Dr. Karyne Messina’s Newsletter — Issue #12: Casualties of War
Understanding Putin’s Mental State, Helping Ukraine, and Cultivating Resilience
Those of us who have been watching the torrent of news from Ukraine find ourselves nervously speculating about how Russia’s vicious act of unprovoked aggression will end. Unfortunately, political pundits and professors of military history agree that none of the possible outcomes appear to be positive. Examining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mental state from my perspective of 30 years of experience as a psychoanalyst leads me to believe that they are right: the prognosis is dire.
Based on publicly available materials, Putin is exhibiting classic signs of splitting and projective identification. These mechanisms, often associated with people diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, are also common traits found in successful authoritarian leaders. (Donald J. Trump and Jair Bolsonaro come to mind.)
By splitting people into absolute categories — making them all good or all bad — Putin cannot integrate various characteristics of people or countries into his thinking. He identifies the U.S. and NATO as bad and his own regime as good. This is because he is in what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position (Spillius, 2007). In this persecutory state, people think others are out to get them. They also employ projective identification as an intrapsychic process in which people who dislike something about themselves find relief by casting the unwanted elements of their persona onto a targeted person or group. Expulsion of these feelings brings fleeting relief but must be repeated — and often escalated — to be sustained.
Elsewhere, I have argued that projective identification enables a person who employs this mental maneuver to blame-shift, labeling the “other” as responsible for negative situations they actually caused themselves. This primitive defense mechanism does not exonerate Putin from his atrocious behavior, but is included here to help people understand the psychological underpinnings driving some of his actions and that may provide important insight about how to approach the situation he has caused.
Specific moments in Putin’s past and his reaction to those events likely formed his drive and behavior. His story has emerged, in fits and starts, over the past 20 years, but a full, objective biography of the man remains elusive. I believe there could be at least two factors we can examine (though I suspect there are many more) that contributed to his decision to wage war in Ukraine.
Putin is the son of survivors of the siege of Leningrad. Nearly one million people died during that 872-day military blockage led by the Nazi Army during World War II. Though Putin was not born until 1952, the siege traumatized his family; his older brother died of diphtheria in 1942. Putin spoke candidly about his family’s experience in the 2000 book First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. He described a bleak postwar existence that included using sticks to chase rats through freezing communal housing stairwells. Armed with this experience, Putin is the epitome of that classic Russian trope, the survivor. No matter the costs, Russia and its people survive.
Putin has been in political survival mode for years, especially since annexing Crimea in 2014.He has shored up national energy reserves, modernized the Russian armed forces, and become fluent in the language of digital warfare. His current war with Ukraine may seem rash and his tactics miscalculated, but I do not doubt that he feels prepared to engage in a drawn-out and bloody battle. Why? To end NATO expansion, certainly, and to re-expand Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe. Also, Putin said in a 2014 speech that his goal was a “reunification” of Ukraine with Russia. This war is the latest manifestation of that endeavor.
Second, people who employ projective identification often believe they — or the people they govern — have been grievously wronged by “others,” and Putin is no exception. In this case, Putin blames the United States for Russia’s fall from global grace in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He is prudently reluctant to engage in all out cyberwarfare — or nuclear war — with the United States, so Ukraine serves as proxy.
Aggrieved and backed into a proverbial corner, Putin may now be at his most unstable and dangerous, and approaching him the wrong way could push him even further. To resolve this conflict before it gets worse, Putin will likely need a way of saving face to deter him from his current trajectory. If he finds himself with no rational escape, he may embark on “gambling for resurrection,” a military historian’s phrase for overreach that proves oneself powerful. Or, he might take some extreme action akin to what Bismarck termed “committing suicide out of fear of death.” In such a desperate act, many more perish than the narcissistic actor himself.
As sanctions expand, oligarchs’ ill-gotten fortunes are frozen, global businesses abandon their interests in Russia, airspace is closed to Russian planes, Russian banks are shut out of global systems, the Russian economy tanks, and prominent Russians and local officials denounce Putin’s war and call for an end to the slaughter, the world finds itself in a more dangerous place than it has been since the last world war. Compromise at this point is not in Putin’s psychological interest. It begs the question: Who, if anyone, can stop him from inflicting global pain?
Remembering the Women and Children of Ukraine
Prayers for Ukraine
From the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family in Washington D.C. Also available here in Ukrainian and English:
Heavenly Father, Your Son taught us “Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called Children of God.” In this time of great worry, we fervently pray that Your Holy Spirit sustain all the people of Ukraine to be vigilant and dedicated to peace and justice. Grant their leaders wisdom and prudence. Yet, may they also have the strength and perseverance to defend their land from all adversity and foreign attacks. Help us all to live according to your Divine Will. O God, our Father, in the days to come, we beseech you to comfort the suffering, heal the wounded, and accept the souls of the faithful departed into Your Heavenly Kingdom. We ask also that the Most Holy Mother of God extend her blessed mantle of protection over our Ukraine. Amen.
And a Jewish prayer from Reuven Kimelman a professor of classical rabbinic literature at Brandeis University.
by Reuven Kimelman
May God grant the Ukrainian people the fortitude
to resist and reverse any onslaught from Russia.
May the defeat of Putin’s army bring about a rebirth of freedom
for the Russian people.
May Russia and its neighbors live together in amity through democracy,
may the hope of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy ring throughout the land —
may all evil (Rishah=Russia) dissipate like smoke,
for the removal of tyranny ushers in the overall reign of God.
Peace for all.
Last month’s newsletter got the conversation going on how women are critical to solving the world’s biggest issues surrounding the climate crisis. As the world watches as the hell of war unfolds in Ukraine, let’s remember that the women and children of that country are being senselessly targeted by the Russian military. As of today, two million Ukrainians (of a total population of 44 million) have fled. Many more have stayed, either to defend their country or to remain with their families.
Safety is not assured for the civilians caught in the crosshairs; we have all seen by now the horrific photograph originally published on the front page of The New York Times, of a Ukrainian woman and her two children dead in a street in Irpin, a town neighboring Kyiv. Photojournalist Lynsey Addario captured that shot and talked to CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell about what was going through her mind as the scene unfolded. Believing she found a reasonably safe place to photograph, the area — nowhere near any strategic military site and a known route for civilians fleeing war — was soon attacked.
What she saw reminded her of her own family. “I’m a mother, and when I’m working, I try to stay very focused….But of course, it was very emotional.” And though Addario felt that it was difficult to photograph the dead, she said that she felt a duty to record the events as they happened, primarily because, she concluded, “This is a war crime.”
Poem: “Arms and the Boy,” by Wilfred Owen
Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.
Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-leads,
Which long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads,
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.
For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.
Source: The Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Jon Stallworthy (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1986)
Our Democracy in Peril: An Excerpt from “Resurgence”
How do democratically elected leaders go authoritarian? Splitting and projective identification are major contributors to what drives leaders accumulate power at all costs. Below, an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Resurgence of Global Populism: A Psychoanalytic Study of Blame-Shifting and the Corruption of Democracy (Routledge, 2022).
Not all populist leaders become authoritarian dictators, but left unchecked, many do move in that direction. Much of the success enjoyed by these men is due to the fact that they have used splitting and projective identification successfully as they unconsciously rid themselves of intolerable internal qualities … [T]he example of the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela serves as a prime example of how populist power can quickly erode a democracy, especially in the hands of someone using these defense mechanisms to shift blame and retain power. Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega still runs his country, but clearly not due to some populist mandate: he has readily abandoned any pretense of serving his citizens in a ruthless bid to remain president.
A hallmark of populist discourse is purposefully vague rhetoric coupled with laser-sharp accusations against specific oppressors, and it is a tactic that served Chavez well and that Ortega continues to exhibit. Both men balance(d) their relationship with their respective countrymen by stoking feelings of persecution, and, especially in Chavez’s case, legitimizing their positions by cultivating relationships with high-profile international supporters. Ortega, meanwhile, has spent the past two decades engaging in verbal warfare and convincing the populace that his various deadly moves to consolidate power and eliminate dissent are part of a greater purpose — to save the people of Nicaragua from outside influence (notably, of the United States) …
Though their style of populism differs tremendously from other world leaders … specifically in that they have taken populism to the authoritarian extreme, Ortega and Chavez share projective identification … Further, though Chavez has been dead since March 2013 — and controversially succeeded by his vice-president Nicolás Maduro — his ascent to power, aided in no small part by his wizardry with words, serves … as a cautionary tale for what could happen in other countries where populism has taken root. Unchecked, what at first blush might appear to be a fringe actor asserting a democratic right to free speech could, under the right conditions, become the next authoritarian demagogue.
Mental Health Notes
If you or someone you know has been struggling to find mental health counseling, it’s not a figment of your imagination: many therapists, especially in coastal and urban areas, are at capacity. The American Psychological Association recently surveyed its members and found that the mental health crisis was only worsening, yet, 65% of respondents indicated that they have no capacity for taking on new patients. Burnout, work-life balance, and changes in demand were part of the survey and revealed that, though demand is soaring, supply just isn’t there.
To help combat this, President Biden proposed in his State of the Union address a plan to increase mental health providers practicing in America. His “Unity Agenda” advocates for getting “all Americans the mental health services they need — more people can turn for help and [there will be] full parity between physical and mental healthcare if we treat it that way in our insurance.”
Green Notes: Developments and Setbacks
Reading List, Ukraine Edition
Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, by Nikolai Gogol.
Though he wrote in Russian, Gogol was born in Sorochyntsi, a village in central Ukraine. These short stories are steeped in local folklore while showcasing Gogol’s style of marrying the macabre and the mirthful.
Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum.
Four million Ukrainians starved to death between 1932–3 during a man-made famine known as the Holodomor, a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger (holod) and extermination (mor). Applebaum presents proof that Stalin orchestrated a calculated effort to murder those Ukrainians he believed posed the greatest challenge to his power and starve an entire ethnic population.