Want to know Vladimir Putin’s secrets? They’re all right on his face.

June 10, 2015

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“I looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes,” Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) joked after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, “and I saw three things: a ‘K’ and a ‘G’ and a ‘B.’”

McCain was referring to Putin’s earlier career as a skilled operative in the Soviet Union’s intelligence services, stationed in Dresden, East Germany. Despite McCain’s quip, however, Putin seems to lack a key spy asset: an opaque poker face.

Others have attempted to read Putin’s ever so expressive visage. President George W. Bush’s first face-to-face meeting with Putin in 2001 was one much-cited example. After looking into the Russian leader’s eyes, Bush declared, he now had “a sense of his [Putin’s] soul.” After the meeting, Bush said he had found the Russian leader to be “very straightforward and trustworthy.”

In contrast, Vice President Joe Biden, during a 2011 Moscow visit, told Putin to his face, “I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” An unfazed Putin, Biden recalled during a later conversation with the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, replied with a smile, “We understand one another.”

Reading a person’s emotions is crucial to fully understanding them and it is true that people’s faces best reflect and communicate their emotions. There are two reasons why. First, facial expressions are universal — so much so that even a person born blind emotes similarly to everyone else. Facial muscle activity and the emotions they reveal aren’t learned; they’re hard-wired into the brain. Second, the face is the only place in the body where muscles attach to the skin, which provides quick, real-time information about how someone is feeling.

So what does Putin’s face reveal about his personality and likely actions as Russia’s leader?

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President Vladimir Putin at a meeting with cultural figures in Yalta, Crimea, August 14, 2014. REUTERS/Sergei Chirikov/Pool

The place to start is anger. Putin’s most frequent look involves his eyes narrowing in anger, an aggressive-approach emotion that conveys the impulse to strike out against others. That other can be Georgia, Ukraine, Russia’s internal dissidents – the list is long.

Beyond an aggressive hitting impulse, anger is an emotion about wanting to control one’s own destiny and make what one perceives as progress. The anger grows to the extent that the barriers to progress are perceived as unjust.

Secretary of State John Kerry described Russia’s meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine as “a 19th-century act in a 21st-century world.” But Putin’s emoting is decidedly here and now. He frequently brings up Russia’s traditional symbol of a bear, for example, in asserting that the West will “always try to put it in chains.”

Putin’s second most frequent emotion is fear, displayed through raised eyebrows and a mouth pulled wide. Again, this emotion greatly informs how Putin sees the world and how, through the filter of his personality, Russia is likely to act. For Putin, there is a deeply felt sense of a need to escape perceived danger to protect both himself and his country.

New Russian President Vladimir Putin and former president Dmitry Medvedev watch honor guards marching during an inauguration ceremony in Cathedral Square at the Kremlin in Moscow

President Vladimir Putin (L) and former President Dmitry Medvedev at an inauguration ceremony in Cathedral Square at the Kremlin in Moscow, May 7, 2012. REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool

Fear can make a person freeze and unable to act. But not when it’s in combination with anger. That potent mix suggests survival itself is at stake, which spurs assertiveness despite possible adverse consequences.

Third, Putin can, at times, exhibit smirking contempt — particularly for President Barack Obama and what Putin may view as Obama’s legalistic, overly nice view of the world order.

Yet apart from anger and fear, the other most important emotion to bear in mind in understanding Putin’s psychological makeup is sadness — a sense of disappointment, regret, of feeling forlorn. With Putin, that feeling shows up in closed or lowered eyes, as well as in the down-turned corners of his mouth.

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President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, August 15, 2014. REUTERS/Ivan Sekretarev/Pool

As inexorable, as relentless and inflexible as Putin has proven to be in his interactions with the West, so, too, is Russia’s geopolitical isolation. The nation remains forever on Europe’s periphery, never fully belonging. There’s an essential dourness to Eastern Europe that I fully understood only after visiting Russia, the Baltic States, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Given his fundamental wariness, Putin possesses part of this regional trait. He is ever alert to danger, always on duty.

Throughout Eastern Europe, I also noticed a lack of genuine smiles. There seemed a widely shared basic belief that a happy person is an unaware fool.

A joke my translator told me after I gave a speech in Estonia seemed to epitomize this. A man receives a visit from his fairy godmother, the story goes, and she says he can have whatever he wishes for. The catch is that his biggest enemy will get twice the amount of whatever he wishes for. So what does the man request? Why, that one of his eyes gets gouged out.

That bleak joke tells a lot, I believe, as to what the West should actually see in Putin’s face and personality. He is a man who expects tribulations and is ready to claw his way through them. Whatever the precarious, even dubious, reward.

That both the Russian and Ukrainian economies may continue to buckle under the weight of extended hostilities pales in comparison to keeping the bear free.

29 comments

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I’m not a big fan of Putin but let me tell you.What a full load of BS this article is !!!!! LOL !!!

Posted by ForexOracle | Report as abusive

“Secretary of State John Kerry described Russia’s meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine as “a 19th-century act in a 21st-century world.”

What would Kerry do if Americans living abroad were maltreated in Mexico or Canada? Hopefully, we’d meddle.

And while we’re talking about meddling, surely America’s highly educated public would have already today’s NY Times article titled, “Survey Points to Challenges NATO Faces Over Russia”. According to this article, “Only 38% of Germans believed that Russia was a threat to neighboring countries except Ukraine”. Additionally, “58% of Germans believe that their country should use force to defend another NATO ally”.

For alternative perspectives on Russia, one should read George F. Kennan’s frequent writings on NATO and the Eisenhower Institute’s article: WWII Soviet Experience – http://www.eisenhowerinstitute.org/about  /living_history/wwii_soviet_experience. dot

Posted by neilc23 | Report as abusive

I could not admire Putin more. His most classic expression is not anger, fear, or sadness. Its indifference, indifference towards whatever the West dishes out. He is always calm and composed.

And its this composure that seems to ruffle every Americans feathers!

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

Putin’s a cretin and Russia is a menace, but this is just ridiculous psychobabble.

Posted by EndlessIke | Report as abusive

Mr Putin has a really great sense of humor , he joked and laughed at Bush,he laughed at Hillary , Obama, Biden, told jokes about McCain on national TV. At the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy back in 2007 he openly told the west what he thinks should not be happening in the world where couple of loonies in the front row laugh at his speech.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

He is not the only one you can read His face. The President has a very telltale face and so does the Clintons. Putin is just human like all of us are. I don’t think he looks any more evil that the rest of the politicians we have any office. He just doesn’t care if you see that he is bored, upset, mad or Etc.

Posted by Justmy | Report as abusive

A Kardashian in men’s clothes… I am simply sick and tired of this face.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

This drivel is so misguided and ignorant of the entirety of history before 2013 that I wish there was a “rating system” for opinion article authors.

Would save a fair bit of time for everyone.

Posted by nsanity | Report as abusive

Great article. Explains a lot, and why Putin is a loose cannon when on the world stage.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

LOL

Posted by Krishu | Report as abusive

I would just like to add, Putin is not the only person in the world who feels anger and fear… I just saw the bio for the author. He sells facial coding… so people pay him to look at someone’s face and tell them if they are angry, fearful or not? LOL. Pay me to do this please.

Posted by Krishu | Report as abusive

“Want to know Vladimir Putin’s secrets?”

Not really. He’s a pathetic leader. Russia’s economy is now smaller than Italy’s. Largest country on earth (12 time zones) stretching from Alaska to Iran…. produces the same value of goods and services as Italy. GDP per capita in Russia is now lower than Czech Republic or Greece.

Putin is a failed leader of a failing state. His “Secrets” could not be less interesting.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Interesting look at Vladimir Putin. Putting yourself in another’s shoes for awhile is a sage bit of advice.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Looks like your translator knows Aesop fables way better than you do.

Posted by Silverion | Report as abusive

I know 9 smart Russians. And all 9 of them have left Russia.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Russia was not protecting Russian citizens in Crimea and Donetsk. The were Ukrainian citizens who speak Russian like over half of Ukraine. Some may be ethnically Russian but I’m an ethnically English American but I have no protection from the crown of England. THEY ALL HAVE UKRAINE PASSPORTS!!!

Posted by BillySD | Report as abusive

OMG, I have never wasted my time reading such horrible stuff… I guess if these expressions were those of an American President, they would be expressions of heroism, courage, of political skill, and expressions of a great communicator.. shame on Reuters.com for publishing this nonsense…

Posted by vics | Report as abusive

What about his greatest secret? It’s the botox, stupid

Posted by Gr8expectations | Report as abusive

Dear Reuters Censors: a collection of my censored comments one day will be published in “Brave New World: Reuters in the New era of Censorship” book. So carry on.

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive

Usually people start to talk about other people’s personalities (they very rarely know anything about) when they become aware they cannot do anything about the person in question. Is this article another manifestation of that – of real inability to find out anything about Putin’s secrets, which tempts people to look for shortcuts – hey, I know what the guy wants, just look at his face? Silly.
That’s not to say Putin does not deserve criticism – he does. But the Putin-centrism of too much of the current Russian debate is, I think, a sign of a very important misunderstanding among Western pundits and media. They seem to think Putin is their only problem; take care of Putin (learn to read his face etc.), and the Russian people will “change their ways” and “start to behave.” Wrong. Throughout his rule, Putin – for good or bad – has not done a single thing ordinary Russians would not want him to do or that would run contrary to their interests. So if someone thinks Russian conduct is a problem, they have a problem with the Russian people, not the Russian president. If you are aware about Russian people’s interests and are ready to accommodate them (to an extent), you don’t need to try reading Putin’s faces.

Posted by KirillEltsov | Report as abusive

Among all his facial expressions,one common feature is “Determination”and “Fearlessness” that’s what he proved through out Ukraine crisis.He is always ready “For come what may”Though I am proud American,I appreciate him!for qualities of a leader of the nation.He never changes or go back.He studies and proceed with clarity like Obama…though success depends on many factors unimaginable.Some how he has proved successful to win hearts of the people of his country.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

@Dan Hill……..too much time on hands?

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

Pathetic! If this is not a propaganda article, what is?

Posted by MimiXX | Report as abusive

Interesting to speculate that the pessimistic, brooding Russian character is the reason that Putin’s popularity in Russia remains sky high. Apparently, destroying the Russian economy and reducing the standard of living for all Russians is just “playing to the base”. Same strategy used by redstate governors here in the USA who refuse to accept Federal subsidies for their citizens under Obamacare.

If they all just committed suicide, think how happy everybody would be!

Posted by JeffHB | Report as abusive

Transparent BS about Russia!

Well done Reuters!

Posted by dalitis | Report as abusive

It’s also important to remember that Putin is a common criminal. As John McCain once said, Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country.

Putin is the leader of a vast oligarchic mob of criminals looting the natural resources of their nation for their own personal gain. He stirs up trouble with the West as device for distracting the Russian population from his many financial misdeeds.

Posted by Otherbrother | Report as abusive

Putin is a criminal with a criminal mentality. All the propaganda is just a cover for the greatest criminal organization in the history of the world. The face of fear is the fear of punishment for crimes committed.

Posted by quilltwo | Report as abusive

Strange that such a misanthrope can attain and command the leadership of one of the largest states on earth. The Russians must be shown only the retouched photos. But hey, show me a world leader who looks unfazed when they don’t get their own way, and I’ll show you a world leader with some payback already in the pipeline.

Could we get as phrenology reading, or how about some seer casts his horoscope or reads the cards. I’d bet that and American, reading facial expressions with no knowledge of the Russian mentality or temperament, is just asking for another dose of ‘cakewalk’.

Posted by Charlesequine | Report as abusive