The White House and other observers are increasingly sounding the alarm about the mindset of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who seems poised to escalate his country’s war with Ukraine.
Experts, analysts, lawmakers and even administration officials have speculated that Putin’s isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic has raised his paranoia. They’ve pointed to decisions he’s made such as the invasion itself, and his move on Sunday to put his nuclear forces on alert, as suggesting he is not making rational decisions.
“I’m not going to make an assessment of his mental stability, but I will tell you, certainly the rhetoric, the actions, the justification that he’s making for his actions are certainly deeply concerning to us,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on ABC News on Monday.
U.S. intelligence agencies are reportedly keeping a close eye on Putin and his behavior, concerned that the Russian leader may order even more devastating violence against Ukraine’s stiff resistance, which has managed to hold off the advanced Russian army for nearly five days.
While some analysts say Putin has yet to unleash the full power of the Russian military, the ordered assaults on Ukraine have increased in violence and devastation in recent days.
Russia on Tuesday appeared to send a rocket crashing in front of an administrative building in Kharkiv, killing seven people.
According to a group of Ukrainian journalists who have organized a fact-checking service for reporters not on the ground in the country, attacks on residential areas and civilian infrastructure — including hospitals, have become a norm for Russian invaders.
They said the shelling on densely-populated areas of Kharkiv had killed dozens and wounded many more. Children were among the victims, the group said, in both Kharkiv and the city of Mariupol.
“We are confident that the strategy to shell civilian houses and streets has been selected consciously by Russians to create chaos and bring the communities to despair and panic,” the group wrote in a daily digest sent Tuesday morning to The Hill. “None of that happens, the communities are strong and more resolved to defend.”
Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova told lawmakers Monday night that Kyiv believes Putin has used explosives banned by the Geneva convention against civilians in Kharkiv, so-called vacuum and cluster bombs.
The United Nations Human Rights coordinator has estimated more than 400 civilians have been killed in less than a week of fighting, and the International Criminal Court on Monday announced it was opening an investigation into alleged Russian war crimes and crimes against humanity taking place in Ukraine.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fl.), the Vice Chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, said he was watching with concern Putin’s public videos where he outwardly expresses frustration and anger, signaling a striking change for someone he’s described as a “cold blooded but calculating killer.”
“The one thing Vladimir Putin has always valued is emotional control, is the ability to never flash any emotion and to watch a video of him the other night and those flashes of anger, that’s very uncharacteristic,” Rubio told reporters on Monday night.
“We have to understand that whatever we think he might have done, or assumed he would do in response to actions 10 or 15 years ago, is not what he might do today, and that’s an important thing to take into account. This is a very dangerous moment, in my opinion, because of that.”
Russia experts have also raised alarm over Putin’s justification for the assault on Ukraine, dismissing the country’s inherent and legal sovereignty and ethnic history, slandering Ukraine’s Jewish president as a Nazi, and propagandizing Russia as a liberator.
“I’m nervous that Mr. Putin has been believing his propaganda for decades,” Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration said in an interview with NBC News on Sunday.
“I sat in the room with him for five years when I worked in the Obama administration. I speak Russian. I listened to him and I know what he says, he’s increasingly unhinged…”
Observers say Putin’s tightened grip on power and near isolation over the COVID-19 pandemic — when he was largely sequestered in a “bunker” with strict regulations limiting visitors — have severed nearly all ties he had with the outside world and a grasp of reality.
Putin’s behavior and personality raised the red flags of the delegation traveling with French President Emanuel Macron when he met with the Russian leader in Moscow on Feb. 10.
A source briefed on the content of the Putin-Macron discussion told Reuters at the time that more than five hours of talks between the two leaders made “us realize how different the Putin of today was to the Putin of three years ago.”
The Russian leader could further fall into the abyss as the country’s economy begins to spiral amid an unprecedented global campaign of sanctions – with the Russian currency, the ruble, plummeting on Monday to a value of less than one cent compared to the dollar.
The free-fall of the Russian economy poses one of the gravest risks to Putin’s rule and legitimacy with the Russian people, said Daniel Fried, who served as ambassador to Poland during the Bush administration and is a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council.
“The social compact Putin made with Russians back in the early 2000s was, ‘I will be an authoritarian but I’ll give you stability and a better standard of living, and a lot of people bought it,” Fried said.
“Putin’s promise was the basis of his rule, now he’s getting financial turmoil right back and it’s all on him, it’s all on him.”
Russians have taken to the streets in dozens of cities to protest Putin’s war against Ukraine, with thousands of people reportedly arrested, an extraordinary happening in a country where public opposition is quickly and forcefully silenced.
Anne Appelbaum, a Pulitzer-prize winning historian for her work on the Soviet Union, said a key, deep-seated fear for Putin is the power of popular protests to overthrow authoritarian governments, an experience solidified for him as a young KGB officer in Dresden fending of pro-Democracy protests in 1989 with the fall of east Germany.
“He’s had this anxiety that this would happen to him, that the end of his power would be exactly that, a kind of street demonstration. I think that obsession is exactly what explains his obsession, in turn, with Ukraine,” she said during a panel on Monday hosted by Johns Hopkins SAIS, where she is a senior fellow.
In rambling speeches revising history, Putin has sought to paint as a threat to Russia’s security Ukraine’s closer ties with the West and democratic reforms – and which ousted in a popular revolution in 2014 the pro-Russian and anti-West government in Kyiv.
“He had a line in one of his paranoid television appearances about ‘influence from the West coming to us from Ukraine,’” Appelbaum continued, “and what he means is, the influence of democratic ideas, ideas about transparency, about the rule of law, all of which could potentially damage his autocratic, kleptocratic political system, that keeps him in power.”
The U.S., allies and partners are challenged with laying out an exit strategy to rein Putin back in.
Talks between Ukraine’s defense minister and Russian officials on the border of Belarus on Monday failed to yield any breakthroughs, and the Kremlin even stepped up devastating attacks on Ukrainian cities in the midst of the discussions.
The White House has said that President Biden is not expected to speak with Putin. The Russian leader last spoke with Macron on Monday.
“The French President suggested to the Russian President that they remain in contact over the next few days to help prevent the situation from worsening,” the Élysée Palace said in a readout. “President Putin agreed.”