The White House’s effort to devise a strategy to confront Russia over its invasion of Ukraine is tied to an urgent re-examination by intelligence agencies of President Vladimir V. Putin’s mental state. The debate revolves around whether his ambitions and risk appetite have been dampened by two years of Covid isolation, or by a sense that now may be his best time to rebuild the sphere of influence. of Russia and secure its legacy. Or both.
Throughout the pandemic, Mr Putin has retreated into a complex cocoon of social distancing – although he has allowed life in Russia to return to essentially normal. The Federal Protective Service, Russia’s answer to the secret service, has built a virus-free bubble around Mr Putin that far exceeds the protective measures taken by many of his foreign counterparts.
Mr Putin held most of his meetings with government officials via video conference, often appearing in a spartan room at his Moscow estate, Novo-Ogaryovo. Even when foreign dignitaries arrived, they sometimes couldn’t see Mr. Putin in person; UN Secretary General António Guterres had to make do with a videoconference during his visit to Moscow last year.
Now Mr Putin has in-person visitors – including Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who met Mr Putin for around three hours on Saturday. (Mr. Putin’s residence and the Kremlin are equipped with disinfectant tunnels that all visitors must pass through.)
Some of the world leaders who met Mr Putin in recent diplomatic overtures sat 20 feet away from him at a giant table, having refused to submit to Russian PCR tests that would make their DNA available to Russians. Otherwise, people who meet him in person have usually spent up to two weeks in quarantine first.
Mr Putin’s extreme caution reflects not only his age – he is 69, which puts him at relatively high risk of serious illness from coronavirus – but also what critics describe as heightened paranoia over the course of from his former career as a KGB spy.
And the Russian leader’s tendency, US intelligence officials in the White House and Congress have said, is to double down when he feels trapped by his own overreach. So they described a range of possible responses, ranging from the indiscriminate bombing of Ukrainian cities to make up for early mistakes made by its invasion force, to cyberattacks directed at the US financial system, to more nuclear threats and possibly to measures to advance the war. The borders of Ukraine.