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.”
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.
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.