A common claim among experts in Russian politics is that the Kremlin “has many towers.” It is meant to suggest a kind of pluralism in the chambers of power in Moscow, with rival camps of liberals and hawks, oligarchs and generals, pulling the President toward fringe positions, which his decisions balance out. As he marches ever closer toward a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has shattered that view of the Kremlin. He showed that he has no real advisers left—only sycophants— and that his own views are as extreme as any of theirs.
The proof was repeatedly on display Monday, starting with a televised session of Russia’s Security Council. Each of its members—including both the supposed doves and the hardliners in Putin’s court—stood to address the President on the question of the day: Should Russia recognize the independence of two breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine?
Their assent was unanimous. No one raised any concerns over this blatant violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and international law, and no one questioned the danger for Russia if it took this step toward war. Even one of Putin’s most hawkish advisers, the spy chief Sergei Naryshkin, came off like a nervous pupil mumbling at the chalkboard. “Speak plainly!” Putin scolded him.
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The spectacle made clear that no one speaks plainly to the Russian leader anymore. Fifteen years ago, at the start of my career as a journalist in Moscow, the nation’s politics still teemed with complexity. It was not hard to find sources among the rival officials, lobbyists and power brokers who met on a regular basis with Putin. They could discern his intentions and, on occasion, influence them.
But that system has now shrunk into the space between Putin’s ears, a space inscrutable and often terrifying even for the people closest to him. As one longtime Kremlin insider describes Putin’s thinking in the recent TIME cover story about the crisis in Ukraine, “The world inside his head is only his own.” And that makes Putin far more dangerous for the world the rest of us inhabit.
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Shortly after his meeting with the Security Council, Putin gave a speech that laid out the rationale for an invasion of Ukraine. The Russian President claimed that Ukraine’s very existence was a historical mistake; that it was only a matter of time before it would build nukes to threaten Russia; and that its allies in the West have been wielding Ukraine against Russia like a “knife to the throat.” Such claims, as well as the seething tone with which Putin delivered them, have come in the past from the most infamous paranoiac in his retinue, the security chief Nikolai Patrushev. Putin’s speech showed there is no longer any daylight between his own views and those of the KGB’s reactionary stalwarts.
At the same time, the latest Russian move toward war also seemed in keeping with another familiar side of Putin’s character— the legalistic one. Trained as a lawyer and reared within the Soviet bureaucracy, the President has long exhibited two contradictory impulses: a blatant willingness to violate the rules, and a pedantic wish to do things by the book.
Both were on display this week. Rather than simply ordering his forces into Kyiv—as the U.S. had warned he would do—Putin followed an arcane set of protocols that might has well have been titled, How to invade your neighbor and make it look legal.
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He began on Monday night by recognizing the two separatist regions of eastern Ukraine, known as the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. This step had the feel of a formality. The Russian military carved off those regions of Ukraine in 2014, during its last invasion of the country. Since then, Donetsk and Luhansk have been home to puppet governments installed, armed, funded and operated by the Russian security services. Russia has even given out more than 700,000 Russian passports to the Ukrainian citizens who live in these regions. By recognizing them as independent, Putin gave Russia’s control over these regions a more official gloss, and shut down the peace process that has long sought to integrate them back into Ukraine.
In a day of Russian threats and escalations, one of the most alarming appeared in the fine print of the documents defining Russia’s ties to these regions. Published Monday on the website of the Russian parliament, these “agreements of friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance” came with a hair-trigger clause. In their third and fourth articles, they stated that Russia would treat the security of both regions and their borders as its own, and use “every means” at Russia’s disposal to defend them. Any violation of those borders, whether real or staged, could thus provide a formal excuse for Putin to attack the rest of Ukraine.
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The wording of these documents omitted one crucial detail: what borders did Putin have in mind? Since Russia first tore these regions away from Ukraine in 2014, their borders have fluctuated along the frontline—a no man’s land of trenches, mines and booby traps that cuts through eastern Ukraine. The separatist leaders of these regions have claimed that their true territories are far bigger, encompassing much more of Ukraine than they actually control.
As of Tuesday afternoon in Moscow, it was still far from clear where exactly Putin wants to draw those borders. Even his closest confidantes don’t seem to know. As reporters posed this question again and again, the Kremlin replied with a series of contradictions. Putin’s spokesman said he could not provide the answer. His diplomats seemed to draw the borders in one place and his lawmakers in another.
The ambiguity may have been intentional. It keeps Ukraine and its allies guessing as to Putin’s real intentions. But there is another explanation for why the answers offered by the President’s own entourage range so widely: none of them know what Putin is thinking. And even if a few of his advisers still understand the world inside Putin’s head, they no longer have the power to shape it.
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