Isolated, out of touch, but clinging on: how Russians see Putin


Saturday February 18 2023, 6.00pm GMT, The Sunday Times

— A year on from the disastrous invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin could be just one crisis away from collapse —

Vladimir Putin is notorious for asking Russian historians how he will be judged a hundred years hence. With his invasion of Ukraine, he has ensured that he will be assessed a failure, an example of the way hubris can devour any initial successes.

Had Putin chosen to step down at the end of his second presidential term, in 2008, it is likely he would be remembered as someone who dragged Russia back from the brink of collapse, even if often by brutal methods.

He then spent four years running the country behind his proxy-president Dmitry Medvedev before returning to the Kremlin. Had he retired after his third term in 2018, he would have left a Russia in dispute with Ukraine and the West, but in possession of Crimea. As it was, though, he was not content, and let his desperation to leave his mark on history drive him to fatal overreach.

What does this war show us about Putin? Has he changed so much from the apparently cautious and calculating figure who humbled rebellious Chechnya and defiant Georgia, and effortlessly seized Crimea?

Only in degree: Putin is still Putin, just much more so. Like so many autocrats, over time he became a caricature of himself, with any past strengths becoming weaknesses.

From confidence to arrogance
In previous wars, Putin was often lucky. The West was divided or distracted, not least by the global war on terrorism. More to the point, he was cautious, keeping to relatively small or controllable engagements. The second Chechen war (1999-2009) was horrific but it was fought within Russian borders and by only a fraction of Putin’s forces.

The five-day war against Georgia in 2009 was fought against a country with a population a third that of Moscow. The 2014 annexation of Crimea took place while the Ukrainian military was in virtual collapse.

Nonetheless, this cultivated Putin’s belief that he was a geopolitical mastermind with an unstoppable army. A man with no meaningful military experience, who refused to listen to advice before the invasion, has been determined to micromanage the war itself, and failed to appreciate the limits of his own military.

Egotism becomes isolation
Putin’s system was always what I term adhocracy, shaped by the protean politics of the court, in which the favour of the monarch is the real currency of power.

In earlier years, Putin was willing to listen to alternative perspectives and keep around him those who might challenge his assumptions. Recently, though, his circle has shrunk to a handful of mini-mes such as the KGB veterans Nikolai Patrushev, his security council secretary, and Alexander Bortnikov, the federal security service director, as well as the billionaire banker (and reportedly Putin’s “wallet”) Yuri Kovalchuk.

None challenged Putin’s view that Ukraine was not a “real” country — something he had told George W Bush back in 2008 — whose people would not or could not resist. Those who knew better were locked out of his circle.

Distance turns into detachment
This insulation from reality is also putting stress on his political system. Putin encouraged multiple feuding actors and institutions: in the past, he would just outline a broad policy for others to turn into detail, and step in to resolve disputes and choose between competing policy initiatives. The system depended on him being the arbitrator.

Now, presumably consumed by the war, he is out of touch and not doing his job, and fierce personal and policy rows are emerging, unchecked by the boss.

One of the most serious is between Yevgeny Prigozhin, the businessman who runs the Wagner mercenary company, and Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister. After all, this model of competing initiatives has also been exported disastrously on to the battlefield.

The regular military may be the largest force there, but there are many others, including Wagner, the paramilitary National Guard, Chechen fighters loyal to their leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, and the armies of the former “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, officially merged into the army, but still under imperfect control.

Fighting among themselves
Sometimes they co-operate, sometimes they compete, and this can prove murderous. There have been brawls and firefights between army and Wagner troops. This month the notorious ultra-nationalist captain Igor Mangushev was killed in an ambush blamed not on the Ukrainians but on everyone from the army to the Chechens.

Just as importantly, the need to keep Putin happy continues to distort the war effort. General Sergei Surovikin, the former overall field commander, was effectively demoted in January after just three months because he had not delivered any victories. His successor, the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, seems to have launched the long-awaited spring offensive before his forces were properly ready, presumably because the boss demanded action.

Relying on a Pyrrhic victory
Of course, it is foolish ever wholly to discount Russia’s latent strengths. Putin probably still believes he can win, if he can outlast western unity and resolve. Without the billions being spent every month to maintain the Ukrainian war effort and economy alike, Kyiv would be in a much more perilous position. It could still be that he is right.

The best victory he is likely to be able to hope for is control of the Donbas region, the Zaporizhzhya “land bridge” to Crimea and Crimea itself. This is far from his grandiose original hopes of control over all Ukraine. It would also leave the rest of the country angry, militarised — President Zelensky predicted a “big Israel” — and unlikely to be willing to accept this as a final outcome.

His chances of being able to block Ukraine joining the EU or even Nato are likely minimal. Nonetheless, Putin would spin this as a triumph against a hostile Nato and, as he frames it, the alliance’s Ukrainian proxy.

Disillusion with their leader
Even Putin’s former partisans are beginning to see that the tsar has no clothes. The technocrats who believed he offered Russia stability are now engaged in crisis management, expected somehow to mitigate the effects of the war and the militarisation of the economy.

Putin demands miracles and when they cannot deliver, he publicly humiliates them. Denis Manturov, the industry minister, was publicly upbraided for “fooling around” having failed to establish a domestic industry building helicopter engines, which experts believe will take at least two years. Previously Russia bought them from Ukraine.

The kleptocrats who backed Putin because he offered unlimited opportunities for enrichment are finding the pickings getting leaner, the competition sharper and the chances to enjoy their success limited. As a Russian millionaire put it: “These are people who expected to be able to jet-set across the world, skiing in Courchevel, shopping in Milan and partying in London. Russia is too small, too dangerous.”

Most seriously, the hawks and nationalists who used to believe in Putin are becoming disillusioned by the incompetence, corruption and indecision on show in Ukraine. They are the smallest of these constituencies, but the most dangerous, because they are largely within the security apparatus on which Putin ultimately relies. Venture into their social media channels and there is an increasingly overt line that it is actually patriotic to be anti-Putin.

Lack of a real alternative
That said, Putin may stay in power for some time: these kinds of regimes can be hard to unseat, at least so long as the security apparatus sees no better alternative. It is a myth that most Russians actively support the war, and tens of thousands have been arrested, prosecuted, beaten and imprisoned for expressing their opposition. So long as most see resistance as futile, though, they will keep their heads down.

Besides, as the West arms and funds Ukraine, Putin’s claims — that they are facing a hostile coalition that wants to see Russia humbled and even forcibly broken apart — do spark a certain grudging patriotism.

This is not support for Putin himself, though. Increasingly, his strongest asset is the lack of a clear, credible alternative rather than any great enthusiasm for him. In the past, he could count on a measure of genuine public support, as well as the compliance of the elite. In the worst case, he could throw money at his problems. The latest official figures have shown the budget deficit growing after oil and gas revenues nearly halved over the past year.

Who is lying to who?
The result is a rotten state. It may look sturdy at first glance and in his delayed state of the nation address, now scheduled for Tuesday, Putin will try to put a positive gloss on the situation. However, this will be a mix of propaganda and self-deception: one Russian political commentator privately lamented: “The tragedy is that it’s impossible to tell these days when Putin is lying or when people are lying to Putin.”

As and when some systemic crisis hits — anything from a cascading regional economic crisis at home to the collapse of the front line, even a serious illness for Putin or a natural disaster — then suddenly its rot will become obvious.

Putin arguably dragged Russia back from near-collapse in the early 2000s, but the very characteristics that made him successful then have metastised now into weaknesses.

Putin the Terrible
Although there is no real likelihood that the country will fragment, the stability that allowed all kinds of genuinely positive developments in Putin’s early reign, from the growth of grassroots political activism to the rise of a middle class, are all under threat thanks to the war and the totalitarian way the Kremlin is trying to respond to the pressures on the home front.

There is a striking parallel with the very first tsar, Ivan the Terrible. The institutions of modern government in Russia began to emerge in the first half of his reign, but as he was increasingly gripped by hubris and paranoia, the latter years were soaked in blood and terror. This led to the Time of Troubles, a prolonged era of crisis and war after his death.

Although there is little likelihood of Russia breaking apart, 1990s-style chaos is not impossible. As Putin may also discover, a state-maker may prove a state-breaker, too.


  1. “In previous wars, Putin was often lucky. The West was divided or distracted, not least by the global war on terrorism.”

    Yes, Putler was lucky. He was practically carried aloft on the shield of fatuousness and cowardice that specified early 21st century Western leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. He played everyone like a fiddle. No one heard the warnings from Poland, the Baltic States … and us! And, the epitome of stupidity happened in 2008, when two nations opposed Ukraine’s NATO ascension; Germany and France.
    Now, Ukraine is paying for these mistakes with lots of their blood.

  2. “Vladimir Putin is notorious for asking Russian historians how he will be judged a hundred years hence. With his invasion of Ukraine, he has ensured that he will be assessed a failure, an example of the way hubris can devour any initial successes.”
    ~I learned a new word, “hubris”…oddly enough however I didn’t learn it from this article but learned it last night and it was used as a descriptor for the character of Lucifer discussing how he fell.

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