Thanks to Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, Russia is now more isolated than ever. The economy is under sanctions and international companies are pulling out. The media have been further restricted; what remains spits out paranoia, nationalism and falsehoods. The people will have less and less communication with others beyond their borders. And in all this, I fear, Russia is becoming more and more like its president.
I have been talking to high-level businessmen and members of the Kremlin for years. In 2016 I published a book, All the Kremlin Men, about Putin’s inner circle. Since then I have been collecting reports for a possible sequel. While developments around the president are opaque (Putin, a former KGB officer, has always been secretive and conniving), my sources, who speak to me on condition of anonymity, have always been correct. What I have heard about the president’s behavior in the last two years is alarming. His reclusiveness and inaccessibility, his deep belief that Russian rule over Ukraine must be restored, and his decision to surround himself with ideologues and sycophants have helped lead Europe to its most dangerous moment since World War II.
Putin spent the spring and summer of 2020 in quarantine at his Valdai residence, roughly halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. There he was accompanied by Yuri Kovalchuk. Kovalchuk, who is the largest shareholder in Rossiya Bank and controls several state-approved media outlets, has been a close friend and trusted adviser to Putin since the 1990s. But by 2020, he had established himself as second man. de facto in Russia, the most influential among the president’s entourage.
Kovalchuk has a Ph.D. in physics and was once employed by an institute run by Nobel laureate Zhores Alferov. But he is not just a man of science. He is also an ideologue who subscribes to a worldview that combines orthodox Christian mysticism, anti-American conspiracy theories, and hedonism. This seems to be Putin’s worldview as well. Since the summer of 2020, Putin and Kovalchuk have been almost inseparable, and the two have been making plans together to restore Russia to greatness.
According to people with knowledge of Putin’s conversations with his aides over the past two years, the president has completely lost interest in the present: the economy, social problems, the coronavirus pandemic, all of it bothers him. Instead, he and Kovalchuk are obsessed with the past.
In his mind, Putin finds himself in a unique historical situation where he can finally recover from previous years of humiliation. In the 1990s, when Putin and Kovalchuk met, both were struggling to find their footing after the fall of the Soviet Union, as was the country. The West, they believe, took advantage of Russia’s weakness to push NATO as close to the country’s borders as possible. In Putin’s view, the current situation is the opposite: it is the West that is weak. The only Western leader Putin took seriously was former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Now she is gone and it is time for Russia to avenge the humiliations of the 1990s.
There seems to be no one around to tell him otherwise.
In All the Men in the Kremlin I described the phenomenon of the “collective Putin,” the way his entourage always tried to eagerly anticipate what the president would want. These cronies tell Putin exactly what he wants to hear.
And now here we are. Isolated and under sanctions, alone against the world, it seems that Russia is being rebuilt in the image of its president. Putin’s already very narrow inner circle will only grow closer. As Ukraine casualties mount, the president appears to be holding his own; he says that the sanctions on his country are a “declaration of war”.
At the same time, however, he seems to believe that total isolation will drive a large part of the most unreliable elements out of Russia: for the past two weeks, protesting intelligentsia (executives, actors, artists, journalists) hastily fled the country; some abandoned their possessions just to go out. I am afraid that from the point of view of Putin and Kovalchuk, this will only strengthen Russia.
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How Putin lost interest in the present