The US intelligence community has made evaluating Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state of mind a top priority in recent days as it seeks to establish how that is affecting his handling of the rapidly escalating Ukraine crisis, according to two sources familiar with the effort.
The efforts come as longtime Putin-watchers have publicly speculated that his behavior has become increasingly erratic and irrational. Since he launched Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last Wednesday, senior US officials have asked intelligence agencies to gather any new information they can on how the Russian leader is faring and how his mindset has been impacted by the unexpectedly unified and tough response from European neighbors and allies around the world.
The US intelligence community has spent decades decoding the former KGB officer, who has effectively ruled Russia since 1999. But while the United States has tremendous institutional knowledge of the man, it has a notoriously poor view into his day-to-day decision-making. The Kremlin remains what intelligence officials call a “hard target” – incredibly difficult to penetrate through traditional espionage.
There has not been any new comprehensive assessment that indicates a particular change to Putin’s overall health, said one US official. And officials have been on guard for the possibility that Putin’s strategy may well be to project instability, in an attempt to push the US and allies to give him what he wants for fear that he could do worse.
But the sudden burst of interest reflects a sense among some intelligence officials that Putin’s decision-making in Ukraine has been out of character – perhaps due to what some previous intelligence reports suggest has been protracted isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Everything US has [is] in [the] realm of conjecture because Putin’s decisions and statements don’t seem to be making sense,” said one source familiar with recent intelligence reporting on the topic. “For years, decades Putin has acted according to a pretty specific template.”
In a classified briefing for lawmakers on Monday evening, Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, said the US intelligence community does not have good insight into Putin’s state of mind, according to a lawmaker who was present.
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who attended the Senate briefing, confirmed that Putin’s state of mind had come up, but he declined to elaborate on what had been shared.
He did say, however, that regardless of the briefing, he personally is worried about Putin’s mindset.
Scores of raw intelligence reports
The intelligence community has produced scores of raw intelligence reports from sources as information pours in about the war. One such report that has circulated to more than a dozen agencies cites a source who has relayed that Putin’s behavior has become “highly concerning and unpredictable” over just the last two days, according to a copy obtained by CNN.
But in an indication of how difficult this information is to obtain directly, the description came secondhand to the FBI from a source who had talked to another, unknown source “with excellent access.” The report notes that this person had in the past provided information that intelligence agencies were able to independently corroborate.
The source behind the report told the FBI that Putin “expressed extreme anger” over Western sanctions put in place in response to his attack on Ukraine and “felt that the sanctions had escalated the situation faster than he expected and beyond what he considered to be appropriate.” Precisely which sanctions so infuriated Putin is unknown; that portion of the report is redacted.
The report also notes that the circulation of accurate information about the war has been extremely limited within Russia, even at the highest levels of society.
For example, many people and well-connected individuals with the means to leave Russia before airports and borders were closed have remained in the country, according to the report – suggesting that they had not known about the closures in advance.
The report, which originated from the FBI, comes with some caveats: It acknowledges that the source who provided the information to the FBI “may have provided the information to influence and inform” US decision-making – in other words, that it might be an information operation designed to manipulate the United States.
And officials caution that raw intelligence should not be taken as fact. It has not been evaluated for reliability or analyzed for its implications.
But the report has nevertheless caused other agencies inside the Biden administration to ask the FBI to follow up with its source for additional information.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the CIA and the FBI declined to comment.
A long history
Speculation about Putin’s mental health began after he gave a speech on Thursday laying out a warped, revisionist history that purported to justify his intervention in Ukraine. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, tweeted on Friday that Putin “has always been a killer, but his problem now is different & significant” – and suggested he was basing his assessment on intelligence briefings given to him as the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“I wish I could share more,but for now I can say it’s pretty obvious to many that something is off with #Putin,” Rubio wrote. “It would be a mistake to assume this Putin would react the same way he would have 5 years ago.”
For some, the boldness of Putin’s decision to invade – as well as his implied threat to use nuclear weapons – is a break with the carefully calculated and far more limited military campaigns he has launched in the past. Video footage of the Russian President seated dozens of feet away from his senior military advisers during meetings and gleefully dressing down one of his spy chiefs on television have only underscored the image of an isolated leader, acting on his own counsel alone.
By Sunday, the floodgates had opened. Former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted that Putin had “changed,” and sounded “completely disconnected from reality” and “unhinged.” Former Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper, who is a national security analyst at CNN, also called Putin “unhinged” and warned, “I worry about his acuity and balance.”
Other longtime Putin watchers argue that the Russian President’s recent actions are relatively consistent with the man US intelligence has fixated on for decades, noting that he has long demonstrated a willingness to risk military defeat in operations that the United States thought offered no chance of success – including ordering a second invasion of Chechnya in 1999, just three years after the Russian military had already been defeated there once.
“This is not different than anything he’s said before, he’s just saying it all at once in a very stark way. And he’s willing to do unspeakable things – but he’s always been willing to do unspeakable things,” said Beth Sanner, a former briefer to then-President Donald Trump and a CNN national security analyst.
Putin isn’t “insane or unhinged,” Sanner said. Rather, she said, he is “highly emotional right now because of what he was about to embark upon … and he has been very, very isolated, which adds to that emotional sense. But I don’t think he’s crazy.”
One US official echoed that assessment to CNN, arguing that Putin is acting in a way that he has long signaled he was capable of. Rather than a change in his mental acuity, this person said, officials believe he’s simply become enraged – making it impossible for his senior advisers to give him frank assessments.
Even his command to put Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces on high alert Sunday isn’t unprecedented. In 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea, he also raised the possibility he might put his nuclear forces on high alert, which then as now raised the specter of nuclear weapons being introduced into the conflict.
Russia’s nuclear doctrine, published in 2020, also includes a first-use nuclear policy. The Kremlin “reserves the right to use nuclear weapons,” including “for the prevention of an escalation of military actions and their termination on conditions that are acceptable for the Russian Federation and/or its allies.”
Still, a source familiar with recent intelligence reporting on the topic said, it is “difficult to achieve conclusion of any confidence regarding Putin’s state of mind. Would need SIGINT of phone call/video of leader losing it on his cabinet or something like that.”
SIGINT, or “signals intelligence,” is an intelligence community term that refers to intercepted communications.
“Real-time communication between Russian cabinet leaders,” this person said, is a “very hard target.”
Ultimately, this official and others say, understanding Putin’s recent behavior is a matter of analysis – not intelligence. It’s possible, officials say, that they may never have an answer.
CNN’s Kylie Atwood and Lauren Fox contributed to this report.