Opinion: Is Vladimir Putin mad, brilliant or somewhere in between?
23 February 2022
After 20 years in power, Russia’s leader appears to be channelling his inner Bond villain to the extreme, says Professor Mark Galeotti (UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies).
One might wonder why Vladimir Putin has not yet appropriated an extinct volcano for himself as his lair. After all, Monday’s meeting of his Security Council, after all, saw him in full Blofeld mode, lacking only a white cat and a pool of piranhas to channel his inner Bond villain.
An assembly of the most powerful and fearsome of Putin’s officials were left fearful and squirming as what could have been a sober and honest discussion of policy on Ukraine instead devolved into a savage ritual of collective incrimination and submission – and all on national TV.
In the vaulting confines of St Ekaterina’s Hall in the Kremlin, they sat like guilty children in detention as Putin, ensconced behind a desk, called on them one by one for their views. Everyone knew there was only one right answer. Not even the hawkish security officials close to Putin seemed at ease. No wonder: foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin was treated to a demeaning public reprimand when he became flustered. When he said he “will support” recognition (of the independence of the separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk), Putin curtly pressed him: “Will support, or do support? Tell me straight!”
After all, for the best part of two years, Putin has been kept in a biosecurity bubble of such severity that people scheduled to meet him spend a fortnight in guarded isolation, and even then have to pass through a tunnel fogged with disinfectant and bathed in ultraviolet light. Beyond a relative handful of his closest aides and friends, everyone has become a two-dimensional figure on a screen to him, his country a foreign land experienced through the TV news.
No wonder he seems more isolated, even paranoid. Even without Covid, long-serving leaders don’t age well, and it is becoming increasingly clear that – like so many autocrats – Putin is becoming a caricature of himself.
I was once told by a former Russian spy that they had learned you “do not bring bad news to the tsar’s table” – and, certainly, the scope for him to be presented with inconvenient truths has shrunk, the circle of those to whom he listens has narrowed, and the gap between him and his closest officials, let alone his people, has widened.
After 20 years in power, he is less willing than ever to be disagreed with and appears to believe himself indispensable. He may occasionally flirt with the idea of stepping down, but that seems to be becoming less, not more likely over time. In part, this is a matter of trust. In a system without true rule of law, it would mean handing power over his and his friends’ fates and fortunes to a successor. Putin is not a man to trust easily, at the best of times.
This is a man who grew up running with street gangs in the post-war ruins of Leningrad, and who was so eager to join the KGB – the biggest gang in town – that he tried to apply when he was still a schoolboy. Having made it, he was in East Germany when that state collapsed, nervously trying to face off against a crowd besieging the KGB offices in Dresden. Then, he returned to the Soviet Union just in time for that country to dissolve, and found himself no longer a member of a sinisterly powerful elite but desperately looking for work.
He seems to have internalised the belief that to be weak is to be vulnerable; to trust is to be weak. He was presumably reminded of this in January. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the dictator of neighbouring Kazakhstan, had granted himself a position that gave him status and immunity from prosecution for life, while he handed over the actual running of the country to a hand-picked successor, who then turned on him, forcing him to step down. That was a lesson Putin would hardly have failed to notice.
There is also the question of legacy, something that seems now to obsess Putin. His public appearances, like this week’s television address announcing the recognition, are larded with simplistic and often downright inaccurate historical parallels, all intended not only to justify his actions but to place him within a pantheon of Russian ‘greats’.
Yet even he must know that this is a hard sell now.
He will be 70 in October, and despite the staged demonstrations of his manly prowess – the artfully filmed footage of him hiking with his minister of defence, Sergei Shoigu, or taking a dip in an icy river, the implausible number of goals he scores in ice hockey matches against his underlings – Russians themselves are tiring of him and his willingness to mortgage their futures for his.
As for his place in history, Putin has gone from the man who saved Russia from the anarchy and irrelevance of the 1990s to the man who ‘lost’ Ukraine. He defends his policies with a televised address in which he dwells on 1920s Bolshevik nationality policies, Ukrainian privatisation, and NATO perfidy at a time when ordinary Russians are worried about their standard of living.
The 2014 annexation of Crimea was genuinely popular with Russians across the political spectrum. Such was the momentum of it, though, Putin let himself get involved in an undeclared intervention in the Donbas. I was living in Moscow at the time, and the confidence within the security apparatus was as palpable as it was misplaced. Six months, I was told; six months, and Ukraine will have been forced to accept its proper place in Russia’s sphere of influence and it will all be over. It was a terrible miscalculation on Putin’s part – but who was going to tell him that?
Eight years later, Ukraine is arguably more unified and more defiant than ever, the Russian economy is stagnant, and its people more and more dissatisfied.
So put together, the current crisis is born out of neither madness, nor some geopolitical brilliance beyond our ken. In its own way, it is a tragedy penned by a 21st century Shakespeare.
An ageing monarch, feeling his time drawing to a close, broods on his legacy as the leader who committed himself to “lifting Russia off its knees”. He comes to believe it will all depend on Ukraine, the cradle of Slavic culture and the Russian Orthodox Church, and whether he goes down in history as the tsar who regained it, or lost it for ever.
Mistrustful and awkward, with few friends and confidants, he finds himself surrounded by a claque of yes-men and opportunists, who have learned that the safest thing to do is to flatter his prejudices and applaud his whims. No one is willing to tell him that he has time and again misjudged the Ukrainian people and that his pressure does no more than drive them further away.
In this context, Putin’s actions make a perverse sense. To characterise him, as some already are, as insane or delusional, is to fail to see that he has his own perverse logic. In spite of everything, he seems genuinely to believe that Kyiv will bend the knee of its own accord, or because the West pressurises it to do so to make this crisis go away.
In that case, this would seem to be the ideal moment to try and assert Russia’s regional hegemony, while its military modernisation is at something of a high-water mark, and the West is still in the process of reorienting its forces away from far-flung counterinsurgency and towards being able to face down a mechanised peer army. Meanwhile, Europe is divided and President Biden’s administration looks both weak and eager to pivot away from Europe. In all this, after all, Putin’s views are shared by many within the Russian elite – even if they have misgivings about what he is doing with this opportunity.
Besides, Putin believes in giving himself options. He could simply ‘freeze’ the conflict now, as he has done in Georgia and Moldova, giving him a permanent beachhead for future action, while watching Ukraine and the West brace for an imminent attack that will not come. He has seen presidents and prime ministers come and go, after all, and knows that while today the West may be focused on Ukraine, it will lose interest or be distracted soon enough.
Or this could be the start of the full-scale war the West has been fearing and predicting. It could be tomorrow, it could be next week – the point is that Putin retains the initiative.
Of course, viewed from outside the Kremlin, all this is as self-destructive as it is self-deceiving. Even without further escalation, the Russian economy will take a hit from sanctions, Russia’s political standing in the world will decline further, and ordinary Russians will have to pick up the tab for yet another war they have no interest in fighting.
He is not Blofeld, no geopolitical mastermind, but nor is he insane. He is a remnant of the last true Soviet generation, unable to come to terms with the end of his old world, unwilling to understand the new. Yet that old world bequeathed him both nuclear weapons and an assumption that Russia must be a global power or it is nothing, so we need to try and understand his view of the world, even as we battle it.
This article first appeared in The Telegraph on 23rd February 2022.
- Original article in The Telegraph
- Professor Mark Galeotti’s academic profile
- UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies
- UCL SLASH