Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, a display of barbaric consciousness, is an example of how inner conflict, the war zone in our psyche, is a force capable of producing a devastating war among nations.
All it takes is one conflicted, politically powerful person—in this case, Russian president Vladimir Putin—to unleash the havoc. By all evidence, he’s very conflicted about Russia’s status in the world. He feels deeply and painfully that his nation has been undermined, beaten down, and humbled by Western powers since the collapse of the Soviet Union’s eastern European empire three decades ago.
Putin has angrily accused the West of encroaching on his borders, but what he really fears are democratic and enlightenment values flooding the minds of eastern Europeans, especially Russians. For him, democracy is a psychological threat to his authoritarian consciousness. Putin himself is a particularly rigid personification of the resistance in the human psyche to the transition from an ego-based, individualistic consciousness to a more holistic one.
Growing psychologically is not what dictators do. If they did, they’d stop being dictators. When we grow psychologically, we create an inner democracy in our psyche where our best self is in charge. From this vantage, authoritarian impulses are experienced as primitive, far beneath our dignity.
Psychologically, Putin is very weak. His vendetta against the West is a symptom of his refusal to let go of the humiliation he has felt about the Soviet Union’s collapse. On the surface, his humiliation appears as lost imperial pride. But beneath the surface, in what is highly neurotic behavior, he’s simply been refusing to let go of his personal suffering. That suffering is not even about the status or plight of Russia. It’s more about his own unconscious willingness to take the sense of humiliation deep into himself and suffer neurotically. His suffering is all about himself, what he’s too weak in a psychological sense to let go of. Now it’s made him a stupid and evil egomaniac.
All peoples have a tendency to identify, in some measure, with their country and it’s standing in the world. Any esteem our country secures is taken by us as validation of our own self. We bask in our country’s glory. It’s even more enticing to identify this way when one’s country has maintained an empire. The Romans, Turks, British, and Russians weren’t happy when their empires collapsed. Ideally, people release their sorrow and get past their grief—providing they’re able to find consoling compensations, perhaps even to identify more with their better self rather than to depend emotionally on the egotistic satisfaction they’ve derived from their country’s alleged supremacy.
Putin’s refusal to evolve has compelled him to blame the West, accusing us of hypocrisy, hostility, and decadence. Obviously, we’re not perfect, but nonetheless his blame still serves as a psychological defense covering up his unwillingness to let go of his painful humiliation. The unconscious defense reads as such: The West is causing my pain and the humiliation of my country. It’s not me. I’m not holding on to a sense of degradation. I’m angry at the West. That proves I don’t want to feel humiliated, weak, or passive. This defense, though, only covers up inner truth.
The war in Ukraine is frequently attributed mainly to Putin’s ethnic-nationalist view of empire. Many scholars have suggested that he’s mainly driven by an instinct to protect the language, culture, and blood of a Slavic heartland from the allegedly corrupting influence of Western values. I believe this gives too much credit to Putin’s ideology, not enough to his psyche.
His psychological conflict is the inner battle between wanting to feel respected while being highly sensitive to feeling disrespected. This means he resonates emotionally with feeling disrespected, which derives from his abandonment of his better self. This is his deadly flaw, his unconscious appetite for this form of suffering. Any decent connection to our better self overrides a mental or emotional disposition to flirt with feeling disrespected. Meanwhile, Putin’s consciousness is so primitive that he believes the West is responsible for the misery he cultivates within himself.
Obviously, the authoritarian mindset prizes political power. Trump was prepared to destroy American democracy to avoid relinquishing such power. Why is this craving for power so compelling? The craving is a false flag, an unconscious psychological defense through which an individual yearns for political power to cover up inner weakness. The weakness is a decrepit state of consciousness through which an individual is unable to connect with a better self that secures the feeling of power and worthiness from within. The weakness derives from inner conflict, namely a person’s inner struggle to fend off the inner critic’s accusations that, at deeper levels in the psyche, he is identified with being a non-entity, a nobody, a loser. Hence, a desperation can arise for worldly power to cover up the neurotic, sometimes psychotic, state of being. In Putin’s case, his attack on Ukraine is an acting-out of his neurotic (if not psychotic) need to deny his emotional identification with this impoverished sense of self.
As a dictator, the stakes are raised for Putin. He needs to feel supreme or grandiose to suppress his sensitivity to feeling disrespected. Grandiosity is a frequently coveted emotion. Billionaires love to feel it. Dictators and white supremacists, too. The creepiest politicians in Washington and greediest players on Wall Street summon this hallucination. Putin is just another villain in the tragedy of human lunacy. He is slaughtering innocents in Ukraine to make Russia great again and ease his own pain. It’s pure evil when people do great harm to others (take note, American oligarchs!) out of cowardly determination to protect their own ego.
Flooded with inner conflict, Putin is bound to experience his world in terms of conflict. All of us tend to see the world subjectively to the degree that we are inwardly conflicted. Perhaps the most painful inner conflict is the one between needing to feel supreme to cover up an unconscious emotional identification with the sense of being a deplorable loser. Putin feels he needs to pose convincingly as a great man; otherwise, he likely senses he would collapse emotionally into nothingness, especially if his dream of a geopolitical resurrection went unrealized. The psychological component was acknowledged by war historian John Keegan in his classic A History of Warfare (Vintage Books, 1994), when he wrote–on page one–“Warfare is almost as old as man himself, and reaches into the most secret places of the human heart, places where self dissolves rational purpose, where pride reigns, where emotion is paramount, where instinct is king.”
Putin doesn’t operate in a vacuum. What about the Russian people? Are they also steeped in inner conflict? Did they unwittingly contribute to the invasion of Ukraine? They have allowed corrupt opportunists, headed by Putin, to take over their country and rob it of much of its wealth. Many of them, it would seem, must have been tormented by painful inner conflict about this highjacking of their country.
Did they not feel helplessly passive and cowardly paralyzed? Looking at their circumstances from an American perspective, the conflict is apparent. Individually, wouldn’t they want to stand for truth, decency, and freedom? They must have wanted to feel good and strong. Yet they’ve been threatened with imprisonment for speaking out. It would seem the only way they could avoid feeling conflicted about the kleptocratic takeover of their country—and now the slaughter in Ukraine—is to behave like sheep, which for humans is obviously a pathetic state of consciousness.
Is it the case that dictator Putin is acting brutishly, yet predictably, through the absolute power that the passivity of the Russian people has bestowed upon him? Is he only being as excessively aggressive as they are deplorably passive? Of course, Russian people must have some weariness with their long, hard history. I don’t want to blame them—only encourage them.
As we go about our daily business, people of all nations can at times feel some degree of inner conflict between the wish to be strong versus the propensity to become emotionally entangled in a sense of weakness and helplessness. We all know what it’s like to feel brave versus fearful, decisive versus indecisive, inspired versus disappointed. Many of Russia’s citizens do want to feel strong and free—yet they’re obviously fearful of challenging their totalitarian overlords. They may wish to be better informed about the Putin regime’s corruption and lawlessness, but perhaps they’re afraid this knowledge will only spawn guilt for their failure to become engaged citizens or reformers.
From the American perspective, people determine the quality of their government according to the degree of freedom they feel from within. The American Revolution succeeded because the people’s righteous aggression overthrew a passive allegiance to despotism.
Many Russians have protested against the war and many more have fled the country. Putin’s evil regime arrests and jails protesters, oppressing the country’s best people. That’s a rendition of what happens in the human psyche. The best of who we are is oppressed by our inner critic, while the weakest part of us, inner passivity, absorbs the punishment as guilt, shame, and fear.
If Russians don’t liberate themselves from their oppressive regime, they’ll suffer even more through an increasing loss of dignity, self-respect, better living conditions, and perhaps, too, what’s worst of all, the dissolution of the “Russian soul,” the people’s spirit, that Dostoyevsky extolled.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society, and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.