Russian President Vladimir Putin is isolated – and increasingly is. President Joe Biden calls him a war criminal. US intelligence says Putin’s own advisers are deceive him about the war, tell Putin what he wants to hear. So what’s going through the mind of this secretive, lonely dictator? We found a man who thinks he knows the answer.
Journalist and author Marvin Kalba has loved Russia for almost 70 years. In the early 1950s he studied Russian history as a PhD student at Harvard. In 1960 he moved to Moscow as a reporter for CBS News. He has interviewed many powerful Russians. But he never spoke to Vladimir Putin. To gain insight into Putin, Kalb says, it is better to read about him than to interview him.
In front of an episode of Explained today, host Noel King spoke to Kalb about how Putin has come to rely on a skewed version of history and a shrinking circle of advisers — and what that means for the war in Ukraine. A partial transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
I have found over the years that if you read intensively what a leader says, writes or thinks about himself, you get a pretty good idea of what he really is. Sometimes in an interview you only get what a great political figure wants to convey. And he does that very well. Putin is an astonishingly good interview. And reporters who get interviews with him do very well because he can play the personality. He knows how to deal with people. That is terribly important to him.
Based on your many years of reading and observing, and knowing that you have a keen sense of who people are, who is Vladimir Putin?
Vladimir Putin is a very lonely figure at the moment. He is finally a dictator. He used to be an authoritarian figure. He had the kind of power that a Tsar had. He is now an absolute dictator. And for him, that’s a bad thing.
What it means is that on the one hand he has the absolute power to do whatever he wants in Russia. But the people around him are now terrified of him. And that means they will tell him what they think he wants to hear. That is very bad for any leader of any country. Putin now desperately needs solid, 100 percent verified information, and he’s not getting it. That’s the belief of the US government, of western countries, and I think, given the history of the dictatorship, it makes sense that when you reach the absolute pinnacle of power, you start to lose it. And Putin is now losing the power he’s been trying to amass for most of his life.
He is a former KGB official. One of the young men in the last days of the Soviet Union who would try to live in the artificial world created by the KGB. He would imagine what the western world looked like. He would try very hard to understand. He would pick up a language. The government gave him every opportunity to learn as much as possible about the enemy, and he did, and he thought he could figure out how to manipulate the enemy into destroying him. That was the whole point of the KGB operation. It was an intelligence unit, but it was also a unit that operated to achieve certain goals. And for the KGB, the end has always been the dissolution of the Western threat.
We know that US intelligence has been trying to assess whether the pandemic has changed Vladimir Putin’s mental state, or whether his isolation from the pandemic has changed him. Was he a lonely person before the pandemic?
Every leader is a lone figure to some degree, but Putin was not. Putin enjoyed being among people, but at the same time he was always very suspicious of everyone. And so there was always a distance between him and everyone he negotiated with. And certainly between him and a person he would consider an enemy, and so, yes, there was distance. He was always surrounded by his own intelligence, his own ambition, his quest for power. And when he achieved that, he was very good at convincing the man above him, the president of Russia, [Boris] Yeltsin. In the 1990s, Yeltsin took him from St. Petersburg to Moscow, and Yeltsin appointed Putin head of the KGB, or its new version. And a few years later, he appointed him prime minister. And when Yeltsin wanted to resign, he looked around and the only person he felt he could trust was Putin.
So Putin became his successor and almost immediately established a new kind of governance in Russia. He had his KGB people ready to take power not only in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but all over the country. It’s a huge country. It spans many time zones. It’s hard to run such a big country and Putin had his people in the position to run it, he had control over the whole operation. He became the boss.
And who surrounds Putin now? Who are his advisors? Who are his friends?
The people who are around him now are more or less the same people who have been around him for 22 years. They are the people of the KGB. He allowed those people to take control of major economic assets in the country. Oil, gas, wood, invested in the hands of a very small group, and this small group proved effective enough for Putin to take over and run this very complex society.
What does it tell you that Vladimir Putin hasn’t made any new friends in the past 22 years? That the same people who surrounded him when he was a KGB agent surround him as president of a world power?
And that’s an extremely important observation, because what we learn from it is that we’re dealing with a man who had a certain view of the world 20-30 years ago and only holds it in sharper form today.
Remember that Putin is primarily a Russian nationalist. The question that comes to mind: is he an ultra-nationalist? By which, I mean, does he see everything from a Russian point of view? And the answer is unfortunately yes. And because he looks at everything from a Russian point of view, he looks at a country like Belarus, for example; at Ukraine; they are both Slavic. They are both Orthodox in religion which is why they are Russian in his mind. And it is completely incomprehensible to him that people who are authentically Russian, as he sees it, could ever revolt against Moscow. In his mind, they must be part of Moscow.
So we can now look at the war in Ukraine and say, “Isn’t it great?” and indeed, democracy seems to hold up in Ukraine. For Putin, that is heresy. That is blasphemy. That is unacceptable. And so he will continue to fight to realize what is completely normal for him.
At this point it has become very clear, both in the ground coverage and in the US Pentagon coverage, that Vladimir Putin is not winning the war in Ukraine. Seems like it’s too early to say he’s losing it. What do you think that does for his mental state?
Oh, I think it’s a shocking experience. That doesn’t mean it totally undermines him. He is a strong man and he is very smart. He’s actually cunning. There is a Russian word, хитрый, which means cunning, in the sense of street corner. He understands power and he understands the use of power. He has very little patience for intelligence coming to him and saying, “We’re killing too many people.” Forget all that. Where do we stand in terms of the goal I formulated as our policy goal?
In fact, his policy goal now will never happen. He thought the war would be over in two or three days. We are now in a second month and it could be much longer than this. I hope not, but it is possible. And in his mind he is pursuing a legitimate historical goal. And can he lose? New. Can he ever convince himself that he has lost? New. The only people who can convince him will never convince him, they will have to get rid of him somehow. And those are the people closest to him. They are the ones who know his mind, know his methods because they are the same people.
And if they get rid of him, there might be someone very like him who comes to power, or if we’re lucky… if we’re lucky, we might get to see the other promise of Russia… of literature , of music, of history, of growth, of creativity – Russia and the Russian people, it is a great society.
And if there was another way to get out of the KGB mentality and reach out to the other Russia, we would all be so much better off led by the Russian people themselves. Is it possible? Yes. It’s there. It has to come out of the soot and gutter in which it exists today.