Russian President Vladimir Putin is now showing all the hallmarks of hubris syndrome, says Lord David Owen, who served as Britain’s foreign minister from 1977 to 1979.
Lord Owen, a physician by training, is the author of, among others, “In Sickness and In Power,” a book which is now considered a classic on how physical or mental illness can push political leaders into irrational and reckless acts, thus affecting the decision-making process and the functioning of the state.
His most recent book is “Riddle, Mystery, and Enigma,” which examines 200 years of British-Russian relations.
He spoke to Kathimerini about Putin, the war in Ukraine and whether sanctions will manage to sway the Russian strongman.
You have written extensively on hubris syndrome, and I wonder whether you sense that Putin is exhibiting classic signs of hubris syndrome in the sense that there is no one there to challenge his decisions.
I really think he’s grown very much more isolated and I wonder what has happened. I mean, he’s been through so many different appearances. The helper of the mayor of St Petersburg. Then he goes in and helps [Boris] Yeltsin. Then he shows that he’s got the courage to protect Yeltsin’s family. So Yeltsin makes him president. He wins the presidential elections for the next two elections, probably carries the majority of public opinion with him.
‘I do not think contempt seemed to be a hallmark of his, but now it is. And I think that this bullying approach, this know-it-all approach are dangerous’
I think he’s been popular at times – 2012, after he stepped down from being president and allowed [Dmitry] Medvedev to be president for one period. He comes back to power – and seemed anxious that he might even lose that election year. And ever since 2012, he seems to have been beginning to be a changed personality.
And look at his face. What’s wrong with that face? We’re told it’s plastic surgery that went wrong, or Botox injections. I’m afraid it might be something more troubling. It might well be the face of somebody who is on large doses of steroids. And that’s why he’s afraid of being anywhere near any Covid infection. Because steroids do destroy your immunity, make it much harder for you. And then steroids get at your personality. And I think he’s a different man and the bullying way he talks to his officials, the sort of face that he puts on doesn’t seem to me to be quite in keeping with the Putin that we’ve seen before.
I think it’s all gone to his head, made him contemptuous. I’ve written a lot in the past about hubris and how leaders change, and I think this is a classic case – we’re watching a man changing. I’ve written a lot about the Greek word hubris, and you all know about it, and in ancient Greece, people leaders who became hubristic were seen as dangerous and it was taken very seriously and people were afraid of the consequences of these changes. In the modern world, it’s been hard to make people convinced about this, but I’ve written a lot and I’m convinced that contempt is one of the features that you see in hubristic people, and it’s certainly come into the language and the manner and the behavior of Putin as I watched him over the years. I do not think contempt seemed to be a hallmark of his, but now it is. And I think that this bullying approach, this know-it-all approach are dangerous.
Do you think the Cold War has returned to Europe?
I’m afraid it’s developing into a hot war. I’m afraid this is much more serious than the Cold War period. People – once they start using weapons and killing people, when things don’t go right for them – start to use more powerful weapons, kill more people. This is extremely dangerous and very, very worrying. And we’ve all got to stay united. Greece, a valued member of NATO, is doing well and I hope that you stay absolutely on course with [Joe] Biden and [Antony] Blinken and the American leadership on this issue. We can’t be involved in this battle, but we can do everything possible to help and, at the same time, even take economic sacrifices to make these sanctions really bite Russia.
Do you sense that the sanctions announced are capable of stopping Putin from pushing things further?
I don’t think Putin will take much notice. I think that, slowly, the Russian people will start asking, “Why are we attacking our fellow Slavs, our religious brothers, Orthodox Christians?” And I think there will be more and more questions about the whole basis for this attack and questions about the degree to which President Putin has moved slowly but relentlessly towards being effectively a dictator.
There is only one man who is making these decisions. They don’t carry any democratic weight or legitimacy. And I think they are deeply regrettable. Unfortunately, we face them now and we have to do all we can as a defensive alliance. NATO can’t get involved in this battle. We are a defensive alliance, but we can do our utmost to help the Ukrainian people and we are doing so, and sanctions will draw the attention of Russians to what’s going on because they’re not going to be told the truth by their leader and they will have to focus more and more, and the Russian military [and ask themselves]: “Is this a legitimate war? Is this a war which Russia really wants to be labeled by in history? Or is this a maverick decision from a president who has shown increasingly to be out of touch?” He’s been away in his Covid safe zone, seemingly obsessed about catching Covid, talking to nobody other than a small group of military leaders. And I think he has made a great mistake. It will not be easy. And I don’t think it will be done.