In April 2014, after Russia seized Crimea and as a deadly war erupted in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow incited separatism and backed anti-Kyiv forces, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov used a crude epithet to suggest that President Vladimir Putin was mentally unbalanced.
Nemtsov, who vocally opposed the Russian aggression against Ukraine at the time, was shot dead near the Kremlin the following February.
Seven years later, Putin has launched a massive and unprovoked escalation of the war in Ukraine. His words and actions in the weeks before the invasion, and in the days since Russia unleashed the first missiles on February 24, have raised an unpleasant and increasingly unavoidable question: Is he behaving rationally?
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For many, the very fact of the invasion suggests that -- rational or not -- he is making decisions based on some volatile mix of emotion and misinterpretation of the facts on hand that has caused unnecessary bloodshed and will certainly cause more.
It is “now clear he is truly divorced from reality. This is a tragedy,” Mark Galeotti, an author and expert on Russia, wrote of Putin shortly after the invasion began.
Putin has long been seen as pragmatic, usually acting on the basis of a cold calculus of what he can do to achieve his goals -- and what he can get away with.
But the invasion and war may suggest otherwise. If nothing else, his laser focus on regaining control of Ukraine three decades after the Soviet collapse seems to have caused him to lose sight -- or to turn his eyes away from -- the good of his own country.
“For now, only one thing is clear: Putin prioritized his personal obsession above Russia’s interests,” Kadri Liik, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in the February 25 article War Of Obsession: Why Putin Is Risking Russia’s Future.
Putin’s decision to launch a major military offensive against a country whose people he has said are “one” with Russians may seem like the height of irrationality.
Another possible explanation is that Putin came to see an assault as the best way to achieve his goals -- that he was acting rationally, in a way, but based on a deeply flawed set of claims, beliefs, or assumptions.
For years, Putin has signaled his desire to bring Ukraine under Moscow’s control. And he put plans for the invasion in motion as early as last spring, increasing troop levels near Ukraine’s borders and then ramping those numbers up steadily since autumn.
'He Sounds Unhinged'
As the world watched with trepidation and the United States warned that an invasion could come any day, many people who have watched Putin for years were among those who believed he was likely to hold back -- until a stunning speech last week badly undermined that belief.
In the February 21 address, Putin doubled down on his previous efforts to portray Ukraine as an illegitimate state that does not deserve sovereignty and should not exist unless it is roped to Russia. He also repeated his false claim that the government is committing “genocide” in the Donbas, where Russia-backed separatists whose war against Kyiv has led to more than 13,200 deaths since 2014 control parts of two provinces.
Since then, Putin has piled on more remarks that have fueled concerns about his rationality. On February 25, a day after the invasion began, he baselessly and bizarrely described Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government as a band of “drug addicts” and “neo-Nazis.”
More tellingly, perhaps, he urged the Ukrainian military to seize power -- an exhortation that seemed to show a stark misunderstanding of the level of morale and the prevailing attitudes toward Russia in Ukraine, where eight years of aggression set in motion by Putin have deepened the animus against the Kremlin and pushed the nation further from Moscow’s orbit.
To people who have studied Putin or dealt with him personally, his recent words and actions suggest a startling shift.
“I’ve watched and listened to Putin for over 30 years. He has changed,” Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia in 2012-14 and a professor at Stanford University, tweeted on February 26. “He sounds completely disconnected from reality. He sounds unhinged.”
Even after the seizure of Crimea in 2014 and other actions he has taken since then, “Putin had always seemed an extremely pragmatic leader to me,” Tatyana Stanovaya, an expert on the Kremlin and founder of the political analysis outfit R.Politik, was quoted as saying in a February 25 article in The Guardian. “But now when he’s gone into this war against Ukraine, the logic in the decision is all about emotions, it’s not rational.”
Marco Rubio, a Republican U.S. senator from Florida and deputy chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, seemed to suggest in a February 26 tweet that he had classified information from U.S. intelligence agencies about Putin’s state of mind.
“I wish I could share more, but for now I can say it’s pretty obvious to many that something is off with Putin,” he wrote.
Dovetailing with the questions about Putin’s rationality is the evidence that, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he is operating largely within a small circle of advisers, most of them hawkish.
This could mean that decisions are made with a drastically limited amount of input and on the basis of information that may be incomplete, inaccurate, or filtered through the biases of his closest associates.
'Very Basic Mistakes'
Beyond that inner circle, Putin may also be susceptible to encouragement by sycophantic officials, lawmakers, and state media outlets that are tasked with issuing propaganda which the president, in turn, consumes -- a vicious circle that may have helped shape his decisions on Ukraine.
Many observers have said the Russian military campaign appears to have advanced more slowly than Putin may have planned. Footage of wrecked Russian vehicles and soldiers killed or captured in Ukraine has augmented that impression.
“Obviously, we can only make tentative conclusions so far, but the Russian military is committing some very basic mistakes from the strategic to tactical levels,” Rob Lee, a former U.S. Marine Corps officer and war policy researcher at King's College London, wrote on Twitter on February 28. “Putin also put his military into a very bad situation with unrealistic goals and without giving them much warning.”
The Russian military campaign “looks terrible” because the assumptions behind it “were nuts,” Michael Kofman, director of Russia Studies at CNA, a U.S.-based think tank, tweeted on February 27.
A lack of accurate information, and cheerleading squads in the state media and parliament echoing his outlandish depictions of the situation in Ukraine may have affected Putin’s ability to gauge the situation there and to plan effectively for the invasion.
“He tried to conduct a short operation in the hope that the Ukrainian side would collapse -- from the top leadership to privates on the battlefield. It’s possible that the madman was seriously counting on holding the psychological and moral advantage,” Maksim Trudolyubov, editor in chief of the Russia File, a blog published by the U.S.-based Kennan Institute think tank, wrote on Facebook on February 27.
Putin “refused to understand that this entire ‘advantage’ was dreamed up by his own television channels. For many years, his television and press have had one customer and one real viewer -- himself,” Trudolyubov wrote. “He has been poisoned by his own lies.”