Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of Russian paralympic teams ahead of Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympic Games via a teleconference call, in Moscow on February 21, 2022.
French presidential sources: Putin struck Macron 'different' at recent meeting
03:51 - Source: CNN

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CNN  — 

American politicians and former diplomats are openly speculating about Vladimir Putin’s stability.

Figuring out the Russian leader’s state of mind has become a top priority of the US government, according to a report by CNN’s Zachary Cohen, Katie Bo Lillis and Evan Perez.

It’s a tall order, getting in Putin’s head, and the US has been at it for a very long time.

Cohen, Lillis and Perez write:

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.

Along with some sourced intelligence described in the report, there is plenty of speculation.

US officials are also, according to CNN’s report, “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.”

Richard Nixon did just that with regard to Vietnam, and Donald Trump’s unpredictability had an obvious effect on US foreign policy.

Some of Putin’s behavior borders on the bizarre. He is literally isolated from people. French President Emmanuel Macron refused a Russian Covid-19 test ahead of talks with Putin at the Kremlin last month, but social distance doesn’t justify this enormous table.

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Nor does it explain the even more distanced meeting Putin held with his generals on Sunday, when he directed them to put Russian nuclear forces on high alert.

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Last September, Putin did isolate after Covid-19 swept through some of his staff.

His speech to justify invading Ukraine, laced with conspiracy theories, struck many – especially in the West – as bizarre since Putin has long been regarded as calculating and deliberate.

People who think today’s Putin is different. Putin struck Macron as different, according to CNN’s Melissa Bell. A French presidential source described the tone of Putin’s announcement to invade Ukraine as “rigid and paranoid,” and said Macron thought the Russian leader was “stiffer and more isolated” than he had been in the past.

Macron met with Putin repeatedly before the Covid-19 pandemic, but then not again until a marathon five-hour meeting on February 7 in Moscow.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed Macron’s take on today’s Putin.

“This is a different Putin,” Rice said on Fox on Sunday. “He was always calculating and cold. But this is different. He seems erratic.”

Former Secretary of Defense and former CIA Director Robert Gates put it more bluntly.

“This all seems to me like in some respect, he’s gone off the rails,” Gates said on CNN on Sunday.

There is open speculation among politicians in Europe as well.

“I think that this guy lost touch with realities, actually,” Bernard Guetta, a journalist and member of the European Parliament, says in Bell’s report. “American realities, Western European realities, Ukrainian realities and even Russian realities.”

Putin, for instance, has tried to justify his invasion of Ukraine as an effort to de-Nazify the country. An absurd claim – especially given that Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian President, is Jewish.

In fact, Zelensky appealed to Jewish people around the world, posting to Facebook in Hebrew and asking them to raise their voices against Russia’s aggression, according to The Jerusalem Post.

What does a psychiatrist who studies world leaders say? Dr. Kenneth Dekleva is a psychiatrist who previously worked at the US Embassy in Moscow and specializes in leadership analysis/political psychology profiling for national security purposes.

When CNN’s Erin Burnett asked Dekleva on Tuesday if there have been noticeable changes in Putin’s behavior, he said, “Yes and no.”

Putin has always been willing to use violence. The Russian leader’s decision to attack Ukraine is not evidence of some kind of instability, said Dekleva. Putin ordered attacks in Grozny, Chechnya, in the late 1990s, in Georgia in 2008, in Crimea in 2014 and in Syria in 2015 and 2016. Putin is also suspected of ordering the poisoning and nerve agent attacks on Russian dissidents abroad.

But it’s a changed Putin compared with the one who took power. It is a different Putin, Dekleva argued, from the one who was heralded back in 2000, when he seemed ready to warmly make Russia a part of Europe.

But Dekleva disagreed with Rice and Gates and suggested Putin’s recent behavior has more to do with frustration at the pace of Russia’s invasion.

“No, with all due respect to my senior colleagues, I think what we have here is an intelligence failure on the part of Putin’s intelligence agencies,” Dekleva said, arguing the Russian leader’s behavior demonstrates frustration at an invasion that has faced fierce resistance.

“I don’t think he’s erratic or changed, but he certainly is in more of a hurry,” Dekleva said, arguing Putin could easily have stopped short of invasion and continued to play the West.

“The saddest thing here, the most tragic thing is Putin has gone from being a respected world leader when he first came to power to … he’s now looking more and more like Russia’s Slobodan Milosevic,” Dekleva said.

Milosevic, for those who don’t know, is the Serbian autocrat who died in The Hague in 2006 while awaiting trial for war crimes.