It's tempting to assume that Vladimir Putin always has a master plan.
And why not? He's cunning and shrewd. He's steely and ruthless. He's cold and calculating. And his political life has been so charmed that many Russians, as well as many Kremlin-watchers, think he has an almost supernatural -- or at least preternatural -- ability to come out on top.
It's also long been conventional wisdom that important decisions in Russia are made by a so-called "collective Putin," a cabal of oligarchs and security-service veterans close to the Kremlin leader who make up the inner sanctum of Russia's deep state. It reached decisions by consensus with Putin acting as the ultimate decider and arbiter.
But recently, Kremlin policy appears erratic, inconsistent, and sometimes downright incoherent.
Over the past couple weeks it appeared that Putin was looking for a face-saving way to wind down the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
But even as the Kremlin leader was meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on August 26, he was escalating the conflict and sending in Russian troops.
Is that all just part of the plan? Or is Putin himself becoming erratic? And is the collective Putin coming unglued?
There have certainly been signs that this might be the case. There have been whispers in Moscow, for example, that Putin has become increasingly withdrawn and isolated. He's appearing live on television less frequently, and when he does it only adds to the speculation that something isn't quite right.
For example, Putin was scheduled to make a major address to the nation on August 7, only to have the speech cancelled without explanation.
Then, on August 14, the Russian president addressed a group of officials and lawmakers in Yalta, an event the Kremlin had been hyping for weeks. ITAR-TASS said that it would be a "major" speech and the meeting with lawmakers would be "profound and comprehensive." The state-run Rossia-1 television channel said it would be "the political event of the week."
But at the last minute, the Kremlin pulled the plug on a planned live broadcast of the event.
Writing on Facebook, opposition journalist Sergei Parkhomenko called it "Putin's second false start," adding, "I wonder what it is he cannot bring himself to do?"
Journalist and political analyst Yevgenia Albats suggested on Ekho Moskvy that the confusion illustrated a deep split in Putin's inner circle. "I have the impression that there is a struggle" between "very dark forces" seeking to "intimidate" the West and "more pragmatic comrades who realize that, after all, their money is there," she said on August 18.
If such a battle was going on -- and I suspect it was -- the hard-liners appear to have won a round with Russia's escalation in Donbas over the past week.
But when Putin appeared live on television in the early morning hours on August 27, as that escalation was getting under way in earnest, something was clearly amiss.
Throughout his remarks in Minsk after his two-hour meeting with Poroshenko -- remarks that were fairly unremarkable -- Putin swayed to-and-fro and made odd gestures. His facial expressions were off. It definitely wasn't the cocksure Putin we've come to expect.
"Something appears to be wrong with him. He twitches and grimaces at random," Yelena Rykovtseva of RFE/RL's Russian Service wrote on Facebook. "Maybe this is why they didn't show him in Crimea."
And Putin's latest remarks on the conflict on August 29, in which he lauded pro-Russian separatists for "undermining Kiev's military operation" were not televised. Instead, they came were released on the Kremlin website in the early morning hours.
-- Brian Whitmore
NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical Podcast on August 29 when I will discuss the issues raised in this post with Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and Alexander Motyl, a professor at Rutgers University-Newark.