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Putin's Gamble on Ukraine May Be Anything but Crazy

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, near the Kremlin Wall during the national celebrations of the 'Defender of the Fatherland Day' in Moscow, Feb. 23, 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, near the Kremlin Wall during the national celebrations of the 'Defender of the Fatherland Day' in Moscow, Feb. 23, 2022.

In the days leading up to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, some current and former Western officials began to question the sanity of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

They pointed to what they perceived as changes in Putin's demeanor, his way of speaking about the crisis, as evidence something had changed and made the Russian leader all the more dangerous.

U.S. President Joe Biden described one of Putin's speeches, recognizing the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine as independent states, as "bizarre" and "twisted." U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the same speech as "deeply disturbing."

The former French ambassador to the U.S., Gérard Araud, went even further, tweeting that Putin's speech was "truly mind-boggling" and wondering if the Russian president had slipped into a "paranoid delirium in a parallel universe."

Other observers called Putin "unhinged" and "disconnected from reality."

That type of talk of a Putin who perhaps has lost touch with reality, though, stands in contrast to previous public assessments and private intelligence assessments of the long-time Russian leader, which have described the now 69-year-old as ruthless, cunning and dangerous, with an appetite for risk.

"Most of my white hair came from my service in Russia over the years and in particular in dealing with Vladimir Putin's Russia," U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns told lawmakers last February, prior to his confirmation.

Putin began his career as a foreign intelligence officer for the KGB, the former Russian secret police, and retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1990.

He eventually transitioned into politics, and by 1998, he was leading Russia's domestic security service, the FSB.

Just two years later, Putin was elected president. He has served as president ever since, with the exception of a four-year stint as the country's prime minister from 2008-12.

"It's always a mistake to underestimate Putin's Russia," Burns added.

Former U.S. intelligence officials likewise argue that writing off the Russian leader as a crackpot would be a tremendous miscalculation.

"I have seen nothing to indicate that Vladimir Putin isn't anything but the same coldly calculating KGB operative he's always been," said Daniel Hoffman, a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the CIA.

"I don't think he's made any mistakes yet," Hoffman told VOA, noting Russia's successful military ventures in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea and Syria.

Instead, Hoffman and other former U.S. intelligence officials believe that Putin, buoyed by those outcomes, looked at the current state of the world and saw a chance to turn one of his long-held desires into reality.

Ukraine Invasion New York
Ukraine Invasion New York

"Putin has never made a secret of his outlook," according to Mark Kelton, a former deputy director of the National Clandestine Service for Counterintelligence.

"What has changed is Putin's sense that he now has the capacity to actualize his desire to bring those parts of Ukraine not seized in 2014 under Russian control," Kelton told VOA.

Specifically, former intelligence officials point to what Putin likely sees as "perceived U.S. weakness," due to political divisions at home and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which showed that neither Washington nor its Western allies had much of an inclination to deal with foreign conflicts.

And then there is China, which while poised to be a long-term adversary, has for now aligned with Moscow over what Kelton called "mutual opposition to a common American enemy."

According to some Russian observers, the convergence of the various trends may even be giving the former intelligence officer a bit of extra confidence.

"The Putin I saw was exactly the Putin I expected to see," said Molly McKew, a former adviser to the Georgian president and national security council, told VOA. "He wants power and legacy for himself and for his vision of Russia."

"He is more certain that there won't be costs he can't weather. He is more certain that there is not the will to stop him," she added.

Yet not everyone is convinced Putin, as he has appeared on television in recent days, is the Putin of old.

"I was surprised by the meandering but angry speech (Monday)," John Sipher, who once ran the CIA's Russia operations, told VOA.

"I always assumed he was well informed. He was a former KGB officer and has a world-class intelligence service that certainly knows neither Ukraine nor the U.S. is planning to invade," Sipher said prior to the Russian invasion. "It really sounded like he believes this nonsense."

Other Russia experts agree, there has been a change.

"What was different this time was the ominous tone and barely concealed anger," said Seva Gunitsky, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

"This was a speech to threaten, not inspire," he told VOA. "He changes his posture and facial expression to sound more menacing."

And that, according to some experts, could be indicative of a shift in Putin's behavior that could have wide-ranging implications.

"Putin appears to be increasingly isolated from everyone except his inner circle, who are all members of the security services with aggressive and paranoid outlooks," Gunitsky said.

David Szakonyi, a political scientist at George Washington University, agrees.

"This happens to a lot of authoritarian leaders," he told VOA. "They stop trusting a lot of other perspectives. They tighten up. They get a little bit cautious in the way that they allow different points of view to enter their calculus."

Another possibility, according to some former intelligence officials, is that for all his planning and for his confidence, Putin has felt genuinely frustrated.

"Even though Putin initiated the crisis, some of the Western reaction has not worked out the way he may have anticipated," said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA officer who now teaches at Georgetown University. "That's enough to make anyone sound rather frantic and extreme even if his mind is still firing on all cylinders."

Then too, some say Putin's behavior could be a well-thought-out act.

"If people in the West start thinking that Putin has gone somewhat crazy, that can be a strategic advantage," Pillar told VOA. "Such an image might lead Western leaders, afraid of what this supposedly crazy guy might do next, to make enough concessions to start winding down the crisis on terms Russia can accept."