What Makes World Leaders Tick: Exclusive Interview with Dr Kenneth Dekleva

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In an exclusive interview, Brasidas Group (BG) spoke with psychiatrist and former U.S. Department of State officer and medical expert Dr Kenneth Dekleva about the changing geopolitical landscape, expectations from leading world powers, as well as psychological profiling of world leaders.


Dr Kenneth Dekleva is a practicing psychiatrist and Senior Fellow at the George HW Bush Foundation for US-China Relations. From 2002 to 2016, he served as a senior U.S. diplomat and regional medical officer/psychiatrist with the U.S. Department of State, mostly overseas, including 5 years at the U.S. Embassy Moscow, but also in a leadership role (from 2013 to 2015) as director of the U.S. State Department’s worldwide diplomatic mental health program, providing mental health support to 60,000 U.S. diplomats and family members based overseas and in the United States. He has published widely in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, The Hill, The Cipher Brief, 38 North, and The Diplomat, and has given numerous presentations in academic, private sector, and U.S. government settings in the field of leadership analysis, including profiles of Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Jong-un. Dr Dekleva is also the author of two published novels, The Negotiator’s Cross, and The Last Violinist.


Brasidas Group: Before we get into the main topics of our conversation, could you briefly comment on the recent reported airplane crash involving, among others, the leader of the Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin?

Kenneth Dekleva: Vladimir Putin (Putin) has always spoken highly of the value he places on loyalty and, conversely, from comments in his autobiography First Person to more recent interviews, for his utter contempt for disloyalty and treason. In this sense, the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin (Prigozhin) (and other senior Wagner leaders, including its founder, Dmitry Utkin) fits neatly into Putin’s paradigm. The plane crash echoes Mao Tse-tung’s actions in 1969 when a plane carrying President Liu Shaoqi was shot down while attempting to flee to Mongolia. The ambiguity surrounding Prigozhin’s death suits Putin perfectly and suggests that his power remains strong, contrary to those observers who had written him off. Underestimating Putin and his resilience has always been a fool’s errand. And as CIA Director William Burns (Burns) commented last month at the Aspen Security Forum, “Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback.”

Wagner will survive, but in a slightly different form. Like many successful terrorist organizations, it has the ability and capability to mutate. It will remain functional, especially in Africa, allowing Putin and Russia to asymmetrically project power in weakened states such as Sahel, Sudan, and Libya. It would not surprise me if Putin named a person – such as Viktor Bout (Bout), a former Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU) officer and businessman who knows Africa well – as Wagner’s new CEO. Bout has excellent relationships with key leaders in security structures, including the Ministry of Defense, GRU, and others (his father-in-law was a KGB general). Most importantly, he served his lengthy sentence in an American prison and remained loyal.

BG: Given your professional background and expertise in psychological profiling, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and understand the psychological mechanisms behind world leaders such as Putin. Although making any predictions at this point is highly challenging, what could you imagine happening in the following months?

KD: As hard as it is to predict, understanding is crucial. One of the risks is that despite all that is known about Putin over his twenty-three years in power, there is still a fair amount of misunderstanding, especially in the Western media. And we continue to get him wrong and underestimate him in a way. It is important for your readers to understand that adversary leaders I have studied, such as Putin, Xi Jinping (Xi), and Chairman Kim of North Korea, embody the three R’s: ruthless, rational, and resilient. Predictions of their demise are usually wrong, and the Western and American intelligence communities have a history of underestimating many opponents. The case in point is Castro, who survived ten U.S. presidents.

We have to be careful about predictions, especially after the Wagner mutiny, that while Putin may have been somewhat weakened, he has the personality of a street fighter and can shift his tactics to achieve his strategic aims, although he made a horrible misjudgment in starting this war. It was an intelligence failure on his part, tactically and strategically, because he underestimated the courage and heroism of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the willingness of the Ukrainian people to fight. Putin has been saying for decades that Ukraine is not a real country. Well, real countries fight back, although the Ukrainian counter-offensive has slowed and has not yet achieved the dramatic results that many people have hoped for, and it will be a difficult, long, hard slog.

Putin has been saying for decades that Ukraine is not a real country. Well, real countries fight back

The other part is that Russia has shifted its tactics from not only bombing civilian centers but also shutting down the grain deal. With the prices of grain rising worldwide and using and weaponizing food and bombing grain depots in the Black Sea, they’ve shown a willingness to resort to the most brutal kind of medieval siege tactics to achieve their objectives. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s studied Putin closely because he has done these things in other places for decades, whether it’s Grozny and Chechnya in the early 2000s, Georgia in 2008, Ukraine again during the invasion of Crimea in 2014, Syria in 2015/16, and 2017 in Aleppo. We have to be prepared to see shifts and tactics that push the envelope militarily and are difficult to counter and create higher-order effects that affect not only Russia and Ukraine but other countries, as is the case with the grain deal, where this has a devastating impact on the wheat prices in the countries are desperate for wheat, such as the African ones.

The Negotiator’s Cross is available here.

BG: We can agree that the Western world occasionally underestimates Putin. However, it is intriguing to observe how the situation with precaution unfolded, which also presents an opportunity for analysis regarding the various dynamics between Putin and his inner circle. It’s clear that Prigozhin served a purpose for Putin. But how would you explain the earlier decision to pardon him after labeling him as an enemy of the state and inviting him for tea later, which happened almost the same day?

KD: It is interesting because it was based on Putin’s earlier behavior. Critics of the state do not get happy endings. As you can see in the assassination of Boris Nemtsov or Litvinenko in London, who was poisoned with Polonium, or the attempted poisoning of Alexei Navalny, and even people whom Putin has branded as traitors, like Sergei Skripal, the former GRU officer who was the victim of an attempted 2018 Novichok attack in the United Kingdom. Where were the Russian media in the weeks after the mutiny tried to humiliate and marginalize Prigozhin? And I think what Putin could have been expected to do is to separate Prigozhin from Wagner and find where Wagner is useful. Prigozhin was more of a liability. I think there’s a possibility that Putin sees the utility of Wagner in terms of a different type of force projection, especially in Africa and the Middle East. That’s a massive issue because the mineral and natural resources are critical to many African states’ modern technologies.

BG: Do you think Bout could be a potential heir to Putin?

KD: No, I don’t think so. He has been involved with nationalist politics since his release. The media reports say that his political coming out has floundered. He would be far more effective operating in a different role, like a CEO of Wagner, where he’s connected and able to work with the Ministry of Defense and the GRU and project force asymmetrically in different parts of the world.

BG: If not him, what or who could be next for Russia? Because the future beyond Putin has been almost unimaginable for decades now.

KD: Putin has created that dilemma because he never named any successors. Many authoritarian leaders tend not to, or if they do, they call the unlikely ones, and there’s much jostling for power. One of the things we’ve seen with the Prigozhin mutiny is that the so-called “power vertical” that Putin has created over two decades now has cracks and fissures. Putin had a social contract that worked, especially during the first decade of his rule, and it was: I will help you prosper, and you stay out of politics and let me handle it. He also had a social contract with the oligarchs and the elites: you stay out of politics, and you get to create immense wealth. And that social contract is held up to a point, but it’s much more fragile now, and there’s probably a lot more questioning.

Putin is 70 years old, and people can naturally start thinking about the future because he can’t escape his age like he can escape many other problems. On the other hand, he is healthy for his age. I don’t believe in the narrative that he has some neurological disorder or cancer, as he has constantly appeared in public and showed himself as a very able and cunning politician. However, he probably is more politically isolated as there is more of a narrow echo chamber regarding the people surrounding him. That’s problematic for him and Russia because the information that gets to him is biased and filtered. People may tell him what they think he wants to hear rather than what he needs to hear.

BG: Certain circles in Russia conveyed that his meetings with his staff used to be more of a discussion in which he would hear what everybody had to say and then come to certain conclusions together. But they’ve noticed in recent months that he’s become much more secretive and gives orders rather than listening to different opinions.

KD: Or it’s a narrower inner circle with people like Nikolai Patrushev, the Head of the National Security Council, or Alexander Bortnikov, the Head of the Federal Security Service, and Sergei Shoigu, the Minister of Defense. During the first two terms of Putin’s presidency, he had a wide array of talented people as part of the different ministries and his cabinet, who were highly skilled technocrats. Wages and oil prices were rising, and the social contract was working, but now, it’s starting to break down. We see this with the tragic brain drain of close to a million young, talented people between the ages of 15 and 50 who have left the country during the Ukraine war. It’s not clear if they can go back. One of the things I’ve argued and written about is that the new Cold Wars in the 21st century are Cold Wars for talent. Talent matters. Human capital matters. So, if you let a whole generation emigrate because they have no future in Russia – it’s a loss for Russia, which is hard to replace.

BG: We can relate to that to an extent, given the country that we’re coming from.

KD: Yes, that’s a tragedy for Serbia. Indeed, it was also a tragedy in the 1990s during the Milosevic years when 200,000 people a year left the country. The brightest people left, which is a challenge. The same goes for China, where you have an aging population and a one-child policy, and the demographics are warped. You need new talent to replace that.

BG: In the context of China, its role in global affairs has changed quite a bit in recent years. China is more present in the worldwide conversation, asserting itself as a mediator. There are even mentions of it mediating Ukraine and the Middle East conflicts. How would you comment on its changing role, and how do you see things evolving for China?

KD: China’s role continues to evolve, and I think where we’ve gotten Xi wrong is thinking that he is a rigid CCP (Chinese Communist Party) ideologue. I don’t believe that. While he is ideological, believes in the primacy of the CCP, and is a creature of the party, he has also shown flexibility, which is very important. Look at recent meetings he’s had with different American business leaders such as Bill Gates, Jamie Dimon, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. These examples show strategic flexibility and diplomacy where China controls the diplomacy pace in the dialogue. Xi chooses who and when to meet with and maximizes the optics to show that China wants to be a player and open up more for business, especially after the Zero-COVID policy and the shutdowns. They need that because of the high levels of youth unemployment and the sluggishness in their economy.

China’s role continues to evolve, and I think where we’ve gotten Xi wrong is thinking that he is a rigid CCP ideologue

This is also true for Ukraine, where China can have a role because of the food crisis with the grain deal, which affects it as it relies on grain shipments. China has many equities in Ukraine, far more than people realize. It wouldn’t surprise me if China found a way to be a mediator and to use some of its resources and leverage to help rebuild Ukraine by using state-owned enterprises to expand the Belt and Road initiative in Ukraine (which Ukraine was part of before the war) and to rebuild the infrastructure. The Chinese are very good at it; they do it all over Africa. This may allow them to insert themselves as model leaders and take a positive role, which can be critical in Ukraine and North Korea.

The situation in North Korea is extremely dangerous, now more than ever. The recent test of the Hwasong 18 ICBM, which can hit the United States and carry multiple reentry warheads called MIRVs, is dangerous and frightening and coincides with North Korea’s 2022 adoption of a new first-strike policy. The North Korean leadership’s bellicose threats, including by the defense minister when a U.S. nuclear sub docked at Busan for two days, are frightening. We need China to restart diplomacy with North Korea.

I encourage your readers and listeners to read CIA Director Burns’ interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly. One of the things that President Obama got right in his out brief was when he met with incoming President Trump and told him that North Korea would be his most significant foreign policy challenge. There’s much focus on Russia and China (China, long term, and Russia now because of Ukraine), but the real peril that we’re neglecting is the threat from North Korea.

BG: Speaking of North Korea, your latest novel, The Last Violinist, concerns this very country. Could you share some details about it with our readers?

KD: Yes, it’s my second novel. My first novel was The Negotiators Cross, based on the adventures of an American priest, Father Ishmael, working in Mexico, who gets drawn into negotiations with the cartels and hostage takings. Because of his skill set in this area, he’s sent by the Vatican to Moscow to get a priest who is a hostage there and is involved in more complex hostage takings, so he appears in the new novel. However, while important, his role is not a key one. The new novel centers around a North Korean high-level defector, a brilliant violinist who, due to his relationships with the wife of a senior North Korean diplomat and later with the Korean American CIA officer, gets entangled with intelligence agencies from Russia, the United States, and North Korea. The settings are in Moscow and Vienna. Eventually, he defects in the novel, then talks about what happens to him psychologically and spiritually as he converts to Catholicism and how he finds his identity.

It talks about betrayal, love, intimacy, faith, and spirituality. Still, it wraps it in the context of a spy-thriller across several countries and continents: the United States, India, Russia, the former Yugoslavia, North Korea, and Austria – places that I’ve lived and traveled in for decades, both as a citizen and then later in my work for the State Department as a physician and diplomat. When I lived in Belgrade, I heard about a North Korean violinist in 1976 who won an international competition, and he played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, which was magical. I remember shaking hands with him and I always wondered what happened to him. So that’s where the genesis of the idea for the novel came from, but it’s fiction. It’s a very human story; I think readers will like it. You can preorder on Kindle, and there will be an audio version later in the year on Amazon.

The Last Violinist is available here.

BG: What do you think we should be on the lookout for in the next season regarding geopolitical relations? You mentioned North Korea, and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine will stay for a while. But what do you think would be the next hotspot of different interests and the major political powers that will come together either in a fight or as a common interest?

KD: We have to focus on Iran, where you have leadership succession issues. The leader is in his mid-80s and terminally ill so we need to think about who will replace him and what that will mean for the future of Iran, especially with the challenges that it’s faced economically with the sanctions, nuclear weapons policies, amazing protests, and courage of the young people who make up about 70% of Iran’s population. India is also a real key player regionally and internationally due to its population growth, economy, and relationships with the United States and Russia, and even with China, in a way. India’s Foreign Minister Jaishankar’s recent interview in the Economist is worth reading because it shows India’s attempt to navigate in this world of multipolarity. India is not a Russian ally, but it’s not an American ally either – it’s a partner in many ways but acts in its strategic interests.

The 2024 U.S. presidential election colors everything we’ve talked about today. Everyone is watching to see who the next president will be because this is a highly consequential election that will set the stage not only for politics domestically in the United States but for its foreign policy since President Biden and other Republican candidates, including former President Trump and many others now declare very different views about these foreign policy issues. There will probably be a slowdown in diplomatic opportunities because people want to wait and see the outcome. After all, that will give them more predictive power. If Biden wins, that’s a huge issue due to his age, but Trump is not young either. Whoever wins will set the stage for what happens downstream in the next eight to twelve years regarding who can unite the United States because it’s a very divided country. Biden needs to use the bully pulpit to sell these policies and their importance to voters nationwide in the heartland and to articulate why Ukraine matters. This is a question I always get asked by people who know me and know I’ve lived overseas. Why should we be giving money to Ukraine? The fact that they’re asking that question means that the White House has not yet articulated a narrative that people can resonate with.

BG: Is there anything you want to tell us or our readers in your closing remarks?

KD: Readers interested in reading more of my work on leadership analysis than its role in the larger picture of intelligence analysis can find most of my work in the Cipher Brief. This includes profiles of Putin, Xi, Chairman Kim, and others. One of the things that we’ve learned now in this age of global state versus state, nation versus nation, great power competition is that leadership analysis is critical, understanding the intentions, the psychology, what makes these leaders tick, how they respond in crises, how to negotiate with them. The psychology is exciting and often cute, but it’s insufficient to explain the higher-order effects. You must look at how a person will act, what they might do, and how you negotiate with someone like Putin, Xi, or Kim. That’s important to understand.