Has Putin Lost the Plot?

The more repressive a leader becomes, the more paranoid they can get, experts say.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
A man finishes glueing huge placards bearing images of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A man finishes glueing huge placards bearing images of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A man finishes glueing huge placards bearing images of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the city center of Simferopol, Crimea, on March 4. Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Putin’s War

Russian President Vladimir Putin has long been portrayed as a wily chess-player on the world stage, looking six steps ahead to seize every opportunity to wrong-foot his Western foes while relentlessly cracking down on any whiff of dissent at home. 

But Putin’s decision to launch a renewed and brutal invasion of Ukraine last week has made some Western officials and observers question the mental state of the man in charge of the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons. 

Although it is impossible to know the true state of Putin’s mind, those who have followed the Russian leader’s behavior closely over the years have been struck by the bizarre and dark nature of his recent speeches, in which he described Ukraine’s leaders as a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has long been portrayed as a wily chess-player on the world stage, looking six steps ahead to seize every opportunity to wrong-foot his Western foes while relentlessly cracking down on any whiff of dissent at home. 

But Putin’s decision to launch a renewed and brutal invasion of Ukraine last week has made some Western officials and observers question the mental state of the man in charge of the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons. 

Although it is impossible to know the true state of Putin’s mind, those who have followed the Russian leader’s behavior closely over the years have been struck by the bizarre and dark nature of his recent speeches, in which he described Ukraine’s leaders as a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.”

“It does suggest that there is something off about him in a way that maybe wasn’t previously,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a ​​senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who previously worked as a senior Russia analyst at the CIA. 

Putin has been an increasingly disruptive player on the world stage in recent years, interfering in foreign elections, seizing the Crimean Peninsula, and sending hit teams to assassinate his critics in Europe. Analysts long regarded him as opportunistic but calculating. “Having studied him for so long, he was not a risk-taker and a gambler like that,” said Angela Stent, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on Russian foreign policy. “If you look at the [2008] Georgia war, [Russian forces] could have taken Tbilisi. They didn’t. They left [former Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili in power. In 2014, they could have moved beyond the Donbass. They didn’t. So this is obviously a different playbook.”

One week since Putin declared war on Ukraine, the Russian campaign is not going as planned: Its military has grappled with low morale, insufficient supplies of food and fuel, and unexpectedly fierce resistance from Ukrainians. 

The Russian economy, the relative prosperity of which has long been a central plank of Putin’s domestic popularity, has been battered by unprecedented Western sanctions on Russia’s central bank and major financial institutions. A litany of companies, from the Swedish furniture store Ikea to the energy giant BP, have also announced plans to withdraw from the country. 

Last week, shortly after the war began, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted: “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 has always been a killer, but his problem now is different & significant. It would be a mistake to assume this Putin would react the same way he would have 5 years ago.”

The U.S. National Security Council declined to comment in response to questions about whether the United States has concerns about the Russian leader’s mental state and its implications for the world. In an interview with ABC on Sunday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also rebuffed the question but noted that Putin has “obviously been quite isolated during COVID.”

“But I will tell you, certainly the rhetoric, the actions, the justification that he is making for his actions are certainly deeply concerning to us,” Psaki added. 

Indeed, Putin often disappeared from view for extended periods of time during the COVID-19 pandemic, and all advisors hoping to see him in person were required to self-isolate for two weeks ahead of their meetings, according to Russian media reports. Even after the development of effective vaccines and treatments, he kept visiting heads of state and his own top officials at a distance, including sitting at opposite ends of a 20-foot table during a visit with French President Emmanuel Macron. 

Of course, millions of people around the world have experienced isolation over the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they didn’t launch devastating wars on their neighbors as a result. 

Yet, Macron was struck by Putin’s fixation with history and noted that the Russian leader’s demeanor had changed in recent years, Reuters reported, citing sources in the French delegation. 

Others see Putin’s recent behavior not as an aberration but more of a magnification of tendencies that have long been observed in the Russian leader. “It’s not accurate to see him as simply an instrumentally rational actor. He has strong ideas. He’s got dark emotions, and he has been expressing those for a very long time,” said Brian Taylor, a professor of Russian politics at Syracuse University and author of The Code of Putinism. “In that sense, the trajectory is not a total surprise. But obviously, this is something much bigger than anything he has done before.”

Putin has long nurtured a particular obsession with Ukraine, which has only intensified as the country has sought to consolidate its democracy and integrate with the West following revolutions in 2004 and 2014. “He saw that not only as sort of unnatural but some kind of betrayal that had to have been engineered by outside actors, and specifically the United States,” Taylor said. 

Russia has become steadily more authoritarian throughout Putin’s two decades of rule, a trend that has accelerated rapidly over the past 18 months as an intense crackdown on independent media, opposition politicians, and civil society has sought to squeeze out any last vestiges of dissent. Scholars term this downward spiral in authoritarian regimes led by strongmen the “dictator’s dilemma.” 

“The more repressive your regime becomes, the more paranoid a leader grows because you have less sense of what is happening in society. You have less certainty that what you’re being told is the truth,” Kendall-Taylor said. “It seems like we’re at a whole new level of paranoia.”

Given implications for the world, the U.S. intelligence community has teams of people, including doctors and psychologists working at the CIA’s secretive Medical and Psychological Analysis Center, devoted to analyzing the physical and mental health of authoritarian leaders, including Putin. They use a variety of methods, including scrutinizing speeches and body language, to detect subtle shifts. “Although the science of indirect assessments is young, … at this stage, it seems to be true [that] a person’s past behavior is a more reliable indicator of how they will behave in the future than what they say they will do in the future,” wrote Charles Morgan, a forensic psychiatrist who previously worked for the CIA, in an email to Foreign Policy. 

There are more direct methods as well. “It’s a variety of reporting from Americans and other officials that meet him,” said John Sipher, a former senior member of the CIA’s Clandestine Service who served in Russia. But getting information from a leader’s inner circle in countries like Russia and China, which are regarded as “hard targets” by intelligence agencies, can be especially tricky. “Sources don’t grow on trees, and it’s especially difficult in a place like that,” Sipher said. 

The rest of us are left to pour over Putin’s speeches and actions as the world waits to see what his next move may be.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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