Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regional bullying and authoritarian grip on power have long triggered international concern, but the invasion of Ukraine has ratcheted fears and speculation to new heights around the questions of what Mr. Putin actually wants and how much he is willing to risk to achieve it.
To a remarkable extent, U.S. and European leaders say the Russian president bears personal responsibility for the chaos and carnage befalling Ukraine — a pro-Western former Soviet republic under threat of being violently swallowed by Russia. “Putin is the aggressor,” President Biden said Thursday. “Putin chose this war.”
But what does the onetime KGB agent with a huge historical chip on his shoulder really want? And how does invading Ukraine in the face of near-global condemnation fit into it?
Russia watchers describe a wary and largely isolated Mr. Putin, 69, whose coterie of advisers has shrunk to like-minded hard-liners and who is increasingly focused on his historical legacy and securing Russia’s rightful prominent place in the world.
The answer to what makes Mr. Putin tick may be less complex than many have theorized, said longtime Russia expert Donald N. Jensen: “He wants Russia to be a great, imperial power ruled by a czar figure — himself.”
Scholars often say Mr. Putin’s obsession with reclaiming former Soviet republics stems from a desire to restore the Soviet Union to its former glory. But Mr. Jensen, the director for Russia and Europe at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said Mr. Putin’s vision for his country draws from history predating the Bolshevik Revolution, which created the Soviet Union just over a century ago.
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Mr. Putin has openly “dumped on the Bolsheviks” in recent speeches, Mr. Jensen said. Instead, the Russian president is bent on trying to build a “multinational Russian empire along authoritarian lines, and that goes back to the era of the czars.”
Whether that means Mr. Putin intends to invade more than Ukraine and trigger a direct clash with NATO remains to be seen. Still, the history at play reaches back to the mid-1500s, when Ivan the Terrible became the first czar of Russia and expanded its territory to include much of modern-day Ukraine and Belarus.
It’s not clear whether Mr. Putin would view comparisons to Ivan the Terrible as a compliment, but he appeared to relish publicly humiliating top advisers on state television Tuesday as he weighed the question of war and peace.
Mr. Putin most notably took aim at Sergei Naryshkin. He ridiculed the Foreign Intelligence Service director for fumbling through remarks that evidently had been scripted to create the appearance that Russia’s top and smartest advisers were all in agreement on Ukraine policy.
Regional analysts said the Naryshkin exchange and a rambling, angry speech the same day were evidence that Mr. Putin had turned some psychological corner toward a kind of darkness that made other authoritarian leaders through history engage in inexplicably self-destructive pursuits.
“That man was a very different Vladimir Putin than what we’ve seen before,” said Simon Miles, an expert on Russia and the former Soviet Union at Duke University.
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Advisers like Mr. Naryshkin are “supposed to be the ultra-hawks who can’t wait to start this war, who are really enthusiastic,” Mr. Miles said in a virtual discussion with reporters on Thursday. “[But] it was very clear the key players … were trying to melt into their chairs. None of these people want a part of this. Putin seems to know this and not care.
“So this is a very different side of Putin than we’ve seen,” he said. For a variety of possible reasons, including “extensive COVID isolation,” Mr. Putin has shown himself this week as “a Russian leader who is making strategic decisions in an extremely emotive, extremely grievance-fueled way.”
The notion that Mr. Putin has many sides — that his psyche is more like a Rubik’s Cube than a one-dimensional puzzle — has long been a subject of interest within the U.S. intelligence community.
Kenneth Dekleva, a former regional psychiatrist and medical officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said “many profiles of Putin have missed the mark, labeling him as a ‘thug’ or seeing him as a mere tool of larger, more intricate power structures or groupings, such as the siloviki — Russia’s military, law enforcement and intelligence communities.”
“Such analyses of Putin’s political behavior have at times led to a lack of predictive power regarding Russia’s actions or to heightened emotional predictions of a new Cold War or military conflict between Russia and the West,” Mr. Dekleva wrote in a 2017 analysis for The Cipher Brief, a publication popular with U.S. intelligence officials.
“A careful reading of Putin’s writings, interviews, and speeches offers analysts a treasure-trove of material, which can — if soberly assessed – reveal the many faces of Vladimir Putin, including those of a politician, intelligence officer, martial artist and diplomat,” Mr. Dekleva wrote.
U.S. intelligence sources say the many faces have been on display in different ways over the years. They say Mr. Putin has used a range of tactics to influence U.S. perceptions of Russia — on one hand meddling clandestinely in U.S. elections while on the other hand exploiting media to try to influence American foreign policy.
One of the most notorious examples was when Mr. Putin penned an op-ed for The New York Times in 2013 in which he declared that it was “alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States.”
“Is it in America’s long-term interest?” asked Mr. Putin, who claimed “millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force.”
This week, it’s Mr. Putin who is drawing accusations of relying on brute force and failing to grasp the consequences of his actions.
“On the one hand, Putin appears to be concerned with demonstrating that Russia is still a major power on the world stage,” said John R. Bryson, a geopolitics expert at the British-based University of Birmingham.
“On the other hand, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a major threat to Russia’s national economic security,” Mr. Bryson wrote in an analysis circulated to reporters on Thursday.
“This is the Putin Paradox that sits at the heart [of] Russia’s Ukrainian strategy,” he wrote. “Putin’s actions will weaken Russia’s economy and ricochet throughout Russia resulting in negative and perverse impacts on the Russian people.”