I arrived in Moscow as a correspondent in late 1999, just as Vladimir Putin was soaring from bureaucratic obscurity to the Russian presidency in the space of six months. He owed his swift rise to the backing of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, his success in the war in Chechnya, and a hope among Russians that he would end the chaos and poverty they had endured since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I was struck at the time by Putin’s cold smile and athletic stride, both self-consciously geared to conveying an impression of business-like authority. I wondered what the man was really like, as did many Russians curious about his public persona. One joke in Moscow, adapted from a jibe often directed at Soviet leaders in the past, asked: “Will there ever be a Putin personality cult? No, because to have such a cult you must first have a personality.”
This put-down probably underestimated Putin. And in any case, his control of the Russian media enabled him to pose as a competent “tough-guy” national leader. But for me he always remained an elusive figure, expert in the mechanics of gaining and keeping power in Russia while making a broad-brush appeal to Russian nationalism.
I tried to think of a historic leader whose life might illuminate Putin’s career. Just before he was first elected president in 2000, a Russian friend quoted to me the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s scathing verdict on Napoleon III, whom he described as “a sphinx without a riddle. From afar something, from near at hand nothing.”
The analogy looks even more appropriate today as both Napoleon III and Putin dealt in over-heated nationalism rooted in a glorious past when their countries were at the zenith of their power (Tsarist and Soviet in the case of Russia, Napoleon I at his peak in the case of France).
Both rulers grew in arrogance the longer they ruled. Napoleon III floundered into the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, some 22 years after he had first won the French presidential election in 1848, and was roundly defeated. After almost exactly the same period, Putin invaded Ukraine and found that he had underestimated Ukrainian resistance, exaggerated Russian military strength, and misjudged a powerful riposte by the Nato powers.
Putin’s political personality remains something of a mystery to this day, with many pundits excoriating him as a mad monster and war criminal. But such a description, justified though it may be by atrocities in Ukraine, is scarcely helpful in determining what he will do next, which, given his absolute power in Russia, will determine the peace of Europe.
Failure is a great teacher
Western governments purport to know what determines his thinking. “Even though we believe that Putin’s advisers are afraid to tell him the truth,” said Jeremy Fleming, head of the signals intelligence agency GCHQ, “what’s going on and the extent of these misjudgements must be crystal clear to the regime.”
True enough, failure is a great teacher for governments as for individuals, but this might only lead to Russian forces fighting more astutely as their failed multi-pronged advances, each too weak to reach their objectives, are now concentrating on the Donbas and south-east Ukraine.
Disclosures by Fleming and senior military officers drip with a dangerous sense that Russian blunders are irreversible. Pentagon spokesman Jim Kirby says that “the fact that he [Putin] may not have all the context, that he may not fully understand the degree to which his forces are failing in Ukraine, that’s a little discomforting”.
Yet nothing said by American and British officers and officials is new. Intelligence agencies, even if they have some secret source information, seldom say anything that would reveal its existence. The CIA, for instance, was desperate to conceal the fact that it could monitor the car phone of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
No easy exit
Putin grossly misjudged almost everything to do with his Ukraine invasion, but the signs are growing that Nato powers are also being lured into wishful thinking as they start to divide up the lion’s skin though the lion is still breathing. Shambolic the performance of the Russian army may have been so far, but it will not necessarily stay that way. In past wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Western governments have had a self-destructive willingness to believe their own propaganda about a beaten enemy being on the run.
Putin – however foolish his original decision to attack – still has a powerful army in Ukraine while the Nato powers do not have a single soldier there. This is a more important strategic fact than anecdotes about Russian tanks deliberately running over their own commanders or sabotaging their equipment.
The British government in particular assumes that the war can only go one way, arguing that a peace deal today would be premature, letting Putin off the hook and requiring Ukraine to make concessions avoidable if it wins more military successes, which ministers consider inevitable. A senior British government source is quoted as saying: “We think Ukraine needs to be in the strongest possible position militarily before those talks can take place.” He said that Putin should be allowed no easy exit from Ukraine and Boris Johnson insists that sanctions should be intensified until Russian troops leave Ukraine including Crimea.
The idea is evidently that Ukraine should remain a lethal quagmire for Russia, much like Afghanistan was for the Soviet Union in the 1980s or Iraq was for the US and Britain after 2003. Ignoring the fact that a long war might doom Ukraine to Iraqi and Afghan levels of death and devastation, this assumes that the military pendulum is predictable and only swings one way, an assumption that is contradicted by half the wars in history.
Putin’s macho self-image
During his first two decades in power in the Kremlin, Putin’s capabilities were exaggerated inside Russia and in the wider world. Since he ordered the invasion of Ukraine, he tends to be written off as a mad but ineffectual monster going down to inevitable defeat. Possibly this is exactly what will happen, but those who are most energetic in demonising Putin, paradoxically assume that in defeat he will behave with calm restraint when it comes to using chemical or nuclear weapons.
Failure in Ukraine might force Putin out of the Kremlin just as success in the Chechen war 22 years ago opened its doors to him. Ideally, he and his inner circle might retire like Yeltsin and his family with their physical safety and vast wealth guaranteed, but to cut-and-run would be very much against Putin’s macho self-image.
Talk of trying him as a war criminal, which would only happen after foreign-backed regime change in Moscow, works in his favour by adding credibility to his claim that the Russian state is under threat and must defend itself. Over the next few months, we may see – after more than two decades in power – what Vladimir Putin is really like.
I feel frustrated with those who condemn war atrocities, but then use them as a reason to go on fighting a war that will inevitably produce even more such atrocities. If saying that “war is an atrocity” is to be any more than a platitude, then the only way to end the killing is to end the conflict. This is not to let the perpetrators of war crimes off the hook, but a recognition that wars makes such crimes inevitable – though no less culpable.
Yet there are a growing number of politicians and pundits willing to fight to the last Ukrainian to defeat the Russian bear. Some of this is fuelled by popular outrage at Russian brutality against civilians, which is on television every night. Politicians, particularly in Washington and London, relish the thought of Russia being trapped in a Ukrainian quagmire without much concern about what happens to more than 40 million Ukrainians living on this battlefield.
Worrying again is an almost light-hearted belief that Putin would never use tactical nuclear or chemical weapons in this conflict. Where this confidence comes from is a mystery to me. The Economist says sternly that “the best deterrence is for Nato to stand up to Mr Putin’s veiled threat, and make clear that a nuclear or chemical atrocity would lead to Russia’s utter isolation.” Now that will really have them quaking in the Kremlin.
Below the Radar
The atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine should lead to greater condemnation of similar crimes in Aleppo, Gaza, Raqqa, Sanaa, Mosul and a myriad of places in Afghanistan. But somebody will always stick up their hand and say that this is “how about-ism” – a silly argument which has become a hypocrites’ charter. It is also against common sense: would anybody argue that publicising a murder in Lancashire somehow devalues the vileness of a murder in Kent. Yet at the height of the bombing of Ukraine, a raft of US Senators want to do just that by closing down an investigation into Israel’s bombing of Gaza.