Putin Seeks Revenge on a World Order He Once Wanted to Join

by Braxton Taylor

The summer evening at a beachside nightclub in the Black Sea resort of Sochi resembled a modern-day version of a gladiator fight in imperial Rome. Russian fighters pummeled a “world” team in a mixed martial arts contest. Scantily dressed women waved Russian flags and the crowd roared as the home squad racked up victories. The highlight was the knockout of a 44-year-old American fighter.

It was August 2013 and sitting in a front-row seat in a white dress shirt and flanked by security guards and political acolytes was Vladimir Putin. Six months later, Russia’s president set his country on its path to war by seizing Crimea from Ukraine, and ultimately a full-scale invasion entering its third year next week.

The scene in Sochi encapsulated Putin’s world view: a staged demonstration of Russian might in the face of what he sees as disrespect for his country’s place in the global order. As the authoritarian leader prepares to tighten his grip on power in an election next month, the question of how to handle him has become even more urgent after Republican frontrunner Donald Trump indicated that if he’s back in office in the U.S. he could let Russia pick off NATO countries not meeting their defense spending pledges.

In Ukraine, Putin is attempting to strike his own decisive blow against the U.S. and Europe to reshape that global order to Russia’s advantage. Putin’s gamble — backed by military force and grudges — is that he can bend the world to his will. China, with its own territorial ambitions, is watching carefully how much Russia is able to push the boundaries.

“He is sitting right there on his throne, keeping an eye on the entire plot and trying to figure out how he can manipulate and take advantage of every set of international circumstances to push forward,” said Fiona Hill, a former top White House advisor on Russia. “Putin can look like he’s losing colossally, but he’s actually winning — and he’ll think he’s winning.”

Encouraged by Trump, Republican opposition in the U.S. to continuing to arm Ukraine is growing. Billionaire Elon Musk also urged Americans to lobby Congress to oppose funding for Ukraine on Monday, saying there’s “no way in hell” Putin can lose the war.

How Putin got here is a story in three parts, based on previously unreported scenes and conversations with former heads of state, diplomats and senior Kremlin officials spanning more than a decade.

He was the KGB agent who came out of the shadows to lead his country after the turmoil of the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin; the president who dismantled the oligarchy that morphed out of communism and became its all-powerful ruler; and now the wartime leader trying to ensure his invasion of Ukraine doesn’t turn into an Afghanistan-like failure that helped usher in the demise of the Soviet Union he so reveres.

Aged 71, Putin is on course for a fifth term even as hundreds of thousands of Russians have been killed or wounded in the war that’s largely reached a stalemate against Ukrainian forces who are themselves struggling to make progress as weapons supplies falter from their U.S. and European allies.

He faces no serious challenger in the March 17 election that will hand him six more years as president, a job he wasn’t even sure that he’d last in beyond his first term, which ended 20 years ago, according to people who worked with him at the time. The Kremlin is determined to present his victory as a public endorsement of the invasion.

Putin, meanwhile, is reshaping Russian society in his image at an unprecedented pace. He’s stoked patriotic fervor with a mix of nostalgia for Russia’s imperial and Soviet past in parallel with the harshest repression for decades. He casts himself as the defender of Russian sovereignty and traditional Orthodox Christian values against the “liberal” West.

While his invasion of Ukraine triggered Europe’s biggest conflict since World War II, the scale of the rupture between Russia and the West in the past two years still seems hard for many to conceive.

Months after Putin was last re-elected, in 2018, Russia hosted hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors for football’s FIFA World Cup. Emmanuel Macron sat with Putin at the Moscow final to see France lift the trophy.

The French president was among those who tried to leverage his personal relationship with Putin. Top of his concern was that Russia might court China should Europe turn its back. Macron invited him to his summer residence in 2019, where Putin showed up with flowers for his wife, Brigitte. The turning point was a year later when Putin told Macron it was possible that opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who’d survived an assassination attempt in Russia, had poisoned himself.

Former Czech President Milos Zeman, who was regarded in Moscow as well-disposed toward Russia, said he misjudged Putin, especially over his intentions in Ukraine.

“I thought that Vladimir Putin was rational, not emotional, that he can’t take a step that would objectively weaken the interests of the Russian Federation,” he said in an interview. “So that’s why I publicly said, shortly before the Russian aggression, that Russians aren’t fools to attack Ukraine. And unfortunately, it came to pass that they are fools.”

It’s all a very long way from the energetic, judo-loving leader who replaced the ailing Yeltsin, eager to partner with the U.S. and Europe. In that honeymoon period, Putin even suggested Russia could join the NATO alliance that he now declares an existential threat to his country.

This was the Putin who was the first foreign leader to call U.S. President George W. Bush to offer support after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Earlier, then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair flew to St. Petersburg for talks with Putin while he was still acting president in March 2000. The pair attended a performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s opera “War and Peace.”

Putin blamed the West when he recalled his suggestion to join NATO in a speech to the annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, a Russian think-tank, in Sochi in October. After the Soviet collapse ended the Cold War, “we thought we became part of the crowd,” he said. “I guess the problem was their geopolitical interests and arrogance toward others.”

A senior adviser to Putin at that time said the Russian leader genuinely wanted to build closer ties with the West. He would meet not only with foreign leaders, but ministers and sometimes even just ambassadors to explain his views, including on the most controversial subjects such as his war in Chechnya. Whatever Putin said, though, the Russian military didn’t believe there’d be an alliance with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“We in the Defense Ministry never received any orders that would signal the seriousness of such intentions,” said Evgeny Buzhinsky, a former general who served in its international relations department from 2002-2009.

Sense of Betrayal

Resentment slowly took over. Putin often grew angry after meetings with U.S. representatives. Disillusionment with the West gradually soured into a sense of betrayal on issues such as U.S. plans for a new missile-defense system in Europe.

It finally erupted into anger in a notorious speech to the Munich Security Conference in 2007. Before an audience of Western leaders, Putin railed against NATO and called its expansion “a serious provocation.”

“He fundamentally misread American interest and politics,” William Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow and now CIA director, wrote in his 2019 book “The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal.” The U.S. treated Russia as “a power in strategic decline” in Putin’s early years and “we certainly didn’t need to discuss long term bipartisan priorities and partnerships in Europe to buy Putin’s favor,” he said.

With booming oil and gas prices filling the Kremlin’s coffers and fueling an economic recovery from the post-Soviet collapse, Putin embarked on a more than decade-long rearmament program that allocated hundreds of billions of dollars to modernize Russia’s military.

“The U.S. also dropped the ball,” said Ben Hodges, a former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe. “We were unrealistic about the Russian threat between 2010 and 2014 and now we’re paying the price for that.”

When NATO first opened its doors to potential membership to Ukraine and Georgia at its 2008 summit, Putin warned Bush that Ukraine would cease to exist if it entered the alliance, Russian newspaper Kommersant reported. Months later, a brief war in Georgia saw Russian troops close in on the capital, Tbilisi, cementing Putin’s control over two breakaway regions.

Putin was ruling as prime minister by then, having hand-picked Dmitry Medvedev to be president for four years in 2008 to comply with term limits in Russia’s constitution. Medvedev announced in September 2011 he was making way for Putin to return to the Kremlin.

In the background, powerful allies worried about losing influence and money to Medvedev’s circle rooted for Putin’s return. Medvedev was younger, more rational, a technocrat, but Putin was the guarantor of stability, one of the richest people in Russia in 2012 said in a private conversation. And without its “tsar,” the system would become weak, the person said.

The NATO-led intervention in Libya’s civil war in 2011, following a United Nations resolution on which Medvedev had abstained, was arguably the final straw. Putin was horrified when he watched a video of a mob killing and mutilating Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi, a person familiar with the matter said. He concluded Medvedev was too weak to stand up to the West.

Putin took two-thirds of the vote in March 2012 elections despite the largest ever demonstrations against his rule. Those protests often involved the entrepreneurial and creative middle classes that had emerged in Russia and wanted more say in their political futures. After his presidential limousine swept symbolically through deserted Moscow streets to his inauguration in May, the Kremlin began a widespread crackdown, jailing opposition activists and labeling non-governmental organizations as “foreign agents.”

President again, Putin increasingly turned to Russians who were nostalgic for the certainties of the Soviet past, particularly in the country’s provinces, as his political base. He indulged in action-man stunts, frequently shirtless, that fanned a macho image among his core supporters.

Polls showed his approval rating on the slide before his 2014 seizure of Crimea. A deluge of nationalism then sent support soaring above 80% for years.

The military operation began days after Russia hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi, on which Putin had lavished a record $50 billion to showcase Russia as a sporting superpower. The Russian team that topped the medals chart in Sochi was later exposed in a doping scandal run by Putin’s security service and banned from all Olympic competition.

Putin, too, sought to deceive the world. He flatly denied that soldiers dubbed “little green men” who took over Crimea in unmarked uniforms were Russian. It was a brazen lie — Putin admitted a year later the soldiers were his. Russia was expelled from the Group of Eight nations and the U.S. and Europe imposed sanctions.

The relatively muted international response to the annexation and his leap in popularity at home reinforced Putin’s sense that he’s not just a lucky leader, but a divinely inspired one, people close to the Kremlin said. Vyacheslav Volodin, then the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff, told foreign academics and analysts at a 2014 Valdai meeting that “if there is Putin, there is Russia. No Putin, no Russia.”

The pattern of deceit repeated before the full-scale invasion in February 2022, with Putin denying any plans for war until the very last moment. Indeed, his willingness to lie unflinchingly at talks with fellow leaders was one of Putin’s most unsettling characteristics, according to a European official who attended dozens of meetings with him over more than a decade. As the war grew nearer, Putin increasingly resorted to long speeches about the West’s mistreatment of Russia, according to the person.

A head of a non-NATO country who spoke to Putin shortly before the war said they spent about 30 minutes discussing Ukraine and Putin was adamant he would never invade. When asked if he felt betrayed by Putin personally, he said: “He fooled everyone, not just me.”

The Covid-19 pandemic reinforced Putin’s special status as the Kremlin threw a protective shield around him that required anyone who met with the president for even a few minutes to first endure two weeks in quarantine. That’s as Russians were subject to looser restrictions than most European countries.

The isolation had an impact on Putin’s thinking that was underestimated, according to Ekaterina Schulmann, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin. His resentment of the West festered.

“The president’s ties with the outside world were completely severed,” said Schulmann, who was declared a “foreign agent” in Russia. “Putin found himself in an even denser bubble than he was before.”

In the summer of 2021, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told one of her allies that her biggest concern was that Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping may do something impulsive, because during Covid there hadn’t been personal bilateral exchanges among leaders.

One person who had met with Putin in 2021 described being stunned as the president lectured him for 25 minutes about the threat posed by the U.S. and its allies to Russia. The president held a very deep grudge, the person said.

For years, Putin vowed he’d never change Russia’s constitution to stay in power. But as the world was locking down in response to the coronavirus, he did just that in early 2020.

The key amendment allowing him to reset the clock was put forward by a loyal lawmaker who’d been the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova. It handed Putin the right to run for two more terms, potentially staying in power to 2036. The scope of the law blindsided even people working on it for months beforehand, according to a person who was involved in it.

War, Sanctions

The war in Ukraine has been a failure for Russia on many levels. The invasion that was meant to bring a decisive victory in days shows no sign of ending any time soon. It has shattered the image of Russia’s army as the world’s second most powerful. After Putin invaded with the declared aim of preventing NATO expansion toward Russia, his country’s border with the alliance has more than doubled since Finland joined last year.

The sweeping international sanctions have failed so far to crush Russia’s economy. But the Kremlin’s propping up the ruble with capital controls, draining the national wealth fund to aid spending on the military and support measures for businesses, and has lost access to $300 billion in frozen foreign reserves abroad.

Crimea faces repeated drone and missile strikes from Ukrainian forces, Russia’s Black Sea fleet has moved from its home base following attacks on its ships, and Putin still doesn’t fully control four regions of eastern and southern Ukraine that he claimed to have annexed “forever” nearly 18 months ago.

But Putin has a “fixation on controlling Ukraine and its choices,” CIA Director Burns wrote in a Jan. 30 article in Foreign Affairs magazine. “Without that control, he believes it is impossible for Russia to be a great power or for him to be a great Russian leader.”

In the U.S., meanwhile, President Joe Biden is all but set for a sequel showdown with Trump, his predecessor who has criticized military support provided to Ukraine by Washington.

Putin isn’t necessarily holding out for Trump’s return to the presidency as his first term was “a great disappointment” that produced no breakthroughs for Russia, according to Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik, a political consultancy, and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. After meetings with Trump, one Kremlin insider said Russia just didn’t understand him.

There’s a Houdini quality to Putin that convinces Kremlin circles he’ll emerge from even the biggest crises as a winner. He wields his longevity as a weapon to wear down the U.S. and Europe whose leadership and policy directions change regularly.

Putin once mocked a reporter who asked if he planned to rule until 2030, saying he had no desire to remain on the Kremlin throne until he’s 100 years old.In fact, he’ll be 77, the age Trump is now and younger than Biden.

With assistance from Ania Nussbaum, Andrea Dudik, Natalia Drozdiak, Alberto Nardelli and Peter Martin.

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©2024 Bloomberg News. Visit at bloomberg.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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