WASHINGTON — More than two weeks into a war he expected to dominate in two days, Vladimir Putin is projecting anger, frustration at his military’s failures and a desire to provoke even more violence and destruction in Ukraine, according to the assessment of US intelligence officials.
In recent days, officials have publicly said they fear the Russian president is escalating the conflict in an attempt to break Ukrainian resistance. Russia still holds overwhelming military advantages and can bomb the country for weeks more. And while the rest of the world reacts to the horrific images of the war he started, Putin remains insulated from domestic pressure by what CIA Director William Burns called a “propaganda bubble”.
Putin’s mindset – also difficult to determine from afar – is essential for the West to understand as he provides more military aid to Ukraine and also prevents Putin from directly attacking the countries of the NATO or possibly hitting the nuclear button. During two days of testimony before Congress last week, intelligence officials openly expressed concerns about what Putin might do. And these concerns are increasingly shaping discussions about what US policymakers are prepared to do for Ukraine.
Over two decades, Putin has achieved total dominance over the Russian government and security services, ruling with a small inner circle, marginalizing dissent and jailing or killing his opponents. He has long criticized the breakup of the Soviet Union, rejected Ukraine’s claims of sovereignty and mused about ending a nuclear war with the Russians as “martyrs”. Burns told lawmakers he believed Putin had been “cooking in a combustible combination of grievances and ambition for many years.”
Putin expected to capture kyiv in two days, Burns said. Instead, his army has failed to take control of major cities and has already lost several thousand soldiers. The West imposed sanctions and other measures that crippled the Russian economy and lowered the standard of living of the oligarchs and ordinary citizens. Much of the foreign currency that Russia had hoarded as a bulwark against sanctions is now frozen in banks abroad.
Burns is a former US ambassador to Moscow who met Putin several times. He told lawmakers in response to a question about the Russian president’s mental state that he did not believe Putin was crazy.
“I think Putin is angry and frustrated right now,” he said. “He is likely to double down and try to crush the Ukrainian army regardless of civilian casualties.”
Russia’s recent unsubstantiated claims that the United States is helping Ukraine develop chemical or biological weapons suggest that Putin himself may be willing to deploy these weapons in a “false flag” operation, Burns said. .
There is no apparent way to end the war. It is almost inconceivable that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has won worldwide admiration for leading his country’s resistance, would suddenly recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea or support the granting of a new autonomy to Russia-friendly parts of eastern Ukraine. And even if he captures kyiv and deposes Zelenskyy, Putin will have to account for a Western-backed insurgency in a country of more than 40 million people.
“There is no lasting political endgame in the face of what will continue to be fierce resistance from Ukrainians,” Burns said.
European leaders are still trying to maintain dialogue with Putin. Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel spoke with Putin on Monday and “pleaded for an immediate ceasefire”, according to Bettel’s tweet. A spokesman said Bettel had been encouraged to contact Putin by other leaders who “wanted to make sure Putin continued to speak with them.” Bettel also spoke with Zelenskyy.
Avril Haines, President Joe Biden’s director of national intelligence, said Putin “sees this as a war he cannot afford to lose. But what he might be willing to accept as a win may change over time given the significant costs he incurs.
Intelligence analysts believe Putin’s recent raising of Russia’s nuclear alert level was “likely intended to deter the West from providing further support to Ukraine”, she said.
White House concern over the escalation has at times frustrated Democrats and Republicans. After initially signaling support, the Biden administration has in recent days declined to back a Polish plan to donate Soviet-era warplanes to Ukraine that would have required the United States to participate in the transfer. The administration previously delayed sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and would not send Stinger air defense missiles to Ukraine before changing course.
Asked Thursday, Haines said Putin might see the transfer of the plane as a bigger deal than the anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons that are already destined for Ukraine. Haines did not disclose whether the United States had any information to support this conclusion.
U.S. Representative Mike Quigley, a Democrat from Illinois who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, said the Biden administration had been “always a step or two behind” for fear of triggering Putin. He urged the White House to quickly agree to the transfer of planes.
“I think it comes across as a quibble,” Quigley said. “If anyone thinks Putin is going to distinguish and differentiate – ‘Oh, well, they’re taking off from Poland’ – he sees it all as an escalation.”
Meanwhile, as the violence escalates and more Russians die, the West is also watching for any signs of holes forming in Putin’s “propaganda bubble.” An independent Russian political analyst, Kirill Rogov, posted on his Telegram account that the war was “lost” and an “epic failure”.
“The error was the idea that the West was unwilling to resist aggression, that it was lethargic, greedy and divided,” Rogov wrote. “The idea that the Russian economy is self-sufficient and secure was a mistake. The mistake was the idea of the quality of the Russian army. And the main mistake was the idea that Ukraine is a failed state and that Ukrainians are not a nation.
“Four mistakes in making a decision is a lot,” he said.
Prior to the invasion, a poll conducted by the Levada Center, Russia’s largest independent opinion polling firm, found that 60% of respondents saw the US and NATO as the ‘initiators’ of the conflict. in eastern Ukraine. Only 3% answered Russia. Polling took place in January and February, and the Levada Center has not released a new poll since the start of the war.
Foreigners hope that ordinary Russians will respond to the sharp decline in their standard of living and find honest portrayals of the war through relatives and online, including using VPN software to circumvent Kremlin blocks on internet. social networks. Russian state television continues to air false or unsubstantiated allegations about the US and Ukrainian governments and push a narrative that Russia cannot afford to lose the war.
“Otherwise it will lead to the death of Russia itself,” Vladimir Soloviev, host of a prime-time talk show on state-run Russia 1 TV, said on his daily radio show. last week.
Associated Press reporters Lynn Berry in Washington and Philip Crowther in Lviv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.
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