The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wielding the threat of war, a new, more aggressive Putin steps forward

The Russian president is leveraging a reconstituted military to force the world to reckon with his demands

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony at the Piskaryovskoye cemetery. (Alexei Nikolsky/Associated Press)

He is the man with the very long table who seats world leaders and ministers at an almost comical distance. He is a lone figure in a dark coat laying a wreath at a cemetery in St. Petersburg or sitting solo in his Olympic viewing booth in Beijing. He is aging, isolated, more powerful than ever, and on the brink of waging a possibly catastrophic war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the 22 years since he first took office, has evolved from an afterthought of Washington leaders to the world’s most watched and pleaded-with man, using reconstituted Russian military might to force the globe to reckon with his interests after having complained for years about being ignored.

His latest belligerence follows two years of pandemic isolation and eight years of Western sanctions that analysts say have fed the bunker mentality Putin has exhibited since his earliest years.

At 69, and now a grandfather, he has had hours alone to consider his legacy as the longest-serving Russian leader since Joseph Stalin and ponder one of his most striking and unendurable failures: the escape of Kyiv, for centuries the center of East Slavic statehood, into the hands of the West.

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Putin’s growing hunger for risk comes as the United States, mired in political dysfunction and humbled by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sees its relative global power decline. As Washington governance has faltered, Putin has reformed the Russian military into a capable force, eradicated political opposition at home, extended control over domestic Internet and media, amended the Russian constitution to retain power and hardened Moscow’s finances against external pressure.

After years of peace, villagers in Ukraine's Donbas region are enduring a sharp increase in shelling from separatists and fear a Russian invasion could be next. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Erin Patrick O'Connor, Salwan Georges/The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

With the staying power of an ensconced autocrat, he steadily has built a foundation to take greater risks abroad and the confidence to confront Washington ever more vigorously. In many ways, Putin believes his time has come, at last.

“If you are sitting in the Kremlin, things haven’t been better from the standpoint of trying to push your interests against the West,” said Thomas Graham, senior director for Russia on the White House National Security Council under President George W. Bush. “The trajectory of developments would tell Putin he is on the rise and the United States is on the decline.”

That shift comes as Putin views himself increasingly in historical terms. “Putin has got himself so wrapped up with the Russian state that he can’t extract himself from the idea that he is the state,” said Fiona Hill, who held the top Russia post at the NSC under President Donald Trump. “He is already living history.”

To lose Ukraine would be to suffer a severe humiliation in Putin’s eyes, she said, describing Putin’s thinking as, “He’s not going to let Ukraine get away, not on his watch.”

‘The weak are beaten’

Putin’s long journey from inheriting a country reeling from the Soviet Union’s collapse to threatening the West with a full-scale war in Ukraine is the story of a leader who for years felt slighted and demeaned by a succession of U.S. presidents preoccupied with other issues, only to build up the power to strike back.

But from his earliest days as leader, the former KGB officer exhibited a bellicose streak. He led a brutal war against Chechen separatists upon taking office, famously vowing to “waste them in their outhouses,” and exhibited a paranoia from his early days about foreign enemies trying to destroy Russia.

To a man who brawled on the streets of Leningrad in his youth and made his career in the Soviet security services, Russian weakness after the Soviet Union’s collapse had become revolting.

His anger over his nation’s humiliating frailty came through in the speech to the nation he gave in 2004, after a terrorist attack on a school in the Russian city of Beslan. Putin lamented how Russia had failed to protect itself after the Soviet Union’s downfall, giving its enemies the chance to tear the country apart.

“We demonstrated weakness, and the weak are beaten,” Putin said. Vowing to make Russia stronger, he immediately took steps to consolidate his power. He loathed how the United States threw around its weight unchecked.

In the “color revolutions” that brought Western-leaning governments to power in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, Putin saw unabashed U.S. encroachment on his sphere of influence. In NATO’s expansion to the Baltics and four other Eastern European states in 2004, he saw Washington taking advantage of the hobbled Russian military. In the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, he saw the unbridled hubris of a reckless nation intoxicated with uncontested power.

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The way the United States treated him only fed his anger and suspicion. When Bush needed to refuel Air Force One on a trip in late 2006 to southeast Asia, he stopped in Moscow but did not go to the Kremlin, forcing the Russian president to come to the airport and meet in the terminal. President Barack Obama famously dismissed Russia as a regional power, adding to the American slights that Putin would register from the White House.

Balancing world power

Months after the airport meeting with Bush, Putin made clear he would end U.S. dominance. At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, 15 years ago this month, he excoriated Washington, telling a crowd including Robert Gates, then the secretary of defense, that the United States had overstepped its borders “in every way” and exhibited “an almost unconstrained hyper use of force.”

In that speech, he chided NATO for putting “its front-line forces on our borders,” assailed U.S. plans for missile defense installations in Europe and called for a new “architecture of global security” to balance out the U.S.-dominated world, the same demands he has been making in recent weeks.

Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that speech was a “road map” for Putin. “He demonstrated how he would behave, and he was honest,” Kolesnikov said.

But Putin lacked the power to force his vision. The following year, NATO met in Bucharest and declared it was a question of when, not if, Ukraine and Georgia would join the military alliance. An enraged Russia invaded Georgia four months later, and once again demanded a new European security architecture. But the Russian military’s disastrous performance in that war underscored that Moscow remained ill-positioned to reorder world affairs.

Perhaps no episode fed his fears of U.S. influence more than the 2011 mass protests in Moscow. The outpouring of anger in the streets, which followed a Russian parliamentary election widely seen as rigged, represented the largest-ever threat to his power at home. In the demands for democracy and justice, Putin saw Washington’s tentacles coming to strangle him.

He denounced the protesters as State Department-backed pawns taking cues from Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and after four years as prime minister, he returned to the presidency a changed man. He clamped down on domestic dissent and cast himself as a global standard-bearer for those opposed to liberal Western values.

His intervention in Syria showed his willingness to use force to counter U.S. power and helped him build a military he is now relying on to threaten Ukraine. Interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign demonstrated a new level of risk-taking in Putin’s quest to hit back at Washington, along with a growing confidence in his ability to get away with it.

‘Unfinished business’

When a pro-European uprising in Ukraine pushed out the Kremlin-leaning government in 2014, Putin lashed out, using military tactics to combat what he viewed as a U.S. attempt to weaponize a “brother” nation against him.

Discounting agency for Ukrainians, he blamed the crisis again on U.S. power run amok, saying the Americans influencing Kyiv were acting like they’re in a lab, “running all sorts of experiments on the rats without understanding the consequences of what they’re doing.”

His annexation of Crimea brought him an irredentist surge in popularity at home, and in a triumphant speech afterward, Putin warned that the United States had crossed Russian red lines in Ukraine, forcing him to “snap back hard.”

Later that year, he confessed to wishing sometimes the Russian bear could sit quietly and eat berries and honey, but said the West would never leave the bear in peace unless it were subdued or made irrelevant.

“Because they will always try to put him on a chain, and as soon as they succeed in doing so, they tear out his fangs and his claws,” Putin said. “Once they’ve taken out his claws and his fangs, then the bear is no longer necessary. He’ll become a stuffed animal.”

Brian Taylor, a professor at Syracuse University who studies Putin, said the Russian leader always thinks about Russia as a besieged fortress.

“If he is doing something with respect to Ukraine, it is not because he is an aggressor but because he has been cornered into lashing out to protect Russia’s interests,” Taylor said. “Because if he doesn’t, no one else is going to do it.”

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Despite his perceived triumph with Crimea, the separatist proxy war Russia fueled in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions failed to achieve the Kremlin’s goals. Russia pushed for the conflict to end with an autonomous region loyal to Moscow inserted into the Ukrainian state as a spoiler to its Western ambitions. Instead, the war simmered unresolved, and a peace deal that would have reintegrated the regions went unimplemented.

Ukraine, at the same time, continued to drift westward. NATO militaries expanded their cooperation with Ukrainian forces and held exercises near Russia. As the war in the east dragged on, support within Ukraine for joining the alliance skyrocketed. Even Trump’s disdain for both Ukraine and NATO — and an impeachment scandal centering on demands he made of Kyiv — failed to scupper the growing partnership.

Putin had come to see Ukraine, one of the largest recipients of U.S. military assistance, as “a Western aircraft carrier parked just across from Rostov Oblast in southern Russia,” wrote Andrew Weiss and Eugene Rumer, Russia analysts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His need to reverse Ukraine’s trajectory, they said, had become his legacy’s most important piece of “unfinished business.”

The pandemic left Putin isolated and surrounded by a group of hard-liners who, like him, fail to comprehend the genuine rise in pro-Western sentiment in Ukraine, said Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst at R. Politik. In Putin’s eyes, she said, Ukrainians are like “hostages” to foreign interests suffering from Stockholm syndrome, who don’t realize their true interests lie with Russia.

“It’s a very dangerous situation in that he is closing in on himself,” Stanovaya said, arguing that Putin believes no one recognizes Moscow’s concerns, so he has no choice but to opt for the most radical scenario.

His pandemic isolation was punctuated last July by the release of a sweeping historical treatise in which he said sovereignty for Ukraine is possible “only in partnership with Russia” and described the country as a vassal state being used by Western nations to attack Moscow.

“We will never allow our historical territories and people close to us living there to be used against Russia,” he said. “And to those who will undertake such an attempt, I would like to say that this way they will destroy their own country.”

The threat of war today comes as Russia witnesses a level of domestic repression unprecedented in its post-Soviet era. After jailing opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned, Russian authorities set about prosecuting his adherents and running them out of the country.

Journalists critical of the Kremlin have faced state pressure from prosecutions and the foreign agents law. The government has also pressured the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia and shut down the human rights group Memorial, attacking two groups that have documented human rights abuses by the Russian military.

“People say, ‘He wouldn’t dare. He is not going to cross this line of a large-scale war in Europe,’” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst at research group CNA. “I would love to agree. But in the last three years I have seen him cross a lot of lines I thought he wouldn’t.”

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