Inside the mind of Vladimir Putin
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine looks imminent and the world teeters on the edge of war. At the centre of the maelstrom is the enigmatic Russian president, popular at home and hated by the West.
What is common between Bollywood star Salman Khan and Russian president Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin? Both men like to take off their shirts and ride horses bare-chested, impervious to the cold. Both are action heroes in their respective countries. Both make the ladies swoon. The comparison ends there. One is a film star following a script. The other is an authoritarian figure who writes the script of Russia’s destiny and his own. And currently, not just of Russia but also the world.
Putin, often called The Tsar by admirers and critics alike, an honorific he ostensibly deprecates, is on a mission to restore his country to its former glory, both as an empire and a superpower. He desires the old Soviet satellite states like Ukraine back in the fold, and to rule over them as Stalin did—but minus the ideological rules. Upon becoming president on the first day of the new millennium, Putin told young Russian troops that their job was “restoring Russia’s honour and dignity.”
This ‘restoration ideology’ which Russian-born journalist Arkady Ostrovsky refers to in his book, The Invention of Russia, is at the heart of the Crimean crisis and Putin’s toxic animosity towards the West, particularly America. The current critical flashpoint of a military confrontation that could lead to a world-scale war is not the Middle East but on the border that Russia shares with Ukraine.
Moscow has moved a vast number of soldiers, military equipment and blood supplies to the Ukraine border. Russian combat troops, including Spetsnaz special forces, are conducting joint military exercises in next-door Belarus that will climax by February 20—the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, is less than 150 km away. Russian naval exercises are ongoing from the Atlantic to the Pacific through February. The US and allies are certain that Putin will invade, as he did in Crimea in 2014.
A secret service report obtained by the German publication Bild detailed Moscow’s three-step plan to invade and create a ‘union state’: defeat Ukraine’s army; install a new pro-Moscow puppet regime; and throw activists, intellectuals and other opposition figures in internment camps. The US is responding with force—President Joe Biden is sending more American troops to Europe. Washington has drawn up plans to sanction Putin, his associates and Russian financial institutions. The UK is belligerent. Europe is not backing off. The world is on the brink of war.
Is Vladimir Putin bluffing? A tyrant’s mind is not an easy read. Putin had quipped that anyone who doesn’t miss the Soviet Union has no heart but those wishing for its return doesn’t have a brain. The same man had referred to the USSR’s fall as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Who is the real Vladimir Putin? A megalomaniac with a death wish or a master of illusion and realpolitik?
Last month, Simon Miles of the US-based Sanford School of Public Policy, briefed journalists. “I don’t think even (Russian diplomats) know what Putin’s ultimate end game is. Right now, Vladimir Putin has kind of gone into isolation. He’s not really seeing anyone, because of the Covid pandemic.” Mystery is a fundamental value of Putin’s persona, carefully crafted—a man for every season.
During the 2014 Ukraine crisis, a rumour arose that Putin is a reckless risk-taker. The basis for this story lies in an incident described in his “semi-autobiography” Ot Pervogo Litsa, published just before his election campaign in 2000. Putin risked his own life and that of his martial arts coach while driving together on a road outside Leningrad. He reached out to grab some hay through the open car window from a passing farm truck and very nearly capsized the vehicle. The coach scolded Putin, “You take risks.” Putin’s reply is Clint Eastwood meets Bruce Lee—“I guess I thought the hay smelled good (Navernoye, seno vkusno pakhlo).”
Ukraine is his latest calculated risk. The book notes Putin’s KGB trainers identifying a “diminished sense of danger” (Ponizhennoye chuvstvo opasnosti) in him. The signal: Vladimir Putin is never afraid.
The Putin myth is further perpetuated by a formidable PR machinery, although the president told Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen in 2012 that most of the costume acts are his own idea. Whether it is throwing an opponent to the mat during judo or smashing wood with his bare hands while on holiday in Siberia, Putin is a choreographed, but folksy president; Russia’s Sex and the City magazine ranked him as the second sexiest Russian politician in 2008, yielding top slot to the ineffectual former opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.
In spite of getting photographed outdoors in an Indiana Jones outfit, Putin is not a caricature of a dictator. “Each of the guises that Putin adopts, and the actions he undertakes, pays a degree of respect to a certain group and validates that group’s place in Russian society,” write Putinologists Fiona Hill and Clifford G Gaddy who co-authored Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. The president regularly travels to the remotest regions in Russia to interact with people and has formed regular feedback councils.
Riding a Harley-Davidson wearing a bike’s leather jacket with Russian and Ukrainian ‘Hells Angels’ in Crimea is Putin’s salute to Russian youth machismo and nationalism. When he pilots a microlight aircraft in a white suit to direct the migration of endangered birds, or tagging whales, shooting a Siberian tiger with a tranquillizer gun, releasing leopards into a wildlife sanctuary and satellite-tracking polar bears, Putin is indicating that everyone is “equally worthy of presidential attention” and “have inspired presidential action,” with performances that create “a sense of commonality and unity,” according to Hill and Gaddy.
Putin biographer Steven Lee Myers writes about a defining moment that sheds light on the president’s psyche in The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin.
1989. The Berlin Wall falls. Putin is a young KGB lieutenant colonel posted in Dresden, East Germany. A large crowd has attacked the East German secret police Stasi’s offices. They turn their fury against the KGB residence. Putin seeks help from the local Soviet military command. “Moscow is silent,” comes their reply. Shocked at the betrayal, he confronts the angry crowd and lies, “My soldiers have weapons. And I gave them orders: If anyone enters the compound, they are to open fire.” The crowd leaves. (In another version, Putin is an unarmed official in civvies.)
Dresden was a turning point in the ex-KGB agent’s life. Forsaken by a state to which he and his parents had dedicated their life, Putin felt the humiliation deeply.
Born in Leningrad in October 1952, Vladimir Putin had Communism in his genes. Like son, the father was a party member and agent of the NKVD, Russia’s feared political police charged with murdering, assassinating and terrorising the regime’s opponents.
Putin grew up in Leningrad, where he studied sambo (a martial art combining judo and wrestling developed by the Soviet Red Army) and then in judo. He graduated in Law from Leningrad State University in 1975, and immediately joined the KGB. As glasnost spread, the KGB sent him to work in Leningrad State University. His former law professor Anatoly Sobchak was fighting the city elections. It was the start of Putin’s foray into politics. He joined Sobchak’s successful mayoral campaign and soon became a deputy mayor of St. Petersburg.
In 1996, after Sobchak lost re-election, Putin moved to the Kremlin to manage the presidential property. In 1997, Putin became president Boris Yeltsin’s Deputy Chief of Staff, and eventually head of the FSB, the KGB’s successor, the following July. In August 1999, Yeltsin made him a deputy prime minister, and then the prime minister of Russia. Putin was Russia’s president twice from 2000 to 2004, and from 2004 to 2008, before stepping aside for proxy Dimitri Medvedev since the Russian Constitution prohibits three consecutive presidential terms. This hurdle was soon remedied in 2020 by amending the Constitution that now allows Putin to stay as Tsar till 2036.
A popular referendum supported the amendment with 78 percent approval. But the dirty whiff of corruption, cronyism and bullying has surrounded Putin’s personal life since the early days. The president’s rapid rise—in just two-and-a-half years—suggests the shadowy supremacy of the old guard that controls Russia even now. It was Putin’s KGB superiors who sent him back to LGU in 1990.
Biographers have noted his “often unsavoury” KGB skills that made him an ideal enforcer and getting corrupt businesses to pay dirty money to Sobchak and his staff. Putin’s grandfather was a cook who Stalin inherited from Lenin. What is the grandson’s favourite recipe? Chaos spiced with suspense and intimidation, it seems.
According to Bruno Maçães, the former Portuguese foreign minister expelled from Russia, Putin believes that chaos is the fundamental energy of power, because only a strong leader who crushes chaos can bring stability to a country. Even if it means engineering the chaos himself. It could also explain why he is threatening Ukraine.
How a leader sees himself defines the fate he wishes for his nation. In Putin’s eyes, he is the liberator of the Russian soul, a myth-like warrior taking on powerful empires. Once he jokingly identified himself with Gandhi; the Mahatma had fought the British Empire and won. Putin, who idolises Hitler and Stalin, thinks he can bring down the great American empire now. In the beginning of his reign, he kept in his room a bust of Peter the Great, the 18th-century Tsar who brought Western influences into Russia, ending its isolationism.
Putin is the ultimate chameleon, who even enjoyed a liberal reputation initially, opening Russia up to Europe and reclaiming its European identity. But that soon changed. His relationship with the US soured when former friend Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State: the anti-government protests in Russia, their brutal suppression by Putin and White House sanctions ended the romance. In a throwback to Dresden, Moscow would no longer be a silent spectator.
Putin got his revenge in 2016, allegedly ordering Russian interference in the US elections that ended Hillary’s presidential dreams and put fanboy Donald Trump in the White House. In 2008, with the Russian invasion of Georgia imminent, then Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had warned Putin of a terrible Western backlash. “Do you see all these statements condemning you?” he asked. Putin snapped, “Why don’t you roll up these papers and stick them in their arse?”
George Bush, upon meeting Putin, had remarked that he had looked into the former KGB agent’s eyes and “got a sense of his soul”. It must have been inscrutable because Putin invaded Georgia and Bush could only rant. After the Russian army swept into Ukraine in 2014, Putin told Georgia’s then-president Mikheil Saakashvili, “Your Western friends will promise you nice things, and they won’t deliver. I won’t promise you nice things, but I will deliver.”
Putin has reasons to hate the West. In 1990, George H W Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker had promised Mikhail Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders that if the USSR disbands the Warsaw Pact military alliance, NATO would not “move one inch eastward.” German magazine Der Spiegel reported that “there was no doubt that the West did everything it could to give the Soviets the impression that NATO membership was out of the question for countries like Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia.”
In September 1994, Yeltsin was on a state visit to Washington seeking dollar aid from his new friend, President Bill Clinton. A Clinton biographer recounted the US president’s story about a drunken Yeltsin standing in his underwear on a dark street near Blair House in Washington, yelling for pizza. Putin was angry at his boss for not objecting to NATO expanding into eastern Europe, enrolling Poland and Hungary. Yeltsin had even allowed Russia itself might one day join the military alliance. In the following two decades, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, the Czech Republic and Romania followed.
Putin later admitted to Oscar-winning American filmmaker Oliver Stone that Russia reacted to NATO’s expansion emotionally but is forced to “aim our missile systems at those facilities which we think pose a threat to us.” His worry is that Ukraine will join NATO too, bringing Western military power to Russia’s doorstep. He warns of nuclear war if that happens.
Abandoning the duplicitous West, Putin sees himself as Eurasian rather than European. This was most evident at the Valdai summit in 2019, held in a massive hotel ensconced in the isolated beauty of the Caucasus mountains in the alpine resort of Rosa Khutor. The Russian President was accompanied by Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and King Abdullah II of Jordan. The summit is a private gathering of Russian and international politicians, thinkers and government officials from mostly China, Iran, Pakistan and India, along with a few Europeans.
The optics clarified that the five leaders together represent unified Eurasia—a new economic and geopolitical entity, which Russia wishes to lead. Putin’s hostility towards the West and his new chumminess with China are the two pillars of his thinking. Maçães believes that Russia, having realised that it cannot duplicate China’s economic miracle, wants to manipulate it for its own gain.
Putin was busy last week lobbying the Chinese dictator, Xi Jinping, for support—China backed Russia’s demand that NATO should not accept new members. Putin is playing a wily, but dangerous game. While he hopes he can both ride and control the Chinese dragon, Xi has plans of his own to take global control. Putinologists think that the Russian president has temporarily postponed the Ukraine invasion because he doesn’t wish to displease Xi during the ongoing Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin’s control of Russia and popularity is not as weak as the West believes. Putin projects himself as a champion of Russian conservative values supported by the Russian Orthodox Church. He likes to be thought of as a man of the people—a fellow traveller from the age of Soviet-era deprivation to prosperous Russia. “Sometimes I had to earn extra money. I mean, earn extra money by car, as a private driver,” the Tsar remembered moonlighting as a cab driver in a documentary, dubbed Russia, Recent History.
Putin stokes and exploits Russian nationalism— after the annexation of Crimea, he evoked the old Russian Empire’s military victories on land and sea. In spite of arresting and jailing critics like artists, billionaires and rock stars, he remains popular with his people.
Since becoming president in March 2000, Putin’s approval rating has never dipped below 60 percent. Constant at 70 percent levels, it has even crossed 80 percent. Political scientists such as Timothy Colton and Henry Hale attribute Putin’s lionisation to charisma, policies and strong economic performance. Opinion polls cheered Putin after his first presidency coincided with Russia transiting from economic collapse to economic boom. Brutally annihilating Chechen rebels improved Putin’s stature further.
The annexation of Georgia and Crimea has kept his ratings stratospheric, even reaching 89 percent in June 2015. However, in July 2020, surveys by the respected and independent NGO Levada Center lowered the ratings to 60 percent—possibly another motive to bolster his macho image by invading Ukraine. Putin’s high approval ratings are regularly confirmed by Western pollsters. Undoubtedly, Putin’s Russia is a security state and repression of critics is rampant. Russian dissident Alexei Navalny arrested for “leading an unauthorised protest” against Putin was nearly assassinated in 2020 while on parole, a crime Western government linked to Putin.
Prominent anti-Putin politicians such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev are in prison. Artists and musicians are intimidated, arrested, or imprisoned for anti-Putin activities. Russia’s new Criminal Code’s extended definition of ‘treason’ now places the government’s critics in the “traitor” category. Human rights defenders regularly get death threats, disappear and even are murdered.
However, Putin’s Russia, unlike the deceased Soviet Union, is not a totally totalitarian regime that controls society using secret police. Public criticism of the government, even though frowned upon and controlled, is allowed. The regime doesn’t persecute non-political citizens just for expressing their opinions. While 28 percent of respondents in an opinion poll felt that they would be punished for contrarian views, 61 percent said it was impossible or highly unlikely while 52 percent thought that Russians did not hide their political opinions at all.
If Vladimir Putin sends his troops to invade and annex Ukraine, what can be the possible Western reprisals? Targeting oligarchs and families closest to him. UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss warned Russia last week of extending the scope of economic sanctions. “So there will be nowhere to hide for Putin’s oligarchs, for Russian companies involved in propping up the Russian state.” The Tsar’s associates will be banned from visiting their second homes and having a “holiday at Harrods.”
Though there are widespread rumours, circulated with full support from the Israelis, that Putin is a corrupt multi-billionaire, it would be impossible for investigators to prove it or track his personal wealth. Besides, some Putinologists speculate that the Tsar himself is the source of the rumour to keep kleptocrats and businessmen in suspense. Putin’s personal life is as transparent as the fog in Siberia.
Journalists and media outlets that report on his private affairs are met with swift and deadly retribution. The Pandora Papers allege that people in Putin’s immediate orbit gave millions of dollars to Svetlana Krivonogikh, an alleged romantic partner and mother of his child. The investigative journalism website Proekt founded by Roman Badanin broke the story about Krivonogikh with whom he had allegedly started an affair when he was still married to Lyudmila Putina, a former air hostess. The state media watchdog shut down Proekt. Putin’s two daughters, a 36-year-old geneticist and 34-year-old mathematician, are rarely seen in public.
In a 2019 interview, BBC’s Russia reporter Farida Rustamova told Putin that his “old friends, managers of state companies, are helping these two women with their business operations.” Putin denied her allegations. During the height of the pandemic, Badanin reported that Putin’s friends and relatives—notably Krivonogikh, judo sparring partners Vasily Shestakov and Arkady Rotenberg, friends from the Ozero Dacha Consumer Cooperative, Yuri Kovalchuk, Sergey Fursenko, Viktor Myachin and Nikolai Shamalov, and other acolytes—built multimillion-dollar residential buildings in the exclusive Kamenny Islands with funding from Bank Rossiya, a major private Russian bank.
The website reported that its shareholders are Putin altar boys; Krivonogikh is a co-owner. To protect Bank Rossiya from bankruptcy after Western sanctions, Putin authorised it to collect utility bill payments from citizens.
In 2009, Russian publication Moskovsky Korrespondent reported that Putin was having an affair with Alina Kabaeva, a former Olympic gold medallist in gymnastics and Russian MP. Soon, the newspaper, like Proekt, was shut down. News reports noted that the couple wore wedding rings at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics where she was a torchbearer at the opening ceremony.
If the Western sanctions hit Putin and his oligarch cronies, the Russian president is not without recourse. Russia is the world’s third-largest oil producer after the US and Saudi Arabia, and about Europe’s 40 percent of the natural gas comes from the country. Should Europe move against Putin, Russia will choke energy supply in winter causing deep distress in the continent. As the Trump victory proved, Russia has powerful cyberhacking capabilities to disrupt the US government and private security and financial systems.
Though another Bay of Pigs scenario is unlikely, Putin could mobilise troops in America’s backyard—Cuba and Venezuela. The Ukraine stand-off is Vladimir Putin’s greatest challenge so far. It will determine his and his country’s position in the global hierarchy. Or it could destroy them both. Once, the Russian president was photographed in an orange life vest and holding a crossbow on a rubber boat at the Olga Bay of Kamchatka Peninsula during a scientific expedition to study grey whales. The sea was rough that day. A journalist asked him why he was taking the risk. “Living, in general, is dangerous,” Putin responded. Right now, it is a matter of life and death for both Russia and the world.