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Frustrated Putin may order escalation of violence in Ukraine, U.S. officials say

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with representatives of the business community at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia February 24, 2022.
Aleksey Nikolskyi | Sputnik | via Reuters

U.S. intelligence agencies have determined that Russian President Vladimir Putin is growing increasingly frustrated by his military struggles in Ukraine, and may see his only option as doubling down on violence, current and former U.S. officials briefed on the matter tell NBC News.

As the Russian economy teeters under unprecedented global sanctions and his purportedly superior military force appears bogged down, Putin has lashed out in anger at underlings, even as he remains largely isolated from the Kremlin due in part to concerns about Covid, the sources said.

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“This is somebody that’s clearly been caught off guard by the size of the Ukrainian resistance,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on MSNBC. “He has isolated himself, he’s not been in the Kremlin very much… You’ve got less and less inputs and these inputs are from sycophants.”

He added: “I do worry that he’s been backed into a corner. I do worry that there is no obvious exit ramp.”

Western intelligence agencies have good visibility into the Russian leader right now and are closely watching his moves for any significant behavioral changes, several current and former officials said. Four American officials said there’s no intelligence saying that he is mentally unstable, but said he has displayed a different pattern of behavior than in the past.

The U.S. has solid intelligence that Putin is frustrated and expressing unusual bursts of anger at people in his inner circle over the state of the military campaign so far and the worldwide condemnation of his actions, two current and one former U.S. officials briefed on the intelligence told NBC News.

That’s unusual, they say, because Putin, a former Russian intelligence officer, usually keeps his emotions in check.

“He is no longer the same cold-blooded, clear-eyed dictator that he was in 2008,” former CIA Director John Brennan told NBC News.

A Western diplomat said the Russian president appeared to be increasingly insulated and misinformed.

“The main concern is the information he’s getting and how isolated he is. The isolation is a really big concern,” the diplomat told NBC News. “We don’t believe he has a realistic understanding of what’s going on.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the ranking member of the intelligence committee, said on Twitter that “the old Putin was a cold blooded but calculating killer. This new Putin is even more dangerous.”

Warner, who, like Rubio, receives special briefings from the CIA, said he remained concerned about a massive cyberattack on Ukraine, something the Russians have not yet been willing or able to do.

Rubio also expressed that concern on Twitter, in stark language.

“DANGER,” Rubio tweeted. “#Putin’s legitimacy built on image as the strong leader who restored #Russia to superpower after the disasters of the 90’s. Now the economy is in shambles & the military is being humiliated & his only tools to reestablish power balance with the West is cyber & nukes.”

Brennan said he shared those worries. Based on the release of accurate intelligence predicting Putin’s pre-invasion moves, Brennan said he believes U.S. and Western intelligence agencies have good insights into his decision-making processes.

“This was just such a bad, bad miscalculation on Putin’s part,” Brennan said. “He’s never faced something like this before. I’m sure he’s lashing out at advisers, ministers, and others — there may be an emotional spiral here. He’s suffered two black eyes, a bloody nose, and a series of punches. He is being crippled on the battlefield and the financial front, and he has no good options.”

A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to comment.

Apart from heavy shelling around the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, Russian forces so far have not unleashed the kind of concentrated artillery and bombing campaign they have employed in previous military actions, according to Michael Kofman, an analyst at the CNA think tank. The Russian military is “an artillery army first, and it has used a fraction of its available fires in this war thus far,” Kofman tweeted.

“Sadly, I expect the worst is yet ahead, and this war could get a lot more ugly,” he said.

Condoleezza Rice, who met a number of times with Putin as secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, said on Fox News Sunday that she, too, sees a different Putin.

He was always a “calculating and cold” former KGB operative, she said, but today, “he seems erratic. There is an ever-deepening, delusional rendering of history, it was always a kind of victimology of what had happened to them, but now it goes back to blaming Lenin for the foundation of Kyiv in Ukraine. So he’s descending into something that I personally haven’t seen before.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told NBC News that “Putin’s severe miscalculations are going to cost him a grave price,” adding that he “has become a political pariah to those he foolishly believed would support his unprovoked, premeditated invasion of Ukraine.”

On the fifth day of its invasion, a U.S. defense official told NBC News the Russian military has not yet been able to achieve air superiority over the country and the Ukrainian military still has significant air and missile defense systems that are viable and available to them. That has surprised most analysts, who believed that the Russians could quickly overwhelm Ukraine’s aging air defense systems.

But officials said the number of portable air defense missiles Ukraine has accumulated, including shoulder-fired Stinger missiles transferred from Baltic countries, has complicated Russian efforts.

There were multiple reports Monday that Ukraine had been using its complement of Turkish drones to destroy Russian vehicles on the ground. The small drones, which can hover over a target and strike it with missiles, were used to devastating effect in 2020 by Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia.

The defense official said the Russian invaders were struggling to maintain stocks of fuel and other supplies, which is one reason their main advance on Kyiv has bogged down. The Russians advanced only about three miles in 24 hours and were still about 15.5 miles outside of central Kyiv, the official said.

Putin badly underestimated Ukraine’s determination and did not count on a unified, tough response from the West, said Alexander Vershbow, a former ambassador to Russia and former deputy secretary general of NATO from 2012 to 2016.

“It’s not a failed invasion, but certainly a faltering one,” Vershbow said.

With Russian forces struggling to push deeper into Ukraine against a determined resistance, and Russia’s economy under unprecedented international pressure, Putin’s remaining options are all unattractive and risky, experts and former U.S. officials said.

Putin could order his military to use brute force to seize Kyiv and other cities, by employing indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilian areas. That was Russia’s approach in its air war in Syria, where it supported Iranian-backed fighters and Syrian regime troops, and in the Second Chechen War in 1999-2000.

In Chechnya, several thousand Chechen civilians were killed when Russian troops laid siege to the capital Grozny. In both Syria and Chechnya, human rights groups accused Russia of war crimes and the targeting of civilians.

When he ran for president in 2000 and won, Putin championed the war in Chechnya, portraying himself as a leader who could restore order and crush unrest.

“The next stage may be the scorched earth tactics that we saw in Chechnya and Syria, which would mean much more death and destruction,” said Vershbow, now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. “I don’t think they have too many scruples when it comes to this.”

Rubio tweeted Monday that there were “growing signs #Putin has ordered a medieval siege of #Kyiv,” which he said would involve cutting off food, fuel and power.

“We need to start thinking about what we can & are willing to do to prevent such a barbaric crime,” he added.

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