Does Part of Putin’s Wartime Mindset Reflect Pandemic Isolation?

Does Part of Putin’s Wartime Mindset Reflect Pandemic Isolation?

The White House effort to design a strategy to confront Russia over its invasion of Ukraine is linked to an urgent re-examination by intelligence agencies of President Vladimir V. Putin’s mental state. The debate is over whether his ambitions and appetite for risk have been altered by two years of Covid isolation, or by a sense that this may be his best moment to rebuild Russia’s sphere of influence and secure his legacy. Or both.

Throughout the pandemic, Mr. Putin has retreated into an intricate cocoon of social distancing — though he allowed life in Russia to essentially return to normal. The Federal Protective Service, Russia’s answer to the Secret Service, built a virus-free bubble around Mr. Putin that far outstrips the protective measures taken by many of his foreign counterparts.

Mr. Putin has been holding most of his meetings with government officials by video conference, often appearing in a spartan room in his Moscow estate, Novo-Ogaryovo. Even when foreign dignitaries arrived, they sometimes didn’t get to see Mr. Putin in person; the secretary general of the United Nations, António Guterres, had to make do with a video meeting when he visited Moscow last year.

Now Mr. Putin has in-person visitors — including the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, who met with Mr. Putin for about three hours on Saturday. (Mr. Putin’s residence and the Kremlin are outfitted with disinfectant tunnels that all visitors must pass through.)

Some of the world leaders who have met with Mr. Putin in recent diplomatic overtures were seated 20 feet from him at a behemoth of a table, having refused to submit to Russian P.C.R. tests that would make their DNA available to the Russians. Otherwise, people who meet him face-to-face generally have spent as long as two weeks in quarantine first.

Mr. Putin’s extreme caution reflects not only his age — he is 69, putting him at relatively high risk of severe illness from the coronavirus — but also what critics describe as paranoia honed during his former career as a K.G.B. spy.

And the Russian leader’s tendency, American intelligence officials have told the White House and Congress, is to double down when he feels trapped by his own overreach. So they have described a series of possible reactions, ranging from indiscriminate shelling of Ukrainian cities to compensate for the early mistakes made by his invading force, to cyberattacks directed at the American financial system, to more nuclear threats and perhaps moves to take the war beyond Ukraine’s borders.

Leave a Reply