"What is Putin thinking?" This is an attractive way of posing the question about Russian military operations. It simplifies, because it allows us to focus on one person. It is engaging, because we can never know. Putin and his observers can be satisfied with such a framing: Putin because it lends him the spotlight he needs to play his shadow games, observers because it keeps them guessing what strange beast is projected against the wall.
It is a misleading question, though, because a tyrant never thinks alone. The history and literature of tyranny suggests that there is no such thing as solitude. A tyrant might appear isolated, but in reality thinks together with two ruthlessly inseparable companions: fear and death. If we consider the tyrant's companions, Putin's actions in Ukraine might begin to make a bit more sense.
Death first. No one must speak of a tyrant's death, least of all he. And yet death is present, growing ever closer, the silence around it ever louder. Ever more ambitious projects must be summoned to banish the unmentionable. If the dreams are grand enough, perhaps they can even transcend death, by binding the tyrant's memory with the eternal history of the nation. This is one way to understand the odd essay in which Putin imagines a millennial unity of Russia and Ukraine. The myth suggests a grand project, to be delivered by a decisive deed: a crushing military invasion of a weaker neighboring country. And so a tyrant, thinking with death, devises a policy that delivers it to others.
And yet. A tyrant thinks with death, but also with fear, and the second can be a check on the first. The very sincerity of a tyrant's wish to overcome death can leave him vulnerable. It can lead him to undertake projects that, in their very grandeur, expose him to ridicule or defeat. Perhaps here Putin might have grasped the folly of invading Ukraine: not for Russia or its interests, about which he need not care, but for himself. Should Russia face difficulty in a war, as it eventually would, this could generate opposition, from people who want their sons back from the front, from people who want peace. Putin could face a challenge, so to speak, from the left.
I would suspect, though, that fear directs Putin's thoughts in another direction. If he undertakes a major war now, with no element of surprise and facing a concerted Western response, this will strengthen the party of war inside the Russian state. Putin would then face a challenge, so to speak, from the right. He might not be able to keep the spotlight on himself. People would want to know what his generals and intelligence officers thought. New Russian heroes might return from the front. Putin's shadow games would matter less, and the fog of war would matter more. Under its cover, power could shift, new men could rise, and an old tyrant could recede.
A tyrant thinks along with fear and death. In the case of Putin and Ukraine, thinking with death has perhaps generated a grand vision; thinking with fear has perhaps reminded a tyrant of the kinship of vision and vulnerability. Seeing how tyrants think cannot replace the knowledge about what is taking place. But it can help us to orient and to liberate ourselves. Repeatedly asking "What is Putin thinking?" leaves us mesmerized by shadows. Remembering how a tyrant must think breaks the spell.