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US officials are questioning Putin's grip on reality as Russia attacks Ukraine, The NYT reported.
Putin put Russia's nuclear arsenal at a high alert on Sunday, raising the stakes in the conflict.
Some believe he might be acting belligerently to deter action from the West, The Times reported.
US intelligence agencies are urgently debating the possibility that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has lost touch with reality, The New York Times reported on Sunday.
The report followed a series of seemingly erratic public performances by the Russian leader, with the debate gaining a new intensity after he increased Russia's level of nuclear readiness on Sunday.
Last week, Putin in a televised national security council meeting humiliated and berated his foreign intelligence chief, Sergey Naryshkin.
Later, in a paranoid and grievance-filled speech broadcast moments before the launch of Russia's invasion of Ukraine last week, he sought to rewrite history by denying that Ukraine exists as an independent country.
Putin had been previously seen as brutal but a coldly rational actor. Yet some experts have said that his isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he tightly restricted his interactions with the wider world, might have affected his sense of reality.
Putin's recent meetings with top officials and foreign leaders have often featured the Russian leader seated at one end of a huge table and the dignitaries at another in an apparent bid to keep infection at bay.
"He's out at his compound, doesn't come into town very much, and, under COVID, he's been more isolated," said Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, in a Sunday appearance on NBC's "Meet The Press."
James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, echoed the view in a CNN interview. "I personally think he's unhinged," Clapper said. "I worry about his acuity and balance."
Another school of thought among US intelligence officials, according to The Times, is that Putin's behavior is an elaborate bluff.
By this theory, he is acting the part of the "madman" in order to confuse and disconcert the West. According to the Times report, the assessment is part of an array of material being used by President Joe Biden's administration to judge its response.
It's a version of President Richard Nixon's so-called "madman theory," with the former US president in 1969 bluffing that he was willing to launch a nuclear strike on Vietnam. His hope — which did not come to pass — was that North Vietnamese leaders would quickly come to the negotiating table and end the Vietnam War.
Michael Horowitz, an analyst at the security consultancy Le Beck International, picked up on the idea, tweeting, "There is a 'Madman theory' in international relations, which is basically to intentionally appear irrational.
"If this is what Putin is doing," he added, "then he is frighteningly good at it."
—Michael A. Horowitz (@michaelh992) February 21, 2022
The nature of Putin's intentions has long been one of the key questions of the Ukraine crisis.
Many Western analysts wrongly believed that Putin had been bluffing when he threatened invasion by massing his forces on the Ukrainian border in order to extract security concessions from the West.
Those predictions turned out to be wrong, as last week Putin ordered a full-scale invasion, tipping Europe into its gravest security crisis for decades.
Read the original article on Business Insider