Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised many in his own regime when he launched his war against Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised many in his own regime when he launched his war against Ukraine.


Mikhail Klimentyev / AFP

A Trio of Russia Experts Discuss Moscow's War "If Putin Does Back Off, It's Always Just a Pause"

Kremlin experts Nina Khrushcheva, Sabine Fischer and Masha Gessen are concerned about what Vladimir Putin might do next. They are concerned that the war in Ukraine may get even more brutal – and that Russia will be isolated for the foreseeable future.
About the Experts

Nina Khrushcheva is the great-granddaughter of the former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. She teaches international politics at the New School in New York.

Sabine Fischer is an expert on Russia and works at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWR), a Berlin-based think tank. She is also a member of the board at the German Association for East European Studies.

Masha Gessen is an author and journalist in New York. Gessen's biography of Putin, "The Man Without a Face," was published in several languages in 2012.

DER SPIEGEL: Did you underestimate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to resort to violence?

Fischer: I said in January that a deliberate attack was not very likely, but an escalation was. There was a lot of diplomatic activity between Russia and the West. I though that this was going to continue at least for some time and that maybe there was a chance for compromise. This turned out to be a wrong assumption. In terms of application of violence, we already knew then that the Russian leadership, Vladimir Putin, does not hesitate to use violence. We had seen it before in Chechnya, in Syria and in Ukraine, for that matter.

Khrushcheva: I was absolutely shocked when it happened. Half an hour before Putin gave his insane speech at 5 a.m. on Feb. 24, I was arguing that it cannot happen because it is against national interests, he doesn’t have public support and it is completely suicidal in terms of Russia’s future. I was convinced that Putin was a tactical politician of sorts – obviously autocratic, authoritarian and almost dictatorial, but still a politician. But on Feb. 24, it became clear that his mind is a very different mind. He is a full-blown dictator. Sitting at those giant tables for two years – that should have been an indication that he’s all alone, very isolated. He saw an entirely different map of the world than the one people see in reality.

Fischer: In Moscow, it was fascinating to see how during that week before the invasion, the mood changed. At the beginning of that week, we had German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit, which was very well received. I also talked to hardliners in the Russian foreign policy community, and they kept telling me there will be no war. Then, on Thursday (in the week before the invasion), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs published its response to the answers of the United States and NATO, and I thought: uh oh, this doesn’t sound good at all. Then on Friday came the first reports about mass evacuations from the two territories in the Donbas. For me, this was a clear sign that this was spiraling out of control.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 13/2022 (March 26th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Khrushcheva: Until Feb. 22, Russia was certainly restrictive, or was becoming more and more restrictive, but it was much more prosperous than it had ever been. In some ways, that was Putin’s doing. Then, that very man turns around and says: I don’t like prosperity, it really doesn’t work for me. I’m going to fight with the West. It is one man’s decision to kind of pass by even Ivan the Terrible and go even further, to some kind of Christian-Orthodox insanity. The FSB were the ones feeding him all this crap information about Ukraine, that the Slavic brothers are going to surrender immediately. But they didn’t think it would come to war either.

Gessen: My feeling about Putin’s big war has always been that it was on the horizon, but the question was: Would he die first, or start the big war first? And unfortunately, he started the big war first.

Masha Gessen (at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020): "Putin is not somebody who backs off."

Masha Gessen (at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020): "Putin is not somebody who backs off."

Foto: ERNESTO DiSTEFANO / Getty Images

DER SPIEGEL: At the moment, it looks as though a stalemate has developed between the Russian and Ukrainian forces. What does that mean for the future of the war?

Gessen: Putin is not somebody who backs off. And if he does back off, it’s always just a pause. I think I can say with near certainty that if there is some kind of cease-fire, it will be temporary. I don’t understand what is going on with the use of air power. I covered both wars in Chechnya and the modus operandi was the same: terrorize the civilian population, basically a scorched earth policy. I’m glad they haven’t pulverized Kyiv, but I don’t understand why it hasn’t happened.

Fischer: We see Russian troops trying to move on Mariupol and in the direction of Odessa. We see attempts to encircle Kyiv and we see movement in the east. And, of course, Ukrainians resisting and also counterattacking. The situation is still too dynamic to speak of a stalemate. One of my big fears is that this is now going to turn into a war of attrition that will cost the lives of huge numbers of civilians.

"Ukraine is a nation of over 40 million people. How many will be left to actually continue to stand up for the nation?"

Nina Khrushcheva

Khrushcheva: The Ukrainians fighting back doesn’t surprise me at all. What surprised me was that Putin, who talks about World War II all the time: How does he not know that Ukraine suffered a tremendous amount and fought like hell during World War II? How could he imagine that the Russian occupiers would walk in and Ukraine would greet them with open arms? Anybody who knows anything about Ukraine would know that they were not going to surrender. And like Sabine, that worries me, because it is going to be a long, long fight. Already, 6.5 million people have been displaced, and 3.6 million have left the country – and millions more will flee before it is over. Ukraine is a nation of over 40 million people. How many will be left to actually continue to stand up for the nation?

DER SPIEGEL: Given the way the war has proceeded thus far, is it even conceivable that Russia can exert long-term control over Ukraine?

Fischer: I don’t think so. Before the war, most people I talked to in Moscow talked of division. The general scenario most people spoke about was that Russia would leave a kind of Ukrainian rump state in the West and either occupy or control politically the rest of the country with a pro-Russian government in Kyiv. That already would be extremely costly for Russia. But occupying the whole country would be impossible.

Khrushcheva: They were saying that the Russians would not go to western Ukraine. But they already have. As you know, I work at the New School in New York, where I teach propaganda, so I always look at wording. In Moscow, they kept saying "we are the last people who would think about war," and then it happened – of course, they call it a "special military operation." Now, they have forcefully said there will be no occupation, and I immediately started thinking, maybe there is something in the works, and they just call it something else.

Gessen: The propaganda is working, and I think it very much reflects Putin’s thinking and actually Russian public opinion, to the extent that we can even talk about Russian public opinion. Russia is not at war with Ukraine. Calling it a "special military operation" is internally consistent. Russia is at war with the United States. That actually makes the question possibly the wrong question. It’s not a question of whether Russia is going to try to occupy all of Ukraine. It’s how Russia will continue to prosecute this war with the United States. And I think Russia will prosecute it in western Ukraine and possibly in Poland.

Khrushcheva: The goalposts are being moved all the time. It’s not so much about Ukraine, it is about the confrontation with the West.

"We as a country dubbed ourselves the liberators of Europe in 1945. We helped clean the world of fascism. Now, we are the ones bombing those cities."

Nina Khrushcheva

DER SPIEGEL: Masha, what do you mean when you say that the war could continue into Poland? Do you really think that Russia would take on a NATO member state?

Gessen: If you watch Russian television, there is a lot of talk constantly about the use of Polish military airports to supply aid to Ukraine. I’m concluding that they’re discussing or planning a strike on one of the Polish military airports. That then raises the question for NATO as to whether to respond as though it were an attack on Polish territorial integrity. For external consumption, Russia will frame it as an attack on a Ukrainian military target that happens to be located on Polish territory, and for domestic consumption, as a Russian strike against NATO, that finally proves that NATO is a sham.

Fischer: I don’t think such a scenario is probable, but it’s not impossible. It would imply a direct military confrontation between NATO and Russia, and this is a line that they might not want to cross. My assumption would be that there will be attacks, but they will be hybrid, and they will be deniable.

DER SPIEGEL: May we ask a more personal question? To what extent is this war affecting your lives, your work in Russia and your circle of friends?

Fischer: For one, I moved all my correspondence and conversations to more secure platforms like Signal and Threema. I was in Moscow in the weeks before the war, I lived there from 2019 to 2021. I used to travel there, I don’t know how many times per year. That will become very difficult now, maybe even impossible.

Khrushcheva: I’m Russian, so it’s not about collecting data or having friends, it’s family. I was supposed to go there on March 10, and I couldn’t because of the travel warning. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to get back to New York. I talk to my family there all the time, of course we use Telegram or Signal. But on another level, which Russians probably feel more than others right now: We as a country dubbed ourselves the liberators of Europe in 1945. We helped clean the world of fascism. Now, we are the ones bombing those cities. We are destroying the country that my great-grandfather helped build, raising Ukraine from the ashes. We are the new fascists of Europe. It is heartbreaking and embarrassing and shameful. We are now the enemy of the world.

"My entire world left. Every home that I was regularly a guest in, every young person who my children grew up with."

Masha Gessen

Gessen: I flew to Moscow on Feb. 24, and I stayed there for a week. And during that week, everyone I knew in the city who could leave, left. My entire world left. Every home that I was regularly a guest in, every young person who my children grew up with. There are no good estimates of how many people left in those couple of weeks right after the invasion began, but probably at least a quarter million now. It’s obviously not comparable to the 3.3 million refugees from Ukraine who are fleeing mortal danger, but we’re talking about the entire Russian civil society picking up and leaving the country, being chased into exile and having to delete all traces of their existence – websites, YouTube channels, social media presences. It’s just completely devastating. I’ve lived in exile for the last eight years, and I was able to travel back and forth between the U.S. and Russia. Now, it’s actually harder for me to sit here in New York and watch Russian television, because of the American sanctions.

DER SPIEGEL: How much information about the war in Ukraine do normal people in Russia have access to?

Gessen: It’s harder for me to say what people are seeing now, but in the first couple of weeks, the people weren’t seeing images of the carnage and the state media weren’t calling it a war. It was a "special military operation" – a special operation to cease hostilities and bring peace. The most interesting part for me was the tone and pacing of the news, as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening on Russian TV. The newscast was five minutes long at the top of the hour. They have talk shows where they go at it, but they have been around for a very long time and they have always been at a fever pitch. Then there would be a long broadcast on all the measures that the government is taking to repair the Russian economy in the face of unwarranted, anti-Russian sanctions. It’s completely surreal. It’s an entirely different world, a world in which the big war doesn’t exist.

"I find myself using the words dictatorship and terror quite regularly, which is really, really frightening."

Sabine Fischer

Khrushcheva: Information is available through Telegram, there are still YouTube channels available, the blogs and also the VPNs that now everybody is using. But these are city people. Russia, let’s remember, encompasses 11 time zones, and many people have less access to the global community. And we are in a post-truth environment, where people just choose what they want to believe. You don’t want to believe that Russia is invading or attacking Ukraine, you want to believe it is defending it.

Fischer: Yet there are still people in Russia who are against the war and cannot leave. These people now find themselves in double isolation: Not only are they isolated, marginalized and increasingly threatened physically in Russia, they are now also isolated from their main reference point, which still is the West.

DER SPIEGEL: How will this war change the country? Will Russia become a fascist country?

Gessen: It has been my thesis for a number of years that Russia has restored totalitarianism. There was a great economy of terror before the big invasion, right? I mean, there is no other name for using chemical weapons against the regime’s opponents. There was terror, but it was almost homeopathic. It was extremely directed. When random protesters were prosecuted, it would always be one or two out of tens of thousands. That’s the change. The change is that we are moving into a non-economical regime of terror. It is becoming much, much more difficult to keep track of political persecutions. There are too many arrests. Just yesterday, we got news of a really horrible case of a young man who was held for two weeks. Nobody could find him and he finally committed suicide.

Fischer: I find myself using the words dictatorship and terror quite regularly, which is really, really frightening. Let’s not forget that Russia is now no longer a member of the Council of Europe. And Dmitry Medvedev, during the first week of the war, said: Well, if we’re no longer a member, we can just reconsider the moratorium on the death penalty.

"It is a great deal of wishful thinking that there will be a de-Putinization and we will move forward to a more open world."

Nina Khrushcheva

Gessen: Russia never ratified Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (eds. note: the article which forbids the death penalty). They basically only put a pause on the death penalty. So revoking the pause is an administrative act.

Fischer: With the sanctions and the way this war is developing, it will have huge costs for Russia. My feeling is that, for the first time in 20 years of Putin’s rule, there could be a tipping point – that we are moving closer to a point when internal change is inevitable because the pressure is becoming too great.

Khrushcheva: Even without Putin, I would not disregard the continuation of the FSB system of governance. They are not going to give up power. I have been told by higher-ups that they were very upset that this war happened. And yet, how quickly they moved in with their own agenda, the elimination of civil society, the independent media, and so on. It is a great deal of wishful thinking that there will be a de-Putinization and we will move forward to a more open world.

Gessen: After Putin goes, there will be a period of profound instability. My problem intellectually is that I don’t see the path from here to there except for his death. I agree that this is probably the final chapter of the Putin regime, but I don’t know how long this chapter is going to last. I don’t see the traditional analysis of: Oh, the elites are going to coalesce and stage a palace coup. I don’t believe that for a second. The regime works by being completely focused on Putin and Putin being the distributor of money and power at all times. And the masses are not going to rise up.

DER SPIEGEL: What should the West’s approach to Putin’s Russia be in the future?

Gessen: The profound economic boycott is affecting the Russian poor more than anybody else, and that’s about half the population. About half the population spends the majority of their income on food, and they’re already starting to feel absolutely devastating effects, while the lifeblood of the regime continues to flow, with Western Europe and the United States continuing to buy energy from Russia. The West needs to stop celebrating the devastation that it is inflicting on Russia. There has to be something other than vengeance.

Khrushcheva: Even during the time of Nazi Germany, Bach existed, and Beethoven existed, but suddenly Tchaikovsky concerts are being forbidden in Berlin and there were Pushkin portraits in the garbage in libraries all over Europe. For many, it is proof of his propaganda that the West is out to get us, and they don’t respect us. And there is something else, and I know it from my own family experience: Those in the Kremlin are always going to be fine. The country can starve to death, but they’re going to be fine. Sanctions need to be policy related, and they need to be targeted. There shouldn’t be such a celebration of how we punish Russia, because it really is not going to bring positive results.

Fischer: This war is being waged to destroy Ukraine as a state, and it is in our core interest to help Ukraine. We cannot interfere with the war, because that would mean a war between NATO and Russia, but everything that is being done in terms of support for Ukraine – politically, economically, in terms of weapons supply, etc. – is incredibly important. It is about deterrence. By now it is clear to almost everybody that the security order in Europe is shifting from cooperation to confrontation. And our relationship with Russian society still matters a lot – and now this implies, of course, supporting and working with the Russian diaspora in Western Europe.

SPIEGEL: Nina, Sabine, Masha, thank you very much for this discussion.

You can listen to the entire discussion (in English) as a podcast here:

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