Ukraine crisis exposes Putin's 'isolated, paranoid' world: Western officials

Residents collect water from wells after the town's water and electricity was knocked out by artillery in Ukraine on Feb 23, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

PARIS (AFP) - The conduct of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the crisis over Ukraine has opened a window into the world of a leader who appears to be increasingly paranoid and politically isolated, Western officials and analysts say.

Some Western leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, have in the past sought to treat Mr Putin as a credible, if tough, negotiating partner.

But all notions of reliability have been shattered after Mr Putin on Monday (Feb 21) recognised two Ukrainian breakaway regions and gave a lacerating speech doubting Ukraine's right to statehood - apparently just hours after making commitments to pursue diplomacy in telephone talks with Mr Macron, according to the French presidency.

A French presidential official, who asked not to be named, said that Mr Putin's speech on Ukraine mixed "rigid and paranoid ideas", which recalled the impression Mr Macron had got in his five-hour closed door talks with Mr Putin at the Kremlin earlier this month.

"The Putin that he (Macron) met at the Kremlin was not the same that he had seen in December 2019," the official said. "What he found at the Kremlin was a Putin who was more rigid and isolated."

Mr Macron had last met Mr Putin at a Paris summit on Ukraine in December 2019.

Earlier that year, he had also hosted Mr Putin for talks at his Mediterranean summer residence to launch a policy of engagement with Russia, where the smiling Russian leader arrived gallantly bearing a bouquet of flowers for the French President's wife Brigitte.

But these images were a far cry from the chilling speech by Mr Putin on Monday, in which he baselessly accused Ukraine of seeking a nuclear weapon and warned that the "Kyiv regime" bore responsibility for any further bloodshed.

"There was an extremely violent analysis, somewhat delusional and paranoid... with many historical lies," said France's Europe Minister Clement Beaune.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attending a meeting with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron in Moscow on Feb 7, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

In unguarded comments reported by the Press Association, British Defence Minister Ben Wallace said Mr Putin had gone "full tonto" - meaning moron or fool - and that he was a man with "no friends, no alliances".

When Mr Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, to the shock of Western leaders, former German chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted by American media as telling the US President Barack Obama that Mr Putin was living in "another world".

Now, with Western powers still guessing over what Mr Putin's final plan is for Ukraine - which US intelligence has suggested could even involve an attempt to seize the capital Kyiv - scrutiny of Mr Putin's conduct has intensified.

His historic Monday evening address was broadcast after a highly choreographed meeting of Russia's security council attended by two dozen officials - all male with the exception of Upper House Speaker Valentina Matviyenko.

The officials sat in stiff chairs at tennis court distance from Mr Putin, who watched from behind a desk as they gave their assent to the recognition of the breakaway regions.

In one bizarre moment yet to be properly explained, Mr Putin subjected the powerful head of the SVR foreign intelligence service, Mr Sergei Naryshkin, to humiliation as he stumbled in his comments.

"Speak clearly! Sergei! Yes or no?" spat Mr Putin, impatiently drumming his hands on the table.

Mr Naryshkin appeared overcome and then mistakenly said that the two regions should become part of Russia, an idea that was not on Mr Putin's radar.

"We are not talking about this or discussing this!" Mr Putin laughed contemptuously. "We are discussing recognising the independence or not!"

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In another jarring detail, bloggers noticed that the watches of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov showed a different time to the actual time during the supposedly live TV relay.

"Naked propaganda is no longer enough for the old fogies and thieves. They want blood," commented opposition figure Alexei Navalny, currently jailed in a prison camp, calling Mr Putin the "head of the (Soviet-era) politburo of the 21st century".

In any case, Mr Naryshkin's ordeal remained in the final cut.

French writer Michel Eltchaninoff, author of the book In The Head Of Vladimir Putin, said that while Mr Putin had expressed such ideas before, there had been troubling changes in the style of presentation.

"This somewhat sadistic, humiliating staging had an amazing effect," said Mr Eltchaninoff, adding that Mr Putin seemed determined to "show that he decides alone" in what appeared almost a reference to the representation of power "in the Stalin era".

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Mr Eltchaninoff said: "There is a kind of detachment from reality on the part of Putin in the name of his ideology, which can be described as paranoid.

"We have always said that he was a pragmatic leader, a good tactician. Will he sacrifice his pragmatism in the name of his ideology? It's possible. In any case, he seems ready to go to war."

Respected Russian analyst Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of the political consultancy R.Politik Centre and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, predicted grim times ahead after the speech.

"Today is the day Vladimir Putin crossed over to the dark side of history," she wrote on her Telegram channel. "This is the beginning of the end of his regime, which can only rely on bayonets now."

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