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Decision to invade Ukraine raises questions over Putin’s ‘sense of reality’

Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a catastrophic new European war, combined with the sheer weirdness of his recent public appearances, has raised questions in western capitals about the mental stability of the leader of a country with 6,000 nuclear warheads.

They worry about a 69-year-old man whose tendency towards insularity has been amplified by his precautions against Covid, leaving him surrounded by an ever-shrinking coterie of fearful obedient courtiers. He appears increasingly uncoupled from the contemporary world, preferring to burrow deep into history and a personal quest for greatness.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, is well-placed to analyse changes to Putin’s demeanour. Macron once drove a cooperative, if self-conscious, Putin round the gardens of the palace of Versailles in a tiny electric golf cart in the summer of 2017 and welcomed him to his holiday residence at a fortress on the Mediterranean coast the following summer, where Putin descended from a helicopter carrying a bunch of flowers and complemented the Macrons on their tans.

After Macron held five hours of talks with the Russian leader in Moscow at opposite ends of a 15-metre table, he told reporters on the return flight that “the tension was palpable”. This was not the same Putin he had last met at the Elysée palace in December 2019, Macron said. He was “more rigid, more isolated” and was off on an “ideological and security drift”.

Following Putin’s speech on Monday, an Elysée official made an unusually bold assessment that the speech was “paranoid”. Bernard Guetta, a member of the European parliament for Macron’s grouping, told France Inter radio on Thursday morning, after military invasion began: “I think this man is losing his sense of reality, to say it politely.” Asked by the interviewer if that meant he thought Putin had gone mad, he said “yes”.

Guetta is not alone. Milos Zeman, the Czech president and long one of Vlaldimir Putin’s staunchest supporters, denounced Putin a “madman” after the invasion.

“All our Russia-watchers, watching his press conferences, think that he’s descending even more into a despotic mindset,” another European diplomat said.

Vladimir Ashurkov, a close aide of Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most prominent opponent who is now in a penal colony, described Monday’s rambling speech by the Russian president about Ukraine as “really bizarre”.

“It’s unprecedented in the rhetoric of world leaders, but also for Russia. It’s quite strange,” said Ashurkov, who is executive director of Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation, and lives in exile.

“Why would you spend so much time, you know, looking back into the past, when we now live in the 21st century? We should be looking into the future. It puzzles me as to what audience is intended for such as speech, because it’s not going to resonate with Russians and it’s rubbish for an international audience.

“I think he’s in some sort of self-induced concept of reality that is very revanchist, based in the past, and in the trauma of the dissolution of Soviet Union,” he said. “Frankly speaking, we are in a situation where the leader of a major nuclear country is living in his own world.”

According to an estimate by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), Russia has 5,977 nuclear warheads, even more than the US, its own rival in that field.

Putin frequently refers to that huge arsenal, and made a thinly veiled reference to them when he launched the war on Ukraine.

He said: “Whoever would try to stop us and further create threats to our country, to our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and lead you to such consequences that you have never faced in your history. We are ready for any outcome.”

Nato’s North Atlantic Council responded with similar open-ended language, saying: “We have increased the readiness of our forces to respond to all contingencies.”

The US and Nato have made it very clear that they will not intervene directly in Ukraine, but their forces are in ever closer proximity and they have vowed to keep sending arms to Ukrainian forces if they become a guerilla resistance to Russian occupation.

There have already been close encounters between Russian and Nato planes, while their naval forces will brush alongside each other. Ukraine has asked Turkey to close the Dardanelles Strait to Russian warships, to stop them moving from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Putin could also see the Nato provision of weapons, or certain types of sanctions as strategic threat, and respond in an unpredictable way.

Emma Claire Foley, a researcher at Global Zero, a disarmament advocacy group said she worries about “the risks of having all these troops, all this material, in close proximity plus the sort of the ambiguity that an actual war introduces for people who are trying to understand the meaning of the other side’s actions, especially when communication is limited.”

Hans Kristensen, director of FAS’s nuclear information project said that any unintended clash would have to go through several phases of escalation before nuclear weapons would be contemplated, but he cautioned: “If a direct clash happened, that escalation to that point could happen quickly.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to go according to plan.”

In a crisis, it would be very much up to Putin how to react and whether to escalate. Like a US president, he has access to a nuclear briefcase, the Chegets, with nuclear launch code. According to an analysis by the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, the defence minister and chief of staff of the armed forces are also supposed to be involved, but in Putin’s Kremlin it is unclear whether they would act as any kind of brake on his actions.

“Nuclear weapons are an interesting exception to the general rule that the psychology of world leaders is less important than the systems they work in,” Foley said. “Don’t assume that this could proceed in an orderly fashion. It could spin out of control very easily.”

Julian Borger in Washington and Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

Source: Guardian 

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