Is Vladimir Putin in another world? Or a realist? Photographer: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

The Putin Mystery in Washington

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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Vladimir Putin's decision to move troops into Ukraine is prompting high-level discussions and debates within the administration of President Barack Obama about how rational the Russian president is.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who knows Putin better than most European leaders, reportedly said after a conversation with the Russian leader that he is "in another world." Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on the other hand, described Putin as a "realist" who appears to be acting rationally in his country's interests.

Top administration officials are more likely to agree with Gates' assessment, though they express amazement that the Russians sometimes seem to embrace narratives that are belied by reality.

Understanding Putin's state of mind, administration officials acknowledge, is important in calculating how the Russian leader may respond to actions by the U.S. and its European allies. It also could help determine whether Putin is seeking a way out of the crisis or if he is willing to push the situation in Ukraine to the brink.

U.S. officials suspect Putin may have been surprised by the strong negative reaction to the Russian intrusion into Crimea. In 2008, when the Russians went into Georgia, there was criticism, but no action. Despite the differences this time, administration officials said Putin could decide the Europeans will be unwilling to go along with tough sanctions and that unilateral U.S. action won't have sufficient bite.

Another consideration is the extent to which Germany will be willing to punish Russia. Merkel is one of the few leaders Putin may still listen to. The Obama administration says the German leader understands the situation in Crimea to be critical and dangerous. Yet, at home, Merkel has to manage a political coalition that isn't fully supportive of tough actions against Russia, a major economic partner and energy supplier.

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Albert R Hunt at