What he wants; why he has behaved so aggressively towards Georgia, a much weaker neighbour; why he seems so angry at the West; all of this is widely considered unfathomable.
But in fact, Putin's mindset isn't really all that hard to understand: Ever since he was first appointed prime minister by Boris Yeltsin in 1999, we've known perfectly well who he is.
Georgia's "Rose Revolution," like Ukraine's "Orange Revolution," is precisely the kind of popular uprising that the Russian elite fears most deeply.
After all, one of the first things he did after taking that job was to visit the Lubyanka, the former headquarters of the KGB and its most notorious jail, now the home of the FSB, Russia's internal security services.
There--on the 82nd anniversary of the founding of the Cheka, Lenin's secret police--he dedicated a plaque in memory of Yuri Andropov.
Andropov was director of the KGB for many years before briefly becoming, in 1982, general secretary of the Communist Party. Within Russia, however, he is best remembered for his theory about how to reform the Soviet Union: to put it bluntly, he believed that "order and discipline", as enforced by the methods of the KGB--arrests of dissidents, imprisonment of corrupt officials, the cultivation of fear--would restore the sagging fortunes of the Soviet economy.
There was no nonsense about "perestroika" or "glasnost", let alone joining Western institutions. All of that clearly appealed to Putin, a former secret policemen who first tried to join Andropov's KGB at the tender age of 15.
This is not to say that Putin is Stalin, or even Andropov, or that Putin wants to bring back the Soviet Union. But it does mean that Putin, like most of the people around him, is steeped in the culture of the old KGB.
He has a deep belief in the power of the state to control the life of the nation: events cannot be allowed to just happen, they must be controlled and manipulated.
He has a deep, professional wariness of people who believe otherwise: At a very profound level, he does not believe that Russian citizens will make good political or economic choices if left to their own devices.
In practice, this means that he does not believe that markets can--or should be--genuinely open. He does not believe in unpredictable elections.
He does not believe that the modern equivalent of the Andropov-era dissidents--the small band of journalists and activists who continue to oppose centralised Kremlin rule--have anything important to say; on the contrary, he assumes, as did his KGB predecessors, that anyone not loudly supportive of the regime is a foreign spy.
At a rally in 2007, he declared that: "Unfortunately, there are still those people in our country who act like jackals at foreign embassies . . . who count on the support of foreign friends and foreign governments, but not on the support of their own people."
This was a direct warning to Russia's few remaining human rights and trade union activists, as they well understood. He continues to believe instead, as Soviet secret policemen did before him, that all important decisions should be made in Moscow by a small, unelected group of people who know how to resist these foreign conspiracies.
Given his world view, it's not very surprising that Putin and his entourage have been so openly hostile, not only towards Georgia, but also towards Ukraine and Estonia, the post-Soviet countries that present the greatest contrast to his vision of Russia.
These, after all, are countries in which genuine elections have taken place--sometimes with the help of street demonstrations--and in which people who have not been picked by the ruling oligarchy can rise to power.
In some cases, they have also moved much farther along the path of genuine economic reform, and at least intend to create real market economies, in which people who have not been picked by the ruling oligarchy can set up businesses and make money.
It is not mere nationalism that makes leaders such as the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, or the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yuschenko, try to escape the political influence of Russia and to move closer to the West: it is also the desire to make their countries more open, more liberal, more authentically democratic.
In that sense, the war between Georgia and Russia really is ideological, and not merely national in origin. Of course Russia retains "great power" instincts, and of course some of the disdain the Russian media shows for Saakashvili represents nothing more than a large country's dislike of defiance from a small one. But the Russian leadership's dislike of Georgia also reflects hatred--and fear--of the kind of democracy that Georgians have chosen.
Georgia's "Rose Revolution", like Ukraine's "Orange Revolution", is precisely the kind of popular uprising that the Russian elite fears most deeply. Putin's paranoia about Georgia is--unlikely though it may sound--at base a paranoia about Russia itself.
What this means, of course, is that any Western support for the Georgian cause will only increase Russian paranoia. And yet, at another level, we have no choice: Western credibility is on the line here, too.
Any outright abandonment of Georgia to Putinist domination will be correctly perceived--not only in the post-Soviet world, but also everywhere else--as an abandonment of an ideological ally, of a country that has chosen, at great cost, to join the West.
What we are left with, then, is not exactly a new Cold War, but an unavoidable, possibly very long-term ideological battle with Russia, above and beyond the normal economic and political competition.
We need to start thinking again about what it means to be "the West", and about how Western institutions--not just NATO, but also the BBC World Service, say, or the British Council--can be brought into the 21st century, not merely to counter terrorism, but to argue the case for Western values, once again.
Anne Applebaum is an adjunct fellow at AEI.