissistic leaders exaggerate solidarity and allegiance toward preferred in-groups which flatter and support their egos, while scapegoating out-groups as targets for blame and aggression (28). Putin displays a paranoid preoccupation with enemies real and perceived who can be punished to unify his in-group supporters.
Domestically, Putin delineates ingroup loyalists and outgroup critics/traitors. His in-group comprises fellow intelligence veterans, religious conservatives championing “traditional values,” working class Russians nostalgic for Soviet-era nationalism, and opportunistic officials who back Putin as their patron. He directly appeals to this base’s nostalgia for Russian imperial grandeur and hostility toward Western liberalism (29). They embrace the heroic image of Putin as their champion restoring conservative Russian identity after the cultural chaos and humiliation of the 1990s.
In contrast, Putin designates urban educated Russians favoring global integration, anti-corruption activists, NGOs with foreign contacts, and anyone questioning his absolute power as dangerous internal out-groups. Labeling them as foreign agents, extremists and traitors provides cover for crackdowns and arrests by security forces. The jailing of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny epitomizes Putin’s vindictive efforts to personally destroy those who dare criticize his regime and expose its criminality (30). Putin is intensely insecure about dissent that punctures his cultivated aura of total control and competence.
Internationally, Putin categorizes countries as either loyal allies Russia protects or threatening rivals. Alliances like Belarus, Kazakhstan, Syria and Venezuela appeal to Putin’s ego since their autocratic leaders depend on his support and validate his “strongman” image (31). In contrast, powerful democracies in NATO and the EU who criticize Russian aggression and violence represent humiliating out-groups undermining Putin’s grandiosity. Their liberal values directly compete with Putin’s conservative nationalist vision.
Just as with domestic critics, Putin copes with these perceived international slights by lashing out. He frequently accuses the US and EU of arrogance and hypocrisy for imposing alien values on others, while justifying his own coercive interventions in countries like Ukraine and Georgia as upholding Russian prestige (32). Putin’s brutal military campaigns and cyberattacks serve emotionally to soothe his ego by punishing those who fail to offer sufficient respect.
In sum, the polarized worldview Putin projects between Russophile in-groups versus threatening out-groups enables demonization policies shoring up his power. But it also generates volatile international tensions since marginalized out-groups may eventually unite or retaliate against Moscow.
Narcissism’s Role in Putin’s Self-Image Management
An excessive need for affirmation of a grand self-image is a core narcissistic trait clearly exhibited by Putin in his hunger for flattering propaganda, aversion to unpleasant facts, and sensitivity to perceived disrespect. Having centered Russia’s political system and culture around his cult of personality, Putin perceives threats to his projected image as attacks on the regime’s legitimacy. This produces an obsessive information control campaign and massive institutionalized deception.
As Peter Pomerantsev describes, “The aim is not necessarily to convince or persuade, but to arouse emotions of aggressiveness and defensiveness, replacing political language with hypnotic shows” (33). State media bombard audiences with emotive disinformation portraying Putin as a bare-chested strongman defending Mother Russia from Nazi-like aggressors (34). All facts conflicting with his macho leadership brand must be suppressed since reality itself becomes the enemy of Putin’s fragile mirage.
This insistence on distorting reality to prop up his chosen self-image indicates Putin’s underlying doubts and insecurities about living up to this contrived persona. Accurate critiques provoke rage and retaliation in response to the narcissistic injury. Putin refused to even utter the name of opposition leader Navalny in public until he absolutely had to address major protests over his attempted assassination (35). This avoidance revealed Putin’s extreme aversion to acknowledging disapproval or errors which would discredit his flawless image.
Putin’s supporting propaganda apparatus is dedicated first and foremost to shielding his supreme status, rather than national interests or citizens’ welfare. Officials know praising Putin should take priority over delivering genuine progress. The system bends to the sole purpose of meeting his narcissistic craving for external validation. But this collective massaging of Putin’s ego means policies and conditions in the real Russia continue deteriorating (36).
Overall, Putin’s hypersensitive drive to project an untouchable image produces an elaborate sham completely disconnected from problems ordinary Russians face. The resulting culture of fakery and fear breeds further political stagnation. But acknowledging policy failures would require admitting imperfections intolerable to Putin’s narcissistic insecurity.
Narcissism in Putin’s Strategic Policymaking
The final sphere illuminating Putin’s narcissism is the strategic dimension of his key policy choices regarding domestic reform and foreign policy. Putin opts for flashy displays and geopolitical gambits over substance to nourish his grandiose yet delicate ego. His decisions meant to reclaim Russia’s superpower status often undermine actual national interests.
On domestic policy, Putin favors demonstrative symbolic moves over deeper reforms that could improve citizens’ welfare. For instance, he chose going through with extravagant projects like the Sochi Olympics and Crimean Bridge to show off Russian revival, even as funds were needed for healthcare, education and infrastructure (37). Putin similarly announces flashy pledges like mass home construction and payments to mothers that make headlines but are then quietly abandoned (38).
These “Potemkin village”-style policies provide short-term ego boosts for Putin without challenging vested interests in the corrupt system he built. Real reforms would require relinquishing control and sharing credit, which narcissists like Putin cannot abide. Meanwhile, living standards for ordinary Russians continue declining despite the Kremlin’s triumphalist propaganda (39). The elites benefit while the masses endure poor governance.
In foreign policy, Putin’s choices are similarly driven by a narcissistic desire to prove Russia’s strength and status as a global force requiring the West’s respect. His speeches berate Western powers for not treating Russia as a peer since the Soviet Union dissolved (40). Provocative policies like invading Ukraine, assassinating defectors abroad, and interfering in U.S. elections aim to force international attention while getting revenge for perceived past humiliations (41).
Yet by defying laws and norms to announce Russia is “back,” Putin has produced blowback severely damaging its economy and diplomatic isolation. The Russian military is overstretched and its outdated capabilities shown up by the Ukraine quagmire (42). These reckless policies generate more trouble for Russia while benefiting only Putin’s image of machismo. His narcissistic ego demands center stage regardless of consequences for the country’s actual security or prosperity. The result is theatric grandstanding substituting for strategy.
Vladimir Putin’s political leadership of Russia over two decades provides a potent case study of how excessive narcissism distorts decision-making with adverse effects. His grandiose self-image and associated craving for validation spur propaganda glorifying himself, repression of critics, divide-and-conquer polarization between in-groups and out-groups, avoidance of difficult realities, and pursuit of flashy geopolitical stunts over real reforms. These behaviors rooted in narcissism have progressively isolated Putin internally, generated international backlash damaging Russia’s interests, and repeatedly sacrificed his own citizens’ welfare to satiate his ego.
While all leaders possess some degree of narcissism, Putin represents an extreme manifestation and its dangers when fused with authoritarian power. His psychological dependence on external narcissistic supply to stabilize his inflated but fragile self-esteem makes Putin deeply averse to accountability, advice, or accurate feedback. This has severely undermined rational and ethical leadership in favor of impulsive actions serving to reinforce his grandiose yet delicate identity. Understanding the distortions arising from excessive narcissism is crucial for comprehending Putin’s motives and predicting his future behavior as Russia continues struggling under his counterproductive policies. More broadly, the case of Putin highlights the need for democratic checks and oversight of supreme executive power to prevent destructive narcissistic impulses from bringing calamity.
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