In an old Soviet joke, a dissident is standing in the city square, handing out leaflets. People take them, walk on and then notice that the pages are all blank. One walks back to him. “Hey, these don’t say anything,” he says. “What’s to say,” the dissident replies. “Everyone knows.”
After two decades of Vladimir Putin, everyone knows. And yet one of his most valuable political assets is that still, at home and abroad, people look at him and see what they want to see. Pen-pushing bureaucrat and brutal strongman. Moderniser and autocrat. Astute tactician and paranoid madman. Even as he prepared an all-out invasion of Ukraine by massing 200,000 troops on its borders and openly questioning its right to exist as a sovereign state, much of the world refused to believe what was there in plain sight, because what it implied – war in Europe – was too awful to contemplate.
In a country eager to escape its history, he was a figure without a history of his own
The tragic misreading of Putin is partly a story of western self-deception, but it owes something also to the efforts of the man himself. Putin – “The Man Without a Face”, as his biographer Masha Gessen called him – has carefully cultivated his own aura of inscrutability.
As a KGB officer, trained to be bland and unremarkable, being a nobody was a way of life. As a politician, it was the making of him. He appeared seemingly out of nowhere, rising through St Petersburg city hall in the post-Soviet tumult of the 1990s. In a country eager to escape its history, he was a figure without a history of his own; not until he became deputy mayor did he reveal that he had worked in the KGB, and the public record of his work in the spy agency is slim. That made him a blank canvas.
To the security establishment, already deeply enmeshed in the politics of the new state, he was one of theirs. To those around Boris Yeltsin, who would hand-pick Putin as his successor in 1999, he seemed to embody a new generation of Russian officials: capable, reformist, apparently free of ideology. At Putin's inauguration, Yeltsin identified "freedom" as the main achievement of his tenure. "We didn't allow the country to fall into dictatorship," he said as Putin looked on.
Western leaders invested heavily in that idea of the new president as a man they could do business with. Like many Russians, they saw the serious, disciplined Putin as an antidote to the chaos and unpredictability of the rambunctious Yeltsin. Putin himself appeared to seek closer ties with the West and moved early to enact a series of liberal economic reforms. He proclaimed full-throated support for the United States after the 9/11 attacks and granted the US military access to Russian bases in central Asia, from which it could attack targets in Afghanistan.
Putin was feted at state dinners in the capitals of Europe. George W Bush famously peered into his eyes and saw his soul. "The early days of Putin's presidency now seem an era of wishful thinking and great naivety," writes Catherine Belton in her book Putin's People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West.
Belton argues that the veneer of liberalism hid a “strong undertow” aimed at strengthening the state’s control. Surrounded by fellow ex-KGB men steeped in cold war thinking, and elected on a promise to rein in the oligarchs who amassed wealth and power in the free-for-all capitalism of the 1990s, Putin steadily extended his authority and put the squeeze on dissenting voices. With each passing year, the space for public debate contracted, the media, judiciary and politicians all forced to submit to the growing authoritarianism of the regime.
All the while, Putin grew more aggrieved at his treatment by the West, feeling his early goodwill gestures had gone unreciprocated. He complained that Nato’s eastward expansion was an attempt at asserting dominance in Russia’s “near abroad”. The West nonetheless persisted in the belief that relations could be repaired, and convinced itself that as incomes and access to the West grew, Russians would demand more political rights.
Barack Obama sought a “reset” in relations but, with his attention focused on the Middle East and the American pivot to the Pacific, played down any threat from Russia. When Obama met Putin, the US president wrote in his memoir, he reminded him of a Chicago ward boss “except with nukes and a UN Security Council veto”.
Western leaders briefly saw Dmitri Medvedev, who succeeded Putin as president in 2008 when he reached the constitutional term limit, as a moderniser worth cultivating, but four years later Medvedev had handed power back to his mentor. (Putin later abolished those term limits; he can remain in office until 2036, when he will be 84.)
Putin experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall not as a liberation but as a personal trauma
Many Russians who lived through the 1980s felt conflicted about the upheaval of the Soviet Union’s last decade. The chaos and sense of dislocation of those years coincided with a moment of intoxicating creative and intellectual ferment. Debate flourished. A questioning, independent media found a wide audience. Books such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, once suppressed by the Soviet censors, were now widely read. Criticism of the Soviet system was no longer off-limits.
Yet Putin experienced none of this. He spent the 1980s in the East German city of Dresden, where he worked for the KGB. There, he experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall not as a liberation but as a personal trauma. As Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, points out, he never experienced the highs of the perestroika era or acquired the taste for pluralist debate that many of his contemporaries did.
By the time Putin returned home, his country was gone. It was, he would later say, the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century, an event that "tore my life apart". He could see that the Soviet Union was finished, he would say, but "I wanted something different to rise in its place. And nothing different was proposed. That's what hurt."
In the past decade, Putin has actively tried to undermine European democracy by supporting extremist groups
Some see in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the bitter revisionist rants that accompanied it as a desire to recreate the Soviet Union. It’s much more likely that he seeks the restoration of a version of the Russian empire, which he blames the Bolsheviks for breaking up. Putin may be a product of the Soviet system but he was not a communist true believer. Anyone who didn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union had no heart, he once said, but anyone who wanted it restored had no brain.
The United States had warned since late last year that Putin was preparing for military action in Ukraine, but in Europe the invasion, when it came, was greeted with disbelief. How could Putin make such an irrational, potentially even suicidal move for so little gain? Yet, for more than a decade, Putin has probed and tested the West’s resolve – and found little resistance, even passivity. That is bound to have influenced his risk calculation.
In the past decade, Putin has actively tried to undermine European democracy by supporting extremist groups and using Russia's energy leverage to play its leaders off against one another. Russian disinformation specialists have interfered in elections in the US and elsewhere. Moscow went to war against Georgia in 2008, illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and fomented a separatist conflict that would continue for eight years and leave thousands dead in eastern Ukraine. Each time the West admonished Moscow and imposed sanctions. By the summer of 2018, French president Emmanuel Macron was sitting alongside Putin at the World Cup final in Moscow, as if none of this had happened.
Quite apart from a general desire among European powers to keep Russia inside the tent, many capitals had powerful incentives to measure their response to Putin's provocations. Germany buys half its gas from Russia. Countries such as Italy and Austria have close economic ties that leave them vulnerable to Russian retaliation. In Britain, as "Londongrad" closed its eyes and opened its arms to Russian cash, Moscow built up a network of influence that reached the highest levels of British business and politics.
In Ireland, successive governments have cleaved closely to the EU’s position on Russia and come under little domestic pressure to take a stronger line. In 2015, the year after the annexation of Crimea, Sinn Féin MEPs abstained on a resolution on Ukraine because it “completely ignored any responsibility of the EU’s for its role in the development of this conflict”.
In 2003-04, late in his first term, Putin’s presidency reached a turning point. Within the space of a year, pro-western revolutions broke out in Georgia and Ukraine, forcing Moscow-oriented leaders from office. Putin saw the revolts as a western-orchestrated attempt to push into Russia’s sphere of influence. He was no doubt aware, ever since his final days in Dresden, when he burned files at KGB headquarters as crowds gathered outside, of the power of democratic rhetoric and the potential threat it could posed to his regime.
The shift in Putin's thinking can be traced in his state of the union addresses. In his final one before the Rose (Georgia) and Orange (Ukraine) revolutions, he spoke positively about EU enlargement in the east. "The expansion of the European Union should not just bring us closer geographically, but also economically and spiritually," he said.
A year later, his view had darkened. He spoke of Russia going its own way, pursuing “a form of democracy” that did not follow western formulas, and fell back on colonialist rhetoric about Russia’s “civilising mission on the Eurasian continent”. Russia, Catherine Belton writes, was on a new trajectory: “building a bridge to its imperial past”.
His fiery, emotional public performances in recent weeks seem at odds with his usual cynical, calculated style
Of the two, Ukraine mattered much more to Putin than Georgia. It had been the second-richest Soviet republic. Some 30 per cent of Ukrainians spoke Russian as a native language, and it was an important transit route for Russian gas. And if Putin was rattled by the revolution in Kyiv in 2004, he was even more shaken by the events of 2014. That year, the Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovich, was forced from office by popular protests after he abandoned Ukraine's framework agreement for close economic ties to the EU. Putin responded by seizing Crimea and supporting separatists in the Donbas region.
That, it is now clear, was the first move in Putin’s bigger plan. But it is also apparent that Putin misunderstood how Ukraine had changed in the decades since independence. The political upheaval in Kyiv and Moscow’s attempts to keep its friends in power had cemented Ukrainian support for a pro-western tilt and also reinforced a sense of national identity that was not bound by language or ethnicity.
Though Putin’s appetite for risk has increased with time, and with it the brazenness of his actions at home and abroad, his fiery, emotional public performances in recent weeks seem at odds with his usual cynical, calculated style. Some speculate that two years of isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic have shrunk Putin’s circle of confidantes and left him more introverted than ever. He dramatised his reliance on yes-men with a choreographed meeting of his advisers on the eve of the invasion, each one in turn forced to declare their loyalty to the leader – even if their body language suggested that at least some harboured misgivings.
The Kremlin’s stagecraft around recent meetings, with images showing Putin seated on his own, far from his ministers and generals, only reinforces the impression of a leader increasingly distant from his own people and even from reality itself.
“The pretext is completely flimsy and almost nonsensical for anybody who’s not in the echo chamber or the bubble of propaganda in Russia itself,” Fiona Hill told Politico this week. “I mean, demanding to the Ukrainian military that they essentially overthrow their own government or lay down their arms and surrender because they are being commanded by a bunch of drug-addled Nazi fascists? There’s just no sense to that. It beggars the imagination.”
In that echo chamber, wound up by old resentments and free of any checks on his power, Putin miscalculated badly on Ukraine. His initial military tactics suggest he did not anticipate the strength and bravery of Ukrainian resistance, still less the emergence of president Volodymyr Zelenskiy as an inspiring and unifying war leader. Russian soldiers seemed confused as to why they were suddenly at war. Instead of television pictures showing Russian tanks rolling unimpeded to Kyiv, the world watched as Russian vehicles ran out of fuel or became stuck in the mud.
Even on the communications battlefield, considered a Russian strength, Ukrainian’s speed and ingenuity, on social media in particular, helped to rally world opinion and undoubtedly increased pressure on Western governments to act more decisively.
Putin underestimated Ukraine, but he also miscalculated how the West would respond to his aggression. The Kremlin has spent the best part of a decade working to shore up the Russian economy’s ability to withstand western sanctions, but the extraordinary sanctions agreed within days by the EU, US and UK will reach deep into the Russian economy, while separate moves to freeze the Russian central bank’s foreign reserves take away one of Putin’s main economic insurance policies. The effects of sanctions can take years to show, but the Russian economy is about to take a severe and immediate hit.
One by one, long-standing taboos have evaporated. The US and Europe openly signalled that they would ship arms to Ukraine. The EU, hamstrung for years by its divisions on Russia, spoke with one voice. Germany announced a huge increase in military spending and halted the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. "February 24th marked a change in the history of our continent," said chancellor Olaf Scholz. "The world after this attack is not the same as the world before it."
What Putin has achieved with his invasion, in other words, is to bring about the very things he claimed to be trying to prevent. Europe and the US are united against him. Nato is rejuvenated. Ukraine has taken a decisive step towards the EU and could even be put on a fast-track to membership. At home, where the rouble has plummeted in value and queues form at ATMs, the regime is looking more vulnerable.
At some point soon the West will have to consider how Putin can be offered an off-ramp
All of that brings its own risks for Ukraine and for the West. An isolated Putin who is impervious to counsel and feels he has little to lose is a dangerous prospect. His nuclear threat, while presumably designed to intimidate, must be taken seriously. In Ukraine itself, the Russian military has reacted to its early embarrassment by shifting tactics and pursuing an increasingly brutal and indiscriminate campaign that has included strikes against civilians. Putin's military goals are still unclear, but the evidence from Chechnya and Syria tells us how ugly this could get.
With no sign of Putin retreating from his maximalist demands, or of the Russian elite moving against him, there appear as of now to be few peaceful ways to restore calm in Ukraine. But faced with the prospect of a long attritional war with mass casualties and the razing of Ukrainian cities, at some point soon the West will have to consider how Putin can be offered an off-ramp, perhaps with an indication as to how certain sanctions could be eased in the event of a Russian withdrawal.
Because the longer Putin’s war continues, the greater the risk that Europe, the US and Russia could be drawn into a bigger and even more dangerous conflict.