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The big idea
It’s hardly the first time people have said Putin’s “off”
(Washington Post illustration; Evgeniy Paulin/Sputnik/Kremlin/Pool/EPA-EFE; iStock)

The whispers have become shouts.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has changed, says a growing chorus of current and former U.S. and allied officials. He’s more isolated, more eccentric, more dangerous and, perhaps most worrisome of all, more desperate, bordering on irrational.

It’s conjecture, part of an attempt to understand what Putin wants and what price he’s prepared to pay to get it, an effort that became more important Sunday when he publicly announced he was putting his country’s nuclear deterrent forces on high alert.

“Unacceptable,” America’s U.N. ambassador declared. “Unnecessary” and “escalatory” came the Pentagon line. “Manufacturing threats that don’t exist,” the White House charged. “Playing an insanely dangerous game here,” worried one prominent expert on Russia.

That was the conventional assessment of Putin’s decision. There were also less conventional assessments of the man often characterized in U.S. media as a wily KGB spy turned ice-cold global chess-master, despite evidence he holds some bizarre and false beliefs at odds with that image.

What they’re saying

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN’s Jake Tapper Putin “appears to have some neuro/physiological health issues.” He did not elaborate on what informed that diagnosis.

On Friday, Rubio tweeted this:

Condoleezza Rice, who served President George W. Bush as national security adviser and Secretary of State and attended many meetings with the Russian leader, told Fox News Sunday she saw “a different Putin” who “seems erratic” and has “an ever-deepening delusional rendering of history.”

Speaking on CBS’s Face The Nation, retired general H.R. McMaster, who served President Donald Trump as national security adviser, said “I don’t think he’s a rational actor” and that “everybody around him is telling him what he wants to hear. He’s living in a bubble.”

Asked Sunday whether Putin might be “mentally imbalanced in some way,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told ABC’s This Week: “I’m not going to make an assessment of his mental stability. But I will tell you, certainly the rhetoric, the actions, the justification that he is making for his actions are certainly deeply concerning to us.”

And elsewhere…

The drumbeat of questions about Putin’s mental state isn’t just coming from the United States.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned last week Putin may be “an irrational actor” and cautioned “we have to accept at the moment that Vladimir Putin is possibly thinking illogically about this and doesn’t see the disaster ahead.”

Sources in French President Emmanuel Macron’s entourage told Reuters after he met with Putin earlier this month that “the Putin of today was to the Putin of three years ago” when they met in southern France.

“‘(Putin) gave him five hours of historical revisionism,’ said one of the two sources …’ So he goes on for hours rewriting history from 1997 on. He drowns you in these long monologues,’” Reuters reported.

Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, who also served his country as foreign minister, highlighted the stagecraft when Putin announced the heightened nuclear alert on Sunday.

Putin’s mind

For now, there’s not much more to this than public musings about the state of mind of a Russian leader whose ruthlessness and sense of grievance have been on display for decades.

And it’s hardly the first time world leaders have diagnosed Putin as “off.” 

As for his sense of grievance, here’s what I reported after a marathon phone call between Putin and President Barack Obama in 2014: “The former KGB spy spent much of the hour and a half insisting, without evidence, that ethnic Russians were enduring horrible things at the hands of Ukraine’s new pro-Western government, according to senior U.S. officials.”

It’s surely tempting for Western officials to slap the “irrational” label on actions they abhor or don’t understand — like Putin allegedly sending assassins armed with a nerve toxin to kill a former Russian agent on British soil.

But it’s entirely possible, looking at the united response from the United States, Europe, and other allies, that Putin acted on his long-standing loathing for democracy springing up in Ukraine, while miscalculating how the world would react to the Russian attack.

What’s happening now
Ukrainian officials say dozens killed, more wounded in Russian shelling of Kharkiv
Russian infantry mobility vehicles GAZ Tigr were destroyed as a result of fight in Kharkiv, located some 50 km from Ukrainian-Russian border. (Sergey Bobok / AFP)

Monday morning rocket strikes on Ukraine’s second-largest city mark “some of the heaviest shelling and street fighting since the invasion began Thursday,” Miriam Berger reports.

Some key updates:

  • Talks to continue: Russian and Ukrainian delegations held talks near Belarus’s border Monday for the first time as Russia’s assault on the country entered its fifth day. The talks ended with agreement to continue talking in coming days.
  • Swiss sanctions: After holding off for days, Switzerland on Monday announced that it will join the European Union in sanctioning Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
  • More sanctions from the U.S.: Washington announced a further round of sanctions Monday, effectively prohibiting institutions in the United States from doing business with Russia’s central bank.
Growing sanctions against Russia are hitting global markets hard

“Global markets reeled Monday, with the Dow slumping more than 450 points at the open as investors reckoned with the fallout from fast-growing sanctions penalizing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine,” Taylor Telford reports.

Ketanji Brown Jackson is preparing ahead of meetings with senators

Jackson, President Biden’s nominee to the Supreme Court, began preparations over the weekend for meetings with senators that will begin this week ahead of her confirmation hearings.

Programming note: Last year, Jackson received three votes from Republican senators when Biden elevated her to the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

  • She “will not need the support of any Republicans to be confirmed if all 50 members of the Democratic caucus support her and Vice President Harris casts a tiebreaking vote in the evenly divided chamber.”