As a youngster growing up in the 1960s, Putin was a typical Russian hooligan, living with his family in a communal apartment in what was then Leningrad. Several other families, including Putin’s, shared these living quarters, without bathtubs, often without hot water and with smelly toilets. To get to his fifth-floor apartment, young Putin had to run up a flight of stairs, infested with hungry rats. Armed with a stick, Putin first fended off the filthy creatures and fled, before finally deciding to observe their behavior.
Putin spent hours studying these hordes of rats. Once, as he revealed in his official autobiography “First Person”, a “huge rat” he chased around a corner with a stick had nowhere to go, so he turned around and l attacked. This frightened the future spymaster, and he was lucky enough to run away quickly enough to evade his adversary.
During his life and career, Putin experienced several “cornered rat” moments, which shaped his thinking and behavior. A KGB officer during the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he stared at a crowd of angry German citizens who broke into the Russian Ministry of Security (MGB) in Dresden.
At one point Putin came out to tell the protesters that they were on the premises of a Soviet military organization. When the suspicious crowd asked why a regular Soviet military officer spoke such good German, Putin lied and said he was a translator.
Putin asked for armed reinforcements, but was initially refused because “nothing could be done without orders from Moscow, and Moscow was silent”. Although Soviet military personnel eventually arrived and the crowd dispersed, the incident left a permanent mark on Putin.
“No one lifted a finger to protect us,” he recalled in “First Person.” “I then had the feeling that the country no longer existed. That he had disappeared. It was clear that the Union was sick. And he had a terminal illness with no cure – power paralysis.
This incident had a profound psychological impact on Putin. He realized that if he is cornered and there is nowhere to retreat, he must always be ready to fight back and attack the opponent, like that rat from his childhood. He learned the same lesson as a rebellious child, when he got into fights from the age of seven with neighborhood boys.
“I just realized that if you want to win, you have to fight every fight to the end, like it’s the last decisive battle…you have to assume there’s no looking back,” is he quoted in another biography. , “Vladimir Putin. The Story of Life.”
A second event that marked Putin was the capture of Saddam Hussein by American soldiers in 2003 and his subsequent death. After being found guilty of crimes against humanity by the Special Iraqi Tribunal, Hussein was sentenced to death by hanging and Putin was shocked by the footage of his execution, seeing the dictator’s eyes partially open and his neck deformed. Putin called him “an atrocious and barbaric execution” and believed that the United States had deliberately overthrown Saddam and his regime under the false pretense that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Russian intelligence knew Saddam was bluffing about it, so Putin decided that US intelligence was either incompetent for not knowing, or reckless in acting on false justifications. Either way, Putin decided that the United States was doing no good.
In October 2011, a third event shocked Putin: the death of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafy at the hands of his own people. Khadafy, who called his subordinates “rats”, was caught by his own fighters like a rat in a sewer under a highway. He was shot in the head and died before his security guards could reach the hospital. Putin was said to be shaken by this, a CIA expert calling it “his worst nightmare”. Later, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted she had joked about Gaddafy’s death, saying “we came, we saw, he died” Putin was also convinced of America’s bad intentions.
Three months later, in December 2011, the biggest anti-government demonstration since the collapse of the USSR broke out in Moscow. The uprising was sparked by Putin’s announcement that he would run for president a third time, after temporarily handing over the reins to his former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev. Around the same time, Clinton criticized the result of the Russian parliamentary election which gave Putin’s United Russia party 50% of the vote. She insinuated fraud and called for “a full investigation”. Putin, in return, accused Clinton to give a “signal” to the demonstrators. He became convinced that the United States was building an opposition movement in his own country to overthrow his regime.
He knows the US was looking to take out Gaddafy and Hussein, and he still fears he’s next.
When he hears claims by American leaders that he is a mentally deranged madman or that American officials call for revolt among those around him, he sees himself as the cornered rat. That is why, instead of escalating the conflict in Ukraine and seeking a settlement with Zelensky, Putin continues to lash out at the West, threatening nuclear war.
After the collapse of the USSR and Moscow’s silence in Dresden, the former KGB agent vowed never to show weakness. He chooses brutality over submission, even if he has to annihilate the Ukrainians, bomb maternity wards and wipe Ukraine off the map. With its survival now at stake, this rat will strike everything in its path to get out of its corner.
Rebekah Koffler is a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer and currently a strategic intelligence analyst with the Lindsey Group. She is the author of “Putin’s Booklet: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America”.