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Inside Vladimir Putin’s head

Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the “Europe At Large” column.

PARIS — Is he crazy? Is he ill? Is he still a rational actor?

Watching Vladimir Putin’s erratic behavior, bloated face, unhinged televised ramblings and now nuclear gamesmanship, it may be time to revisit our assumption that the Russian president is a cold-blooded statesman taking logical, if deeply undesirable, decisions.

There is more than a whiff of Doctor Strangelove about Putin’s conduct over the last week, which provisionally climaxed with Sunday’s dramatic decision to put Russian nuclear forces on “special alert” in response to what he called NATO aggression.

It’s hard to imagine what useful role nuclear weapons could possibly play in his invasion of Ukraine — since any atomic detonation so close to home would cause death and contamination among his own troops and back home in Russia. And if he used nukes against the West, which has not intervened militarily in Ukraine’s defense, he would risk retaliation that could ultimately destroy the planet.

And yet, there he was, threatening to do exactly that.

Practically, nuclear weapons are generally used for one thing: to deter the use of other nuclear weapons. But Russian military doctrine has recently introduced a new potential rationale: to “escalate to deescalate,” threatening a nuclear strike in order to get an adversary to back down in a conventional fight. But the theory has never been put to practice, never mind so close to the homeland.

Perhaps Putin is reenacting Richard Nixon’s so-called “madman theory” in which the then United States president tried to make the North Vietnamese believe he was ready to push the button, in hopes of frightening them to the negotiating table.

Real or bluff, Putin’s nuclear warning capped a week of increasingly pathological behavior by the veteran Kremlin leader, swinging wildly from seeming openness to negotiations to a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in four fronts, while threatening the world with mass destruction.  

Signs of the Russian president’s erratic state of mind began with the way he received the visiting French and German leaders, forced to sit at the other end of a four-meter-long table, ostensibly as a COVID-19 precaution, though that didn’t stop him cuddling up close with Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. 

The extreme form of social distancing raised questions about Putin’s own health, amplified by the unexplained bloating of his face, which doctors say could be a sign he is taking some form of steroids for an undisclosed medical condition. 

His quirky behavior also included the public humiliation of Russia’s foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin during a broadcast meeting of Putin’s security council, where the president sat like a schoolmaster at his desk while ministers, generals, advisers and spymasters were seated like an audience facing him, taking turns to brief him from a podium. Photographs released later revealed that this encounter also involved extreme social distancing, with Putin seated at a small white desk on the far side of a large receiving room, away from his assembled officials.

Putin drummed his fingers impatiently, examining his fingernails and raising his eyes to the ceiling during the four-hour session. The nature of his authoritarian rule was laid bare in an icy glint as he asked Naryshkin whether he would recommend officially recognizing the “independence” of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.  

“Speak clearly, Sergei Yevgenovich, say it: just yes or no,” Putin demanded as his foreign intelligence director stammered nervously for the correct answer and then accidentally gave the wrong one: that he would support merging the regions into Russia.

Visibly irritated, Putin shot back: “We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about recognizing their independence. Yes or no.”

In Nazi Germany, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the miscreant would have been taken out and shot, possibly within earshot of fellow officials to strike terror into the hearts of any potential challengers. In Putin’s Russia, the president’s longtime associate is still alive and in his job. 

But the message was clear.

In clinical psychology, the paranoid typically accuse their supposed persecutors of doing exactly what they themselves are planning. Putin implausibly accused Ukraine of massing forces on the borders of the breakaway Donbass region to carry out a “genocide” against Russian speakers, in a distorting mirror of his own intentions.

His rants in nationwide television addresses branding Ukraine’s elected leaders as drug-addicted neo-Nazis raised doubts even among supportive Russians about his mental state and health. This was more than mere deception. It suggests some element of self-deception.

Western officials who have dealt with Putin or observed him in close quarters note a change in his attitude and behavior. Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, who has maintained a regular dialog with the Russian leader for years, observed a new, aggressive tone when he pushed back in defense of Finland’s sovereignty during a recent phone conversation.

“That was a change in his behavior, and I want to guess, and from that I guess that he wants to be very decisive, wants to sound like one. It was a different kind of behavior,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Whatever the state of Putin’s health, whether he’s physically ill, mentally unstable or just rational and dangerous, there are serious implications for the rest of us.

“The Kremlin leader is steeped in a paranoid mentality in which he believes that Ukraine should not exist and that Russia should dominate the world, if not all of it then at least part of it,” the veteran dissident and cofounder of the outlawed Russian human rights organization Memorial, Lev Ponomaryov told Italy’s La Repubblica. “It can drag us into a Third World War or even into a nuclear conflict.”

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