Has Putin mentally deteriorated?

This thread is meant to be about Putin himself, rather than about the war in Ukraine. There are a couple of threads about that running already.

I was completely wrong about Putin invading Ukraine – but then so were a lot of serious experts on Russia. I’ve been thinking about why that was. Excuse the long post.

From the NYT:

In Moscow’s foreign policy establishment, where analysts overwhelmingly characterized Mr. Putin’s military buildup around Ukraine as an elaborate and astute bluff in recent months, many admitted on Thursday that they had monumentally misjudged a man they had spent decades studying.

“Everything that we believed turned out to be wrong,” said one such analyst, insisting on anonymity because he was at a loss over what to say.

“I don’t understand the motivations, the goals or the possible results,” said another. “What is happening is very strange.”

From Lyse Doucet, Chief International Correspondent for the BBC, in Kyiv:

For weeks, I’ve asked Ukrainians in Kyiv about it, and ran it past every foreign and defence minister, every Russia watcher, I met at last weekend’s security conference in Munich.

It just didn’t make sense. Just didn’t add up.

It didn’t add up, because it was not a rational decision.

I know there are some people who’ve thought of Putin for years as a stereotypical ‘mad dictator’, but that’s not true. Putin has always been rational, and his judgment has always been good in terms of his own cold values.

He’s always been an autocrat, probably a sociopath, totally ruthless, and like some kind of glorified Mafia don. But he’s never been irrational… until now.

Even in the case Georgia, of Crimea, and the breakaway areas of Ukraine, he pushed the boundaries, and then stopped. His judgment of just how far he could go was correct, and he got away with it.

But invading Ukraine is a huge mistake, against all reason, and something he wouldn’t have done even a couple of years ago.

Has he gone mentally downhill recently?

The French president, Emmanuel Macron held 5 hours of talks with him recently (from the end of a ridiculously looong table).

Macron said that this was not the same Putin he met Elysée palace in December 2019. His character had changed.

Following Putin’s speech on Monday, an Elysée official made an unusually bold assessment that the speech was “paranoid”. Bernard Guetta, a member of the European parliament for Macron’s grouping, told France Inter radio on Thursday morning, after military invasion began: “I think this man is losing his sense of reality, to say it politely.” Asked by the interviewer if that meant he thought Putin had gone mad, he said “yes”.

Guetta is not alone. Milos Zeman, the Czech president and long one of Vlaldimir Putin’s staunchest supporters, denounced Putin as a “madman” after the invasion.

“All our Russia-watchers, watching his press conferences, think that he’s descending even more into a despotic mindset,” another European diplomat said.

From Mark Galeotti, Honorary Professor at University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies, and author of the book We Need to Talk about Putin:

Despite his macho posturing, Putin has been calculating in his 20 years at Russia’s helm, not impulsive.

When he invaded Georgia in 2008, he needled the Georgians to move first. He waited till Ukraine was in political chaos before seizing Crimea in 2012.

But today Putin is a self-caricature. Wariness has turned to paranoia, cool hostility to unrestrained aggression.

Since the pandemic started, Putin has retreated. He hasn’t travelled, even within Russia, ferried between his sumptuous palaces and the Kremlin by limousine and helicopter.

He has seen few people outside his inner circle. Anyone granted an audience had first to isolate for two weeks in a state hotel, watched over by armed guards.

Before meeting the President, he or she then had to pass through a special tunnel in a mist of ultraviolet light and disinfectant. Such is Putin’s paranoia.

And his world view has become ever smaller and darker. Putin doesn’t even have a smartphone. He is disconnected from reality.

It wasn’t always like this. Putin used to listen to professionals who would tell him the facts, his generals and economists. But most of these advisers have been side-lined.


“Despite Crimea and everything else, Putin had always seemed an extremely pragmatic leader to me,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, the founder of R.Politik. “But now when he’s gone in this war against Ukraine, the logic in the decision is all about emotions, it’s not rational.”

From Bloomberg:

Hubris, paranoia, military adventurism — a heady combination, and one that has been fatal for dictators and their regimes. And Putin is starting a war Russians do not want, for which they will pay the cost.

But consequences can play out over time, and the Russian president appears to be unraveling. Even by the standards of an repressive authoritarian regime with a history of false-flag operations and fabricated pretexts for war — and for an autocrat with a penchant for macho, reckless military pursuits and for rewriting the past — the last few days have been hard to comprehend.

Putin says will “denazify” Ukraine — a country that suffered brutally in the Second World War.

He will denazify a country that has a Jewish president! A country where the right-wing extremist vote was about 2% in the last elections.

Bloomberg again:

Putin experts, including our own Leonid Bershidsky, have long labored under the impression that Putin was rational, in the sense that he would not risk economic ruin and unpopularity at home and around the world just to scratch whatever wild, ahistorical itches he had about Russia’s sphere of influence.

It turns out those experts were quite wrong.

The invasion is not rational because this is not a war he can conceivably win, despite Russia’s military strength. It’s not connected with reality because he has totally misjudged the mood of Ukraine, of Russia itself, and of the West.

He expected that Russian forces would advance quickly and easily and get a positive reception from Ukrainians. He would remove the government and substitute a puppet regime with minimal difficulty. He couldn’t have been more wrong. He expected that the West would sit back and let this happen with the same kind of reaction as when he took over Crimea. He was totally wrong.

It’s highly likely that the war will become bogged down, with unmotivated Russian soldiers who see no reason to invade, and highly motivated Ukrainians.

When sanctions begin to bite, both against the oligarchs and Russian corporations who prop up Putin, and against ordinary Russians, he will almost certainly lose power.

Putin is no longer engaged with reality, whether because of age, drugs (he has spinal problems, and is probably on some kind of pain medication), or whatever.

He’s gone off the rails and acted against his own interests, never mind the interests of Russia. He’s acted in a way that will destroy himself.

Lots of wishful thinking IMO.

Care to explain why? Preferably with facts and/or expert opinion.

Putin is a master of information warfare and, on this one, he’s totally flubbed it.

Given that the war is continuing though, unfortunately, I don’t think that it’s prudent to go into the details but I would say that, that one thing (and only that one thing) is an indication that he is deteriorating.

If the war keeps going, I think he’ll get the boot.

I’m not qualified, nor do I have access to enough information, to make even a remotely educated guess about his mental health.

What I can argue, though, is the ‘bubble’ effect. It’s difficult to imagine how these world leaders – particularly authoritarian autocrats with a background in Intelligence – can not have their worldview shifted by the insular and controlled infrastructure that *they build" and that they inhabit.

Does Putin have a ‘team of rivals ?’ Does he brook dissenting opinions ? Or is he surrounded by sycophants who do nothing but perpetuate his own intrinsic worldview.

If you read and believe too much of your own PR … bad things can happen.

I tend to default to the presumption that people who do what Putin just ordered be done … have something verifiably wrong with them. Who kills in large numbers, pretty indiscriminately, without provocation (as distinct from: without objective) ?

But maybe power and insulation did for Putin what alcohol does for many: rather than create an asshole, it just allows the innate asshole to flourish with neither shame, self-awareness, nor conscience.

I don’t think you have to be mentally deteriorated to get high on your own supply. There’s a rather predictable pattern among many highly successful people where they eventually come to believe in their own infallibility and inevitably overreach. Part of this is trusting one’s gut over the advice of experts and other outside evidence.

Putin reputedly fears being dragged through the street like Qaddafi. This is eminently rational for a powerful autocrat who is broadly hated by his people (some, a vocal minority, not all his people). He has a good reason to worry about being humiliated, deposed, and/or killed.

To be frank, all the talk of his “irrationality” seems like coping strategy by people who made the wrong call about the invasion. They failed to apprehend the meaning of a very obvious military buildup, so now they have to pretend that it’s so insane that nobody could have possibly foreseen it.

Putin’s failure will be studied for years in the future (assuming there is a future). It’s premature to claim too much certainty about it. But one clearly evident factor is that he was utterly deluded about his military’s capabilities and the cohesion of NATO and the international community. Why was that? Again, it’s very premature to say, but powerful people are very vulnerable to the risk of getting surrounded by yes-men who are too weak to deliver bad news to the boss. If your boss had a habit of putting polonium in people’s tea, or novichok on their doorknobs, you’d probably be very hesitant to tell him that the army isn’t up to performing the critical job he wants done. You tell him what he wants to hear, all your buddies tell him what he wants to hear. It looks like irrationality from the outside, but he’s just acting on bad information.

Putin may or may not have a screw loose. Not for me to say. But everything we’ve seen so far is easily explainable by Putin being surrounded by a culture of toxic positivity of his own making.

It’s hard for me to view Putin’s “mental deterioration” in a different light than (sorry) Hitler’s, following the invasion of Poland.

Both leaders repeatedly got away with comparative baby steps in bullying and taking over land from their weaker neighbors. Hitler thought he could push even further without severe retribution but miscalculated. Putin may be in the same boat, but it remains to be seen how effective the West’s countermeasures will be.

I’m still in the camp of Putin being “crazy like a fox” until proven otherwise.

yes, also this. Putin has mostly faced appeasement for his actions over the last 15 years or so. He installed a puppet US President, used info ops to split the US and other western countries in half. Occupied chunks of Georgia, Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine with little pushback.

He’s been on a quite a roll! It would have been irrational for him to worry very much about repercussions of invading Ukraine. And was his confidence unjustified? If Russia had brought Ukraine to heel in 3 days and installed a puppet government, would there have been any real consequences? Sure, some sanctions, but what are sanctions when you’ve restored a huge, economically productive chunk of historically claimed land to your empire?

I don’t think he’s insane. He has a bad leadership culture, he got bad intelligence, and he made a high-stakes gamble that blew up in his face. Had it worked, we’d be talking about him like a combined master of poker, chess, and judo, as we have been for the past 15 years or so.

Now, going forward, is he going to be irrational? There are no guarantees. The mask has slipped, the tiger is wounded, choose whatever metaphor you wish. But his behavior up until now has seemed rational enough (as rational as a revanchist, irredentist autocrat can be).

I don’t see this war as a sign that Putin is irrational.

The indications are Russia will win this war. I strongly doubt Ukraine will be able to defeat Russia and there is very little chance of other countries intervening.

There will be consequences for this war. But Putin probably figures the benefits he will gain from winning the war will outweigh the costs from those consequences. At least for him and his regime.

There’s a good chance he’s right. Putin controls the narrative within Russia and he can arrange to reap the praise while redirecting the blame. His international reputation will take a hit but I’m sure he’s a lot more concerned about his domestic reputation.

I have no idea whether or not Putin has a diagnosable condition (rumors of neurological health issues are long standing) but as the costs of this action mount for both the Russians in general and the Russian elites, I would not be shocked to hear of a sudden illness that started after he drank his tea …

For Russia that may be the best exit ramp.

One thing that comes to my mind is that he may not be losing his mind, but he may be losing his patience. He feels his life mission is to bring about the righteous smiting of those who brought Russia low and bring Russia back to its destined place as someone you just do not cross, and he wants to start seeing results while he can still enjoy them.

Especially when he has put a lot of investment into improving that army. "What do you mean we’re not ready? Not even Ukraine? Gee, aren’t we lucky our only border with anyone who can be a remotely serious threat is in f^%$#* Manchuria."

He surely had a very tense conversation with his political team back in 2019 over failure of the pro-Moscow parties to retake the government in Kyiv: "What do you mean the f^%$#* comic actor won the election??" And nobody wants to be the one to tell him “well, we carved off the majority of their pro-Russian voters in Crimea and the Donbas.”

And in the end if he prevails or mostly prevails, it will look not so much like it blew up in his face as that it was a closer run business than expected, and at the next meeting he can look around the table and say “Gentlemen, I put your assurances to the test, and we all see the results. Some of you delivered, others did not. You will account for what you achieved… and for what you failed to”. (I wonder if he has trapdoors under the chairs…)

The only thing particulary “weird” about this whole thing IMO were his writings and speeches with the whole mystical-identitarian bent. That I did not expect from him.

You have to imagine that there are plenty of sidelined Russian politicians that will be receiving covert, back-channel approaches that will be suggesting just such an option. Accompanied by promises of favourable future treatment for bringing that about.
The majority of the Russian leadership may in hock to Putin but perhaps enough of them value their future skin over their immediate enrichment.

What does “winning” a war actually mean these days? Did the US “win” the war with Iraq? The long term prospects of old fashioned, WWII style conquests don’t seem that certain (or even possible) anymore.

I don’t read Putin that way. There are certainly dictators who believe they are on a mission from God. But I think Putin is a different type; he’s a pragmatic dictator.

Putin’s been in power for over twenty years. If he was somebody who believed he was on a life mission, he would have started this war years ago.

I feel Putin just saw a war with Ukraine as something that would benefit him in 2022.

Seriously, what if Putin was diagnosed with terminal cancer and decided that he’d either leave a proud legacy or else risk blowing up the world because why should he care? Putin has always been proud of his image of physical vitality; terminal illness would be a hard blow to his ego.

To come back to the Hitler analogy many people think that Hitler’s deteriorating health was why he determined to press war sooner than his generals liked, and insisted on pressing for total conquest immediately rather than any more achievable partial gains; his imbecilic “no retreat” orders on the Eastern Front for example.

We can only hope that despite Putin’s grip on the instruments of state and military control, even the most loyal of his underlings don’t want to initiate a götterdämmerung.

The United States wanted to conquer Iraq and then turn it into a stable Western-style free market democracy. We achieved the former and found the latter was impossible.

I believe Russian goals are different. They want to conquer Ukraine and then either run it as an occupied territory or set up a collaborationist regime that will follow Russian orders. I think this is an achievable goal.

Are you saying that if the US had tried run Iraq as an occupied territory or set up a collaborationist regime that would follow US orders (which it arguably did) ; that would have been an achievable goal?

Not a moral plan or a good plan. But I think it would have been an achievable plan.

The recent baseless decision to put his nuclear arsenal on high alert would seem to indicate a paranoid-delusional personality. I can only thank the gods that we have adult leadership in the White House during this mess.