Illustration: Brian Stauffer / DER SPIEGEL

Putin's Apocalypse How Far Is the Russian President Willing To Go?

The West has expressed shock over Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But the Kremlin boss has been speaking openly for years about his vision of a Russian empire. This is the escalation he has been seeking for 20 years.

The Russian president had only been in office for a year and a half when he addressed the German parliament on Sept. 25, 2001.

That day, Vladimir Putin wore a dark suit and a silver-gray tie. His face was still thin at the time, and his audience included German President Johannes Rau, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Wolfgang Thierse, the president of the Bundestag. Putin delivered his speech in German, telling his "colleagues" in German parliament that he was speaking the language of Goethe, Schiller and Kant. He referred to Lessing and Humboldt, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and, of course, to Princess von Anhalt-Zerbst, who would later become known to the world as Catherine the Great.

The Russian leader invoked the "ideas of democracy and freedom" and said that, "Russia is a friendly country. We are making our joint contribution to the construction of the European house," adding that peace on the Continent is the goal.

His speech would be interrupted 16 times by applause, and in several instances, the protocol even notes "merriment." When he finished at 3:47 p.m., the German parliamentarians rose from their seats. From the Left Party to the center-right Christian Democrats, they applauded Putin for several minutes, this new hope bearer for Russia.

DER SPIEGEL 11/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 11/2022 (March 12th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Today, few in Germany would applaud him. Putin’s contribution to the European house today is to bomb it. No one would associate his name with democracy or freedom anymore. Putin has done what no one in Europe has dared to do since Adolf Hitler: He has attacked another country in the middle of the continent with his troops and air force, sending in more than 100,000 men.

On closer inspection, the euphoria shown by German lawmakers was misplaced even then. They allowed themselves to be blinded. Perhaps because, for a moment at least, they saw in Putin a second Gorbachev. Perhaps because they hadn’t noticed the hints hidden in the speech: That Europe should turn away from the United States, that loyalty to NATO is problematic and that the security system in Europe no longer suits Russia’s interests.

But they should have been wide awake for another reason – because Putin, who carefully donned his sheep's clothing for his appearance in Berlin, had begun his term in office 20 months earlier in the most brutal of ways. Even in 2001, the Germans should have recognized that his Berlin peace speech and his actual actions back in Russia didn’t correspond.

The war in Ukraine is a continuation of what began on New Year’s morning in 2000 in the Chechen city of Gudermes: the rebirth of Russia, at least as Putin sees it. That day, a brawny man dressed in a parka showed up in the city to speak to soldiers form the 42nd Russian Motorized Rifle Division. "You are not only defending the dignity and honor of Russia in Chechnya. This is also about ending our country’s disintegration," said the guest, a man from distant Moscow who most didn’t know at the time: Vladimir Putin.

Vladimir Putin and soldiers in 2000 in Gudermes, Chechnya: A war that was close to his heart.

Vladimir Putin and soldiers in 2000 in Gudermes, Chechnya: A war that was close to his heart.

Foto: SNA / ullstein bild

Putin had been president for less than 24 hours at the time. In a surprise coup the previous day, Boris Yeltsin had resigned and handed over the office to his prime minister. The fact that Putin flew to the front lines of the Chechen war that same night was a deliberate gesture. For this war was close to his heart – the Caucasian republic of Chechnya was threatening to break away from Russia. Putin saw this as a further reduction of Russian power - and one that had to be stopped.

Following an attack in the Caucuses republic of Dagestan and several bombing attacks on residential buildings in Moscow and southern Russia, Putin had already declared war on the "Chechen terrorists" in late summer 1999, but he really meant Chechnya as a whole. It hadn’t been proven that Chechens were responsible for blowing up the buildings. Indeed, there was strong evidence that Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the FSB, had been involved in the attacks. And Putin had been the head of that agency until only a short time before.

Had he and the people in his circle fabricated a pretext for the new war in Chechnya? Just as they now provided false pretexts for the invasion of Ukraine?

Daily air raids on the republic in the Caucasus began in September 1999, and the Russian army invaded Chechnya in early October of that year. Just as today in Ukraine, the war was not referred to as a war, but rather as an "anti-terrorist operation in the North Caucasus." Hundreds of thousands of people died or fled that war because the Russian military acted with such incredible brutality.

That early morning in Gudermes was also the moment when Russia’s resurgence as a world power began. And it marked the career launch of a man of whom his mentor, former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, once said: "He is tough as nails and follows through on decisions to the end."

Ukrainian emergency workers carry an injured pregnant woman from a maternity hospital damaged by shelling in Mariupol: Putin is seeking to restore former Russian glory by whatever means necessary.

Ukrainian emergency workers carry an injured pregnant woman from a maternity hospital damaged by shelling in Mariupol: Putin is seeking to restore former Russian glory by whatever means necessary.

Foto: Evgeniy Maloletka / AP

If you take the war in Chechnya as the starting point and then look at the most important political decisions taken in Moscow in subsequent years, it raises the question of why the West didn’t see Putin as a serious threat far earlier. For what he was doing clearly served but a single goal: The restoration of former Russian glory, by whatever means necessary.

During his inaugural speech when he took office, Putin promised that Russia would "never copy the liberal model of the West," and pledged to take large-scale industry back under state control as well as to once again make Russians proud of their country.

But Putin also suffered defeats during his years in office – defeats that are likely to have only further incited this man, who has perceived resistance as a personal slight since his childhood. One of these came in 2004, when Putin’s favored candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, a politician with a criminal record from Russian-influenced eastern Ukraine, won the Ukrainian presidential election with the help of 3 million fraudulent votes – an event which triggered the Orange Revolution.

More than 100,000 people took to the streets in protest, forcing a third round of voting that opened the path for opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko to become president. Putin’s defeat was clearly visible to all: Before the election, he had brought Yanukovych to Moscow twice, kissing him in front of the cameras, and even visiting him twice in Kyiv and praising him as a guarantor of "democratic transformation."

A repeat took place in March 2005, when the Tulip Revolution broke out in faraway Kyrgyzstan. Regime opponents seized the seat of government in Bishkek in a coup d'état, and President Askar Akayev and his family fled to Russia by helicopter. It seemed only a matter of time before the germ of revolution would infect another former Soviet republics.

In Moscow, disappointment with the suddenly hapless Putin became widespread. Victor Cherkashin, a man who served the KGB for 40 years, said disparagingly that the former intelligence chief had changed nothing at the top in the Kremlin and that he was a mere "bureaucrat." One Kremlin adviser was quoted as saying that Putin had "lost his decisiveness." And that it was due to the ruler’s lack of will "to use force" if the opposition gained the upper hand everywhere.

It's not difficult to imagine the effect of such criticism on Putin. Indeed, this could have been the real turning point – and it had little to do with NATO and the alleged encirclement of Russia from the outside.

"Post-Soviet humiliation is a thing of the past; Russian leaders like playing hardball."

Dmitry Trenin, political scientist

Only a year later, Putin proved that he had learned his lessons. That’s when he hosted the G-8 summit at Constantine Palace near St. Petersburg. A barrage of criticism of the West, which had now been defined as the main enemy, began during the run-up to that meeting. Putin proclaimed that Russia represented "a world power again in terms of economic growth,” saying that it "was, is and always will be a major power." And the Russian economy was indeed booming at the time and the ruble had even been positioned as an additional global currency reserve.

The primary focus of the 2006 summit was global energy security. By then, Putin had largely renationalized the oil and gas sector, calling it his "holy of holies.” Only a few months earlier, on New Year’s Day in 2006, the state-owned company Gazprom had cut off gas deliveries to Ukraine and its unpopular reformist president, Yushchenko. It was a clear indication to the world that Putin and his people knew the value of the cards they held and were more than willing to play them.

As such, the geostrategic showdown actually got started 16 years ago. But for most of those 16 years, it did nothing to change Western thinking. Despite the fact that even back then, Europe had already begun talking about diversifying its energy supply.

Putin also regained his footing in foreign policy. He regained lost influence in the post-Soviet states and forged alliances with China, India and Pakistan. Russian foreign policy managed to swap out a position of weakness for one of strength, Moscow political scientists Dmitry Trenin wrote at the time. "Post-Soviet humiliation is a thing of the past; Russian leaders like playing hardball.”

In order to avoid violating the constitution, which limited each Russian president to only two successive terms, Putin temporarily agreed to a change of power in 2008 and handed over the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev, who was deputy prime minister at the time. Medvedev was considered at the time to have liberal tendencies, and just a few months after installing him, Putin had cause to regret it.

Then Prime Minister Putin and President Dimitry Medvedev in 2011: A political chess move

Then Prime Minister Putin and President Dimitry Medvedev in 2011: A political chess move

Foto: Yekaterina Shtukina / AFP

In early August of that year, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's attempt to bring the South Ossetian autonomous region back under his control triggered the Georgian War. Russia responded by invading Georgia. Moscow called the first real war between Russia and a Soviet successor state a "peace enforcement operation." It ultimately amounted to the punishment of a Georgia that had turned westward under Saakashvili. The Russians even dropped bombs on Gori, the town of Stalin’s birth.

The West showed itself to be impotent in the face of Russia’s neo-imperialism then, just as it is now in the face of the invasion of Ukraine. In the summer of 2008, DER SPIEGEL wrote , "The West has presumably misjudged Russia under Putin until now," - despite the fact, the article noted, that the signs had been rather difficult to overlook.

After swapping places with Medvedev and returning to the presidency, Putin abandoned all pretext. In late 2013, he persuaded his Ukrainian counterpart, Yanukovych, to overturn an Association Agreement with the European Union that had been years in the making, triggering unrest in Ukraine. This was followed by the war in eastern Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea. Putin had thus decoupled Russia from the world and declared his country a fortress. He openly paid homage to the violence. In the mind of the Russian people, suddenly "inhuman, demonic complexes of revenge, self-assertion and hate are being awakened within and put on display" Andrei Zvyagintsev, the Russian director of the Oscar-nominated film "Leviathan" said  in horror a few years back.

All this should be remembered when people scratch their heads today over Putin's motives for invading Ukraine and express surprise at how dangerous he is. At the beginning of the third week of the war, the first question that arises is: Did Putin miscalculate this time? Has he strayed too far from reality?

Russian forces are making slow progress, it is believed that the number of fallen Russian soldiers is in the four digits, and several senior generals have already been killed. Economically, the damage will be greater than the Kremlin is admitting to the Russian public. This realization even flashed across the radar of Russian state news agency Ria Novosti when it examined the implications of the sanctions for Russian aviation: Of the 980 aircraft in the country, 777 are leased, the news agency noted. Only about 150 aircraft were manufactured in Russia, and even those fly with French engines and Western onboard electronics. They have to be maintained and need spare parts for wear and tear – parts which will now be almost impossible to come by. The agency said the collapse of air traffic in Russia is only a matter of time.

Does all this mean that the intelligence service, especially the SWR foreign intelligence service, fail in the analysis of the situation? Or did Putin just ignore their assessments?

The televised meeting of his Security Council allows some conclusions to be drawn. Putin scolded Sergei Naryshkin, director of the foreign intelligence service, ike a schoolboy, something the president never would have done to a henchman who supported the war. Putin adviser Dmitry Kozak, his special envoy to Ukraine, also came in for some gruff treatment.

The other Security Council members, too, were essentially extras on the stage, with four exceptions: Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Domestic Intelligence Chief Alexander Bortnikov, his predecessor Nikolai Patrushev, and Viktor Zolotov, head of the National Guard. Their police forces are directly subordinate to Putin and are supposed to suppress resistance in the country. Neither officials in parliament nor in the presidential administration have the power to intervene on important questions. Russia’s oligarchs and business leaders also no longer have any direct influence over Putin. At this point, Putin likely only listens to his closest confidants, men like Shoigu or Patrushev. And they tell the president what he wants to hear, and none of them will question Putin’s judgement.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Governor Dyumin in 2016.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Governor Dyumin in 2016.

Foto: Vadim Savitsky / CC BY 4.0

If Putin had won the war in two days, he probably would have secured the enthusiasm of the Russian elite and enjoyed the full support of the public at large. But the blitzkrieg failed. It stands to reason that Putin is frustrated as a result. And as the last two decades have shown, he generally deals with frustration by ramping up the brutality.

It is possible that the slow start was only a preliminary push with difficulties already factored in – and that Putin’s military machine will strike in full force in the coming days. In Kyiv, for example. Given that the Russian leader has declared Ukraine to be a fascist-run state and the West its accomplice, further escalation is likely.

Bringing the army back to Russia without victory is out of the question. Doing so would force Putin to come up with a plausible explanation for how he had already "won" the fight against "Nazism" and "genocide" in Ukraine. A more likley eventuality would see him halting his troops on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River and not advancing any further west, but this wouldn’t really provide him with any peace politically or militarily. At home, though, he could justify the move with the lie that he was only really ever concerned about protecting eastern Ukraine.

Occupying anti-Russian western Ukraine would inevitably lead to partisan warfare. Either way, as CIA chief William Burns said this week, it is unclear how Putin "could sustain a puppet regime or pro-Russian leadership that he tries to install in the face of what is massive opposition from the Ukrainian people."

One way out of the dilemma for Russia could be another propaganda ploy: He could surprisingly announce supposed progress in the negotiations with the Ukrainians and then generously announce a cease-fire - a cease-fire that could then be used to search for other options.

But these options do not take into account whether cracks are opening up inside the Russian power circle. The few remaining Russian opposition media on the internet this week recalled the "tobacco can scenario," a reference to the assassination of Russian Emperor Paul I, the son of Catherine the Great. Due to his difficult childhood, he was seen as being extremely suspicious of even his closest surroundings, unpredictable and erratic, and enamored of all things military. When he proposed to attack British India together with the French, the Russian aristocracy thought he had gone insane and prepared his assassination.

There don’t appear to be any conspirators of that nature in Russia at the moment. But many Russians have begun wondering what will come after Putin. No one knows what Putin himself will do in the event of his departure, but he does have some favorites. The likely candidates, though, do not include the usual suspects, whose names are always dropped – the prime minister, the head of parliament or the mayor of Moscow. Even Defense Minster Shoigu is unlikely to be considered for succession – he isn’t well known enough.

But there is one man who has been mentioned several times in Russian circles as a promising successor to Putin. He used to be very close to Putin, but he was transferred from Moscow to the provinces a few years back. The man’s name is Alexi Dyumin and he is currently the governor of the Tula region, located just under 200 kilometers south of Moscow. Dyumin served in the Presidential Security Service from 1999, precisely from the time Putin became prime minister and shortly thereafter president.

When Putin took over the reins of government again in 2008, Dyumin rose to become his security chief and aid. He also returned to the Kremlin with Putin in 2012, becoming deputy head of the entire Presidential Security Service and deputy chief of the GRU military intelligence service. Dyumin was one of the leading men in the annexation of Crimea. He was later appointed to the position of deputy defense minister and now holds the military rank of lieutenant general.

The fact that Putin appointed him as governor of Tula in 2016, only a few months later, surprised many at the time, including Dyumin himself. But that could have its own logic, because in the Moscow political cosmos, as rich as it is with intrigues, up-and-comers are quickly burned out. Putin values Dyumin for his loyalty, his anchoring in the intelligence services and his experience in difficult operations. Moreover, Dyumin, who is 20 years younger, would be considered a fresh force if deployed in the highest circles of power, unconnected to the previous establishment. But even Putin himself probably doesn’t know when he will leave the political stage. That is also likely to hinge on how the war in Ukraine ultimately plays out.