Is Putin Losing His Mind (As Well As His Fortune)?
Seizing Assets Is Different From Freezing Assets
Late last night, Reuters reported that Putin was stripped of his honorary taekwondo black belt. "World Taekwondo, citing its motto of 'Peace is More Precious than Triumph,' condemned the Russian military action in Ukraine, saying the 'brutal attacks on innocent lives' violated the sport’s values of respect and tolerance. 'In this regard, World Taekwondo has decided to withdraw the honorary 9th dan black belt conferred to Mr. Vladimir Putin in November 2013,' the governing body said in a statement. It added that it would join the International Olympic Committee in banning the Russian flag and anthem at its events. The decision comes after the International Judo Federation said on Sunday it would suspend Putin’s status as honorary president and ambassador... Other sporting organization such as FIFA and UEFA have suspended Russian national teams and clubs from competition."
This probably wasn't in Putin's plans when he gave the go-ahead for the invasion. Nor was the ferocity of the western sanctions. Nor the fierce resistance of the Ukrainian people. Is it really turning into the Spanish Civil War 2022 as foreigners rush into besieged Ukraine to fight the Russian beast?
In a Washington Post update this morning, the team of reporters noted that the initial stage of the invasion has confounded expectations, failing in key objectives, upending predictions of a rout of Ukraine. Then, after years of avoiding direct confrontations with Moscow, Western nations are now directly punishing Putin and his allies with truly devastating economic sanctions while openly supplying arms to Ukraine.
[A]fter five days of fighting, there is little sign that this conflict will end soon. Instead, the conflict appears to be moving to another phase, more unpredictable and dangerous than the first. Fighting in Ukraine is escalating, not scaling back, while the rhetoric between Russia and the West has reached levels of aggression not seen since the height of the Cold War.
...Russian forces, frustrated by the tenacious defense of major cities by Ukrainian soldiers and ad hoc civilian militias, gathered menacing strength Tuesday, as a projectile appeared to strike near Kharkiv’s administration building and a convoy of tanks, troop carriers and artillery more than 40 miles long threatened Kyiv.
Kharkiv remains under Ukrainian control but is “surrounded” by Russian troops, Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov told the Washington Post. In Kyiv, residents are bracing for an all-out assault as the Russian force, under the command of a president whose country has quickly become an international political and economic pariah, is apparently preparing to encircle the capital. A senior U.S. defense official said the Kremlin seems ready to adopt the same siege tactics that are beginning to strangle Kharkiv.
There, thousands are without power and heat in freezing temperatures, local officials said, and residents braced for more shelling Tuesday. Suspected cluster munitions struck residential parts of Kharkiv on Monday, raising fears that Russia could use tactics similar to those employed in Chechnya and Syria, where it has been accused of war crimes. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the attack on Kharkiv was “terror against the city.”
Five hours of talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations Monday near the Belarusian border failed to yield a breakthrough, with the two sides agreeing only to continue discussions in coming days. Top Russian officials hardened their rhetoric Tuesday, denying attacks on civilian areas, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the war would continue until Moscow’s goals are met.
Here’s what to know:
• The Russian advance toward Kyiv continues to be slowed by logistical challenges, British Defense Ministry analysts said Tuesday. Having failed to take control of Ukrainian airspace, Russia is shifting to nighttime operations to reduce its risk of losses, they said.
• Zelensky pleaded with the European Union to admit his country on an emergency basis. “Now we are fighting for survival,” he told the European Parliament via video conference. “But we are fighting also to be equal members of Europe.” Members gave Zelensky a standing ovation, but officials have not said whether his request would be approved.
• Ukraine has suffered 1,500 civilian and military casualties since the attack began, Biden administration officials told U.S. lawmakers Monday, according to two people in the briefing. It was unclear whether the casualty count referred to fatalities or included those injured as well.
• Russia is careening toward an economic crisis, with the value of the ruble plunging after several nations severed the Kremlin’s access to its foreign currency reserves in the West and cut off some Russian banks from the international SWIFT financial messaging system.
Putin still holds the upper hand and his response has the whole world on edge. "For the second day in a row, the Kremlin raised the specter of nuclear war, announcing that its nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines and long-range bombers had all been put on high alert... Stepping up his rhetoric, Putin denounced the U.S. and its allies as an 'empire of lies,'" which is victim rhetoric. Having lost the propaganda war, he's backed into a corner and is likely to step up the destruction of his neighbor.
NBC reported this morning that "U.S. intelligence agencies have determined that Russian President Vladimir Putin is growing increasingly frustrated by his military struggles in Ukraine and may see his only option as doubling down on violence... As the Russian economy teeters under unprecedented global sanctions and his purportedly superior military force appears bogged down, Putin has lashed out in anger at underlings, even as he remains largely isolated from the Kremlin in part because of concerns about Covid, the sources said. 'This is somebody that’s clearly been caught off guard by the size of the Ukrainian resistance,' Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said on MSNBC. 'He has isolated himself. He’s not been in the Kremlin very much... You’ve got less and less inputs, and these inputs are from sycophants.' He added: 'I do worry that he’s been backed into a corner. I do worry that there is no obvious exit ramp.'"
It sounds like he's turned into Trump after his defeat in November 2020-- surrounded by sycophants feeding him unrealistic versions of the situation with over the top solutions... and increasing isolation and mental instability. He unleashed a mob of violent insurrectionists on Congress. Autocratic-minded individuals like Trump and Putin see everything in the world through their ego-centric, twisted narcissism: it's ALL about them. Does Russian need its own Lincoln Project to widen the fissures between Putin and his oligarchs?
Western intelligence agencies have good visibility into Putin right now and are closely watching his moves for any significant behavioral changes, several current and former officials said. Four U.S. officials said there is no intelligence saying he is mentally unstable, but they said he has displayed a different pattern of behavior from in the past.
The U.S. has solid intelligence that Putin is frustrated and directing unusual bursts of anger at people in his inner circle over the state of the military campaign and the worldwide condemnation of his actions, one former and two current U.S. officials briefed on the intelligence said.
That is unusual, they say, because Putin, a former intelligence officer, usually keeps his emotions in check.
“He is no longer the same cold-blooded, clear-eyed dictator that he was in 2008,” former CIA Director John Brennan said.
A Western diplomat said Putin appeared to be increasingly insulated and misinformed.
“The main concern is the information he’s getting and how isolated he is. The isolation is a really big concern,” the diplomat said. “We don’t believe he has a realistic understanding of what’s going on.”
CNN reported this morning that for western intelligence agencies the top priority now is understanding Putin's state of mind. Is he, like Trump, nuts? "[L]ongtime Putin-watchers have publicly speculated that his behavior has become increasingly erratic and irrational... [S]enior US officials have asked intelligence agencies to gather any new information they can on how the Russian leader is faring and how his mindset has been impacted by the unexpectedly unified and tough response from European neighbors and allies around the world. 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... [O]fficials have been 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."
But the sudden burst of interest reflects a sense among some intelligence officials that Putin's decision-making in Ukraine has been out of character-- perhaps due to what some previous intelligence reports suggest has been protracted isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic.
"Everything US has [is] in [the] realm of conjecture because Putin's decisions and statements don't seem to be making sense," said one source familiar with recent intelligence reporting on the topic. "For years, decades Putin has acted according to a pretty specific template."
Putin appears to be flipping out over the sanctions directed at the kleptocracy he has built up over the decades, putting the hundreds of billions of dollars he and his cronies have stolen in jeopardy. Seizing is different from freezing. His whole personal world is collapsing and the goal is to turn his own country';s citizens against him. The walls are closing in on him. "By Sunday," reported CNN, "the floodgates had opened. Former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted that Putin had 'changed,' and sounded 'completely disconnected from reality' and 'unhinged." Former Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper, who is a national security analyst at CNN, also called Putin 'unhinged' and warned, 'I worry about his acuity and balance.'"
And that brings us to the word of the day: "off ramp." How does the U.S. give Putin a face-saving off-ramp (that Ukraine will accept)? Dictators are aways afraid of what happened to Caesar (on March 15, 44 BC), not to mention what happened to Mussolini (on April 28, 1945). Neither death was particularly glorious.
Jonathan Swan reported that "A cornered, humiliated Putin could unleash untold pain on the world, from cyberattacks to nuclear threats. After enacting brutal sanctions, the White House now must consider how the invasion can end without a new catastrophe. Nobody knows what Putin would accept. Many officials fear that we are heading into a very dangerous period-- the punishing Western sanctions pushing an autocrat into a corner... A European diplomat told reporters at a briefing yesterday: 'It's like the Sun Tzu thing of giving someone a golden bridge to retreat across. How do you get him to go in a different direction? I think the door to diplomacy remains open,' the diplomat continued. 'Putin... doesn't normally back down. But he also controls the information environment in his own country to such an extent that if he does, he can cover his tracks... So I think there is room for him to de-escalate-- and that's certainly what we're pressing for.' The diplomat point to yesterday's Russia-Ukraine peace talks in Belarus as the most viable off-ramp in a sea of bad options, noting that negotiations lasted for four hours and appear headed for a second round."
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said before the talks that he was willing to discuss "neutral status" for Ukraine-- one of Putin's three demands.
But the other two-- demilitarization and "denazification" of Ukraine, and recognition of Russia's claim to Crimea-- suggest Putin will never accept a deal in which Zelensky remains in power.
The West's response to Putin-- for so long, uncertain and halting-- has moved at astonishing speed and ferocity over the past week. How Putin will respond-- and whether de-escalation is even possible-- is keeping national-security leaders up at night.
Noah Smith predicted this morning that when hostilities end, a Marshall Plan will be needed to help Russia recover (not to mention Ukraine). "The Russian economy," he wrote, "is being hit hard, and regular Russians are going to suffer en masse. The real question is what this accomplishes. Years of sanctions and embargoes on Iran and Cuba have not brought down those regimes; hurting regular Russians seems just as likely to rally them around Putin as rise up and overthrow him. So far, antiwar sentiment in Russia is surprisingly high, but that could be due to guilt over Russia making an unprovoked attack on a country that historically has been very close to Russia; if this comes to be seen instead as a conflict between Russia and the West, Putin’s popular support might firm up... The optimal end to this war is for Russian leadership-- generals, spymasters, oligarchs, and politicians-- to simply remove Vladimir Putin from power, form a new government, and withdraw Russian troops from Ukraine. The whole war can be blamed on Putin, and Russia and the West can quickly go back to having good relations. The current sanctions give them a number of incentives to do this. The fall in the ruble, the crashing of the Russian economy, the cutoff of economic relations with the West, and sanctions against Putin-allied individuals all mean that the globetrotting comfy lifestyle Russian leaders have gotten used to over the past two decades is no longer available. If the war ends, these sanctions will presumably be reversed, and something like the old normal can be restored."
What Russian elites-- and the Russian public-- will probably never accept, however, is subjugation to the American Empire.