What Really Keeps Vladimir Putin Up at Night

Vladimir Putin
The Crimea annexation is mostly about heading off a revolution at home Michael Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

When the world awoke to Russian troops in Crimea late last month after months of bloody protests in Ukraine's capital, Kiev, many American and global leaders raced to denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin's move as Soviet redux – a land grab reflecting his unbalanced mental state and inner longing for a return to the Cold War.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry saw grand territorial ambitions at work. "It is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further," he said. Hillary Clinton, comparing the occupation to Hitler's moves to "protect" German populations in neighboring countries in the 1930s, declared that Putin's political vision "is of a Greater Russia."

The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, called Putin's move "a well-thought-out plan." German Chancellor Angela Merkel told President Barack Obama she thought Putin was "in another world."

But interviews with senior U.S. government officials and scholars close to events in Ukraine say Putin's Crimea excursion is not a long-planned territorial push fueled by a desire to extend the boundaries of 21st century Russia. Rather, it is an improvised reaction to the sudden downfall of the government of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, long a weak but strategic ally.

According to this thinking, Putin was neither off his rocker – his suspicions about the West's expansion of NATO and sense of being insulted over the years by Washington do not count – nor taking advantage of what Republicans deride as Obama's "weakness" on foreign policy in places like Syria.

Instead, Putin was dismayed, then angry, then flat-out panicked about what the popular rebellion against the Yanukovych regime could mean for similar challenges to him at home.

"This decision was not plotted out months in advance," says a senior American source, speaking anonymously because of the "delicate nature" of the conflict between Russia and the West. "It was an impulsive decision. It wasn't strategic or tactical. It was emotional."

And it stemmed from Putin's fear of what he and his inner circle think of as the "Ukrainian virus" (known as the "Orange plague" during Ukraine's bloodless revolution in 2004 and 2005 against Yanukovych's predecessor). The term refers to unrest in neighboring nations spreading to Russia.

"Putin is a really cold fish," acknowledges Mark Galeotti, a Russia specialist at New York University and visiting professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, an elite foreign affairs university.

Members of a Crimean self-defence unit spot check a man's bag a street in Simferopol March 17, 2014. Stringer/Reuters

But the image of Putin as an icy, KGB-bred strategist, hell-bent on restoring the boundaries of Stalin's and the tsars' Russia, is mistaken. Instead, Putin is an impulsive, emotional leader who suffered a geopolitical panic attack over the chaos enveloping a country right next door. To Putin, as with most Russians and historians of all stripes, Ukraine is not just another neighbor but the cradle of modern Russia.

That helps explain how, barely two years after bloody protests in Moscow's Bolotnaya Square against his rule, the Crimean crisis can be seen as Putin telling his people, "You have been warned."

The White House, the senior source says, vacillates between perceiving Putin as "purely rational" and "an atavistic throwback." But that either-or schema or its components misses the point.

Galeotti, who has lines open to the Kremlin through his academic contacts, says, "What we're seeing is a struggle inside part of Putin's head. He's the calculating opportunist. Clever. But there's [also] Putin the visceral Russian nationalist. The latter responded much more with his gut."

The revolt in Kiev against Yanukovych began in earnest in November when scores of protesters gathered on the Maidan, or central square, and occupied government buildings. Their grievance: Yanukovych had killed a deal that would have drawn Ukraine closer to the European Union and away from Russia.

Months of bloody rioting ensued, followed by a U.N.-brokered peace deal on Feb. 21 between Yanukovych and the opposition that called for an interim government and early elections. But the deal, for which Putin fought hard, sources say, fell apart within 24 hours when Yanukovych fled the capital, leaving in his wake more riots and the threat of civil war.

Putin was already "furious" that Yanukovych hadn't used force to evict occupied buildings or moved to "show a strong arm," the senior American source says. "They contrasted it with the Bolotnaya group and highlighted that as 'This is how you deal with it,' " the source says. To make that point, a Moscow court sentenced eight Bolotnaya Square rioters on Feb. 21, the day the short-lived peace deal was struck.

Crimea votes join Russia
With a vote of 97%, the people of Crimea voted to join Russia, and the European Union countered by levying sanctions on 21 Ukrainian and Russian officials Thomas Peter/Reuters

Anger soon turned to shock inside the Kremlin. Putin was "stunned" at the collapse of the peace deal, the source says, and "furious at the West" for not speaking up to enforce it. "Putin thought the agreement was a way forward, and in his view, the West deliberately undermined it. That really pissed him off."

In a sign that neither he nor his intelligence agencies expected things to unspool, Putin appears to have fired several Ukraine analysts at the Federal Security Service (the modern heir to the KGB) and Foreign Intelligence Service (Russia's equivalent of the CIA) on the day after the Sochi Olympics ended, a source says.

By invading Crimea, the Russian-speaking Ukrainian region that is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, the Kremlin thinking was " 'We'll have a bargaining chip,' not 'Annex Crimea,' " Galeotti says. The Kremlin expected Western powers would quickly make a deal.

Putin increasingly isolates himself from decision makers with alternative interpretations. "It's quite hard to reach him through usual channels," says Daniel Treisman, a politics professor and Russia expert at UCLA in Los Angeles. "He consults with a narrow group of associates who echo his own views and amplify his instincts."

His response to events in Ukraine stems from long-standing fears about the direction taken by former Soviet republics and East European Soviet satellites that are leaning to the West. Denials from Washington and NATO notwithstanding, Putin has been critical of the security alliance embracing Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and of the European Union courting former Soviet republics like Ukraine.

"We expanded the old Cold War instrument," says Jack Matlock, who was U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991. "It's absurd, insulting and crazy" that the U.S. showed "a triumphalism" and "rah-rah, we won the Cold War" when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. "It's not surprising that Russia felt insulted and acted irrationally" in later years, Matlock says. "What has Russia gotten in return from us since then?"

Putin's emotional character, poorly understood in the West, also underscores a subtle shift in recent years from prioritizing the health of the Russian economy in favor of bolstering Russia, in image and in fact, as a powerful state in control of its citizens and destiny.

The shift, with a clutch of Putin-allied oligarchs firmly in control of oil, gas, metals and other major industries, comes as Russia's economy is slowing down after a decade of growth, and after rising street protests against Putin's rule, led by opposition figure Alexei Navalny and members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot.

(As Ukraine's crisis exploded last month, Navalny was placed under house arrest in Moscow and banned from using the Internet, in a scene where supporters shouted, "Maidan!" Some Pussy Riot members, jailed in 2012 and freed in December, were detained in Sochi during the Olympics, drawing more international attention to dissent against Putin.)

Regarding Ukraine, "any opinion other than official propaganda is regarded as extremist," says Anna Veduta, a spokeswoman for Navalny in Moscow.

Just last October, Putin told foreign investors at a conference in Moscow that "stability is important. Authority must be strong, consistent and fair. If this is reflected in laws and law enforcement, then I think investors will realize that the situation in Russia is stable. A lot depends on stability."

Translation: If things are orderly, calm and in control at home, investments and the economy will do just fine. "Putin recognizes that his own model of maintaining public support on the basis of economic support is not going to work in the future," Treisman says. "He needs another way of mobilizing the population, and he's decided on nationalism – anti-Western nationalism."

"In the scope of Russian history, when the state is weak, 'Russia' is weak – even if it has prosperous merchants" or billionaire oligarchs, says Matthew Rojanski, director of the Kennan Institute and an expert on Russia and Ukraine.

Winston Churchill called Russia "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Seventy-five years later, "nobody is an authority on Putin's thought processes," Matlock says.

But he argues that Putin's emotional side is perhaps the hidden key to dealing with him over Ukraine. "The more you push that button," he says, "the more you're going to get" what the West views as "an 'irrational' response."