Vladimir Putin’s address announcing the Russian invasion of Ukraine at 3am UK time yesterday was a nightmare.
In turn, incoherent, frightening, apocalyptic, he warned: “Whoever tries to interfere with us, and even more so to create threats for our country, for our people, must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences that you will never not experienced in your history.
A few hours later, bombs and rockets rained down on Ukraine. Russian troops and tanks crossed the border.
Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers died, the number of civilian casualties is growing.
Putin’s justification for the invasion might seem laughable were it not for these dire consequences. He absurdly claimed that Russia’s mission was to “denazify Ukraine” while behaving exactly like the Nazis who invaded Ukraine in 1941.
Vladimir Putin’s address announcing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at 3am UK time on Thursday was a nightmare.
He played both the victim and the bully. At one point, he whined that “NATO eastward expansion” was “dangerous for Russia.”
He then threatened that Russia would remain “one of the most powerful nuclear powers” with “advanced weapons”.
This was Putin unfiltered, his words and demeanor giving us a terrifying glimpse into the dark recesses of the mind behind this seemingly inexplicable move.
Many people ask if Putin is crazy. Otherwise, why would he destabilize the world order by referring to the nuclear threat?
Why else drag Russia, with its declining economy, into a bloody and costly war?
It would be simple, but wrong, to explain Putin’s actions as the actions of a madman. As his biographer, I don’t think he’s crazy. Rather, he acts rationally, in accordance with his perverted, ill-informed worldview.
I used to live in Moscow on the road between Putin’s country house and the Kremlin. I saw his motorcade whizzing past, with blacked-out windows and heavy security, symptoms of his dark, defensive psyche.
Like most bullies, his aggression stems from insecurity. He grew up in poverty, in the ruins of post-war Leningrad – now St. Petersburg – in a working-class family in a gloomy apartment building infested with rats.
A few hours later, bombs and rockets rained down on Ukraine. Pictured: Russian Mi-8 attack helicopters storm the Gostomel air base on the outskirts of Kiev.
He joined a street gang and realized he had to strike first.
While still at school, he applied for admission to the KGB, the biggest gang of them all. But at the height of his career in the KGB, the Berlin Wall fell, and with it the Eastern Bloc, and then the USSR itself.
Putin was based in the KGB office in Dresden, surrounded by an anti-communist mob. He was scared and furious: he had risen through the ranks only to have the system collapse under him.
He, like many like him, blamed then-Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev. He saw him as a “weak” leader who had betrayed Russia by giving away her empire.
He never came to terms with his loss. Thirty years later, he sees himself as the man to correct this mistake.
Putin knows little – and understands – the West, but he adamantly believes that he is dishonest in all his dealings and that Westerners do not respect Russian culture.
He firmly believes that the West wants Russia. Until recently, this fear was tempered by caution.
Despite his manly stance, Putin, in his 20 years at the helm of Russia, has been prudent, not impulsive.
When he invaded Georgia in 2008, he forced the Georgians to act first. He waited until Ukraine descended into political chaos before taking over Crimea in 2012.
But today Putin is a caricature of himself. Alertness turned into paranoia, cold hostility into unbridled aggression.
The attack hit Ukraine on all fronts with bombs and rockets dropped on targets across the country in the early hours, followed by troop strikes from Crimea, Donbass, Belgorod and Belarus, and helicopter landings in Kiev and power stations on the Dnieper. Chernobyl nuclear power plant also fell to Russian troops
Why? Age is one of the reasons. Putin is 69 years old, and despite all the Botox, training and attempts to stop time, it is moving forward.
He is a hurried old man obsessed with history – although he misunderstands and misinterprets it.
Whenever he is introduced to a historian, he demands to know only one thing: “What will be the epitaph of posterity on me?”
He wants to be remembered as the man who saved Russia and took back Ukraine. He feels that this is his last chance.
He knows that with a stagnant economy and rampant crime, Russia looks weak. His show of force, the concentration of troops on the borders of Ukraine, was intended to compensate for this with intimidation.
If he had been cunning, he would have left them there, waiting for the collapse of the Ukrainian economy, without firing a shot.
So why didn’t he do it?
Covid played its part. With the onset of the pandemic, Putin stepped back. He did not even travel around Russia, ferrying between his luxurious palaces and the Kremlin by limousine and helicopter.
He saw few people outside of his inner circle. Anyone who received an audience had to first self-isolate for two weeks in a state hotel under the supervision of armed guards.
Before meeting with the president, he or she had to go through a special tunnel in a fog of ultraviolet light and disinfectant. Such is Putin’s paranoia.
And his outlook became smaller and darker. Putin doesn’t even have a smartphone. He is out of touch with reality.
It wasn’t always like that. Putin is accustomed to listening to professionals who told him the facts, his generals and economists. But most of these advisers faded into the background.
Even the shrewd Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is no longer consulted, he is simply rolled out to defend decisions already taken.
Putin (pictured) knows little and understands the West, but ruthlessly believes that he is dishonest in all his dealings and that Westerners do not respect Russian culture.
Now the President surrounds himself only with hawks and sycophants, mostly aging former Chekists like himself. Their task is to negotiate with him.
A former Moscow intelligence officer told me: “You do not bring bad news to the royal table.”
Those who tell him what he wants to hear survive.
This was evident at a televised meeting of Russia’s Security Council on Monday night, when a smirking Putin publicly intimidated his senior officials by humiliating them to appear strong.
The truth is that Putin fooled himself into believing that the invasion of Ukraine would be quick and successful, and that he could install a puppet government without a long and bitter war of occupation. There was no one left to tell him he was wrong.
He behaves like a tsar: unaccountable, arrogant, oblivious to the price Ukrainians and Russians will pay for his obsession with history. He’s not crazy, he’s evil.
I do not think that further territorial expansion is possible. If he doesn’t back down—unlikely, since he couldn’t bear such a loss of face—he’ll be bogged down in Ukraine for years.
Putin’s ultimate goal is for the West to recognize Russia as a great power and bring the countries of the former Soviet Union, with the exception of the Baltic states, into his sphere of influence. For a tough KGB man, it’s all about respect.
But his methods do not inspire respect – only fear. I suspect that Vladimir Putin, the street gang hooligan, doesn’t understand the difference.
Mark Galeotti is Professor Emeritus at the School of Slavic and Eastern European Studies at University College London and author of We Need to Talk About Putin.