Speaking in what he called “the language of Goethe, Schiller and Kant,” picked up during his time as a KGB officer in Dresden, Germany, President Vladimir Putin of Russia addressed the German Parliament on Sept. 25, 2001. “Russia is a friendly European nation,” he declared. “Stable peace on the continent is a paramount goal for our nation.”
The Russian leader, elected the previous year at the age of 47 after a meteoric rise from obscurity, went on to describe “democratic rights and freedoms” as the “key goal of Russia’s domestic policy.” Members of the Bundestag gave a standing ovation.
Norbert Röttgen, a center-right representative who headed the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee for several years, was among those who rose to their feet. “Putin captured us,” he said. “The voice was quite soft, in German, a voice that tempts you to believe what is said to you. We had some reason to think there was a viable perspective of togetherness.”
Today, all togetherness shredded, Ukraine burns, bludgeoned by the invading army Putin sent to prove his conviction that Ukrainian nationhood is a myth. More than 3.7 million Ukrainians are refugees; the dead mount up in a month-old war; and that purring voice of Putin has morphed into the angry rant of a hunched man dismissing as “scum and traitors” any Russian who resists the violence of his tightening dictatorship.
His opponents will meet an ugly fate, Putin vowed this month, grimacing as his planned blitzkrieg in Ukraine stalled. True Russians, he said, would “spit them out like a gnat that accidentally flew into their mouths” and so achieve “a necessary self-purification of society.”
This was less the language of Kant than of fascist nationalist exaltation laced with Putin’s hardscrabble, brawling St. Petersburg youth.
Between these voices of reason and incitation, between these two seemingly different men, lie 22 years of power and five United States presidents. As China rose, as the U.S. fought and lost its forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as technology networked the world, a Russian enigma took form in the Kremlin.
Did the U.S. and its allies, through excess of optimism or naiveté, simply get Putin wrong from the outset? Or was he transformed over time into the revanchist warmonger of today?
Putin is an enigma, but he is also the most public of figures. Seen from the perspective of his reckless gamble in Ukraine, a picture emerges of a man who seized on almost every move by the West as a slight against Russia — and perhaps also himself. As the grievances mounted, the distinction blurred. In effect, he became the state, he merged with Russia, their fates fused in an increasingly Messianic vision of restored imperial glory.
From the Ashes of Empire
“The temptation of the West for Putin was, I think, chiefly that he saw it as instrumental to building a great Russia,” said Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state who met several times with Putin during the first phase of his rule. “He was always obsessed with the 25 million Russians trapped outside Mother Russia by the breakup of the Soviet Union. Again and again he raised this. That is why, for him, the end of the Soviet empire was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.”
But if irredentist resentment lurked, alongside a Soviet spy’s suspicion of the U.S., Putin had other initial priorities. He was a patriotic servant of the state. The post-communist Russia of the 1990s, led by Boris Yeltsin, the country’s first freely elected leader, had sundered.
In 1993, Yeltsin ordered the Parliament shelled to put down an insurgency; 147 people were killed. The West had to provide Russia with humanitarian aid, so dire was its economic collapse, so pervasive its extreme poverty, as large swaths of industry were sold off for a song to an emergent class of oligarchs. All this, to Putin, represented mayhem.
“He hated what happened to Russia, hated the idea the West had to help it,” said Christoph Heusgen, the chief diplomatic adviser to former Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany between 2005 and 2017. Putin’s first political manifesto for the 2000 presidential campaign was all about reversing Western efforts to transfer power from the state to the marketplace.
The new president would work with the oligarchs created by chaotic, free-market, crony capitalism — so long as they showed absolute fealty. Failing that, they would be expunged. If this was democracy, it was “sovereign democracy,” a phrase embraced by Putin’s top political strategists, stress on the first word.
Marked, to some degree, by his home city of St. Petersburg, built by Peter the Great in the early 18th century as a “window to Europe,” and by his initial political experience there from 1991 working in the mayor’s office to attract foreign investment, Putin does appear to have been guardedly open to the West early in his rule.
He mentioned the possibility of Russian membership of NATO to former President Bill Clinton in 2000, an idea that never went anywhere. He maintained a Russian partnership agreement signed with the European Union in 1994. A NATO-Russia Council was established in 2002. Petersburg man vied with Homo Sovieticus.
This was a delicate balancing act, for which the disciplined Putin was prepared. “You should never lose control,” he told American movie director Oliver Stone in “The Putin Interviews,” a 2017 documentary.
“You must understand, he is from the KGB, lying is his profession, it is not a sin,” said Sylvie Bermann, the French ambassador in Moscow from 2017 to 2020.
A few months before the Bundestag speech, Putin famously won over former President George W. Bush, who, after their first meeting in June 2001, said he had looked into the Russian president’s eyes and found him “very straightforward and trustworthy.” Yeltsin, similarly swayed, anointed Putin as his successor just three years after he arrived in Moscow in 1996.
An Authoritarian’s Rise
Born in 1952 in a city then called Leningrad, Putin grew up in the shadow of the Soviets’ war with Nazi Germany. The immense sacrifices of the Red Army in defeating Nazism were not abstract but palpable within his modest family. Putin learned young that, as he put it, “the weak get beat.”
“The West did not take sufficient account of the strength of Soviet myth, military sacrifice and revanchism in him,” said Michel Eltchaninoff, the French author of “Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin,” whose grandparents were all Russian. “He believes deeply that Russian man is prepared to sacrifice himself for an idea, whereas Western man likes success and comfort.”
Putin brought a measure of that comfort to Russia in the first eight years of his presidency. The economy galloped ahead, foreign investment poured in.
The problem for Putin was that to diversify an economy, the rule of law helps. He had studied law at St. Petersburg University and claimed to respect it. In fact, power proved to be his lodestone.
Timothy Snyder, a prominent historian of fascism, put it this way: “Having toyed with an authoritarian rule-of-law state, he simply become the oligarch-in-chief and turned the state into the enforcer mechanism of his oligarchical clan.”
Still, the biggest country on Earth needed more than economic recovery to stand tall once more. Putin had been formed in a Soviet world that held that Russia was not a great power unless it dominated its neighbors. Rumblings at the country’s doorstep challenged that doctrine.
In November 2003, the Rose Revolution in Georgia set that country firmly on a Western course. In 2004 — the year of NATO’s second post-Cold War expansion, which brought in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia — massive street protests, known as the Orange Revolution, erupted in Ukraine. They, too, stemmed from a rejection of Moscow and the embrace of a Western future.
Putin’s turn from cooperation with the West to confrontation began. It would be slow but the general direction was set.
A Clash With the West
From 2004 onward, a distinct hardening of Putin’s Russia became evident.
The president scrapped elections for regional governors in late 2004, turning them into Kremlin appointees. Russian TV increasingly looked like Soviet TV in its undiluted propaganda.
Although Putin has portrayed a West-leaning Ukraine as a threat to Russian security, it was more immediately a threat to Putin’s authoritarian system itself. Radek Sikorski, the former Polish foreign minister, said: “Putin is of course right that a democratic Ukraine integrated with Europe and successful is a mortal threat to Putinism. That, more than NATO membership, is the issue.”
The Russian president does not take well to mortal threats, real or imagined. If anyone had doubted Putin’s ruthlessness, they stood corrected by 2006. His loathing of weakness dictated a proclivity for violence. Yet Western democracies were slow to absorb this basic lesson.
They needed Russia, and not only for its oil and gas. The Russian president was an important potential ally in what came to be called the global war on terror. It meshed with his own war in Chechnya and with a tendency to see himself as part of a civilizational battle on behalf of Christianity.
But Putin was far less comfortable with Bush’s “freedom agenda,” announced in his second inaugural of January 2005, a commitment to promote democracy across the world in pursuit of a neoconservative vision.
Arriving in Moscow as the U.S. ambassador in 2005, William Burns, now the CIA director, sent a sober cable, all post-Cold War optimism dispelled. “Russia is too big, too proud, and too self-conscious of its own history to fit neatly into a ‘Europe whole and free,’” he wrote.
When François Hollande, the former French president, met Putin several years later, he was surprised to find him referring to Americans as “Yankees” — and in scathing terms. These Yankees had “humiliated us, put us in second position,” Putin told him.
These grudges came to a head in Putin’s ferocious speech in 2007 to the Munich Security Conference. “One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way,” he declared to a shocked audience. A “unipolar world” had been imposed after the Cold War with “one center of authority, one center of force, one center of decision-making.”
The result was a world “in which there is one master, one sovereign, and at the end of the day this is pernicious.” More than pernicious, it was “extremely dangerous,” resulting “in the fact that nobody feels safe.”
The Threat of NATO Expansion
After the Munich speech, Germany still had hopes for Putin. Merkel, raised in East Germany, a Russian speaker, had formed a relationship with him. “There was an affinity,” said Heusgen. “An understanding.”
Working with Putin could not mean dictating to him, however. “We deeply believed it would not be good to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO,” Heusgen said. “They would bring instability.” Article 10 of the NATO Treaty, as Heusgen noted, says any new member must be in a position to “contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.” Just how the two contested countries would do that was unclear to Merkel.
The U.S., however, with the Bush presidency in its last year, was in no mood to compromise. Bush wanted a “membership action plan,” or MAP, for Ukraine and Georgia, a specific commitment to bringing the two countries into the alliance, to be announced at the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania.
Burns, as ambassador, was opposed. In a then-classified message to Rice, he wrote: “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin).”
Already, in February 2008, the U.S. and many of its allies had recognized the independence of Kosovo from Serbia, a unilateral declaration rejected as illegal by Russia and seen as an affront to a fellow Slav nation.
France joined Germany in Bucharest in opposing the MAP for Georgia and Ukraine.
The compromise was messy. The NATO leaders’ declaration said that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO.” But it stopped short of endorsing an action plan that would make such membership possible. Ukraine and Georgia were left with an empty promise while Russia was at once angered and offered a glimpse of a division it could later exploit.
Putin came to Bucharest and delivered what Rice described as an “emotional speech,” suggesting Ukraine was a made-up country, noting the presence of 17 million Russians there, and calling Kyiv the mother of all Russian cities — a claim that would develop into an obsession.
Us Versus Them
On May 7, 2012, as a 30-gun salute echoed over Moscow and riot police officers in camouflage rounded up protesters, Putin returned to the Russian presidency. Bristling and increasingly convinced of Western perfidy and decadence, he was in many respects a changed man.
The outbreak of large street protests five months earlier, with marchers bearing signs that said “Putin is a thief,” had cemented his conviction that the U.S. was determined to bring a color revolution to Russia.
Putin accused then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of being the primary instigator.
Still, the idea that Putin posed any serious threat to U.S. interests was largely dismissed in a Washington focused on defeating al-Qaida.
Russia, under U.S. pressure, had abstained in a 2011 United Nations Security Council vote for military intervention in Libya, which authorized “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. When this mission, in Putin’s perception, morphed into the pursuit of the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi, who was killed by Libyan forces, the Russian president was furious. This was yet further confirmation of America’s international lawlessness.
Something else was at work. “He was haunted by the brutal takeout of Gadhafi,” said Mark Medish, who was senior director for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton presidency.
Michel Duclos, a former French ambassador to Syria and now a special adviser to the Institut Montaigne think tank in Paris, places Putin’s definitive “choice of repolarization” in 2012. “He had become convinced that the West was in decline after the 2008 financial crisis,” Duclos said. “The way forward now was confrontation.”
When Putin traveled to Kyiv in July 2013, on a visit to mark the 1,025th anniversary of the conversion to Christianity of Prince Vladimir of the Kyivan Rus, he vowed to protect “our common Fatherland, Great Rus.”
A Leader Emboldened
The 22-year arc of Putin’s exercise of power is in many ways a study of growing audacity. Intent at first at restoring order in Russia and gaining international respect, he became convinced that a Russia rich in oil revenue and new high-tech weaponry could strut the world, deploy military force and meet scant resistance.
If Putin was, as he now seemed to believe, the personification of Russia’s mystical great-power destiny, all constraints were off.
Ukraine, by ousting its Moscow-backed leader in a bloody popular uprising in February 2014, and so de facto rejecting Putin’s multibillion-dollar blandishments to join his Eurasian Union rather than pursue an association agreement with the EU, committed the unpardonable. This, for Putin, was, he insisted, a U.S.-backed “coup.”
Putin’s annexation of Crimea and orchestration of the military conflict in eastern Ukraine that created two Russian-backed breakaway regions followed.
Two decades earlier, in 1994, Russia had signed an agreement known as the Budapest Memorandum, under which Ukraine gave up its vast nuclear arsenal in exchange for a promise of respect for its sovereignty and existing borders. But Putin had no interest in that commitment.
Heusgen said a breaking point for Merkel came when she asked Putin about the “little green men” — masked Russian soldiers — who appeared in Crimea before the Russian annexation in March 2014. “I have nothing to do with them,” Putin responded, unconvincingly.
“He lied to her — lies, lies, lies,” Heusgen said. “From then on, she was much more skeptical about Mr. Putin.”
The U.S. and most of Europe — less so the states closest to Russia — glided on in the seldom-questioned belief that the Russian threat, while growing, was contained; that Putin was a rational man whose use of force involved serious cost-benefit analysis; and that European peace was assured.
The War in Ukraine
The unthinkable can happen. Russia’s war of choice in Ukraine is proof of that.
In the isolation of COVID-19, all of Putin’s obsessions about the 25 million Russians lost to their motherland at the breakup of the Soviet Union seem to have coagulated.
After President Emmanuel Macron of France met with Putin at opposite ends of a 20-foot table last month, he told journalists that he found Putin more stiff, isolated and ideologically unyielding than at their previous meeting in 2019.
That Ukraine got to Putin in some deeply disturbing way is evident in the 5,000-word tract on “The Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” that he penned in his isolation last summer and had distributed to members of the armed forces. Marshaling arguments ranging back to the ninth century, he said that “Russia was robbed, indeed.”
His intent, in hindsight, was clear enough, many months before the invasion.
But why now? The West, Putin had long since concluded, was weak, divided, decadent, given over to private consumption and promiscuity. Germany had a new leader, and France an imminent election. A partnership with China had been cemented. Poor intelligence persuaded him that Russian troops would be greeted as liberators in wide swaths of eastern Ukraine, at least.
In a single stroke, Putin has galvanized NATO, ended Swiss neutrality and German postwar pacifism, united an often fragmented EU, hobbled the Russian economy for years to come, provoked a massive exodus of educated Russians and reinforced the very thing he denied had ever existed, in a way that will prove indelible: Ukrainian nationhood. He has been outmaneuvered by the agile and courageous Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a man he mocked.