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. Vladimir Putin’s resemblance to the Kremlin is being questioned as he advances towards a large-scale invasion in Ukraine. 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?
All of them gave their unanimous assent. This blatant violation Ukrainian sovereignty and international laws was not raised by anyone. No one also questioned Russia’s danger if it made this move 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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It was clear from the spectacle that nobody speaks clearly to the Russian leader any more. Fifteen years ago, at the start of my career as a journalist in Moscow, the nation’s politics still teemed with complexity. The sources of information from the lobbyists, rival officials, and power brokers who regularly met with Putin were easy to locate. They were able to discern Putin’s intentions and sometimes influence him.
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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Putin delivered a speech shortly after his meeting at the Security Council that explained the reasons for the 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. The President, who was raised in the Soviet bureaucracy and trained as a lawyer, has always displayed two contradictory traits: an open willingness to break the rules and a pragmatic desire to follow the law.
They were both on display at the show 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, Here are some ways to invade your neighbour and make it seem 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. The step felt like a formality. These areas were taken by Russia in 2014 during the last war against Ukraine. Donetsk, Luhansk, and other regions have been the home of puppet governments, which were armed and funded by Russia’s security services. Russia gave more than 700,000.000 Russian passports out to Ukrainians living in these parts. 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. Putin may use the possibility of a violation of any of these border, even if it is staged or real, as an excuse to attack Ukraine.
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These documents were worded without a crucial detail. What borders was Putin thinking? 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. These separatist leaders claim that they have much larger territories and control more of Ukraine than their real territory.
It was unclear, as of Tuesday afternoon in Moscow. Even his closest confidantes don’t seem to know. Reporters asked this question repeatedly and the Kremlin answered with several contradictions. Putin’s spokesman saidBut he couldn’t give an answer. His diplomats seem to have drawn the border in one spot and his legislators in another.
It is possible that the ambiguity was 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.