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The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Some Americans (and others) are questioning Putin's mental state

The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Welcome to The Daily 202! Tell your friends to sign up here. On this day in 1994, NATO took the first combat action in its 45-year history, as two American F-16s shot down four Bosnian Serb warplanes violating Bosnia’s no-fly zone.

The big idea

It's hardly the first time people have said Putin's “off”

The whispers have become shouts. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has changed, says a growing chorus of current and former U.S. and allied officials. He’s more isolated, more eccentric, more dangerous and, perhaps most worrisome of all, more desperate, bordering on irrational.

It’s conjecture, part of an attempt to understand what Putin wants and what price he’s prepared to pay to get it, an effort that became more important Sunday when he publicly announced he was putting his country’s nuclear deterrent forces on high alert.

“Unacceptable,” America’s U.N. ambassador declared. “Unnecessary” and “escalatory” came the Pentagon line. “Manufacturing threats that don't exist,” the White House charged. “Playing an insanely dangerous game here,” worried one prominent expert on Russia.

That was the conventional assessment of Putin’s decision. There were also less conventional assessments of the man often characterized in U.S. media as a wily KGB spy turned ice-cold global chess-master, despite evidence he holds some bizarre and false beliefs at odds with that image.

What they're saying

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN’s Jake Tapper Putin “appears to have some neuro/physiological health issues.” He did not elaborate on what informed that diagnosis.

On Friday, Rubio tweeted this:

Condoleezza Rice, who served President George W. Bush as national security adviser and Secretary of State and attended many meetings with the Russian leader, told Fox News Sunday she saw “a different Putin” who “seems erratic” and has “an ever-deepening delusional rendering of history.”

Speaking on CBS’s Face The Nation, retired general H.R. McMaster, who served President Donald Trump as national security adviser, said “I don’t think he’s a rational actor” and that “everybody around him is telling him what he wants to hear. He's living in a bubble.”

Asked Sunday whether Putin might be “mentally imbalanced in some way,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told ABC’s This Week: “I'm not going to make an assessment of his mental stability. But I will tell you, certainly the rhetoric, the actions, the justification that he is making for his actions are certainly deeply concerning to us.”

And elsewhere…

The drumbeat of questions about Putin’s mental state isn’t just coming from the United States.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned last week Putin may be “an irrational actor” and cautioned “we have to accept at the moment that Vladimir Putin is possibly thinking illogically about this and doesn't see the disaster ahead.”

Sources in French President Emmanuel Macron’s entourage told Reuters after he met with Putin earlier this month that “the Putin of today was to the Putin of three years ago” when they met in southern France.

“‘(Putin) gave him five hours of historical revisionism,’ said one of the two sources …’ So he goes on for hours rewriting history from 1997 on. He drowns you in these long monologues,’” Reuters reported.

Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, who also served his country as foreign minister, highlighted the stagecraft when Putin announced the heightened nuclear alert on Sunday.

Putin's mind

For now, there’s not much more to this than public musings about the state of mind of a Russian leader whose ruthlessness and sense of grievance have been on display for decades. 

And it’s hardly the first time world leaders have diagnosed Putin as “off.” 

As for his sense of grievance, here’s what I reported after a marathon phone call between Putin and President Barack Obama in 2014: “The former KGB spy spent much of the hour and a half insisting, without evidence, that ethnic Russians were enduring horrible things at the hands of Ukraine’s new pro-Western government, according to senior U.S. officials.”

It’s surely tempting for Western officials to slap the “irrational” label on actions they abhor or don’t understand — like Putin allegedly sending assassins armed with a nerve toxin to kill a former Russian agent on British soil.

But it’s entirely possible, looking at the united response from the United States, Europe, and other allies, that Putin acted on his long-standing loathing for democracy springing up in Ukraine, while miscalculating how the world would react to the Russian attack.

What's happening now

Ukrainian officials say dozens killed, more wounded in Russian shelling of Kharkiv

Monday morning rocket strikes on Ukraine’s second-largest city mark “some of the heaviest shelling and street fighting since the invasion began Thursday,” Miriam Berger reports.

Live updates on the Russian invasion of Ukraine are available here

Some key updates:

  • Talks to continue: Russian and Ukrainian delegations held talks near Belarus's border Monday for the first time as Russia’s assault on the country entered its fifth day. The talks ended with agreement to continue talking in coming days.
  • Swiss sanctions: After holding off for days, Switzerland on Monday announced that it will join the European Union in sanctioning Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
  • More sanctions from the U.S.: Washington announced a further round of sanctions Monday, effectively prohibiting institutions in the United States from doing business with Russia’s central bank.

Growing sanctions against Russia are hitting global markets hard

“Global markets reeled Monday, with the Dow slumping more than 450 points at the open as investors reckoned with the fallout from fast-growing sanctions penalizing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine,” Taylor Telford reports.

Ketanji Brown Jackson is preparing ahead of meetings with senators

Jackson, President Biden’s nominee to the Supreme Court, began preparations over the weekend for meetings with senators that will begin this week ahead of her confirmation hearings.

Programming note: Last year, Jackson received three votes from Republican senators when Biden elevated her to the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. 

  • She "will not need the support of any Republicans to be confirmed if all 50 members of the Democratic caucus support her and Vice President Harris casts a tiebreaking vote in the evenly divided chamber.”

The first Jan. 6 trial set to begin Monday

“Jury selection started Monday for the trial of a purported Texas recruiter for the right-wing, anti-government Three Percenters charged in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol … a case with high stakes for him, federal authorities and roughly 275 other people similarly charged with storming Congress the day it certified President Biden’s 2020 election victory,” Spencer S. Hsu reports.

The defendant: Guy Wesley Reffitt, 49, of Wylie, Tex., faces five felony counts to which he has pleaded not guilty. 

  • (They include: Obstructing an official proceeding of Congress; trespassing at the Capitol while carrying a holstered semiautomatic handgun; interfering with police in a riot; and witness tampering after prosecutors say he threatened his teenage children not to turn him in to authorities.)

Lunchtime reads from The Post

‘A warning letter to the world’: What to know about the UN’s climate report

This is the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “A sweeping survey of the most advanced climate science on the planet, it recounts the effects rising temperatures are already having and projects the catastrophes that loom if humans fail to make swift and significant cuts to greenhouse gas emissions,” Brady Dennis and Sarah Kaplan report. Here are five key takeaways:

  1. A certain amount of suffering is inevitable, though adaptation can help
  2. Every incremental increase in temperature will lead to dramatically more disease, death and frequent, costly disasters
  3. Climate change is battering the places and populations least able to adapt, and that is all but certain to continue
  4. Global warming is wreaking havoc on plants and wildlife
  5. For many locations on Earth, the capacity for adaptation is already significantly limited, even as it becomes more critical

After years stalling on providing Ukraine weapons, the U.S. is now rushing to arm the nation

A new strategy: “The current rush by the West to send weapons to Ukraine is in stark contrast to years of hesitancy that often had as much to do with domestic U.S. and allied politics, and concerns about their own relations with Moscow, than with an assessment of the Russian threat to Ukraine,” Karen DeYoung reports.

… and beyond

Nearly 100,000 people are missing in Mexico

“For the investigators, the human foot — burned, but with some fabric still attached — was the tipoff: Until recently, this squat, ruined house was a place where bodies were ripped apart and incinerated, where the remains of some of Mexico’s missing multitudes were obliterated,” the Associated Press’s María Verza reports.

Still too soon to know: “How many disappeared in this cartel ‘extermination site’ on the outskirts of Nuevo Laredo, miles from the U.S. border? After six months of work, forensic technicians still don’t dare offer an estimate. In a single room, the compacted, burnt human remains and debris were nearly 2 feet deep.”

The latest on covid

Research to read: Two new studies point to Wuhan market as pandemic origin

“Scientists released a pair of extensive studies over the weekend that point to a large food and live animal market in Wuhan, China, as the origin of the coronavirus pandemic,” the New York Times's Carl Zimmer and Benjamin Mueller report.

The Biden agenda

Why Biden hasn’t declared a new chapter on covid

Biden isn’t planning to declare victory in his State of the Union address, Politico’s Adam Cancryn and Sarah Owermohle report

Not the end: “In internal administration meetings to discuss the speech, senior health officials repeatedly warned White House aides against ever declaring the pandemic to be ‘over,’ citing the possibility of new variants and the likelihood of future outbreaks among the unvaccinated, two of the people familiar with the planning said.”

But but but: “Biden is still likely to offer his sunniest view of the pandemic since before the Delta and Omicron variants swamped the country — pointing to declining case rates and hospitalizations and the growing arsenal of vaccines and treatments as evidence that Covid no longer needs to be a crisis for much of the country.”

How Biden navigated war, covid and the Supreme Court across a tumultuous 10 days

An avalanche: “All presidents are confronted by episodes that are out of their control, forced to react to the world around them more often than they are able to shape it. But the dizzying events of the past week have for now pushed to the sidelines the congressional squabbling over Mr. Biden’s domestic agenda, and are already redefining the arc of his presidency.”

The New York Times’s Michael D. Shear, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Katie Rogers recount a tumultuous 10 days for the Biden administration, beginning Feb. 20.

Biden and Putin face off — with the fate of millions hanging in the balance

“Not since John F. Kennedy and Nikita S. Khrushchev squared off over Berlin and Cuba have an American president and Russian leader gone eyeball to eyeball in quite such a dramatic fashion. While the two nuclear states are not poised for war directly with each other, as they were six decades ago, the showdown between Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin nonetheless holds enormous consequences for the world order that may be felt for years to come,” the NYT’s Peter Baker reports.

Analysis: What to expect from Biden’s SOTU

Biden’s State of the Union might have been mundane and largely focused on inflation and covid — if not for his recent Supreme Court nominee and the war that just broke out in Europe. 

Congressional bureau chief Paul Kane predicts that the president’s Tuesday address will breeze by Build Back Better, instead focusing on inflation, Ukraine and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is unfolding, visualized

Heavy fighting and bombardments continued during the weekend in Ukraine, as the Ukrainian Army continued its fight to maintain control over its capital, Kyiv, and Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city. It remains unclear how much of the country remains under Ukrainian control and how much Russia has seized. Follow along on our visual timeline.

Hot on the left

Tuesday in Texas kicks off what Democrats hope will be a strong primary season

“Texas is kicking off a primary season that could reshape the contours of the Democratic Party in Congress, which is staring down a brutal midterm environment that will potentially lead to a smaller caucus in 2023,” Politico's Holly Otterbein and Elena Schneider report.

The players: “A trio of progressive-backed candidates in Texas — Jessica Cisneros, Greg Casar and Jasmine Crockett — could offer up early clues on messaging, too, like whether the left can successfully cast centrists as impediments to President Joe Biden’s agenda.”

Hot on the right

A new message from conservatives: ‘God bless the Ukrainian people’

Attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference celebrated their newest, unexpected heroes this weekend: Those fighting back against Russia.

Why the sudden support?: “Those at the nation’s largest conservative conference frequently linked the Ukrainian fight for national sovereignty to their own battles against liberalism and coronavirus restrictions,” David Weigel reports.

The caveat: “[Attendees] still lauded former president Donald Trump, who in his Saturday night appearance continued to praise Putin, whom he has defended since Russia began its advance on its neighbor.”

Today in Washington

At 2 p.m., the president, first lady, vice president, second gentleman, several cabinet members and others will host a Black History Month celebration.

In closing

This U.S. couple found a surrogate in Ukraine. Now they’re trying to get their preemie twins out of a war zone.

“As of Sunday, the babies and [the surrogate] were sheltering in the basement in the hospital in Kyiv. The parents have seen glimpses of the conditions there: Katya in a paper gown, the twins in a makeshift newborn intensive care unit,” Kim Bellware reports.

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.