Fanning the Fires: Metaphors describing Vladimir Putin

I normally discuss only domestic politics in my blog, but today I would like to delve into a bit of international politics.  Out of curiosity, I recently analyzed a TIME magazine article about Vladimir Putin to see what metaphors were used to describe him.  If you are a TIME subscriber, you can find the article here at  It is in the May 19th edition of the magazine entitled “’This is War’: Vladimir Putin has seized Crimea and destabilized Ukraine. What drives him?” pp. 30-35, written by Michael Crowley and Simon Shuster.

As you may know, Vladimir Putin has recently been very aggressive in his political and military actions in Russia.  He was able to annex Crimea, a former part of the Soviet Union.  More recently, he has made moves to annex Ukraine as well, leading to armed conflicts between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian military forces and civilians.

In the article I discovered a wide variety of metaphors and figurative language used to describe Putin, his actions and the countries involved in the conflicts.  For the summary today, I have chosen a few common categories of conceptual metaphors including nature, personification, metonymy, physical forces, journeys, theater, buildings and fire.  All examples are taken directly from the article.  Italics are mine to indicate the metaphor(s) being discussed.


            It is quite common to describe states and actions in politics in terms of conditions in nature.

blog - nature - roots 2roots

One way to describe the origins of a social or political condition is to compare them to the roots of a tree.  One of the sections of the article summarizing Putin’s policies is described simply as follows:

Example:  The Roots of Putinism


tepid reaction

States, conditions or actions can also be described in terms of temperature.  In a previous post, I described how temperatures correlate to emotions.  For example, have hot or cold emotional reactions to a situation.  If one does not react at all, we can also say that it is a lukewarm or tepid reaction.  Another section of the article describing the reactions of the United States and European countries as being weak or tepid.

Example:  A Tepid Western Reaction


We all have experience with rotting fruits and vegetables.  In a twist of metaphors based on apples, the authors compare Moscow to a core of an apple, while the West is rotting.

Example:  Then there is the geopolitical creed of Eurasianism, which holds that Moscow is a “Third Rome” that must form the core of a civilization distinct from a decadent and rotting West.



Only people and animals can stand on legs, and yet we can metaphorically speak of conditions or arrangements also standing on their own.  After Putin lost a close ally in Ukraine, he also lost influence in the area and lost a chance for a “vision of an ascendant Russia.”  The authors of the article then claim:

Example: He would not let it stand.


When two boxers engage in a fight, they normally stand across from each other.  In some instances, this fighting position is referred to a standoff.  Larger armed conflicts or political battles may also be called standoffs.

Example:  Last month, when Ukrainian soldiers came to put down a pro-Russian rebellion in Smolin’s hometown, his mother Irina was among the first civilians who tried to block the troops by surrounding them. “If I had a gun, I would shoot them myself,” she says. Instead she called her son and his friends to join the standoff, which lasted for nearly 12 hours under a heavy spring rain.

071017-N-0995C-008strong and weak

People can be described as being physically strong or weak.  Metaphorically, actions or behavior can also be described as strong or weak.  The authors of the article use these metaphors several times to describe the reactions of the United States to Putin’s aggressive moves.  In another instance, they describe Putin in terms of political strength or weakness.

Example:  David Cohen, the U.S. Treasury Department official in charge of sanctions, told CNN on May 4 that the sanctions are “strong and strategic.”

Example:  Obama’s critics beg to differ. “Days late and dollars short,” GOP Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said in an April 28 statement decrying the “disturbing mismatch between Russia’s actions and our weak response to it.” They argue the sanctions imposed to date will barely dent Russia’s $2 trillion economy.

Example:  Whether Putin is operating from a position of strength or weakness remains a crucial, and open, question for the West.

blog - personification - Dagger_horse_head_Louvrea dagger in the heart

Countries or political arrangements can be described as if they are people. The central part of an arrangement may be described as the heart of it.   Breaking up an agreement or ending a project might be referred to as putting a dagger in its heart.

Example:  By breaching NATO’s eastern border, he might divide its members over how to respond. Such a direct challenge could be, in the words of former CIA chief John McLaughlin, a “dagger in the heart of the alliance.”



A special type of personification occurs when a building, city or country is described in terms of a person. This type of figurative language is known as metonymy.  In the classic example from the Cold War, reporters often stated that “The Kremlin is talking to the White House” meaning that the governments located in those buildings were negotiating some political agreement.


In this article, the authors describe Moscow as a person.

Example:  France has muted early talk of suspending construction of a helicopter-carrier ship that Moscow purchased in 2011 for a handsome $1.6 billion.

Example: The gambit may have also been a sign of recognition that Ukraine remains an ungovernable mess, even to Moscow.

blog - metonymy - Saint_Basil_Moscow_crop


Countries are also described as people who live close together as neighbors.

Example:  As Putin continues to menace his neighbors, Western analysts are revising their assumptions about Russia’s cocksure President.

close ties

Countries or geographical regions can also be considered as people who have social relationships.  In this case, Ukraine and the West are described as having close ties as if they are friends or colleagues.

Example:  In November, Putin managed to persuade Yanukovych to reject an economic agreement with the European Union that would bring closer ties between Ukraine and the West.


Physical Forces

The actions of governments are often described in terms of a person performing a physical action.

crack down, quash, crush

When governments forcefully stop the actions of rebel groups, this action is sometimes described as cracking down on something as if one is hitting it with a stick making a sharp cracking noise.  We may also say that they quash or crush something as well.

Example:  Putin cracked down on dissent, jailing political rivals and staging an autocratic transition in which he handed off the presidency to his close ally, Dmitri Medvedev, from 2008 to 2012 (while Putin served as Prime Minister), before announcing he would return as President in 2011.

Example:  Putin quashed the protests of 2012 handily.

Example:  “Putin will have crushed NATO if our eastern borders are not the red line.”

leverage, oust, undercut

A lever is a tool used to move a heavy object.   Metaphorically a person can use leverage to change a situation.  A person can also move an object from inside an area to outside an area.  Thus one can physically oust a person or a group, or metaphorically oust something from a particular area.  Finally, one can also cut something with a knife.  To undercut something means to cut lower than expected.  Metaphorically, this means to impair a person or group from achieving a goal.

Example:  Now Putin is following the time-honored autocrat’s tactic of leveraging popularity gained by foreign adventurism to crack down on opposition at home. In recent weeks he has shut down TV Dozhd, a rare source of critical reporting about the Kremlin, and in mid-March, the editor of a popular online news site was ousted for linking to the statements of a Ukrainian ultranationalist.

Example: The U.K. government supports the sanctions so far, but London’s uncertainty about its membership in the European Union undercuts its ability to lead.



Progress made towards a goal can be described as journey or as someone operating a vehicle.

blog - vehicles - steering wheeldrive, steer, lead

In metaphorical terms, we can describe a journey as someone driving, steering or leading towards a goal.

Example: Russia’s president has seized Crimea and destabilized Ukraine. What drives him?

Example: It’s not clear where Putin plans to steer it next or whether he even knows where it might lead.


        Losing progress toward achieving a goal may be described as going in reverse.

Example: Putin was determined to reverse such slights and restore Russia’s place in the ranks of great powers.

path, pull, orbit

In another set of metaphorical journey terms, we can say that a person is on a path towards a goal or someone is pulling someone in a certain direction.  In the following direction, the authors mix metaphors of driving on a path with flying in an orbit in outer space.

Example: It will also allow Kiev to implement economic reforms required as part of the IMF’s $18 billion aid package, which may be the best path to pull Ukraine into the orbit of the West.



One way of talking about government actions is to describe them in terms of a theatrical production including metaphorical expressions such as being on the world stage, staging and actors in a scene.  In a final example, the authors mix metaphors of chess – endgame – and the theater – bad actors.

blog - theater - Orpheum_Theatre_Vancouver_View_Of_Stage
The Orpheum Theater in Vancouver, British Columbia

Example: His advisers have told Western counterparts that Putin long ago grew tired of being made to feel like a second-class citizen on the world stage by American Presidents from both parties.

Example: Putin cracked down on dissent, jailing political rivals and staging an autocratic transition in which he handed off the presidency to his close ally, Dmitri Medvedev, from 2008 to 2012 (while Putin served as Prime Minister), before announcing he would return as President in 2011.

Example: There is always the risk that whatever Putin’s endgame, bad actors on the local scene now have ideas of their own.


Governments can be described metaphorically as buildings, while the concept can also be used as an action verb as in building a coalition.

empire building

In one example, we speak of a government creating colonial nation-states around the world as empire-building.

Example: And he is throwing a darker shadow over the 21st century as well: Putin’s talk of lost empires, historic grievances and the moral decadence of the West seems drawn from another era, a throwback to the nationalistic, empire-building Russian czars for whom Putin so often professes his admiration.

Marble  pillars at the Ranakpur Jain Temple in Rajasthan, India
Marble pillars at the Ranakpur Jain Temple in Rajasthan, India


Some ornate buildings are supported by internal or external columns called pillars.  Metaphorically, a pillar is a person or thing that supports a cause, as in the familiar phrase, the pillar of the community. In this example, the authors quote a diplomat as he describes Putin’s influence around the world by saying that he has upended the pillar of an old world order.

Example: “Putin has made Russian chauvinism and irredentism the basis of Russian policy,” says Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former Deputy Secretary of State. “He has upended what was a fairly major pillar of what George Herbert Walker Bush called the new world order.”


We are all familiar with the phrase describing something as being in a shambles.  Originally, a shamble was a stall in a marketplace used as a meat or fish market.  Apparently, these stalls were often messy or disorderly since a metaphorical phrase developed described a messy situation as being in shambles.  In this example, we also see the use of a painting metaphor as in something not being completely painted as being spotty.

Example: The economy is in shambles, and civil order is spotty in places.

blog - buildings - Escalator_NEC_11y07escalate, de-escalate

A very common way to talk about a situation getting worse is to say that it is escalating. Conversely, a problem that is being resolved may be described as de-escalate.  The word escalate is derived from a word meaning a ladder outside of a house, and its derivatives are common in Romance languages to indicate stairs in a house.  In the first example, the authors are describing a man named Smolin who was involved in shootout in Ukraine.

Example: The situation escalated when one of Smolin’s friends threw a Molotov cocktail at the Ukrainian soldiers.

Example: After agreeing to a mid-April diplomatic deal that promised to de-escalate the crisis, Putin trampled on it. People who until recently scoffed at the notion of a new European war–one that could draw in NATO and the U.S.–watch the escalating violence in places like Odessa with rising anxiety. “This is real,” says Michael McFaul, President Obama’s last ambassador to Moscow. “This is war.”


We may also discuss political problems as if they are items inside a closed container.

blog - containers - Champagne_uncorking_photographed_with_a_high_speed_air-gap_flashcorked bottles

In one case, the authors have a heading of a section of their article regarding the problems in Ukraine in terms of wine inside of a corked bottle:

Example:  Can the Bottle Be Corked?


We can also describe a problem as if it is something wrapped up like a small package.  In a rephrasing of a famous old phrase, the authors quote Winston Churchill.

Example:  Winston Churchill’s old line about Russia– “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”–could easily apply to Putin himself.


Finally, perhaps the most interesting of all the metaphors used to describe the situation in Ukraine is that of fire.  It is common to describe areas of violent conflict as something that is on fire, smoking, having a flash point or being a tinderbox.

flash point

The point at which a combustible material catches fire is called its flash point.  Metaphorically, a political situation that may lead to armed conflict or war may also be described as being a flash point.  In this example, the situation in Ukraine is described as a flash point in the region.

Example:  In the near term, Ukraine will likely serve as a kind of buffer state between Russia and the West–and a lingering flash point for many months, if not years, to come.

up in smoke

When a fire burns it often produces smoke, and when something explodes there is also a great deal of smoke so we may say that something that is stopped or destroyed goes up in smoke.

Example:  A series of early predictions–that he wouldn’t seize Crimea, or that seizing Crimea would satisfy him–are up in smoke.

blog - fire - brush fire


Another way to describe a possibly dangerous situation is to refer to it as a tinderbox, which was the term for a portable box of combustible materials and flint used to start fires in the days before the common availability of matches.  An action that creates a new and dangerous conflict may be described as putting a match to the tinderbox.

Example:  Unlike Ukraine, the three countries are members of NATO, the collective defense organization whose charter would obligate every member–including the U.S.–to treat any Russian aggression against those countries as aggression against themselves. A move on Latvia, where 26% of the population is ethnic Russian, could put a match to the tinderbox.

stoke, fanning the fires

In one case, we see an example of increasing a conflict or inciting a group to act as stoking a fire or fanning the fires to increase the heat and intensity of the flames.

Example:  Not until Russian President Vladimir Putin began to stoke Russian nationalism with his speeches, propaganda and military interventions–first in Crimea and now in eastern Ukraine. Fanning the kind of ethnic fires that burned down the Balkans in the 1990s, Putin has claimed the broad right to protect “compatriots and fellow citizens” outside Russia.


In sum, the metaphors describing the situation in Ukraine and the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin run the gamut of different types of conceptual metaphors.  Readers will need to understand metaphors of buildings, containers, theaters, journeys, physical forces as well as the special types of figurative language known as personification and metonymy.  I hope that these examples help everyone understand the descriptions of political actions in this article in TIME magazine.  Comments and questions are always welcome.

Next time:  Memorial Day War Metaphors