Putin Reading: Unhinged or warily tackling West’s fears?

For two decades Vladimir Putin has branded his rivals as reckless and impulsive. But his behavior in ordering an invasion of Ukraine – and now putting Russian nuclear forces on high alert – has some in the West wondering whether the Russian president has become dangerously unstable.

In recent days, Putin has raved on TV about Ukraine, repeated conspiracy theories about neo-Nazism and Western aggression, berated his own foreign intelligence chief on camera from across a Kremlin room. high-domed where he sat alone. Now, as sanctions from the West threaten to cripple Russia’s already-shackled economy, Putin has ordered higher nuclear weapons readiness, blaming the sanctions and what he called “aggressive statements against our country.

The uncertainty surrounding his thinking adds a wild card to Russia’s war against Ukraine. Western officials must confront Putin as they also question whether he understands or cares about the cataclysmic consequences – or perhaps he is intentionally attacking longstanding suspicions about him.

An aide to French President Emmanuel Macron, who spoke with Putin on Monday, said the Russian leader responded to Macron “without showing any irritation, in a very clinical and very determined way”.

“We can see that with President Putin’s state of mind, there is a risk of escalation,” added the aide, who spoke anonymously in accordance with the practice of the French presidency on sensitive talks. “There is a risk of manipulation by President Putin to justify what is unjustifiable.”

Foreign leaders have long tried to get into Putin’s head and have been wrong before. And Putin, in this crisis, is showing many of the same traits he has displayed since becoming Russia’s leader. Putin has led neighbor invasions, unbridled conspiracy theories and outright lies, and ordered bold operations like interference in the last two US presidential elections.

He single-handedly made historic decisions like the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, consulting only his inner circle of KGB veterans and keeping everyone else in the dark. He has long been surrounded by lieutenants reluctant to risk their careers by urging caution, let alone expressing unfavorable opinions.

He also spoke of nuclear war and once thought that such a conflict would end with Russians going “to heaven as martyrs”.

Experts say Putin could use the specter of nuclear conflict to break growing support for Ukraine’s defense and force concessions. His latest comments also suggest that the sanctions are working.

“We need to know that’s a sign that we’re reaching it,” said Jim Townsend, former deputy assistant secretary of defense and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “We just have to take that into account. We have to be cool.”

US officials were alarmed by a 5,000-word essay published under Putin’s name in July that claimed Russians and Ukrainians were one people and blamed any division on foreign conspiracies. A Biden administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal US government thinking, said the intelligence community fears Putin is operating from an “emotional place” and is driven by long-simmering grievances.

More recently, Macron went to meet Putin and had several long phone calls before the invasion. A senior official in Macron’s office said last week that Putin was “no longer the same”, that he had become “more rigid, more isolated” and that basically he had veered at the current approach .

During a five-hour dinner between the two leaders, Putin spent more time denouncing NATO expansion and the 2014 revolution in Ukraine than discussing the immediate crisis.

Putin’s perceived self-isolation has been highlighted in recent official meetings broadcast by state television. He faced foreign leaders and close aides across a long table. No Russian official who spoke expressed a dissenting opinion.

“There haven’t been many people who have made direct contributions to him,” said Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. “We therefore fear that this isolated individual (has) become megalomaniac in that he sees himself as the only historical figure capable of reconstructing old Russia or recreating the notion of the Soviet sphere.”

Putin has long been committed to regaining lost glory, suppressing dissent and keeping neighbors in Moscow’s orbit. In 2005, he called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the century”. Russia has waged war on Georgia, annexed Crimea from Ukraine, backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and earlier this year briefly deployed troops to help quell protests in Kazakhstan.

His public rejections of Ukrainian sovereignty go back many years. In 2008, he reportedly told President George W. Bush, “George, you have to understand that Ukraine isn’t even a country.”

A year earlier, he showed his anger at the US and NATO in a landmark speech at the Munich Security Conference, lambasting the alliance’s eastward expansion and attacking US military intervention abroad. The United States was mired in the Iraq War at the time, launched on the basis of false claims that Iraq had a nuclear weapons capability.

“The United States has overstepped its national borders in every way,” Putin said then. “This is seen in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations.”

Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican from Utah who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, said he hadn’t seen evidence before the invasion of Ukraine to suggest Putin was behaving irrationally, and he said noted that other world leaders in history have been dismissed by outsiders as irrational. . Putin, he said, has “incredible appetite for risk when it comes to Ukraine.”

Two years ago, Putin approved the latest version of a Russian nuclear deterrence policy that allows the use of atomic weapons in response to a nuclear attack or aggression involving conventional weapons that “threatens the very existence of State”.

Putin’s associate Dmitry Medvedev, who served as acting president when Putin moved to the prime minister’s seat due to term limits, said in 2019 that a move by the West to cut off Russia of the SWIFT financial system would amount to an effective declaration of war – a signal that the Kremlin might view Western sanctions as a threat comparable to military aggression. The sanctions announced in recent days include the exclusion of SWIFT from major Russian banks. The ruble has since fallen.

In 2018, Putin told an audience that Russia would not strike first in a nuclear conflict, but speculated about retaliation against an imminent enemy attack, adding with a smirk: “We would be victims of aggression and we’ll go to heaven as martyrs. And they’ll just die and won’t even have time to repent.”

James M. Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he did not believe nuclear war was imminent, but there was real potential for escalation. Another possibility was that Putin would use increasingly brutal non-nuclear tactics in Ukraine.

Acton suggested finding an “exit ramp” that could allow Putin a perceived victory. In 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States secretly agreed to remove nuclear missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets withdrawing from Cuba.

But, Acton added, “I’m not sure if he knows what an exit ramp looks like right now.”

Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear policy expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said he was not immediately worried about a nuclear escalation. But one of the dangers of sending public signals about nuclear weapons is that they can be difficult to interpret, Lewis said, just as the world is now trying to figure out Putin’s latest moves and intentions.

“He’s isolated and makes bad decisions and loses,” Lewis said. “And it’s dangerous.”

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