Analyzing Vladimir Putin: Is Joe Biden Dealing With A “Normal” Adversary?

Assessing an adversarial head of state is not usually a psychiatric task. For the most part, such high-value strategic appraisals need not be directed by any deliberate search for “abnormality.” Among other things, this means dispensing with any tangible differentiations between “normal” and “abnormal.” This dispensation is not because findings of “abnormality” would be insignificant, but because the human subject’s injurious traits could present in obscure or unforeseeable ways.

In some cases, these qualities could prove even more portentous than any alternative findings of “normalcy.”

 Even without considering Russia’s barbarous aggression against Ukraine,[1] the ordinary world of Washington-Moscow relations would remain sorely complicated. In essence, US President Joe Biden will need to understand that even a presumptively “normal” and rational Vladimir Putin could pose existential threats to the United States. In certain cases, a seemingly “normal” Putin could pose even greater peril than a glaringly “abnormal” Russian president.[2]

It will be important for US decision-makers to differentiate between a Putin who is “merely” evil from a Putin who is evidently abnormal, irrational or “mad.” Though there are no intrinsic or “essential” meanings to these three potentially overlapping descriptions, current strategic theory centers most conspicuously on judgments of “irrationality.” More precisely, an irrational national decision-maker is one who does not value national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences.

               By definition, all such matters will be multifaceted and bewildering. And nuance will be critical. At first glance, specific designations of “normal” and “abnormal” could appear sharply delineating or mutually exclusive.  Nonetheless, US President Joe Biden could discover that true qualities of abnormality, irrationality and madness are more correctly thought of as isolable points along a common continuum than as distinct analytic alternatives.

A critical task for Mr. Biden will be to make this discovery before it is “too late.”

                There is more to analyzing Vladimir Putin than first meets the eye. Sigmund Freud wrote about the Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1914) while tracing assorted connections between “abnormal” and “normal.” Inter alia, he was surprised to learn just how faint the supposed lines of any meaningful conceptual demarcation could be. Exploring parapraxes, or slips of the tongue, a phenomenon that we now popularly call “Freudian slips,” Freud concluded that specific psychopathologic traits could sometimes be identified in seemingly “normal” persons.

               Such ironic or counter-intuitive identifications could occasionally prove to be routine.  

               After World War II and the Holocaust, American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton interviewed Nazi (SS) doctors. Perplexed, as a physician, that such monstrous Nazi crimes could ever have been justified as “hygiene,” Lifton was determined to answer some basic questions. Most elementary of these was the query:  How could the Nazi doctors have managed to conform large-scale medicalized killing of innocent and defenseless human beings with otherwise normal private lives?

 In similar fashion, US and other world leaders ought now to inquire about Vladimir Putin and his all-too-many Russian underlings, enablers and otherwise witting allies:

 How can these people witness the daily aggression and genocide[3] now being inflicted in Ukraine by thousands of Russian soldiers, and continue “per normal” with their own day-today lives?[4]

               There is more. It was not unusual for Nazi doctors to remain good fathers and husbands while systematically murdering Jewish children. These defiling physicians (doctors sworn by Hippocrates to “do no harm”) were capable of supervising genocidal mass murders six days a week (on Sundays they “normally” went to church). Now, we must ask along similar lines of questioning: 

Are Russian soldier murderers[5] also able to remain good fathers and husbands?

               Robert Lifton carried on his examinations of the Nazi “biomedical vision” as a Yale Professor and Fellow of the Max Planck Institute for Research in Psychopathology and Psychotherapy. For the American-Jewish physician, this examination was not just some random undertaking of unstructured intellectual curiosity. Rather, adhering to widely-accepted and reason-based protocols, Dr. Lifton embarked upon a series of very carefully rigorous scientific studies.

               To the physician, the Oath of Hippocrates pledges that “I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art.” When asked about this unwavering duty, most interviewed SS doctors felt no contradiction. In Nazi pseudo-biology, “The Jew” was “a source of infection.” Ridding society of Jews, it followed, was a properly “anti-infective” medical goal. They saw all such murderously irrational “excisions” as a manifest “obligation” of “healing,” “compassion” and “hygiene.”

               Do Vladimir Putin and his compliant subordinates have similarly “cleansing” views of Russia’s Ukrainian genocide? Based on readily available evidence, this is not a difficult question.

               Resembling their Nazi forbears, perpetrators of the ongoing Russian genocide in Ukraine must prepare to consider Putin-ordered mass murders as a crime sometimes justifiable by metaphor. Accordingly, millions of Holocaust murders already offer irrefutable evidence of just how easy it is to subordinate science and reason to the most preposterous forms of doggerel.[6] With any such willful subordination,[7] otherwise normal military behavior may be giving way to once unimaginable levels of inter-state predation.

There is more. The duality of good and evil within each individual person is a very old idea in western thought, most notably in German literature, from Johan Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Nietzsche to Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Always, in studying this clarifying literature, we may learn that the critical boundaries of caring and compassion are most genuinely not between “normal” and “abnormal” persons, but exist within each individual person.  As Putin-ordered Nuremberg-category crimes continue to escalate,[8] it is high time to recognize that the porous walls of human normalcy and abnormality can sometimes allow a single individual to navigate effortlessly between polar extremes.

Most generally, the relevant oscillations take place between cruelty and altruism, between violence and calm, between right and wrong, between reason and anti-reason.

 Truth ought never be taken as political contrivance. It is, after all, an exculpatory trait, in both psychiatric assessment and international relations. Still, at any identifiable moment of human history, the veneer of human civilization has remained razor thin. Conspicuously, it has always been brittle, fragile, tenuous; ready to crack along multiple and mutually-dependent interstices.

               After attending the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, political philosopher Hannah Arendt advanced the sobering hypothesis that evil can be ordinary or “banal;” that it can be generated by the literal and seemingly benign absence of authentic thought.[9] Unsurprisingly, this novel interpretation of evil was widely challenged and disputed following the trial, but it nonetheless remained rooted in certain classical views of individual human dualism, particularly Goethe’s Faust. Moreover, Hannah Arendt’s specific idea of evil as mundane was further reinforced by various-earlier studies of nefarious human behavior in the crowd, the herd, or the mass and especially in overlapping works of Soren Kierkegaard, Max Stirner, Arthur Schopenhauer, Gustave Le Bon, Carl G. Jung, Elias Canetti, and Sigmund Freud.

               In all of these thematically-related writings, a common focus is placed upon the potentially corrosive impact of group membership and identity on individual human behavior. Freud’s own best contribution remains his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921). The seminal psychologist-philosopher  already knew that Reason is at perpetual war with Anti-Reason, and that political dictatorships will inevitably favor the latter.[10]

               Robert Lifton likely knew all this. Still, he sought something more, some other isolable mechanism by which the ordinary or “normal” evildoer could render himself or herself “abnormal.” Ultimately, he discovered this esoteric mechanism in an intra-psychic process soon labeled as “doubling.”

               Different from the traditional psychoanalytic concept of “splitting,” or what Freud preferred to call “dissociation,” doubling is the means whereby an “opposing self” begins to replace portions of the “original self,” in effect usurping and overwhelming that original self from within. When this happens, we may learn further, the opposing self is able to embrace evil-doing without restraint and while the original self seeks to remain “good.”

                Significantly, for optimum understanding of Putin crimes against Ukraine, doubling may permit Russian evil doers to avoid personal guilt and thus to live simultaneously within two coinciding but adversarial levels of human consciousness.

               As a “maneuver,” however unwitting, doubling allowed Nazi doctors to be murderers and decent family men at the same time. In similar fashion, doubling is likely the way that shameless Putin-functionaries are able to reconcile the ordinariness of their public lives with derivative expressions of personal cruelty. As with Nazi doctors and the Jews, it is plausible that “know nothing” Putin-followers regard the harms being inflicted upon “sub-human” Ukrainians as not merely pleasing, but as a welcome form of national “healing.”

Truth may sometimes emerge through paradox. To wit, there can be an abnormal side to normalcy. For the future, in thinking about how best to continuously protect human beings from yet another genocidal national leader, all states and peoples would be well-advised not to think of such leaders in narrowly polar terms – that is, as merely “normal/abnormal” or “good/evil.”

               In the Third Reich, doubling was not the only reason that “normal” individuals were able to become complicit in crimes against humanity.[11] Elements of “groupthink,” especially an overwhelming human need to belong, have always expressed a dominant decisional influence on behavior. Clinically, at least, whatever sorts of explanation might ultimately emerge as most persuasive, humans may have to accept that the most odious and contemptible national leaders have oftentimes been clinically “normal.”

               Such conclusions ought to be kept in mind as President Joe Biden prepares to better understand the “psychopathology of normalcy.” In support of such necessary preparations, he ought to focus more diligently on tangible fact-based explanations[12] than on simplistic or conspiratorial ones.[13] Analyzing Vladimir Putin has already become an urgent task for America’s scholars and national leaders, but it is a task wherein US assessments of adversarial normalcy need not imply any diminished or diminishing dangers. For example, even a completely “normal” Vladimir Putin could underestimate American military reactions and/or overestimate his own forces’ capacity to fend off American nuclear reprisals.

               There is more. When violence-stoking hatreds are channeled by the Russian President into the crudely belligerent nationalism[14] of  “Mother Russia,” they could  precipitate a catastrophic international war.[15]

               In the final analysis, truth will prove exculpatory. “Happy are those who still know that behind all speeches are the unspeakable lies.” This cryptic observation by Rainer Maria Rilke, the Dionysian[16] poet (a poet generally associated with dense philosophical issues of “being”) laments the manifold lies of individual leaders like Vladimir Putin. Though the virulent particulars of such lies are ever-changing around the world, their overall generality of meaning remains constant. 

Such generality also represents an inherent trait of science, medicine and law.[17]

 Why does the famous Edward Munch “scream” (see image above) resonate so tellingly across the world? It is because so many “normal” human beings are able to grasp thatin a world itself presumptively abnormal, not to be abnormal could represent a special form of madness.[18]Now, amid the ongoing horrors of Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine, it is this unique form of madness that is prospectively most worrisome. Prima facie, such worries are especially understandable in a world brimming with complex nuclear weapons.

Bottom line: Even if Vladimir Putin is judged more-or-less “normal,” there will remain a great many sui generis perils for US President Joe Biden to worry about.[19] Though both abnormality and irrationality could render Putin increasingly dangerous to world order, even national leaders who would remain normal and rational amid evident global absurdity could bring our aching planet to the outer limits of misfortune. After experiencing or witnessing the Putin-inflicted horrors of Ukraine violence, humankind’s only palpable hopes lie latent in certain still residual fusions of truth, intellect, justice[20] and prudence.[21]

To capably discover and clarify these fusions now defines civilization’s absolutely overriding obligation. Failing such discovery and clarification, all of us could be forced to hear the final piercing “scream” of an irreversible human despair. In principle, at least, it should be an easy decision.


[1] See: RESOLUTION ON THE DEFINITION OF AGGRESSION, Dec. 14, 1974, U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 U.N. GAOR, Supp. (No. 31) 142, U.N. Doc. A/9631, 1975, reprinted in 13 I.L.M. 710, 1974; and CHARTER OF THE UNITED NATIONS, Art. 51. Done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945, 59 Stat. 1031, T.S. No. 993, Bevans 1153, 1976, Y.B.U.N. 1043. Significantly, Russia’s current aggression – resembling Nazi Germany’s attacks on assorted nations between 1939 and 1945, made possible subsequent crimes of genocide.

[2] Do you know what it means to find yourselves face to face with a madman,” inquires Luigi Pirandello in Act II of Henry IV, “with one who shakes the foundations of all you have built up in yourselves, your logic, the logic of all your constructions? Madmen, lucky folk, construct without logic, or rather, with a logic that flies like a feather.”

[3]  Some of these egregious Russian crimes nay not be literally genocidal in strict jurisprudential terms, but nonetheless qualify as “genocide-like” crimes. For precise characterization of the concept “genocide-like crimes,” by this author, see:  Louis Rene Beres, “Genocide and Genocide-Like Crimes,” in M. Cherif Bassiouni, ed., INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL LAW: CRIMES (Dobbs Ferry, NY:  Transnational Publishers, 1986), pp. 271 – 279.

[4] Political philosopher Hannah Arendt would have said “banal lives.”

[5] International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, comprise: (1) laws on weapons; (2) laws on warfare; and (3) humanitarian rules.  Codified primarily at The Hague and Geneva Conventions, and known thereby as the law of The Hague and the law of Geneva, these rules seek to bring discrimination, proportionality and military necessity into belligerent calculations.  On the main corpus of jus in bello, see: Convention No. IV, Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, With Annex of Regulations, Oct. 18, 1907, 36 Stat. 2277, T.S. No. 539, 1 Bevans 631 (known commonly as the “Hague Regulations”); Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, Aug. 12, 1949, 6 U.S.T.  3114, T.I.A.S.  No. 3362, 75 U.N.T.S.  85; Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, Aug. 12, 1949, 6 U.S.T.  3316, T.I.A.S.  No. 3364, 75 U.N.T.S.  135; Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, Aug. 12, 1949, 6 U.S.T.  3516, T.I.A.S.  No. 3365, 75 U.N.T.S.  287.

[6].  Twentieth-century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gassett clarified the generic bases of such a leader-induced declension in his classic The Revolt of the Masses (1930):  “It’s not that the vulgar believes itself to be superexcellent and not vulgar, but rather that the vulgar proclaim and impose the rights of vulgarity or vulgarity itself as a right.

[7] During his presidential tenure, too little attention was directed toward Donald J. Trump’s open loathing of science and intellect and his corresponding unwillingness to read. Ironically, the Founding Fathers of the United States were intellectuals. As explained by American historian Richard Hofstadter: “The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics and law to solve the exigent problems of their time.” See Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), p. 145. A conclusion ought to surface: How far we Americans have fallen.

[8] Regarding Nuremberg-category crimes, see: AGREEMENT FOR THE PROSECUTION AND PUNISHMENT OF THE MAJOR WAR CRIMINALS OF THE EUROPEAN AXIS POWERS AND CHARTER OF THE INTERNATIONAL MILITARY TRIBUNAL.  Done at London, August 8, 1945.  Entered into force, August 8, 1945.  For the United States, Sept. 10, 1945.  59 Stat. 1544, 82 U.N.T.S. 279.  The principles of international law recognized by the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and the judgment of the Tribunal were affirmed by the U.N. General Assembly as AFFIRMATION OF THE PRINCIPLES OF INTERNATIONAL LAW RECOGNIZED BY THE CHARTER OF THE NUREMBERG TRIBUNAL.  Adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, Dec. 11, 1946.  U.N.G.A. Res. 95 (I), U.N. Doc. A/236 (1946), at 1144.  This AFFIRMATION OF THE PRINCIPLES OF INTERNATIONAL LAW RECOGNIZED BY THE CHARTER OF THE NUREMBERG TRIBUNAL (1946) was followed by General Assembly Resolution 177 (II), adopted November 21, 1947, directing the U.N. International Law Commission to “(a) Formulate the principles of international law recognized in the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and in the judgment of the Tribunal, and (b) Prepare a draft code of offenses against the peace and security of mankind….” (See U.N. Doc. A/519, p. 112).  The principles formulated are known as the PRINCIPLES OF INTERNATIONAL LAW RECOGNIZED IN THE CHARTER AND JUDGMENT OF THE NUREMBERG TRIBUNAL.  Report of the International Law Commission, 2nd session, 1950, U.N. G.A.O.R. 5th session, Supp. No. 12, A/1316, p. 11.

[9]See Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963).

[10] On this key theme, see especially Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952). In a diagnosis that seems to fit perfectly with America’s recent struggles with Trump-inflicted horror, Jaspers summarizes a lethal problem of “normalcy.” In essence, notes Jaspers: “The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.”

[11] Crimes against humanity are formally defined as “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population before or during a war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated….”  See Charter of the International Military Tribunal, Aug. 8, 1945, Art. 6(c), 59 Stat.  1544, 1547, 82 U.N.T.S.  279, 288.

[12] But see Karl Jaspers, Reason and anti-Reason in Our Time (1952): “There is something inside all of us that earns not for reason, but for mystery – not for penetrating clear thought but for the whisperings of the irrational….”

[13] Recall, in this connection, Bertrand Russell’s timeless warning in Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916): “Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth, more than ruin, more even than death.”

[14] Authoritative legal assumptions concerning solidarity between states concern a presumptively common legal struggle against aggression and genocide. Such a “peremptory” expectation, known formally in law as a jus cogens assumption, had already been mentioned in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 CE); Hugo Grotius, 2 De Jure Belli ac Pacis Libri Tres, Ch. 20 (Francis W. Kesey., tr, Clarendon Press, 1925) (1690); and Emmerich de Vattel, 1 Le Droit des Gens, Ch. 19 (1758).

[15] For early accounts by this author of nuclear war effects in particular, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986). Most recently, by Professor Beres, see: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018). https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy

[16] In German, “Existenzphilosophie.”

[17]In law, responsibility of Russian President Vladimir Putin for such Nuremberg-category crimes is not limited by his official position or by any other requirement of direct personal actions.  On the underlying principle of command responsibility, or respondeat superior, see: In re Yamashita, 327 U.S. 1 (1945); The High Command Case (The Trial of Wilhelm von Leeb) 12 LAW REPORTS OF TRIALS OF WAR CRIMINALS 1, 71 (United Nations War Crimes Commission Comp. 1949); see: Parks, COMMAND RESPONSIBILITY FOR WAR CRIMES, 62 MIL.L.REV. 1 (1973); O’Brien, THE LAW OF WAR, COMMAND RESPONSIBILITY AND VIETNAM, 60 GEO.L.J. 605 (1972); U.S. DEPT OF THE ARMY, ARMY SUBJECT SCHEDULE No. 27 – 1 (Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Hague Convention No. IV of 1907) 10 (1970).  The direct individual responsibility of leaders for crime s of war, genocide and genocide-like crimes is unambiguous in view of the London Agreement, which denies defendants the protection of the Act of State defense.  See AGREEMENT FOR THE PROSECUTION AND PUNISHMENT OF THE MAJOR WAR CRIMINALS OF THE EUROPEAN AXIS, Aug. 8, 1945, 59 Strat.  1544, E.A.S.  No. 472, 82 U.N.T.S.  279, Art. 7.  Under traditional international law, violations were the responsibility of the state, as a corporate actor, and not of individual human decision-makers in government or the military. Today, even if Putin could argue persuasively that Russian military violations in Ukraine were being committed without his express authorization, he would still remain legally responsible.

[18] This form could center on oft-cited differences between n rationality and non-rationality in world politics. See, by this author, Louis Rene Beres (Israel):  https://besacenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/516-Israeli-Security-and-Enemy-Rationality-Beres-Author-approved-version.pdf

[19] See by this writer, Louis René Beres, at Air and Space Operations Review, USAF (Pentagon):  https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/ASOR/Journals/Volume-1_Issue-1/Beres_Nuclear_War_Avoidance.pdf

[20] Regarding considerations of justice in these matters, neither international law nor US law advises specific penalties or sanctions for states that choose not to prevent or punish genocide by others. All states, most notably the “major powers” belonging to the UN Security Council, are bound, inter alia, by the peremptory obligation (defined at Article 26 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties) known as pacta sunt servanda, that is, to act in continuous “good faith.” This pacta sunt servanda obligation is itself derived from an even more basic norm of world law commonly known as “mutual assistance.” This civilizing norm was famously identified within the classical interstices of international jurisprudence, most notably by eighteenth-century Swiss legal scholar, Emmerich de Vattel, in The Law of Nations (1758).

[21] The seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarks prophetically in Pensées: “All our dignity consists in thought…It is upon this that we must depend…Let us labor then to think well: this is the foundation of morality.” Similar reasoning characterizes the writings of Baruch Spinoza, Pascal’s 17th-century contemporary. In Book II of his Ethics Spinoza considers the human mind, or the intellectual attributes, and – drawing further upon René Descartes – strives to define an essential theory of learning and knowledge.

Prof. Louis René Beres
Prof. Louis René Beres
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.