Editorial: Putin input

More than two weeks into a war he expected to dominate in two days, Vladimir Putin is projecting anger, frustration at his military’s failures, and a willingness to cause even more violence and destruction in Ukraine, in the assessment of US intelligence officials.

Officials in recent days have publicly said they’re worried the Russian president will escalate the conflict to try to break Ukraine’s resistance. Russia still holds overwhelming military advantages and can bombard the country for weeks more. And while the rest of the world reacts to horrific images of the war he started, Putin remains insulated from domestic pressure by what CIA Director William Burns called a propaganda bubble.

Putin’s mindset as tough as it is to determine from afar is critical for the West to understand as it provides more military aid to Ukraine and also prevent Putin from directly taking on NATO countries or possibly reaching for the nuclear button. Intelligence officials over two days of testimony before Congress last week openly voiced concerns about what Putin might do. And those concerns increasingly shape discussions about what US policymakers are willing to do for Ukraine. Over two decades, Putin has achieved total dominance of Russia’s government and security services, ruling with a tiny inner circle, marginalizing dissent, and jailing or killing his opposition.

He has long criticized the breakup of the Soviet Union, dismissed Ukraine’s claims to sovereignty, and mused about nuclear war ending with Russians as martyrs. Burns told lawmakers that he believed Putin was stewing in a combustible combination of grievance and ambition for many years. Putin had expected to seize Kyiv in two days, Burns said. Instead, his military has failed to take control of major cities and lost several thousand soldiers already. The West has imposed sanctions and other measures that have crippled the Russian economy and diminished living standards for oligarchs and ordinary citizens alike. Much of the foreign currency Russia had accumulated as a bulwark against sanctions is now frozen in banks abroad. There’s no apparent path to ending the war. It is nearly inconceivable that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has won admiration around the world for leading his country’s resistance, would suddenly recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea or support granting new autonomy to Russian-friendly parts of eastern Ukraine. And even if he captures Kyiv and deposes Zelenskyy, Putin would have to account for an insurgency supported by the West in a country of more than 40 million.