What is Going On Inside Vladimir Putin's Head? 12 Experts Weigh In

Russian president Vladimir Putin is keeping the world guessing as western intelligence says the invasion he ordered of Ukraine has not been as successful or as swift as he had hoped.

Nearly a week into the largest military campaign in Europe since World War Two, Russian forces have encountered fierce resistance from Ukraine while global condemnation has spurred sanctions that have roiled the Russian economy.

Before the invasion, Putin humiliated his spy chief, Sergei Naryshkyn in a Russian Security Council meeting which showed the president relishing being in control.

But now with the status of global pariah, Putin's invoking of his country's nuclear threat has raised alarm at what his actions might be if he felt cornered.

Newsweek spoke to a selection of experts about what they believed could be going through Putin's mind. Their responses varied widely—from those who said his apparent erratic behavior was part of a calculated grand strategy, to others who who believe his increased isolation since the COVID pandemic has made him more emotional and unstable.

Vladimir Putin
Questions surround the state of mind of Russian president Vladimir Putin. After his invasion of Ukraine, there are concerns at how far he might go to secure victory. Getty

Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia

"Putin listens to no one inside Russia. He's been in power for over two decades, so does not take advice from anyone anymore. He also is very isolated. He is the only decision maker that matters. He alone can end this war.

"[Chinese President] Xi is the only leader in the world he respects."

Rose Gottemoeller, ex-deputy Secretary General of NATO

"Vladimir Putin has always cultivated a cool and calculating demeanor, but now he is showing increasingly erratic and emotional behavior—so there is a shift.

"From our perspective, it certainly looks irrational, but no doubt that is not how Putin sees it. He's considering himself a figure of destiny, to bring the Russian-speaking peoples together again. For him, it seems, it is a vital historical objective."

Steve Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine

"We are seeing a different Vladimir Putin from 10 or 15 years ago. He now seems more emotional, particularly when it comes to Ukraine, and he is taking a much larger risk with the invasion than one would have expected from him earlier.

"One also has to wonder about the effect of the isolation in which he has lived and worked the past two years, apparently out of concern about COVID."

Gustav Gressel, senior policy fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

"He sees himself as the recreator of imperial Russia. The thing is with the 'madman' theory, he is playing a bit with that.

"He is rational if you know his mindset and that is a social Darwinian mindset, where military power and military strength form the core essence of the state and the core momentum of Russian identity.

"If you know his mindset, what he does is perfectly rational. It is not mad, is just that you have to adopt to this mindset.

"Everything he does today, at some point, he has written or said. It is just that we have continuously excused him for doing so, in saying, "that's just basically rambling, he's a hobby historian, he meant that as a joke,' etc. No, he didn't. He was serious and we are seeing it now. "

Douglas Page, assistant professor of political science at Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania

"While evidence may emerge about Putin's mental instability, we also should consider the persona that Putin may be willingly crafting during this intense crisis, even when that persona reflects desperation.

"The idea that one's opponent is irrational and crazy is enticing, but this idea also can serve an important purpose for an opponent like Putin. An irrational opponent is more unpredictable and can be viewed as more willing to incur absurdly high costs in a conflict.

"For example, nuclear war would doom Russia, but an irrational Putin could raise more questions in the West about his willingness to use nuclear weapons. This perception in the West may follow Putin's objectives regarding nuclear deterrence and limiting Western involvement in Ukraine.

Ian Johnson, assistant professor of military history at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana

"His historical rhetoric suggested aspirations beyond Ukraine, restoring Russian primacy over areas formerly in Russia's orbit across Eastern Europe.

"Putin is well-versed in history. He clearly believes that he has an opportunity for a historic legacy, one that puts him in line with those figures he cites so frequently in his speeches—Peter the Great and Stalin, among them — both of whom expanded the borders of the Russian or Soviet state at the expense of their neighbors."

Ukrainian serviceman
A Ukrainian service member in Kyiv on February 26, 2022. The west is looking at what Russian President Vladimir Putin will do next in the military campaign that has not gone to plan. SERGEI SUPINSKY/Getty

William Muck, political science professor, North Central College, Naperville, Illinois

"It does appear that Putin has shifted how he understands and engages with the international community. The tone and language from his recent speeches are particularly telling. Putin has been much more aggressive, provocative, and nationalistic.

"One gets the sense that he now sees himself as a historic figure. That his war in Ukraine is about rewriting the end of the Cold War and making Russia great again.

"People talk of Putin as this brilliant chess player who skilfully outplays his rivals in the international system. That may have been the case in the past, but I think the better current metaphor for his mindset is poker. Putin is a gambler, and his invasion of Ukraine suggests he is all-in on this hand.

"If he wins, it is possible he goes down in history as the figure who restored Russian greatness. However, if he loses, this may be the beginning of the end of the Putin regime in Russia."

Matt Qvortrup, political science professor, Coventry University, U.K.

"He is very out of touch and that is why he expected things to go differently."

"Rationality means you get what you want and what is good for you. For Vladimir Putin, what is good for him is not good for Russia, it is not what is good for the world, it is what will keep him in power.

"He does not want to suffer the fate of [Ex-Serbian leader] Slobodan Milosevic, or [Ex-President of Zimbabwe] Robert Mugabe, and for that reason, he would want to use any available means.

"The shocking thing is that he will be willing to go all the way. It is conceivable that he will use nuclear weapons if he is desperate and for him that might be a rational thing because that might keep him in power."

William Hague, former British Foreign Secretary

"While it is clear that a great many Russian diplomats and officials think he has made a terrible mistake, there will be nothing they can do now to restrain their isolated, paranoid, obsessive and increasingly angry president.

"Tragically for the people of Ukraine, he will have no doubts about what he must do. He will be telling his generals to go deeper, faster, more brutally and destructively if necessary." — The Times of London

Lord Owen, former British Foreign Secretary

"He is a very able, intelligent person, never underestimate people who you are dealing with who you don't agree with...it's easy to dismiss them as being mad. I don't believe that is a reasonable judgement of him. But he does seem to be more imperious.

"There is no check on this leader of Russia. In the old Communist days, there was a Politburo, in which you could see collective decision making. That's all gone for Putin.

"He's one single autocratic dictator and he's isolated for the last two years under COVID...you get the feeling there's nobody to even argue with him, let alone contradict him."— Channel 4

Fiona Hill, former U.S. National Security Council advisor on Russia

"I think a lot of people are noticing that something seems to have flipped somewhat with Putin almost as if he's made a rather emotional and, on the surface, a somewhat unexpected decision.

"He's usually pretty cynical and calculating and very calm. Always very sarcastic and kind of harsh in the way that he talks about things. But the announcement that he was basically going to invade Ukraine, he was viscerally emotional.

"This is what happens if you have got the same person in power for 22 years, he's been in a bubble, especially over the last two and a half years." — MLive

Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of analysis firm R.Politik firm

"There are people who go crazy and believe that they serve some higher power, God, or something else, perceiving themselves only as a...tool in the hands of great forces.

"Putin is not there yet, but there is something in common. For him, this higher power is the State, as it has been historically understood and he sees himself as its servant.

"The problem is that personal responsibility is diminished and you feel that you are acting on behalf of history.

"With such a vision you can go very far without remorse."— Telegram