The moment is etched in the lore of Vladimir Putin: The Berlin Wall had just succumbed to hammers, chisels and history, and a KGB officer still shy of 40 and stationed in Dresden, East Germany, was in a panic, burning documents and requesting military support as a crowd approached. “We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow,” Putin was told on the phone. “And Moscow is silent.” In an interview appearing in his 2000 book, “First Person,” Putin recalls that dreadful silence. “I got the feeling then that the country no longer existed,” he said. “That it had disappeared.” Two years after the wall went down, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics did, too. A decade after, Putin would ascend to power in Russia, talking about a revival.
The death of the Soviet Union, and Putin’s autopsy of the corpse, helps explain why he has risked a European conflict — and a confrontation with Washington — by launching a brutal assault on Ukraine. The U.S.S.R., he continued in that interview more than two decades ago, collapsed because it was suffering “a paralysis of power.” If the phrase sounds familiar, that’s because Putin repeated it in a defiant speech justifying his new war. The demise of the U.S.S.R., Putin stated on Feb. 24, “has shown us that the paralysis of power . . . is the first step toward complete degradation and oblivion.” The end of the Cold War, in his view, was not a matter of ideology or economics but of attitude and will. The Soviets blinked, and the Americans seized the opportunity. “We lost confidence for only one moment, but it was enough to disrupt the balance of forces in the world,” Putin declared. So much of what has followed — the unipolar era of U.S. supremacy that Putin reviles, the expansion of NATO he decries, the diminishment of Russia he rejects and the restoration he now seeks — only affirms his fixation on that moment.
“What Putin Really Wants” is a perennial topic for cable news debates and big-think magazine covers; the new invasion of Ukraine has prompted questions about the Russian leader’s mental health and pandemic-era isolation. But his motives can also be gleaned in part from his book and his frequent essays and major speeches, all seething with resentment, propaganda and self-justification. In light of these writings, Russia’s attack on Ukraine seems less about reuniting two countries that Putin considers “a single whole,” as he put it in a lengthy essay last year, than about challenging the United States and its NATO minions, those cocky, illegitimate winners of the Cold War. “Where did this insolent manner of talking down from the height of their exceptionalism, infallibility and all-permissiveness come from?” Putin demanded during his declaration of war. A world with one dominant superpower is “unacceptable,” he has stated, and he constantly warns that this imbalance — exemplified in NATO’s expansion — threatens Russia’s existence. “For our country, it is a matter of life and death,” he contends.
In “First Person,” a collection of interviews with Putin and various relatives and associates, he brags that he received top grades in high school, except for one subject. “I had gotten a B in composition,” he admits. If so, the teacher got it about right. His writing elsewhere veers from straightforward to overwrought, from reflective to overwhelmingly self-serving. Even so, these compositions serve as memos dictated for the archives of history: Putin’s attempts to strike a posture of perpetual defiance, to articulate a Russian exceptionalism immune from rules and norms. They portray a leader intent on redressing a perceived historical wrong inflicted on his country and himself, and a man convinced that Moscow must never fall silent again.
In late 1999, Putin, then prime minister, issued a long essay on “Russia at the Turn of the Millennium,” lamenting his country’s deteriorating international standing. He blames Russia’s economic decline of the 1990s on the “historic futility” of Soviet-era communism and on “schemes taken from foreign textbooks,” a dig at the Western consultants who had parachuted in carrying market models and bullet-point reforms. With weak infrastructure, low foreign investment and lousy health indicators, Putin writes, Russia faced the real possibility of “sliding to the second, and possibly even third, echelon of world states.”
Nonetheless, Putin is adamant that the nation could be glorious once again, that “it is too early to bury Russia as a great power.” The answer is not a return to Communist Party values — they were “a road to a blind alley” — but a long-term strategy for economic development and moral, even spiritual, renewal. The details are hazy, but for one: “Russia needs a strong state power and must have it,” he declares. Putin couches that requirement in almost mystical terms. “From the very beginning, Russia was created as a supercentralized state,” he later explains in his book. “That’s practically laid down in its genetic code, its traditions, and the mentality of its people.”
The 1999 manifesto, published shortly before Boris Yeltsin resigned the presidency and handed power to Putin, is more grandiose than grand; Putin even considers Russia’s restoration among the “signal events” of the new millennium and the anniversary of Christendom. But when he argues that “responsible socio-political forces” should build the strategy for Russian renewal, it is pretty obvious whom Putin has in mind. In “First Person,” published the following year, he ponders his “historical mission,” praises the stability of monarchies and considers the possibility of amending the constitution to lengthen presidential terms. “Maybe four years is enough time to get things done,” he says. “But four years is a short term.” A colleague quoted in “First Person” who worked with Putin in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office in the early 1990s recalls how, rather than hang the standard portrait of Yeltsin in his office, Putin chose an image of Peter the Great. Russia’s glory is his goal, but Putin’s own power is always the convenient means.
Standing in the way of that greatness and power, Putin has long concluded, is the United States. Despite an early conciliatory tone — “We value our relations with the United States and care about Americans’ perception of us,” Putin wrote in a November 1999 op-ed justifying Moscow’s crackdown against Chechen separatists, and after 9/11 he was among the first heads of state to offer Washington support — any pretense of rapprochement soon dissipated into antagonism. In 2007, Putin addressed an international security conference in Munich and, informing the audience that he would “avoid excessive politeness,” launched into a diatribe against the U.S.-led post-Cold War system.
“What is a unipolar world?” he asked. “It is a world in which there is one master, one sovereign.” He called this model not only “unacceptable” but “impossible,” and criticized Washington, mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, for having “overstepped its national borders in every way.” Putin assailed the NATO alliance for arraying its “frontline forces” on Russia’s borders, calling that a “serious provocation.” He complained that NATO and the European Union sought to supplant the United Nations (where, conveniently, Russia enjoys a Security Council veto) and that Western lectures on freedom were hypocritical cover for self-serving security policies: “Russia — we — are constantly being taught about democracy,” he said. “But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves.”
Moscow did not have to accept this imbalance of power, he argued: “Russia is a country with a history that spans more than a thousand years and has practically always used the privilege to carry out an independent foreign policy.” The invasion of Ukraine has supposedly proved his desire to upend and remake the international order, but Putin declared those intentions, publicly and clearly, long ago.
Last July, Putin published an essay titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” The two nations are really one people sharing a faith, culture and language, he asserts, and “modern Ukraine” is little more than a creation of the Soviet era. As always, he calls out nefarious foreign efforts to undermine this shared heritage, but he also laments how the Soviet Union, at its inception, mistakenly granted individual Soviet republics the right to secede. This “time bomb,” he writes, went off at the end of the Cold War, and the former Soviet satellite states “found themselves abroad overnight, taken away . . . from their historical motherland.”
In their book, “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy write that Putin often deploys “useful history” — that he manipulates collective memory for personal and political goals, as a means to “cloak himself and the Russian state with an additional mantle of legitimacy.” In the justifications for invading Ukraine, useful history is busy at work. As Putin tells it, it’s not an invasion but a reunification; it’s not a violation of international law but the return of lawful possessions that were wrested away when the Cold War ended.
There is an unsubtle progression to Putin’s historical interpretations. In July, the Russian president wrote that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia,” which is, to say the least, a peculiar definition of sovereignty. In his speech on Feb. 21, he went further, asserting that Ukraine “actually never had stable traditions of real statehood.” Three days later, with the invasion seeming inevitable, the threat was reversed; Ukraine didn’t need Russian assistance to survive, but it and its Western allies posed an existential threat to Russian survival, “to the very existence of our state and to its sovereignty.”
Putin incessantly denounces the U.S. or NATO interventions of the post-Cold War world — particularly in the Balkans, Libya, Iraq and Syria — as intolerable aggressions. In a 2013 New York Times op-ed, he warned against a U.S. strike on Syria, urging deference to the United Nations. “Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense, or by the decision of the Security Council,” he wrote. No wonder that, when deploying force himself, from Chechnya at the turn of the century to Ukraine today, Putin reliably invokes national self-defense. “The current events have nothing to do with a desire to infringe on the interests of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people,” he stated on Feb. 24. “They are connected with defending Russia from those who have taken Ukraine hostage.” The formula is simple: When you swing it, it’s a sword; when I swing it, it’s a shield.
Putin relies on standard populist rhetoric to justify his attack on Ukraine — corrupt Ukrainian elites, beholden to foreign influences, are looting the country and turning the people against their Russian brethren, he claims — and he blithely combines World War II-era threats (Nazis overrunning Ukraine) with those of the Cold War (Ukraine acquiring nukes). Talk about useful history. But his speeches on the eve of invasion made his underlying preoccupation clear, with Putin expending enormous time and vitriol on the United States. He sneered at the “low cultural standards” and “feeling of absolute superiority” of post-Cold War America, while emphasizing the “empire of lies” in contemporary U.S. politics. In particular, he reminded the world that the United States employed “the pretext of allegedly reliable information” about weapons of mass destruction to invade Iraq. He did so even while warning that Ukraine, as a puppet regime of the West, might deploy WMDs (which it agreed to give up in 1994 in exchange for protection from Russian invasion) against Russia. “Acquiring tactical nuclear weapons will be much easier for Ukraine than for some other states I am not going to mention here,” he declared. “We cannot but react to this real danger.” It’s not his only American echo. Putin sounds downright Trumpy when warning that Russia will respond to any foreign interference in Ukraine, “and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”
It’s almost like, while invading Ukraine, he’s trolling Washington — because both are his targets.
Of course, the writings of a former KGB officer — or of any politician — should not be taken at face value; the purpose is to obscure as much as to reveal, the content is propaganda more than truth. Putin is a terrible communicator to begin with; according to “First Person,” his KGB instructors found him withdrawn and tight-lipped, and even his former wife understood him so poorly that, when he was proposing marriage, she thought he was breaking things off. But as with all political writing, propaganda is enlightening because it reveals something about how its purveyors wish to be perceived. Read in wartime, Putin’s accounts offer glimpses of the fighter he hopes the world will see in him, and the one he imagines himself to be.
Putin shares two stories in “First Person” that depict him as a risk-taker. He tells his interviewer that when he attended the KGB’s intelligence school, a supervisor noted his “lowered sense of danger” in one of his evaluations. “That was considered a very serious flaw,” Putin recalls. “You have to be pumped up in critical situations in order to react well. Fear is like pain. It’s an indicator. . . . I had to work on my sense of danger for a long time.” Message: He does not fear risk as ordinary people do.
He also recounts a time he was driving a car with a judo coach during his university days and saw a truck loaded with hay coming in the other direction. Putin reached out his window to grab some hay as he drove past, and he accidentally veered off course. “I turned the wheel sharply in the other direction,” Putin says, “and my rickety Zaporozhets went up on two wheels.” Somehow, they landed safely rather than crashing into a ditch. Only when they reached their destination did his astonished coach finally speak. “You take risks,” he said, and walked away. “What drew me to that truck?” Putin later wonders. “It must have been the sweet smell of the hay.” Message: Putin takes what he wants, regardless of the dangers to himself or others.
Yet a third story in “First Person,” from Putin’s childhood, places him in a less-daring light. There were rats in the apartment building where his family lived, and Putin and his friends would chase them with sticks. One day, he spotted a large rat and trapped it in a corner — but then it suddenly turned and jumped toward him. “I was surprised and frightened,” Putin recalls. “Now the rat was chasing me. It jumped across the landing and down the stairs. Luckily, I was a little faster and I managed to slam the door shut in its nose.” What’s the message here? That when Putin thinks he’s beaten a weaker foe, all it takes is his rival lashing out to get him to run away?
It’s an easy and tempting analogy. The apparent renewed unity of the transatlantic alliance against Putin’s assault on Ukraine, and the early resistance of Ukrainian forces and politicians, would seem to serve as a deterrent to a wider, longer war. But with Putin, it could just as well prompt further escalation. “If you become jittery, they will think that they are stronger,” he states in “First Person,” describing his attitude toward Russia’s enemies. “Only one thing works in such circumstances — to go on the offensive. You must hit first, and hit so hard that your opponent will not rise to his feet.”
For Putin, power must not be paralyzed. It must be wielded.
Carlos Lozada is The Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.” Follow him on Twitter and read his recent book reviews, including: