Russians thought they knew their president.
They were wrong.
And by Thursday, it appeared too late to do anything about it.
For most of his 22-year rule, Vladimir V. Putin presented an aura of calm determination at home — of an ability to astutely manage risk to navigate the world’s biggest country through treacherous shoals. His attack on Ukraine negated that image, and revealed him as an altogether different leader: one dragging the nuclear superpower he helms into a war with no foreseeable conclusion, one that by all appearances will end Russia’s attempts over its three post-Soviet decades to find a place in a peaceful world order.
Russians awoke in shock after they learned that Mr. Putin, in an address to the nation that aired before 6 a.m., had ordered a full-scale assault against what Russians of all political stripes often refer to as their “brotherly nation.”
There was no spontaneous pro-war jubilation. Instead, liberal-leaning public figures who for years tried to compromise with and adapt to Mr. Putin’s creeping authoritarianism found themselves reduced to posting on social media about their opposition to a war they had no way to stop.
Other Russians expressed themselves more openly. From St. Petersburg to Siberia, thousands took to city streets chanting “No to war!,” clips posted on social media showed, despite an overwhelming presence by police officers. OVD Info, a rights group, said more than 1,700 people were arrested across the country.
And in Moscow’s foreign policy establishment, where analysts overwhelmingly characterized Mr. Putin’s military buildup around Ukraine as an elaborate and astute bluff in recent months, many admitted on Thursday that they had monumentally misjudged a man they had spent decades studying.
“Everything that we believed turned out to be wrong,” said one such analyst, insisting on anonymity because he was at a loss over what to say. [Continue reading…]
Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a catastrophic new European war, combined with the sheer weirdness of his recent public appearances, has raised questions in western capitals about the mental stability of the leader of a country with 6,000 nuclear warheads.
They worry about a 69-year-old man whose tendency towards insularity has been amplified by his precautions against Covid, leaving him surrounded by an ever-shrinking coterie of fearful obedient courtiers. He appears increasingly uncoupled from the contemporary world, preferring to burrow deep into history and a personal quest for greatness.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, is well-placed to analyse changes to Putin’s demeanour. Macron once drove a cooperative, if self-conscious, Putin round the gardens of the palace of Versailles in a tiny electric golf cart in the summer of 2017 and welcomed him to his holiday residence at a fortress on the Mediterranean coast the following summer, where Putin descended from a helicopter carrying a bunch of flowers and complemented the Macrons on their tans.
After Macron held five hours of talks with the Russian leader in Moscow at opposite ends of a 15-metre table, he told reporters on the return flight that “the tension was palpable”. This was not the same Putin he had last met at the Elysée palace in December 2019, Macron said. He was “more rigid, more isolated” and was off on an “ideological and security drift”. [Continue reading…]