circa 1960: US President John Kennedy and Russian Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Psychoanalysing autocrats

How the West tries to understand its enemies

Artillery Row

With President Joe Biden admitting that nuclear war is more likely than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, what will be the next move of his opposite number in the Kremlin? What avenues of opportunity are open to Vladimir Putin in order to decisively alter the calculus of the conflict in Ukraine? Is he “thinking the unthinkable” by considering the employment of weapons of mass destruction? Will he attempt to escalate the conflict beyond the borders of Ukraine itself? Will he order a general withdrawal of Russian forces to defensive lines? Or will he finally see sense and sit at the negotiating table?

These are just some of the questions which have exercised the minds of the media in the last few months regarding the future trajectory of the war in Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, the imponderables of Putin’s mindset, his personal dynamic with key subordinates, and future politico-military intentions, will also have stretched the minds of Western intelligence services. After all, “intelligence”, as the late Sir Maurice Oldfield, former Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service and inspiration for John le Carré’s fictional character, George Smiley, once reflected, “is about people and the study of people”.

The first dictator to sit in the psychiatrist’s chair was Adolf Hitler

As stipulated by the “intelligence cycle” (the process of developing raw data into finished intelligence) — before information can be collated, analysed and finally disseminated as an intelligence “product” to relevant “customers” — it must first be collected. Espionage, as defined by the Security Service, MI5, is the “process of obtaining information that is not normally publicly available, using human sources (agents) or technical means (like hacking into computer systems)”. The main covert collection agencies who undertake this task for the US-UK intelligence community are the FBI, CIA and NSA, as well as MI5, SIS and GCHQ. Essentially, all are preoccupied with acquiring the intelligence “secrets” and intelligence “mysteries” of hostile foreign states. Intelligence “secrets” are defined as “information that exists, although it may be carefully hidden and protected, but which at least in theory is capable of being found out by an effective intelligence agency”. Intelligence “mysterieshowever concern the future political, strategic or tactical intentions of an adversary which have yet to be played out in the international arena. They exist solely in the minds of foreign leaders and are therefore virtually unknowable until acted upon.

A stumbling block for the US-UK intelligence community in its collective endeavours to fathom the minds of foreign despots and their regimes is, in the words of the 2004 Butler Report into weapons of mass destruction, the hidden limitation of intelligence, namely its “inability to transform a mystery into a secret”. “In principle, asserted the report, “intelligence can be expected to uncover secrets … But mysteries are essentially unknowable: what a leader truly believes, or what his reaction would be in certain circumstances, cannot be known, but can only be judged.” By these criteria, Putin has, since assuming the Russian presidency in 2000, constituted for the West an intelligence “mystery” of considerable opaqueness. 

To reduce the opacity and danger of the “mysteries” posed by such world leaders, intelligence agencies are obliged to collect as many pertinent “secrets” as possible. In the 21st century, this challenge has been made simpler by the ubiquity of the world-wide-web, social media and 24 hour news, all of which produce a mass of “open” source material on the Russian Federation and its leadership. The proliferation of defence and foreign affairs think tanks, their volume of analytical out-put, and the publication of well-researched biographies of Putin, have also assisted the West and its intelligence services in their quest to comprehend the man who at present is the foremost destabilising factor to world peace. 

Although the collection processes by which these covert agencies acquire secret intelligence have historically caught the popular imagination, little attention has been paid to the less glamorous but vitally important analytical dimension of their clandestine work. In particular, few are conscious of the psychological profiling of foreign leaders conducted by the US and UK intelligence communities.

The first dictator to sit in the psychiatrist’s chair, as it were, was Adolf Hitler. Recipient of two lengthy studies commissioned in 1943 by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner of the CIA, the Nazi leader ultimately defied easy analysis. Whilst these reports were deemed to be “remarkably accurate in some respects”, post-war British intelligence was less convinced of their efficacy, confessing that, “We lack the evidence on which to attempt an analysis of Hitler’s mental processes; it is, indeed, open to doubt whether a satisfactory judgement on this difficult topic will ever be reached.” 

The failure by Whitehall’s central intelligence machinery to penetrate the Führer’s cranium was admitted to by the late Noel Annan, one-time provost of King’s College, Cambridge, peer of the realm, and chronicler of the “great and the good”. As a wartime intelligence officer attached to the Cabinet War Rooms, Annan wrote reports for the “high table” of the British secret state, the Joint Intelligence Committee. In his fascinating wartime memoirs, Changing Enemies, Annan confessed that, “Perhaps our greatest, and yet most comprehensive, failure was to get inside Hitler’s mind and think like him.” To “fathom the workings of Hitler’s mind”, so Annan concluded, would have “required intelligence of a very high order”.

Yet despite this poor wartime track record, since 1945 UK-US intelligence has enthusiastically embraced psychological profiling as part of its routine intelligence duties. Whilst we know very little of MI6’s secret undertakings to acquire unique insights into the minds of the world’s despots, the Secret Intelligence Service’s American counterpart, the CIA, has been considerably more open about its psychological profiling programme.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the CIA sought to penetrate the minds of a veritable rogues’ gallery of international heads of state. These ranged from Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev to Moammar Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. The Agency’s confidence in the value of psychological profiling was expressed, both physically and bureaucratically, by the later creation of the Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, whose raison d’être was to compile political personality files on foreign leaders.

The accuracy and utility of CIA profiling was also attested to by former president Jimmy Carter in his political autobiography. Reflecting on his 1978 Camp David summit with the Israeli and Egyptian leaders, Prime Minister Menachem Begin and President Anwar Sadat, Carter paid tribute to the invaluable assistance furnished by personality profiles of the two statesmen. In helping prepare for the summit and in shaping his negotiating strategy, these psychological vignettes were invaluable, claimed Carter. 

It would perhaps be no exaggeration to state that the continuance of mankind owes something to the influence and impact of CIA psychological profiling. Sixty years ago this month, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. The nuclear brinkmanship between the US and USSR over the stationing of nuclear-tipped weapons on the Caribbean island of Cuba, what later became known as the Cuban missile crisis, lasted thirty-five days and has been the subject of countless books, documentaries and films. 

Whilst we now know that President John F. Kennedy was in receipt of human intelligence, HUMINT, from the Soviet military intelligence officer turned MI6/CIA agent, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky; held regular meetings with Ex-Com, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council; and received avuncular advice from the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan — what is less recognised is that Kennedy already possessed, at the time of the crisis, a previously compiled psycho-analysis-cum-political profile of his opposite number in the Kremlin.

Prior to their first face-to-face meeting in Vienna in June 1961, President Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev both received personality profiles of one another. Whilst the Russians perceived Kennedy to be a pragmatic liberal, Khrushchev was described by the CIA in its “personality sketch” of the Soviet leader, as a vain, crude, powerful and frank self-made man, who was essentially a gambler and dissembler. 

Khrushchev was also regarded as “a person with little capacity for detecting nuances and subtleties”, who despite being “a man of action and decision when he can see issues clearly”, could become “confused and hostile when confronted by shades of grey”. Overall, the CIA concluded that, “ … behind the exterior [of Khrushchev] lay a shrewd native intelligence, an agile mind, drive, ambition, and ruthlessness.” Undoubtedly, these insights into the mental universe of a world leader, who a year later would threaten to trigger a global catastrophe, would have been of inestimable value to Kennedy during the tense weeks of negotiation which brought the Cuban missile crisis to a non-violent conclusion.

The Presidium and Central Committee no longer exist to restrain Putin’s actions

Yet those who desire a peaceful resolution to the war in Ukraine by means of bi-lateral diplomacy between the US and Russia, should be wary of drawing historical parallels with the Cuban missile crisis. Whilst the threat of nuclear escalation by the Russians is a recurring theme, the leadership dynamic in Moscow today is markedly different to that which existed sixty years ago. In the 21st century, Russia is an autocracy personified by one man, Vladimir Putin. In 1962, however, Nikita Khrushchev’s premiership was circumscribed by a policy of “collective leadership”. The Presidium and Central Committee acted as regulators and brakes on Khrushchev’s actions. The extent of their authority was demonstrated in October 1964 when Khrushchev was ousted from power by the Party’s ruling elite, ostensibly for his lack of collegiality and the arbitrariness of his decision-making. 

During the Cold War such palace coups were of keen interest to intelligence analysts and international relations experts alike, who collectively indulged in “Kremlinology”. This encompassed the study and analysis of the personalities, policies, dynamics and power bases of the apparatchiks within the “closed society” of the old Soviet Union. Yet in the 21st century no such bodies as the Presidium and Central Committee exist to moderate or restrain Putin’s actions. With the disappearance of these inbuilt Cold War-era checks and balances so too have the incidental insights they afforded Kremlinologists. This in turn has made second-guessing Russian intentions a vexing and dangerous business for western spooks.

In light of his autocratic rule, the revanchist policies of his regime, and his record of challenging the existing rules-based international order, it is therefore a virtual given that the CIA has supplied its Washington “customers” with a profile of Putin. This proposition is supported by the Agency’s long tradition of producing such assessments during times of international instability. In 2008 the Pentagon’s own Office of Net Assessment produced a psychological study of the Russian president which, inter alia, suggested he suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism spectrum disorder that has (it is claimed) significantly influenced the autocrat’s statecraft.

In 2013, an open source psychological profile of the Russian leader, Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, co-authored by Fiona Hill, the British-born one-time National Security Council advisor to President Donald Trump, was published. Hill, who gave evidence against the discredited president at his first impeachment trial, listed “six identities” that comprise Putin’s “mental outlook” and “world view”, namely that he is a statist, a man obsessed with history, a survivor, an outsider, a free marketer and a man who, psychologically, never left the KGB.

A trawl through the internet reveals a kaleidoscope of opinion on Putin’s character and psychology. Across the spectrum he is perceived to be arrogant, ambitious, ruthless, pragmatic, manipulative, narcissistic, authoritarian, hypochondriacal, cautious, deliberate, paranoid, commanding, assertive and just plain psychopathic. To complicate matters still further, since the invasion of Ukraine speculation as to the Russian president’s health has been rife. It has been claimed that he has Parkinson’s disease, or is dying of cancer. Both claims are unfounded, based more on wishful thinking than on any concrete evidence. 

Intelligence services refer to this potpourri of information as “noise” or a “mass of irrelevant signals” whose volume “is so great and so contradictory that none of it makes sense”. Today, Putin is enveloped by such a cacophony of noise. Just the latest in a series of despots who have perplexed western spies and journalists alike, Moscow’s “strong man” is akin to Adolf Hitler inasmuch as “despite the millions of words written about him”, Putin like the Führer can be considered as “one of the most difficult characters in history when it comes to determining the truth … ” 

Eighty-three years ago this month, Winston Churchill delivered a radio broadcast via the BBC entitled “The Russian Enigma”. In the aftermath of the signing of the non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union two months earlier, Churchill wished to address the likely course of Soviet foreign policy. Yet as the First Lord of the Admiralty was forced to admit, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia”, for in his considered opinion, the Soviet Union remained to the Western mind, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. In the first quarter of the 21st century, Putin’s Russia continues to remain something of an enigma, its future intentions a riddle, and its national leader an intelligence “mystery” whose opaqueness remains as murky as ever.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover