As Russian forces wage a brutal war against Ukraine, the U.S. intelligence community is in a heated debate over whether Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent nuclear threats suggest he's losing touch with reality and becoming increasingly unhinged, according to The New York Times and CNN.
But national security and intelligence veterans caution against painting Putin as a madman with diminished mental faculties.
The Russian leader "has a clear strategy," Glenn Carle, a longtime former CIA operative, told Insider. "He may have made a miscalculation, and many of his beliefs are wrong, but he is rational, consistent, and ruthless."
Experts also rejected the notion that Putin is losing grip on reality by noting the parallels between his actions in Ukraine and his previous efforts to bring other countries into the Russian sphere of influence.
There are no major differences between what's happening in Ukraine and Putin's past actions in Chechnya, Syria, and other conflict zones, Jonathan Katz, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, told Insider.
Putin has "used force like this before," committing "human rights violations that have been grotesque" and cost "countless lives," Katz said.
'Putin has to feel things closing in on him'
Gaining a window into Putin's mindset has long been a difficult task for U.S. intelligence agencies. As CNN reported, the intelligence community has been trying to figure out how the Russian leader's mind works since he effectively gained control of Russia in 1999. But the former KGB officer is still a "hard target" for officials, per CNN.
"No one can know what's going on deep inside Putin's head," John McLaughlin, the former deputy CIA director who also briefly served as acting director, told Insider. "But we do know one thing — he is under great stress."
Russia's brazen invasion, as well as its apparent disregard for distinguishing between military and civilian targets, sent shockwaves through the international community and united Western nations in unprecedented ways.
The U.S. and its European allies imposed crippling sanctions on Russia's financial institutions and central bank that could hurt its ability to finance Putin's war. Multiple European countries also reversed long-standing policies against getting involved in conflict zones and said they would send weapons and financial assistance to aid Ukraine.
Putin's actions caused such a major disruption for Russia's economy that even some of his closest allies, like the oligarchs Mikhail Fridman and Oleg Deripaska, tentatively spoke out against the war. And thousands of Russian citizens have taken to the streets to protest the war under threat of arrest and imprisonment.
"The invasion of Ukraine is not going well, the Ukrainians are fighting back, there is protest at home, and Russia has just been slammed with the strongest package of economic sanctions in modern history," McLaughlin said. "Putin has to feel things closing in on him."
'He cannot lose this'
As a result, the field of options available to Putin is getting increasingly narrow, and "there is a greater chance that desperation will drive him to some reckless decisions," McLaughlin said. "That's a worry with someone who has nuclear weapons."
Carle said that the difference in how the West views international relations versus how Putin sees them is a "fundamental point in why we are in a tremendous crisis worse than just warfare here."
The Russian leader subscribes to a Eurasianist philosophy, which views the West, capitalism, and "Atlanticist" domination are an existential threat to Russia and mankind, according to Carle. Putin sees foreign policy as a zero-sum game — a gain for one side comes at the expense of its opponent — whereas the West believes strategic negotiations with other countries can be mutually beneficial.
Putin has long sought to restore what he sees as Russian greatness after the Soviet Union's collapse by reforming the "geographical and political losses its suffered since 1989, detaching the US from Europe, destroying NATO, and even potentially destroying the United States," Carle said.
"And he is consistent in that, so he believes what he says about Ukraine," he added. "A lot of the assumptions that he bases his thinking on are demonstrably wrong, but that doesn't matter when you're talking about faith and convictions. He is behaving rationally within the confines of a fundamentally irrational set of beliefs."
Kevin Ryan, a retired U.S. brigadier general and former defense attaché to Russia, struck a similar chord.
Putin wants an "all-out reclaiming of greater Russia," he said. But because of the consequences of his invasion of Ukraine — crushing sanctions, a military operation that isn't going as planned, demoralized Russian forces — "all of those things mean he's backed into a corner."
"He cannot lose this. He cannot give up on his goal," Ryan said. "If he does, the people in his inner circle will come for him. And that won't end well for him."
'If this spills into something more significant, he may decide to use whatever weapon is at his disposal'
The urgency around Putin's actions ratcheted up several notches when he ordered Russia's nuclear forces to be put on high alert over the weekend.
Both the Biden administration and NATO have repeatedly said they will not send troops into Ukraine, also ruling out a no-fly zone, but there are concerns the fog of war could lead Putin to misinterpret things and take even more drastic steps.
"In war, there is always confusion and mistakes are made," Jon Wolfsthal, a senior advisor at Global Zero who previously served on the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, told Insider. "We have worried for decades that nuclear use would come via escalation in a smaller conventional conflict, and any responsible actor or watcher has to be concerned about that."
Ryan also said he's "very concerned" about Putin's nuclear threats and believes the Russian leader would be willing to use a "small nuclear weapon" to keep the U.S. and NATO out of Ukraine.
Experts said the Biden administration and other Western nations made the right call by saying the U.S. and NATO would not put boots on the ground in Ukraine to help defend it, because if they did, the result could be a catastrophic war between nuclear superpowers.
"Putin is calculating right now," Katz said. "If this spills over into something more significant, he may decide to use whatever weapon is at his disposal."
Since invading Ukraine last week, Russian forces have launched heavy shelling and missile attacks that have hit residential buildings, an orphanage, kindergartens, and a children's hospital, according to the Ukrainian government.
Ukrainian forces and civilian defense forces have put up a fiercer resistance than Putin anticipated, beating back Russian troops for days as they tried to capture the capital of Kyiv and decapitate the democratically elected government of Ukraine.
But military and intelligence analysts warned that the fight is far from over.
"Russian military is suspending unsupported thunder runs, resupplying, and reorganizing," Michael Kofman, the Russia expert at CNA, tweeted Monday. "Ukraine's military has performed rly well, but I think we're going to see a different Russian approach moving forward."
On Wednesday, Russia seized the city of Kherson, its first victory since launching the invasion.