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Is Putin Crazy? Or Did He Just Get Some Bad Intel?

Amid speculation the Russian dictator has gone off the rails, a longtime observer suggests Vlad is the same vicious risk-taker he’s always been.
IMAGE SHUTTERSTOCK

Even among the experts, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came as a surprise. Vladimir Putin seemed to be getting a lot of what he wanted out of the situation, like breaking off the eastern territories of the Donbas, without crossing the border—and with it, what turned out to be a major line in contemporary geopolitics. It was such a clear mistake so early on that some began to speculate that he was losing it a bit, that a man who for so long had operated on cool—if often barbaric—calculation was now behaving rashly on the world stage. As his forces began shelling a nuclear plant in southern Ukraine, the chatter only grew that maybe the guy who controls nearly 6,000 nuclear warheads had gone a bit sideways.

If you ask Dr. Kenneth Dekleva, though, there’s a simpler explanation: Putin got some bad intel and is paying the price. From 2002 to 2016, Dekleva served as a Regional Medical Officer/Psychiatrist with the Department of State, including at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. On either side of that, he’s worked extensively to research the psychology of world leaders, including in his current post at the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. In an interview, edited here for length and clarity, he described how he’s come to the conclusion Putin was more poorly informed than anything, and how that should animate the West’s response to his aggression in the days ahead.


Esquire: You seem to chalk this up to mostly an intelligence failure, versus some change in Putin’s mental state. Can you explain that?

Dr. Kenneth Dekleva: I respectfully beg to differ with my senior colleagues, such as Speaker Pelosi and former Secretary Gates, former Secretary Rice and General Clapper, as well as some foreign leaders who have commented like President Macron of France and the Finnish President. I think Putin is the same person. I think he's always been ruthless. I think he's been calculating. He's shown himself to be a disruptor and a risk-taker. I think what happened here is he and his national security team believed intelligence that turned out to be wrong. Had the intelligence been right, then none of these conversations would be happening. It would be yet another success for Putin, who has carried out these horrible destructive attacks going back to Grozny in 2000, Georgia in 2008, Crimea and the Donbas for the last eight years, Syria in 2015 and ‘16, the murder of Litvinenko with polonium in London in 2006, the attempted murder of Sergei Skirpal in the UK in 2018 with Novichok, a banned chemical weapon. The attempted murder of Navalny two years ago.

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This Putin is not new. He's a man in a hurry. I think it's an intelligence failure. I think the wild card in this was that they saw the West as weak. They saw President Biden as weakened. His poll numbers the week before the invasion were 39 percent. I think after the humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan that's part of a larger narrative that our adversaries both in Russia and China see is that we are weak and the West is weak. I think they miscalculated there. I think President Biden has very ably risen to the occasion to marshall NATO, the allies, and the West to form a response, an appropriate response against President Putin's war of aggression.

One other thing that everyone miscalculated, including the Americans and Western leaders, was President Zelensky. Nobody could have predicted his heroism and courage. He was a relative unknown, considered a lightweight, even in Ukrainian politics, even after his election. The Russians missed that. I think they thought he would flee or be toppled.

You mention Putin is a risk-taker. Are there examples, historically, where he behaved rashly, or is it always a measure of calculated risk and he miscalculated in this instance?

I think the latter. Some people would say he behaved rashly, but let's take the other disruptive, aggressive things that he's done, like trying to disrupt the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. He kind of got away with it. Nothing really happened. The attempted murder of Sergei Skirpal, there were some sanctions, some diplomats expelled, but Europe was not unified in that response. So again, in spite of using a banned chemical weapon in the UK, people kept thinking, as five presidents have done in our country, that this is a man who we can still do business with. I think that now is wrong. I think President Putin has become a pariah. No matter how this ends, he's a pariah.

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With the horrible bombing of civilian targets and even the ecological terrorism, if you will, of bombing that nuclear reactor, the title of war criminal may be added to his other previous titles of diplomat, politician, KGB officer, judo master. He's looking more like the late Slobodan Milosevich or Bashar al-Assad than like other leaders whom he was compared to earlier in his career.

Donetsk, Ukraine, on March 8, 2022.
Photo by ANADOLU AGENCY / GETTY IMAGES.

Is there evidence to suggest he really believes his talk of Ukraine's legacy as part of this Russian Empire? Or is that more of a pretext to control what he sees as his sphere of influence?

I think both. He has believed this for a very long time. I think back in 2007, he told then President Bush, Ukraine's not a real country. His inner circle around him have said the same thing over the years in public speeches. This even predates the invasion of Crimea. He’s going to try to control the information space, at least in Russia, but Russians all have relatives in the West. They can pick up the phone and talk and figure out what's going on. There are hundreds of thousands of Russian dual nationals living in Europe. And he doesn’t control the information space in Ukraine. The Ukrainians have been able to document potential war crimes, attacks on civilian targets. Zelensky has been able to tweet out his message and inspire his people. The intelligence failure is there’s more of an amplification of social media in this war than there was, certainly, in 2014, let alone the invasion of Georgia in 2008.

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Has NATO expansion to the east changed his calculus? What was the change in his posture when we opened the door to Ukraine and Georgia, or let in Latvia and Lithuania?

He was certainly angered by that, even in 2004 when the Baltics joined. Many Russians feel there was an agreement [to limit further expansion], and he certainly believes it. But I think Ukraine is partially a fig leaf, in the sense that he wants to disrupt and destroy NATO and weaken the European Union as he sees it. What he's really afraid of is democracy in Ukraine—Western-oriented, even if neutral, like Finland was during the Cold War. In today's day and age, with social media and travel and open borders, democracy is an existential threat to President Putin and his autocratic regime.

"It's more about negotiation psychology than individual psychology. It's more about Sun Tzu than Freud."

He’s been in that authoritarian context for years and years. What happens to the brain under those conditions?

There's a lot of research on authoritarian personalities and leadership, both from my mentor, the late Dr. Jerrold Post, but also from Dr. Peter Suedfeld, the psychologist in British Columbia. Especially if they're more isolated or in an echo chamber where there's less dissenting viewpoints, the risk of isolated group thinking increases. And what they call cognitive rigidity, and a lack of integrative complexity or flexibility to look at other points of view and hear dissent and hear different perspectives and nuances on a problem.

I think what Putin has called a special operation, that’s how he saw it. He was probably told that Zelensky would flee. They would put in a puppet government, and this would be over in two or three days. The Ukrainians wouldn't fight. The sanctions would be slaps-on-the-wrist, weak. President Biden would not be able to muster the alliance as he's so masterfully done. I think they underestimated many things in this regard. In that sense, there was kind of a rigid, narrow groupthink. But even the brightest people, and the Russian diplomats and intelligence officers are the best and the brightest, can fail. You remember our failed intelligence leading up to the Iraq War, the famous Curveball incident. Well, Putin got thrown some curveballs, I think.

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When he talks about “de-Nazifying” Ukraine, is there a way to discern whether he actually believes it?

I think it's propaganda. Putin knows that President Zelensky is Jewish. Putin has always been very close to Israel. He has great respect for Israel. He's had close relations with Israeli leaders. In his autobiography, First Person, published in 2000, and in speeches afterwards, he talked about the late Ariel Sharon as someone he greatly admired. This de-Nazification is just really a propaganda meme that he can feed on Russian national TV. I doubt he believes that. As President Zelensky said, how can he use such language when Ukraine lost 8 million people during World War II to the Nazis? When Zelensky is Jewish? When his grandfather was a colonel in the Soviet military? I think this is just propaganda on Putin's part. I don't think it's terribly effective, but he does it anyway.

A family flees a city north of Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 7, 2022.
Photo by DIMITAR DILKOFF / GETTY IMAGES.
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So he has retained the ability to separate lies that he's telling from the truth?

Correct. He was a KGB intelligence officer. That's one thing to remember there.

What do you make of his escalating rhetoric on the use of nuclear weapons?

I think we should pay attention to it. We have to be careful not to overreact to it, but we should pay attention. He's basically letting America and the West know, hey, I'm a nuclear power, which he is. In this sense, the war is a combination of a war and a hostage situation where Putin is the hostage taker. He's using brutal tactics of fear by talking about nuclear weapons and the attack on the reactor. That's frightening because my guess is that’s deliberate.

I know people are always reluctant to make diagnoses from afar, but it does seem like he fits the bill for some personality disorders. Is there any usefulness to that in this context?

I think one has to be careful using psychiatric labels and terms. I tend to shy away from it because it's not as helpful as you think. As my mentor said, if all we talked about was the narcissism of politicians, we'd be talking about an awful lot of politicians. What we want to do is try to understand his psyche, his mindstate, and how that affects things. Really, it's more about negotiation psychology than individual psychology. It's more about Sun Tzu than Freud.

Even if Putin is a puppetmaster, there are other strings pulling on him, even as an authoritarian leader. That's one of the questions we don't know a lot about: Who influences him? Was this decision solely his own after being presented the data, or were powerful people in his national security council whispering in his ear? The psychology is more interesting than the talk that something is off with him mentally, which I disagree with actually, based on what I've seen. That's why these leaders are considered “hard targets,” and not only because of their thinking, but who's in their inner circle and who has more relative weight? Who can influence a leader? An oligarch or two that he knows? Nikolai Partuschev? Sergei Shoigu, who he goes hunting and fishing with? [Alexander] Bortnikov, the head of the FSB? Who can talk to Putin man-to-man, if you will, and subtly, even in a nuanced way, try to shape or influence his thinking?

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Is there any use in looking into the puffiness in his face that we've seen, any of the physical changes that we've seen? There’s been some chatter about steroids.

It's something you have to consider. Let me put it to you this way: as a practicing clinician, I've seen hundreds, if not more, patients who are on steroids for various medical conditions. A steroid psychosis or steroid mania, I've only seen twice in 30 years. It's very rare. You would see more behavioral evidence if there was something like that. Now, could there be side effects like puffiness or irritability or testiness? Yes, perhaps, but we don't have the hard data. It's possible that his face is a little more puffy from being in solitude during COVID and not working out as much, not playing hockey, not swimming as much. Many people have gained 15 or 20 pounds during the pandemic. Or Botox injections. There could be other reasons. It could just be he's less fit, exercising less. He's still very fit, but exercising less and more sedentary in his home office in Novo-Ogaryvo, where he lives. He actually doesn't come to the Kremlin that much, is what media reports have said. It's possible that it's just a combination of aging and isolation and being more sedentary.

The isolation is scary from a psychological standpoint. Is that a change?

Media reports have indicated that he's more isolated in the sense that because of the pandemic, he has conducted most of his meetings via Zoom and fewer meetings in person, but that's not different from any other leaders. The isolation is not new. It's something that has been talked about. The German journalist and filmmaker Hubert Seipel made a wonderful documentary, I Putin, where he had access to Putin in his inner circle for about six, nine months in 2013. It shows even then he was a very isolated leader without many deep, close friendships. That's probably a change just over time while he's been a leader. Not just recent years, but over a 20-year span.

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Putin on a Zoom with the Russian Security Council in February 2022.
Photo by ALEXEI NIKOLSKY / GETTY IMAGES.

If we operate on the basis that this was an intelligence failure, he’s been placed in a very different situation than he expected to be in. Is there anything we can know about how he might behave from here? How do we respond?

The short answer is very carefully and patiently. When Putin has a setback like this, there have been media reports that he's angry and enraged at his advisors for not bringing him good news. But he's also a very resilient person. He's a very tough, resilient person who has bounced back from adversity throughout his life. He has the resilience that many Russians have. I think we can expect him to bounce back. He won't fold easily. He'll only back off when he has a face-saving way to back off where he can, both to himself internally, but also to his inner circle and to his people, even if it's propaganda, declare that he's achieved his objectives.

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Is that part of it—the U.S. and Europe will need to give him something so he can tell a story he likes about what happened?

Yes. This is very difficult, creative diplomacy, but it's not something that our excellent diplomats are incapable of doing. I have good faith that in the long term some kind of a solution will be reached. My fear is that in the very short term, it will get worse before it gets better. I think it's very important to understand that talk of exit ramps or off ramps and face saving—this isn’t just diplomacy. It’s used in hostage negotiations. This is how FBI negotiators negotiate in difficult settings. You have to use tactical empathy, is what Chris Voss calls it, where you empathize and try to understand your adversary. That doesn't mean you agree with them or give assent. You have to step back from your own emotions and analyze them in a rational way, to try and understand: what would they do and what would work for them.

"He's looking more like the late Slobodan Milosevich or Bashar al-Assad than like other leaders whom he was compared to earlier in his career."

Right, there’s a realism to it. You can say it’s not right, the Ukrainians should be able to determine their own future. But the fact of the matter is he ain’t leaving until he gets his pound of flesh. Or worse.

That's the frightening part. The other risk is that he's politically, internally weakened by this, and that the Oligarchs and other members of the elite, if you will, the siloviki who surround him, could turn against him and offer him an early retirement. That's not out of the range of possibility, and he knows that.

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Early on, Oleg Deripaska made a public statement sort of questioning the war. I was shocked to see that. Does that tell us anything?

Yes, it does. They're taking care of their own interests. The Director of the Russian International Affairs Council, Andrey Kortunov, had an interview in English where he basically says the same thing, that this is a tragedy for Russia. This is a full former diplomat and military and intelligence officer who now runs one of the leading think tanks in Russia. You don’t only see the protests in the street from ordinary Russians. There are fractures among the elites. The elites are tricky, because many of them in Europe have two passports. They're E.U. citizens. The other risk for Russia and Putin is if this drags on and on and on, not only is Putin a pariah, but Russia becomes a pariah state. You could see a brain drain like you saw in the 90s, where a million highly educated, gifted Russians left Russia for the West permanently. That's a tragedy for Russia. Russia's a great country, with a great sense of history and culture.

Does he need a different story to tell the public than the oligarchs? Do their interests diverge a bit?

I think the longer this goes on, if Russia becomes more of a pariah and the sanctions are even more biting, then it weaves into the same story. I think Putin has gone way too far. The narrative that Russia was humiliated at the end of the Cold War and afterwards by the United States and the West is a popular narrative that resonates not only with Putin and his inner circle, but with ordinary Russians and with the elites. I know many people that hear it and get it, friends of mine when I lived there for five years. It's also generational, because there's a whole new generation of young people. They were born after 1991. They may not buy into that narrative in the same way. That's a risk for Putin, an aging leader who's out of touch with a certain sector of the population.

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What are the dynamics like from here?

The next few weeks will be very challenging for the people of Ukraine, for the West, for the United States, for NATO and for Russia. I'm trying to be a guarded optimist that they can find a ceasefire and somehow get back to negotiations. One of the things that may work in this case, when you have negotiating parties with positions that are so far apart, is to bring in an international mediator like they did in Kosovo in 1999, where they brought in the very experienced former Finnish Foreign minister Martti Ahtisaari, who also won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was key in helping resolve that 87-day war in Kosovo. An international mediator that all parties trust would probably be a step.

It seems like even people who know a lot about all this did not expect the invasion to actually happen.

I was wrong. I thought, Gosh, he's achieved his strategic goals. He could've just taken the Donbas. He could've used his hybrid war—cyber attacks, weaken Ukraine economically and politically, weaken Zelensky. They could have put in their own people in the parliament, corrupt Ukrainian politicians that are beholden to Russia. They could have done a lot of those things. Actually, he was succeeding, but I think once he crossed the line from hybrid war to total war, then everything shifted against him. He's united Ukraine, he's united the West. Even the Chinese are not pleased. They won't publicly condemn him, but they abstained in the vote in the UN and other symbolic gestures. Cultural and sporting events being canceled—this is devastating for Russia. He definitely crossed the line and didn't expect what he has received as a result.

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About The Author
Jack Holmes
Senior Staff Writer
Jack Holmes is a Senior Staff Writer at Esquire, where he covers politics and sports. He also hosts Useful Context, a video series.
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