Profiling Putin: Russian President or Global Mafia Boss?

By Pete Shmigel for

“Consider Putin not from the perspective of policy analysis, but from the perspective of forensic psychology”

In the context of Vladimir Putin’s current moves against Ukraine, one of the biggest errors the West can make is to see him through the prism of legitimate statecraft. Namely, Western decision-makers would be wrong in the view that Putin is like other national leaders – a rational actor who similarly seeks strategic and geopolitical advantage for his state.

To normalise Putin in this way risks adopting the wrong responses to his aggression toward Ukraine, NATO and the liberal democratic West. It plays into his hands.

An alternative and more effective approach is to consider Putin not from the perspective of policy analysis, but from the perspective of forensic psychology. In profiling Putin, we better understand his ‘why’ and thereby can counter actions he may next take.

After all, decision-making structures and processes in the Russian Federation, such as an economy based on protection rackets, look very much like the operations of the Mafia. Putin’s state and the Mafia share modus operandi: authoritarian rule, secretiveness and lack of due processes, the use of force over the rule of law, corruption, brutal reprisals against foes, the quest for new operational territories, and patronage.

To act in such a way, and to be the leader of such a society, requires a specific mentality. Francesca Calandra and Antonio Giorgi, academics who study the Mafia, have suggested it requires “the development of a psychological identity that allows the exclusive pursuit of power and widespread control of societies.”

Adriano Schimmenti, another academic on the Mafia, has conducted detailed evaluations of 30 Mafia members convicted of murder and other violent crimes using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist.

Among his findings are that Mafiosi typically have: a very strong capability for compartmentalisation; a lower tendency to psychopathy than among other highly violent criminals; a greater tendency toward high IQs, social adequacy and high engagement with the media and current affairs. Schimmenti suggests that Mafiosi are not somehow blindly sadistic, but rather see victims “as vehicles for psychological release.”

This characterisation resonates in terms of Putin and his regime. There is no inherent conflict – in a Mafioso’s mind – between killing an opponent and being a loving father. Similarly, in Putin’s mind, there seems to be no inherent conflict between, on the one hand, using deadly force against a neighbouring state, or assassinating political or economic competitors, and, on the other hand, seeking credibility on the world stage and maintaining at least the appearance of civic structures.


A key reference is the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) which is the globally-accepted principle authority for psychological diagnoses, and its diagnosis for Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD), which The Mayo Clinic defines as pervasive and persistent disregard for morals, social norms, and the rights and feelings of others. Many of those with APSD can have a weak or non-existent conscience and a superficial or compensatory charm.

Psychiatrists, psychologists and researchers generally agree that APSD is very difficult to treat and is generally life-long.

According to DSM, among ASPD’s diagnostic criteria are:

  • failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviours as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
  • deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
  • aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults, and;
  • lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.

Putin ticks these boxes through: a) a pattern of unilateral and illegal military interventions resulting in thousands of deaths of both innocent Ukrainians, Russians and others; b) huge scale and sophistication in the use of deception and deceit through his propaganda machine and the countless false narratives of the hybrid war, and; c) total lack of recognition of any wrong-doing.

The possible diagnosis ASPD also lets us see why the KGB may have initially seen a young Vladimir Putin as a suitable recruit and why he had a successful career in the espionage agency. As outlined by operational manuals made public, a cornerstone of KGB doctrine was the exploitation of individuals’ vulnerabilities. It also provided a vehicle and basis for legitimising Putin’s potential ASPD.

The weakness of Putin

There lies an important insight for responding to Putin in the current context. As a trumped-up Mafia boss with an underlying psychological condition, Putin’s default setting and his training is to exploit the weakness he sees in others.

Hence, the prerequisite for those who oppose him, or who need to counter his aims, is to show complete resolve and no weakness through forms of recognition or appeasement. The further challenge and opportunity are, in turn, to recognise that Putin is hardly all-powerful and to exploit Putin’s own weakness – the fact that he is highly flawed and acting from those flaws.

Photo Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti, via Associated Press

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