WASHINGTON — Less than a week before Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, world leaders gathering at a luxurious German hotel to talk global security indulged in a familiar pastime: discussing what they saw as the Russian president’s odd behavior.
“We met with Chancellor Olaf Sholz, and he was telling us about his meeting that he had with Putin,” said Representative Bill Keating of Massachusetts, who attended the Munich Security Conference, where the new German chancellor complained about Putin’s unusual COVID protocols.
“He wanted his own government’s health people to examine him before they would meet — it’s the chancellor of Germany!” Keating said. “And of course, he refused, but he thought that was something out of the norm.”
Now, after Putin launched an unprovoked invasion of his European neighbor and threatened the use of nuclear power, questions about the Russian leader’s stability and rationality that have been raised in quiet conversations among global leaders are spilling into public view.
Putin, who gained a reputation on the world stage for coldly and strategically pursuing his interests, has puzzled and unsettled many in Washington’s national security establishment by taking what seem to them to be irrational risks in Ukraine, which has already resulted in punishing sanctions from the West and strategic setbacks on the ground. Some are openly speculating he is losing his grip on reality after two years of deep isolation due to COVID.
“I personally think he’s unhinged . . . I really worry about his acuity and balance right now,” said James Clapper, a former director of national intelligence during the Obama administration, in a television interview this week. “And here’s a guy that really has his finger potentially on the nuclear button right now, and so that, to me really bears close watching.”
The White House has pointedly declined to publicly indulge in any speculation about Putin’s mindset — something experts say would likely be counterproductive.
“I don’t have anything . . . any more assessment about the president’s view of President Putin’s mental acuity to state from here,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki during a Monday briefing. She added that Putin’s actions are not those “of a global leader that that should be treated with respect on the global stage.”
Those questioning Putin’s mental state have not put forward any evidence of their theory except to point to his own behavior, and the former KGB spy’s relationship to reality has been questioned in the past, as well. Former German chancellor Angela Merkel once said Putin was “in another world” as far back as 2014, a year during which he launched a more limited offensive against Ukraine.
But longtime Putin watchers say there has been an unmistakable shift in his behavior — even if there is no certainty about its cause.
“People who say he’s long had a lot of anger toward the West are right, but what seems to have changed is his sense of proportion, of what he can get away with and what he should risk,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a former State Department official and a professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, in an e-mail.
Sestanovich noted that Putin used to downplay his international efforts; he annexed Crimea bloodlessly, while the Russian invasion of Georgia quickly resulted in a ceasefire and withdrawal. He now “amps up the stakes” instead.
“That cool and controlled demeanor has given way to hyperbole and snarls,” Sestanovich said.
It is possible Putin sees a strategic benefit in being perceived as a combustible leader, similar to the way President Richard Nixon cultivated an unpredictable and even irrational reputation in an effort to get his way during the Vietnam War. That strategy, which political scientists call “madman theory,” posits that leaders can gain leverage by seeming impulsive.
“It’s harder to deal with someone who’s unpredictable,” said Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. “But on the other hand, if he’s not being pragmatic, he’s more likely to make mistakes that we can turn to our advantage.”
Putin’s vast nuclear arsenal, which he put on high alert last weekend in a dramatic escalation of tensions, makes questions of his state of mind — and the actions he will take as a result — more urgent.
“Putin is a dangerous man who’s put the world in a dangerous position,” Moulton said. “So it is responsible to ask about his mental state and decision-making ability, and serious people are asking those questions.”
Putin has been photographed in meetings with advisers or world leaders sitting at one end of an enormously long table — a picture of a leader in isolation that is swiftly becoming an indelible image of the crisis. Last week, he gave a rambling, lie-pocked speech about Ukraine that alarmed diplomats, and dressed down his spy chief in a bizarre meeting that was televised by state media.
“What’s clear is that Putin’s circle has grown tighter and tighter around him, and they consist mainly of the security services and military,” said Graham Allison, a professor of government at Harvard University who worked for the Clinton administration on a steep reduction of the former Soviet nuclear arsenal. “Watching his theater, as that event was last week, I think I have to say it’s perfectly possible that he’s becoming a little more detached from the reality of it.”
Analysts like Allison caution against armchair psychology, but the perceptions of Putin are likely to shape the United States’ and its allies’ response to his invasion. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, went so far as to suggest on television that Putin “appears to have some neuro/physiological health issues” and is showing “an erosion in impulse control.”
“I don’t understand at all putting the nuclear forces on alert,” said Robert Gates, who was secretary of defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, in a Sunday interview on CNN.
“This all seems to me like in some respect he’s gone off the rails,” he added. “Maybe it’s two years of isolation at his dacha outside of Moscow. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s only talking to the hardest-line people from his intelligence past. I don’t know. But this behavior is different and it’s very worrisome.”
And former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice added, during an appearance on Fox News, that “he’s descending into something that I personally haven’t seen before.”
Putin’s recent moves have shocked even those who know Russia well — and Putin’s place within it. That includes Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York, who is the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“Until last Monday, I thought he was still a politician,” Khrushcheva said. But there was “no national interest” in Putin waging full-blown war on Ukraine, which makes his mental calculus harder to explain.
Putin, she said, appears to be living out his own idea of Russia’s past — instead of considering the reality of the present or the future.
“He’s counting himself as all these other ‘greats’ — you know, Catherine the Great who gathered territories,” she said, listing other Russian leaders including the dictator Josef Stalin.
“It seems to me that he functions in those categories,” she said, “because after 20 years in the Kremlin, that must be how you think about yourself.”