(Ця стаття також доступна українською мовою тут.)

[Editor’s note: Every morning, the president receives daily briefing reports from the intelligence community presenting information and analysis on policy developments around the world. In this simulated President’s Daily Brief memo, Just Security’s Senior Fellow Brianna Rosen presents a fictional account of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mindset, motivations, and calculus on Ukraine.]

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, insight into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mindset may help you anticipate and respond to his next moves in the crisis. While Putin deliberately seeks to portray an aura of mystery and enigma, our information and analysis sheds light on his motivations and calculus.

The following factors should be taken into consideration as you formulate policy responses to Russian aggression:

First, Putin continues to perceive that he embodies and personifies the Russian state, where he exerts paternalistic control over individuals and civil society. As a result, Putin is concerned with appearing strong and in control at all times, and he values order (poryadok) and strength (sila) above democratic freedoms or norms.

  • Putin views individual rights as a tool of western interference and a threat to Russia’s national security. In his mind, rights and norms hold instrumental value only to the extent that they can be used to deflect western criticism of Russian actions.
  • Notwithstanding the limited freedoms that remain for Russian civil society after decades of increasingly repressive rule, the new social contract between the state and the people is the same as the old social contract that existed during Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union.
  • Recent protests in Russia concerning the invasion of Ukraine, at their present scale, are unlikely to significantly impact elite decision-making. Putin nevertheless has refrained from calling military operations in Ukraine a “war,” and instructed his communications regulator to take down Russian media references describing it as such, suggesting he may be trying to control the narrative and prevent a broader public backlash.

We assess with high confidence that Putin is increasingly isolated and not receiving accurate information about the war. There is a growing body of evidence that Putin’s hard core and ever-shrinking circle of trusted advisors (including Sergey Naryshkin, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Nikolai Patrushev, and Aleksandr Bortnikov, director of the domestic intelligence service, the FSB), all of whom are hardline former KGB officers, are unwilling to tell him hard truths.

  • Having served in the KGB himself before becoming president, Putin believes he knows better than his advisors and surrounds himself with sycophants. Putin does not seek out alternative policy advice or welcome dissenting views; there are few, if any, opportunities for outsiders to shape his decision-making calculus.
  • Putin views pluralism as a form of weakness, indecisiveness, and an impediment to decision-making. According to this worldview, stability is achieved only through consensus and national unity.
  • Putin exhibits disdain for his closest advisors, evidenced recently by his tense exchange with Naryshkin during a televised meeting of top security officials in Moscow. Putin first pressed Naryshkin to directly advocate for recognition of the independence of two breakaway regions in Ukraine, and then badgered and mocked Naryshkin when the spy chief mistakenly said he supported making them part of Russia.
  • Public condemnation of Russia’s invasion by prominent Russians and former government officials, including several former generals, appears to have done little to influence Putin’s calculus on Ukraine.

Has Putin Gone Mad?

There are three competing paradigms that may explain the psychological impetus behind Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, which we term Madman, Careful Gambler, and Flying Blind theories. The Madman explanation suggests that Putin has lost touch with reality and is acting irrationally, in part because of his near-total physical isolation from society for the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Careful Gambler theory rejects the premise that Putin is irrational, arguing instead that he is playing the “madman” card as a strategic gambit to pressure the West to bend to his will and recognize Russia’s great power status. The Flying Blind theory contends that Putin is rational, but that he is making irrational decisions based on inaccurate information coming from his advisors and intelligence services that conforms to his worldview.

The intelligence community agrees that Putin is Flying Blind insofar as he is isolated and receiving inaccurate information, but agencies are divided on the question of whether (and to what degree) Putin is rational and on the current status of his mental health. To address this question, we conducted a red teaming exercise to examine the assumptions underpinning the Madman and Careful Gambler theories, and the indicators we would expect to see if either theory were correct.

After completing the red teaming exercise, most intelligence agencies assessed with medium confidence that Putin’s extraordinary isolation during the pandemic, among other factors, has affected his state of mind, lending credence to the Madman theory. Putin is increasingly prone to unusual bursts of anger directed at his inner circle, and his megalomaniac tendencies likely have been exacerbated by his deteriorating emotional well-being and physical health. If Putin is genuinely mentally unstable, we would expect to see increased visits by physicians to his residence, advisors shielding him from public appearances and interviews, and internal political jockeying among the Russian elite to line up a viable successor or caretaker government.

However, one intelligence agency dissented from this view and judged with medium confidence that Putin is playing the “madman” card to pressure and intimidate the West, as the Careful Gambler paradigm would predict. Analysts from this agency assess Putin is deliberately cultivating a persona of unpredictability to prevent western interference in Ukraine, in the same way that U.S. President Richard Nixon told his chief of staff in 1969 that he wanted the North Vietnamese to believe he “might do anything” to stop the Vietnam War. While Putin’s actions may seem irrational to outside observers, they are consistent with his past statements and guided by an overriding logic of defying the West and reclaiming Russia’s glorious past. If Putin is a Careful Gambler, we would expect him to prioritize efforts to negotiate a ceasefire on Russia’s terms as quickly as possible, and to take steps to avoid a long war of attrition.

Regardless of Putin’s state of mind, he almost certainly views the current conflict through the prism of geopolitics, guided by the zero-sum logic of the Cold War.
The atrophy of multilateralism under the Trump administration, growing divisions among NATO and European Union allies, the nature of the withdrawal from Afghanistan – which Putin perceived as a military defeat for the United States – and U.S. determination to avoid military engagements may have emboldened Putin to invade Ukraine.

  • Putin has a strong desire to recapture what he sees as Russia’s glorious past. Ethnocentric nationalism, and a firm belief in Russia’s individuality or spetsifika (“special-ness”), plays an integral role in Putin’s foreign policy calculus, demonstrated by a speech he made before the Duma in April 2005 where he referred to the collapse of the former Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
  • Putin, like many other elites, has internalized the narrative that Russia suffered a “national humiliation” in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. Putin believes the United States and its allies have been trying to “contain” Russia since the Cold War and will stop at nothing to impede Russian power and economic growth.
  • The expansion of NATO’s military alliance to countries bordering Russia, including three that were part of the former Soviet Union, and the expressions of interest from former satellite states in joining NATO and the European Union have exacerbated this perception.
  • In his Feb. 24 speech announcing the invasion of Ukraine, Putin referenced the “fundamental threats which irresponsible western politicians created for Russia consistently, rudely and unceremoniously from year to year.”

The confluence of all the above factors make Putin prone to risk-taking and miscalculation, suggesting that the potential for escalation is high. In the current crisis, Putin miscalculated the strength and unity of U.S. and European opposition, and his ego, historical grievances, and lack of access to objective intelligence reporting may prompt him to underestimate western resolve again.

  • Reporting indicates that Putin initially believed the West would be divided in its approach to the crisis and reluctant to risk a direct confrontation, and possible nuclear escalation, with Russia over Ukraine. U.S. and European statements that they would not intervene militarily almost certainly confirmed his perception that the West has no fundamental security interests in Ukraine.
  • In a series of escalatory moves, Putin has issued veiled nuclear threats to warn the West against interfering in his military operation in Ukraine, and on Feb. 27 announced that he put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert.
  • Putin also appears to condone, and may even have encouraged, the nuclear posturing of his close ally Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, whose government declared that a majority of voters approved a constitutional referendum on Feb. 27 that, among other provisions, eliminated the country’s neutrality and non-nuclear status. That provision could pave the way for the country to host Russian forces and nuclear weapons on its soil permanently.

It is crucial to avoid underestimating Putin and what he hopes to achieve with the invasion in Ukraine. The issue at stake is not principally about NATO; for Putin, the invasion is about regaining de facto control of former Soviet territories adjacent to Russia, an issue that he claims is a “matter of life and death” for Russia’s “historical future as a nation.”

  • Putin’s goals in the current crisis probably extend beyond Ukraine to include reconstituting a sphere of Russian influence in the region that extends to neighboring countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union or the Soviet bloc.
  • In his speech announcing the invasion, Putin stated unequivocally that he views Ukraine as a natural extension of Russia, rather than a separate political and cultural entity in its own right. This view conforms with Putin’s broader perception that Russian iron-fisted influence and control should extend beyond its current geographical borders.
  • Throughout his life, Putin has been underestimated to the detriment of his political rivals. As a child, he took up martial arts to stop other kids from bullying him and as a Russian officer in the KGB in the 1980s, the unassuming façade that he adopted with colleagues hid a ruthless and calculating mind that later allowed him to manipulate seasoned politicians such as former Russian President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Nevertheless, responding to Putin with reciprocal threats and the language of deterrence may further provoke Putin, rather than prompting him to back down. While strongmen such as Putin respect only hard power and are unmoved by international norms or the prospect of isolation, the rest of the world must walk a fine line between demonstrating resolve and exercising strategic flexibility in engaging with Russia’s core concerns. By invading Ukraine, Putin has signaled that he will not back down. After having publicly painted a false picture of the situation in Ukraine as an existential threat to Russia’s own territorial integrity and sovereignty – either because it harbors “neo-Nazi terrorists” or because of its close ties to the West – Putin cannot afford to reverse policy course now.

The principal way to defuse the crisis is to provide a diplomatic off-ramp that would allow Putin to save face and claim limited victory in Ukraine. A negotiated ceasefire that includes pledges of Ukrainian neutrality, as well as a tacit acknowledgement of at least some of Russia’s security concerns, could allow Putin to assert that he has reclaimed Russia’s great power status on the world stage. The Ukrainian government also could provide formal assurances concerning the treatment of minorities in eastern Ukraine, one of the pretexts Russia has used for the invasion, without giving into Putin’s maximalist demands that Ukraine accept the loss of the Donbas region or recognize Crimea. Providing these types of guarantees, while fostering a diplomatic atmosphere of mutual respect, would damage Putin’s efforts to manipulate the narrative surrounding the crisis, particularly his claims that he has been “forced” to invade Ukraine due to western “intransigence” and the Kyiv government’s unwillingness to “move a millimeter on any issue.” Such diplomatic maneuvering might reduce the risk of escalation and a broader war in Europe, while providing time for economic sanctions and other policy measures to take effect.