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Empathy and Vladimir Putin

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  March 18, 2014 11:42 AM

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Today Vladimir Putin signed legislation that officially annexed Crimea into Russia. His actions in Ukraine over the last three weeks have prompted a slew of articles that try to guess at what the Russian leader is thinking, including a piece two Sundays ago in Ideas, "Putin's Long Game? Meet the Eurasian Union

For more perspective on the inner-workings of Putinís mind, last week I interviewed Zachary Shore, a historian of international conflicts who specializes in analyzing why historical actors act the way they do. His newest book, ďA Sense of the Enemy: The High-Stakes History of Reading Your Rivalís Mind,Ē offers several concepts that are useful for trying to divine Putinís motives. First, Shore recommends taking a position of ďstrategic empathyĒótrying to think the way your opponent thinksóand he argues itís important to avoid the trap of trying to fit todayís events into a historical pattern (which is to say, the annexation of Crimea does not portend the creation of a new Soviet Union). I spoke with Shore by phone and the following transcript has been edited for clarity.

IDEAS: In your new book you argue we go wrong when we try to understand current events by looking for historical patterns. In the case of the Russian invasion of Crimea, why do you think itís wrong to think of Putinís move as an attempt to re-Sovietize the region?

SHORE: People want to find patterns, itís a natural human tendency. The problem is, sometimes we latch onto one type of data point and then form a certain type of pattern. Another person can come along and collect a different set of data points and conclude the person has the opposite pattern of behavior.

Some people look at this situation and say Putin wants to recreate the Soviet Union because heís expanded before, into Georgia. Others say heís almost never done that, and his pattern is one of repression at home, more caution abroad.

What Iím saying is that this type of thinking is not helpful precisely because you can always find a different pattern. Thatís not going to tell you what you really need to do.

IDEAS: If historical patterns arenít helpful, what ways of thinking are?

SHORE: Pattern breaks. The tagline of my book is, ĎPeople can read their enemies better not from their pattern of past behavior, but from their behavior at pattern breaks.í

A pattern break is a time when the normal routine of daily business is totally upended, out of the ordinary, often a crisis, but not always. You want to look at how a person acts at those pattern break moments. When they have to make a choice in such moments, [it tells you] a lot about their underlying drivers.

IDEAS: And thereís a difference between meaningful pattern breaks, and meaningless pattern breaks?

SHORE: A meaningful pattern break is one where someone actually imposed a cost upon himself. If theyíre willing to do that, then itís far more indicative of an underlying driver.

IDEAS: Is Putin paying enough of a price for invading Crimea that this can be considered a meaningful pattern break?

SHORE: This current episode is not exactly a pattern break moment, however, there are some costs. Itís just not clear theyíre all that great, because the West isnít able to do all that much.

IDEAS: Another historical analogy that has been used to think about Putin in Ukraine is the worldís appeasement of Hitler in Europe in the 1930s. Why is that the wrong analogy?

SHORE: Hitler had a dogma that was clearly articulated. There is no indication that Putin has a dogma and an ideology thatís driving him in the way Hitler did. I think heís a nationalist, thereís no question about that. He wants to restore Russian power and influence. The idea that heís not a rational calculator? Iím more doubtful than that.

IDEAS: Another concept you develop in your book is Ďstrategic empathy.í Do you see a failure of strategic empathy in the way American leaders have been thinking about Putin?

SHORE: We have a tendency to see aggressive behavior as part of an essential nature, and to undervalue the role of context and circumstance. If you read Putinís statements, itís clear he and others have a very different view of whatís happeningóthat the Ukrainian leadership is not legally in power, that they didnít adhere to the agreement. His viewpoint is not illegitimate.

You cannot assume heís aggressive by nature until you have further evidence. If he moves into the rest of Ukraine, starts meddling around where there is no real danger or need, where they donít have any plausible legitimate claim, then yeah, that would be more revealing. But at this point, they havenít rolled in tanks, exactly.

IDEAS: Do you see a solution?

SHORE: To make Ukraine neutral, like Austria. Make it not allowed to join NATO, and not be dominated by Russian influence in Kiev, but keep a neutral Ukraine, so nobody gets it, but it can receive assistance from everyone.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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