The Game of Thrones: Psychological analysis of the roots of cooperation and conflict between Erdoğan and Putin
Dr. Ekaterina Egorova, President of Political Profiler
Dr. Elizaveta Egorova, CEO of Political Profiler
Copyright © 2016 Dr. Ekaterina Egorova and Dr. Elizaveta Egorova. All rights reserved.
“The world has a leadership problem. Today there are two and a half leaders in the world. One is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the second is Putin, and the other half is Obama.”
– Yigit Bulut, Advisor to PM Erdoğan
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin rule states with an imperial past, dream of an imperial future, and have chosen a monarchical model for governing. Analysts who intentionally call the elected presidents of Turkey and of Russia “Sultan” and “Czar” actively discuss this model.
Besides the imperial paradigm, many researchers and journalists note the similarity of Erdoğan’s and Putin’s personal characteristics. Their long-term relationship is explained by this similarity. It is doubtful that these relations were ever absolutely sincere, but at least they were constructive and economically mutually beneficial.
We used several different methods for comparative analysis of the personality of Erdoğan and of Putin: the study of their biographies, speeches, videos, and expert assessments – primarily by Turkish researchers from the leading universities of the world. Also, we used the computer program VAAL allowing evaluation of the personal characteristics of political leaders based on content analysis of spontaneous speech in interviews.
There is a striking resemblance between Erdoğan’s and Putin’s biographies. Both were born in their countries’ “second city capitals” into low-income families. Both leaders were socialized on the street, where they fended for themselves, defended their turf, and learned, in the school of hard knocks, their first lessons in machismo, coarse rhetoric, and hard pressure. Erdoğan and Putin are interested in sports, both talented athletes with decent victories in their youth. Erdoğan was elected mayor of Istanbul and Putin worked as vice-mayor of St. Petersburg, hometown boys made good. Both leaders embroider religious motifs into their political rhetoric. Erdoğan and Putin have been both President and Prime Minister, having engineered the mechanism for the extension of power in their transition from one position to the other.
Erdoğan and Putin share psychological affinities: charisma, a similar communicative style characterized by a mix of blunt street talk and sharp political language, toughness, and a tendency to aggressive behavior. Both politicians love power. Seeking to control everything, they are prone to “manual governance” of the country; ready to quickly and firmly respond to any real or perceived offense, they fearlessly confront other leaders – public, private, or global.
The likeness of their personal characteristics, understood by many analysts as a basis for cooperation between Erdoğan and Putin, requires deeper consideration. Not every psychological trait, presenting simultaneously in both leaders, promotes friendship and cooperation.
Obviously, in their youth, Erdoğan and Putin had low self-esteem. However, today they have overcompensated. This is a common phenomenon among political leaders. Their real successful career and achievements cause them to overestimate themselves in their projections of the future.
For a long time now, since at least 2003, Putin has regarded himself as the leader of the Russian world, basking in his perception that Russians from СIS countries and around the world gaze upon him with hope. In his mind, he is already more than the President of Russia; he is a messiah with a mission – to restore Russia to the world stage in its former role as a superpower. Similarly, but more spiritually, Erdoğan “sees himself as a leader struggling not only for Turkish people but also for the cause of all Muslims worldwide”.
This self-perception renders Putin and Erdoğan each particularly sensitive to the behavior of the United States or of the European Union, behavior that is often considered by these leaders as disrespectful to them or to their countries.
Putin’s and Erdoğan’s self-confidence increases daily as they stay in power. Popular support, in polls and in public, confirms this self-confidence and electoral victories strengthen it.
The combination of self-confidence and high need for power makes them more and more dominant leaders. This characteristic is important for understanding the behavior of Erdoğan and of Putin. Once finding power, they are not going to lose it. They both ardently love power and this motivation is the strongest in both of their needs hierarchy.
Researchers found Erdoğan’s high need for power in a number of studies.  A. Vatandaş calls him “hungry for power”. According A. Gorener и M. Ucal, “his higher power scores indicate he became …more ruthless in asserting his positional power”. In regard to Russian president A. Immelman notes, “Putin is a highly dominant leader”.
Their findings are consistent with ours. Erdoğan’s need for power is 11.1 and Putin’s is 16.2 (the value for an ordinary person in the VAAL system is 0.0). That is, Erdoğan’s need for power is eleven times higher, and Putin’s sixteen times higher, than that of the man in the street. This need is fully fulfilled by both leaders through their domestic activities to concentrate and direct power – to keep the reins in Erdoğan’s and in Putin’s hands.
The high need for power is reflected in the behavior of the political leader. M. Hermann emphasizes that leaders with a high need for power have a strong desire to control both people and events, and to influence others; they prefer loyal advisers to independent thinkers; they feel at ease and confident in conflict; prone to personal decision-making, they like to be self-assertive in negotiations. These leaders perceive conflict as normal for international relations.
Putin and Erdoğan have excellent fighting qualities. They can easily enter into conflict and are ready to engage to the end. Putin has said that the Leningrad streets taught him to hit first. Conflict is acceptable, even comfortable, for these two power-hungry politicians. They are willing to lock horns in battle, even when not equally matched.
Jenkins notes that Erdoğan became “increasingly aggressive; mixing threats and insults in an unprecedented barrage of attacks against everyone from advocates of Kurdish cultural rights to the IMF, the EU, the oppositional media, Israel, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the World Economic Forum.”
Reliance on loyal advisers is common to Erdoğan and Putin. Putin trusts a narrow circle of advisers and experts. These are time-tested seasoned people, and he is extremely reluctant to invite in new experts. Again similarly, but more vulnerable, G. Jenkins finds that Erdoğan “came to rely almost exclusively on a coterie of trusted advisors who were more notable for their personal loyalty than their acumen”. Simply consider the epigram on the title page, read the hyperbole, hear the flattering words of Erdogan’s adviser, Yigit Bulut.
Loyal advisers are unable to criticize their imperial patrons. The reasons are legion: desire to keep their position in office, fear of angering the boss, lack of guts. Erdoğan’s advisers know well his painful reaction to dissent with him or criticism. 
The high need for power enormously impacts the personal style of decision-making of the Russian and Turkish presidents. Putin and Erdoğan, after receiving information from their advisors and experts, still choose for themselves. All the talk about the decisions by a “collective” Putin, a new version to the Soviet-style Politburo, is baseless. Like Putin, Erdoğan “effectively concentrated all the decision-making processes in his own hands”.
Decision-making is a complex process influenced by many factors: external pressure, uncertainty, stress, ambiguity of situation biases, and emotions. Often the decision made is not the right one. “Hence, it should come as no surprise that states often engage in self-defeating policies”.
To understand how political leaders make foreign policy decisions, we need to analyze a number of particular personal characteristics. The most important is the conceptual complexity, which “indicates the ability of the leader to differentiate, describe, or discuss other people, places, policies, or ideas in a complex manner”. 
According to E. Cuhadar et al., Erdoğan has low conceptual complexity. The combination of this low with his high self-confidence prompts him to make decisions relying on intuition, attitudes, and prejudices. Erdoğan is not sensitive to the context information and often do not take into account information that contradicts his ideas. Erdoğan is almost twice as focused on the analysis of the causes, scoring 4.4, than on the consequences, 2.7. Perhaps, making impulsive decisions, he fails to estimate the consequences clearly for the long term. S. Oktay suggests that Erdoğan is closed to information and acts “ideologically rather than pragmatically…, he saw the issue in a black-and-white type of way, disregarding the grey areas of possibilities and opportunities”.
In contrast, Putin has high conceptual complexity. His propensity for detailed analysis is well known: “He is likely to seek out a variety of information and opinions before making a decision”. Putin carefully examines the situation from different angles. Probably this is a result of his secret service experience. However, due to Putin’s confidence in and reliance on exclusively loyal advisors, it is possible that he is shielded from unpalatable information, especially that opposite to his point of view. Putin is interested in the causes, almost as attentively as Erdoğan, 4.8. However, pragmatist Putin is far more focused on the consequences of his decisions, 7.0, three times as much as Erdoğan.
The combination of high conceptual complexity with self-confidence is common for political leaders with a developed capacity for tactical maneuvering. Putin, an outstanding tactician, instantly reacts to any changes in a situation, rapidly checking on the moves of his partners and checkmating adversaries in the international, as well as the domestic, arena.
Decision-making in times of crisis, conflict, or heavy stress, is vulnerable to psychological factors. In crisis situations and under stress, the leaders’ most distinctive characteristics and “their leadership tendencies become more extreme”. The personal characteristics, those are capable of weakening the quality of the solution, become exaggerated in a crisis, performing twice as strongly. The leader is more closed to conflicting information, more in need of soothing by loyal advisers, more receptive to a worldview painted in black and white.
Political leaders are guided by beliefs in their decisions. However, there are beliefs that exceptionally influence political activity; the leader’s belief in his ability to control and influence events is one of them. In conjunction with the high need for the power, the belief in their superhuman ability pushes Erdoğan and Putin to chafe at constraint and challenges. S. Dyson notes, that usually these leaders “perceive that their state is an influential actor…and that the barriers to successful action are surmountable.”
Putin and Erdoğan try to keep everything under their personal control. This control applies to small and large events, both domestic and abroad. S. Oktay found Erdoğan’s high need to control events and people. A. Gorenter and M. Ucal note that Erdoğan “controls most levers of power in Turkey”. Putin operates his “vertical of power” to control the hierarchical political process in Russia.
Erdoğan and Putin have strong distrust of others and, above all, of other leaders. They both have high rates: Erdoğan, 17, and Putin, 12. Distrust makes the leader suspicious, wary of other actors, sensing bad intentions and scenting malevolent actions.
Putin and Erdoğan see a world full of threats and conspiracies, out to harm their country, out to humiliate them their leader. They clearly verbalize this perception, constantly talking about opponents and competitors. They are sensitive to any criticism from those whom they consider adversaries.
If Erdoğan or Putin did not have a high need for achievement, it is unlikely that today either would be referred to as Sultan, as Czar. They ascended their thrones legitimately, reaching the presidency by different paths, but with the same success and same acclaim from the populous.
Erdoğan was and is a career politician. Putin had worked for many years in the government system, outside political office. It was the first election contest of his life when he won the seat – the seat was that of Russian President. His political career started from that day and these sixteen years have been on-the-job training for Putin.
Erdoğan’s and Putin’s high need for achievement impacts their attitude to the obstacles and difficulties on the way to a goal. According to A. Bozkurt, “The standard behavior for Erdoğan when he faces an obstacle is to fight and continue his course”. Obstacles, especially those placed by his rivals or opponents, only energize Putin.
Putin, as well as Erdoğan, is able to change the line of his conduct, if he considers it as more appropriate to the moment, as more profitable and pragmatic. This maneuvering is typical for people with a high need for achievement. However, both leaders do not modify their course in situations of personal humiliation. Victory is the only goal for both presidents. They avoid any thoughts of even the possibility of defeat.
Erdoğan and Putin have average motivation for affiliation. They do not need to be in close emotional contact with others. Their intimates play only a functional role: to fulfill the wish of the president. Both leaders require absolute personal loyalty from their inner circle.
Putin protects his people, never pushes them away. The Turkish president can be more detached. Researchers note, “In Erdoğan’s mind, loyalty matters a lot but is subject to changing circumstances. He can easily drop those who have been working with him for a long time”.
The lack of need for an emotional relationship makes Erdoğan and Putin selective in their interaction with others. Reticent, they are rarely truly open, and give little information out about themselves.
For the most part, Erdoğan and Putin focus on the tasks facing them. However, they are well aware of the value of a personal relationship with the electorate and with other leaders. And, if necessary, they may build a relationship with some of the other leaders. Interesting to note that Silvio Berlusconi, now former Prime Minister of Italy, and close to Putin in Russia, was a witness in Erdoğan’s son wedding in Turkey. However, it is possible that Putin and Erdoğan regard relationship-building as an important political, not necessarily social, task.
Resistance to stress and self-control in a crisis situation is an important characteristic for understanding Erdoğan and Putin political behavior. According to specialists, Erdoğan in a towering rage is out of control, he is aggressive and can reveal too much in one of his outbursts. His violent temper is a part of his personal fiery brand.
Steinvorth explains Erdoğan this way, “he is someone who never avoids a fight — whether it be on the streets, on the football pitch or now, years later, in politics. This political leader has never made much of an effort to keep his exuberant temper in check”. Once Erdoğan said about his character during a television interview: “Anger is an art of rhetoric. This idea of showing the other cheek — we don’t have that. I am not some kind of patient sheep.” Probably, Erdoğan is unable to control his anger, and it is not so much a means of rhetoric. It is a manifestation of personality.
Other authors note Erdoğan’s hot temper and his tendency to aggressive behavior. G. Jenkins writes, now “freed from perceived constraints, Erdoğan often appears to be driven by his emotions rather than considered deliberation. Even if his confrontational style has boosted his domestic public popularity, any short-term personal political gains are likely to be more than offset by the long-term damage to Turkey’s economy and its relations with Europe and the US”.
In contrast, Putin is reserved and cold-blooded, as a rule. As S. McAfee notes, “Putin emphasizes rational processes over emotional decisions…As a result, emotional appeals will not often succeed in swaying Putin’s policy decisions. He should be approached in a rational manner, with a clearly organized explanation as to why a particular policy is in Russia’s best interests”. 
When in a rage, Putin can be rude and sarcastic, but public outbursts of anger are rare for him. Demonstrative behavior is not typical for Putin. He does not hide his dislike, but shows it icily. Putin’s cold displeasure is reflected soon enough in his tough decisions and actions. He does not lurk in the shadows; Putin strikes instantly.
The communicative style of political leaders is closely related to emotion. Young Erdoğan and Putin learned to speak early, their vocabulary was that of the street, a colorful language with coarse expressions. This makes them both vernacular to the segment of their electorate deprived of education and economic advantage. The highly educated and economically advantaged presidents are perceived as “one of us” and this is a boon during election campaigns.
Both presidents are masters of political dialects. They skillfully describe the “enemy” in terms that perfectly match the visual vocabulary of their audience. This enemy can be personalized. More tellingly, they name some feared phenomenon or movement, such as “Orange Revolution”, for Putin, and “Deep State”, for Erdoğan.
In political speeches, Erdoğan savages his strategic and economic partners as external enemies, beginning with the United States of America and ending with the European Union. Political discourse specialist F. Bayram indicates that «Erdoğan has the toughness of his background in his communicative style, which exists as a matter of policy and strategy. This political instinct, finely balanced with the calculation of effects on public opinion, contributes to every action he makes”.
The confrontation between Erdoğan and Putin, of course, has deep roots. Although Erdoğan’s psychological traits contributed to the Turkish decision to shoot down the Russian bomber, the reasons for such action must have been compelling. It was the accumulation over time of unvoiced frictions between Erdoğan and Putin that must have irritated Erdoğan unbearably enough for him to destroy the plane and his relationship with Putin.
“Until recently Erdoğan was often wary of risking a public confrontation with what he perceived as a powerful adversary”. However, Erdoğan’s risk-taking has increased in the last year, and he could make a hasty decision with unpredictable consequences for him and his country.
We have two hypotheses on Erdoğan’s decision to down Russian SU-24 in November 2015.
The first hypothesis: Erdoğan made the decision. Personally frustrated at the disturbance to his plans in Syria by the Russian military operation, he wanted to send a tough message to Putin, probably oblivious to the certainty that Putin’s response would be both rapid and harsh. When Putin demanded an apology, Erdoğan refused, fearing to be thought weak.
Not having received an apology, Putin began a financially punitive economic retribution, as well as enforcing the Russian military operation in most sensitive to Erdoğan Syrian areas. This psychological scenario is well described by M. Bryza, “Presidents Putin and Erdoğan have both demonstrated iron will in building their personal power. Neither will countenance personal insult or take any step that might make them look politically weak”. 
Erdoğan’s habit of macho behavior combined with a feeling of permissiveness, risk taking, inability and unwillingness to restrain his anger, underestimation of the enemy in conflict, and incorrect forecast of the situation on the conflict scenario facilitated his decision to down Putin’s Russian bomber. How could an experienced hardheaded politician like Erdoğan think that Putin, whom he has known personally for such a long time, would quietly accept the destruction of a Russian aircraft?
The long relationship of cooperation, mutually beneficial and supported by a common dislike of both the EU and the US, had contributed to the mutual perception of Erdoğan and Putin as partners. Of course, Putin was aware that the interests of Turkey and Russia in Syria differ significantly. But he was likely to have assessed the Turkish-Russian relationship as more valuable to Erdoğan than Turkish interests in Syria. If so, this calculation was incorrect.
Putin’s feelings toward Erdoğan’s betrayal caused his tough reaction. Putin termed it a “stab in the back”. Instantly deleting Erdoğan from his “partners” category of leaders, Putin launched a massive retaliation in words and deeds. His rough rhetoric and implacable economic sanctions against Turkey allow us to conclude extreme irritation, frustration and willingness to reckon firmly with the partner who had become an enemy with a single shot.
The second hypothesis: Erdoğan did not make the downing decision. An acolyte did. It is possible that he was discussing his frustration with Russia’s military operation in Syria, Russian actions contrary to the interests of Turkey, with someone in his inner circle. Perhaps after several episodes of Russian violation of Turkish airspace, Erdoğan spoke harshly saying that next time Turkey should shoot down these Russian warplanes. Perhaps someone from Erdoğan’s entourage perceived the sentiment as a direct order.
Erdoğan, faced the fact that Russian bomber was shot down, had to assume responsibility. To admit that he had not given the order himself would make him appear a weak leader, out of control of the situation. Therefore, Erdoğan confirmed that he personally ordered the warplane downing.
Why this second hypothesis? It arose when we analyzed a number of Erdoğan videos in the last few years leading up to the downing. Usually he is vivid and communicative talker. In sharp contrast, in his interview just after the downing SU-24, with CNN’s Becky Anderson on November 26, 2015, we are convinced he looks embarrassed, not confident, and confused. His lifeless eyes and nervous body language demonstrate the heavy stress that Erdoğan was experiencing at that moment. The attack on the Russian bomber had left the Turkish leader at a loss.
Erdoğan is forced to maintain the image of a strong and decisive leader, defensive of his position, convinced of the guilt of Russia, almost accepting of the downing consequences. Knowing Putin, Erdoğan could hardly expect a soft response from Russian president. In this case Erdoğan became a hostage of his own “yes-man” subordinate system, filled with flatterers, carefully constructed by Erdoğan for “manual control”.
Unfortunately, this personal enmity between Erdoğan and Putin, and mutual negative perception, may promote this Turkish-Russian conflict for a long time. “In foreign policy, leaders with high distrust scores tend to adopt a confrontational stand toward states who they perceive as adversaries…in foreign policy, stressful or ambiguous situations can give rise to a “prickly defensive orientation to others.””  Relegated to the category of “traitors” (that is one of the most negative personal characteristics according to the Russian mentality), Erdoğan cannot be exculpated in Putin’s eyes, even if Turkey apologizes for the attack on the Russia’s warplane.
Both leaders perceive now the relation between them as a struggle between good and evil. F.Hill and K. Kirisci found that “the personalities and political styles of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian president Vladimir Putin seemed to complement if not mirror each other” such that these “similarities … have now come into play in a dramatic way.”
Every day in every way, Putin’s and Erdoğan’s words and actions deepen the conflict. Neither of them is willing to compromise. Personalization of conflict always has a negative impact on the prospect for its settlement. Such personality similarities as ambition, pride, revenge, wrong situation assessments, risk taking, sensitivity to insults, machismo, willingness to fight, sharp communicative style, belligerence in a situation of perceived humiliation, all of them only reduce the likelihood of an Erdoğan and Putin reconciliation.
This conflict has a singularity – it is the first time in the history of relations between NATO and Russia that a NATO member has shot down a Russian warplane. All leaders and international organizations discuss this individual member’s actions carefully, stressing Turkey’s lone decision, to avoid attributing the conflict to the entire North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
This conflict has a history – sixty-nine years of armed confrontations between Turkey and Russia in their imperial pasts. There were twelve wars, the last ending in 1917. The First World War also brought the end of the Ottoman and the Russian empires. The last monarchs of these great empires – Czar Nicholas II and Sultan Mehmet VI, lost their thrones a long time ago.
Yet contemporary absolute monarchs Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Czar Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin reenact the old imperial Game of Thrones to the peril of themselves, their subjects, and the world.
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