A Pentagon research team is studying the body movements of Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders in order to better predict their actions and guide U.S. policy, Pentagon documents and interviews show.
The "Body Leads" project backed by the Office of Net Assessment (ONA), the think tank reporting to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, uses the principles of movement pattern analysis to predict how leaders will act.
ONA has backed the work of Brenda Connors, the director of Body Leads and a research fellow at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., since 1996, records show, and has paid about $300,000 since 2009 to outside experts to work with her. Part of her work includes a 2008 report for ONA on Putin called "Movement, The Brain and Decision-making, the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin."
Connors acknowledged her work on Putin and other leaders, but declined comment and referred all questions to Hagel's office.
Movement pattern analysis means studying an individual's movements to gain clues about how he or she makes decisions or reacts to events.
Last September, Rende, Connors and Colton published a paper in the academic journal Frontiers in Psychology that detailed the uses of movement pattern analysis to determine leaders' decision-making process. Such analysis, they wrote, "offers a unique window into individual differences in decision-making style."
Brenda Conners was interviewed for this very, very interesting article in The Atlantic in 2005. An excerpt:
In First Person (2000), a collection of interviews with and about him, Vladimir Putin mentions being beaten by stronger children in his rough-and-tumble neighborhood in Leningrad. It's not clear whether he was generally the instigator of the combat or responding to taunts and insults he felt should not go unchallenged. In any case, he resolved to fortify himself. "As soon as it became clear that my pugnacious nature was not going to keep me king of the courtyard or schoolgrounds," he said, "I decided to go into boxing." After getting his nose broken, he took up sambo, a Soviet combination of judo and wrestling, and finally settled on judo. He devoted himself to rigorous workouts and became a black belt and a city-wide champion. He fought like a "snow leopard," his coach once said, "determined to win at any cost."
The wonder is that he even made it into childhood. Two older brothers had died of illnesses, one in infancy and the other at age five. When Vladimir was born, on October 7, 1952, his mother was forty-one, and her prenatal health had no doubt been poor. A decade earlier, during the Nazi siege of Leningrad, there were mass deaths from starvation; "Mama herself was half dead," Putin recalls in First Person. His father, recuperating in a hospital from severe leg wounds caused by German shrapnel, gave her his food. After the war "Papa" went to work as a laborer at a train-car factory. He was given a room in a fifth-floor communal walk-up at 12 Baskov Lane, where Putin grew up, about a twenty-minute stroll from Nevsky Prospekt, the city's main thoroughfare. There were "hordes of rats" in the front entryway, which the young Putin chased with sticks. Once, he cornered one—only to have it rush at him. Frightened, Putin slammed the door shut "in its nose."
I recently came across an intriguing hypothesis about Putin's survival skills. Brenda L. Connors, a senior fellow in the strategic-research department of the Naval War College, in Newport, Rhode Island, is both a former State Department protocol and political-affairs officer and a onetime soloist with the Erick Hawkins Dance Company. Her field of study is a distinctive one: she is a certified "movement analyst." Because of her experience greeting Mikhail Gorbachev and other global figures and her study of modern dance, Connors became intrigued by how body movement—everything from a particular way of walking to hand gestures and facial expressions—constitutes a language for conveying not only emotion but also leadership styles and behavioral patterns. From close analysis of physical traits, captured on tape and examined with the help of experts in medicine, psychology, anthropology, and other fields, she has developed character profiles of a number of world leaders. Her work may sound esoteric, but it is endorsed by, among others, Andrew Marshall, the legendary director of "net assessment" in the Pentagon, and Leon Aron, a leading Russia specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington, and the author of an acclaimed biography of Yeltsin.
I paid a visit to Connors at her Newport office not long ago. We had chatted on the phone about her work on Putin—in particular about her detection of a striking irregularity in his gait—and I was eager to see her tapes and to hear more. After a tour of her lab we watched a tape she had made of Putin, compiled mostly from Russian television footage. The tape rolled to a shot of Putin at his first inauguration, in the spring of 2000, at the Andrei Hall of the Great Kremlin Palace. "Here's the picture," she said, as we watched Putin enter the hall and stride down a long red carpet. I saw what she meant only when she slowed the tape—and when she did, I was taken aback. Putin's left arm and leg were moving in an easy, natural rhythm. But his right arm, bent at the elbow, moved in a stiff way, as if jerked by the shoulder, and the right leg dragged, without absorbing his full weight. When she replayed the segment at normal speed, it was easy to pick up on the impediment, and then I had no trouble spotting it in other segments. All the momentum and energy in Putin's gait comes from the left side; it is as if the right side is just along for the ride. Even the right side of his torso seems frozen. When he is holding a pen, his right hand appears to have only an awkward, tenuous grasp on it.
Connors has shown footage of Putin's walk to a range of experts, including A. Thomas Pezzella, a cardiac-thoracic surgeon based in St. Louis; two orthopedic surgeons and a physical therapist at the naval hospital in Newport; and Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, the founder of the School for Body-Mind Centering, in Amherst, Massachusetts, who is certified as something called a neurodevelopmental therapist. They offer a variety of conjectures: Putin could have had a stroke, perhaps suffered in utero; he may be afflicted with, as Pezzella speculates, an Erb's palsy, caused by a forceps tugging on his right shoulder at birth; he could have had polio as a child (polio was epidemic in Europe and western Russia after World War II). The stroke theory is consistent with what appears to be the loss of neural sensation in the fingers of his right hand. (Videotape of Putin at judo matches shows him using his fist, rather than a splayed hand, to push himself up off the mat.) Based on what she has seen and on her consultation with other experts, Connors doubts that Putin ever crawled as an infant; he seems to lack what is called contra-lateral movement and instead tends to move in a head-to-tail pattern, like a fish or a reptile.
Connors believes that Putin's infirmities "created a strong will that he survive and an impetus to balance and strengthen the body." She continues, "When we are unable to do something, really hard work becomes the way." His prowess at judo astonishes her: "He is like that ice skater who had a club foot and became an Olympic skater." Although her research sounds clinical, Connors empathizes with her subject. "It is really poignant to watch him on tape," she says of Putin. "This is a deep, old, profound loss that he has learned to cope with, magnificently." When I heard this, it was impossible for me not to think of another frail child possessed of a fierce will who turned to rigorous physical exercise and pugilism and grew up to be a head of state: Theodore Roosevelt.
Some of Connors's analytical ventures seem unconvincing. She suggests, for example, that Putin's instinct to make himself whole is mirrored in his imperative to keep Russia from breaking up—but any Russian leader would feel a similar sense of duty. The notion that Putin displays reptilian qualities, however, is not as odd as it may sound; even though ontogeny may not exactly recapitulate phylogeny, modern biology does recognize links between embryonic development and the evolutionary sequences. A characteristic of reptiles, Connors says, is that "they patrol their borders, and if an alien enters, lunge reflexively." That is as good a description of Putin's behavior in response to militants in the northern Caucasus as any political analyst has offered.
As the Chechen conflict illustrates, Putin is a ferocious, even pitiless fighter. One need not put stock in Connors's research to see that life does seem to have taught Putin that "the weak are beaten."