I keep thinking back to something I heard on Russian state TV three years ago.
At the time Russians were being urged to support changes to the constitution that would enable Vladimir Putin to stay in power for another 16 years.
To persuade the public, the news anchor portrayed President Putin as a sea captain steering the good ship Russia through stormy waters of global unrest.
“Russia is an oasis of stability, a safe harbour,” he continued. “If it wasn’t for Putin what would have become of us?”
So much for an oasis of stability and safe harbour. On 24 February 2022, the Kremlin captain set sail in a storm of his own making. And headed straight for the iceberg.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has brought death and destruction to Russia’s neighbour. It has resulted in huge military casualties for his own country: some estimates put the number of dead Russian soldiers in the tens of thousands.
Hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens have been drafted into the army and Russian prisoners (including convicted killers) have been recruited to fight in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the war has impacted energy and food prices around the world and continues to threaten European and global security.
All problems of Titanic proportions.
So why did Russia’s president set a course for war and territorial conquest?
“On the horizon were the Russian presidential elections of 2024,” points out political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann.
“Two years before that vote [the Kremlin] wanted some victorious event. In 2022 they would achieve their objectives. In 2023 they would instil in the minds of Russians how fortunate they were to have such a captain steering the ship, not just through troubled waters, but bringing them to new and richer shores. Then in 2024 people would vote. Bingo. What could go wrong?”
Plenty, if your plans are based on misassumptions and miscalculations.
The Kremlin had expected its “special military operation” to be lightning fast. Within weeks, it thought, Ukraine would be back in Russia’s orbit. President Putin had seriously underestimated Ukraine’s capacity to resist and fight back, as well as the determination of Western nations to support Kyiv.
Russia’s leader has yet to acknowledge, though, that he made a mistake by invading Ukraine. Mr Putin’s way is to push on, to escalate, to raise the stakes.
Which brings me on to two key questions: how does Vladimir Putin view the situation one year on and what will be his next move in Ukraine?
This week he gave us some clues.
His state-of-the-nation address was packed with anti-Western bile. He continues to blame America and Nato for the war in Ukraine, and to portray Russia as an innocent party. His decision to suspend participation in the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty between Russia and America, New Start, shows that President Putin has no intention of pulling back from Ukraine or ending his standoff with the West.
The following day, at a Moscow football stadium, Mr Putin shared the stage with Russian soldiers back from the front line. At what was a highly choreographed pro-Kremlin rally, President Putin told the crowd that “there are battles going on right now on [Russia’s] historical frontiers” and praised Russia’s “courageous warriors”.
Conclusion: don’t expect any Kremlin U-turns. This Russian president is not for turning.
“If he faces no resistance, he will go as far as can,” believes Andrei Illarionov, President Putin’s former economic adviser. “There is no other way to stop him other than military resistance.”
But what about talks over tanks? Is negotiating peace with Mr Putin possible?
“It’s possible to sit down with anyone,” Andrei Illarionov continues, “but we have an historic record of sitting down with Putin and making agreements with him.
“Putin violated all the documents. The agreement on the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the bilateral treaty between Russia and Ukraine, the treaty on the internationally recognised border of Russia and Ukraine, the UN charter, the Helsinki Act of 1975, the Budapest Memorandum. And so on. There is no document he would not violate.”
When it comes to breaking agreements, the Russian authorities have a long list of their own grudges to level at the West. Topping that list is Moscow’s assertion that the West broke a promise it made in the 1990s not to enlarge the Nato alliance eastwards.
And yet in his early years in office, Vladimir Putin appeared not to view Nato as a threat. In 2000 he even did not exclude Russia one day becoming a member of the Alliance. Two years later, asked to comment on Ukraine’s stated intention of joining Nato, President Putin replied: “Ukraine is a sovereign state and is entitled to choose itself how to ensure its own security…” He insisted the issue would not cloud relations between Moscow and Kyiv.
Putin circa 2023 is a very different character. Seething with resentment at the “collective West”, he styles himself as leader of a besieged fortress, repelling the alleged attempts of Russia’s enemies to destroy his country. From his speeches and comments – and his references to imperial Russian rulers like Peter the Great and Catherine the Great – Mr Putin appears to believe he is destined to recreate the Russian empire in some shape or form.
But at what cost to Russia? President Putin once earned himself a reputation for bringing stability to his country. That has disappeared amid rising military casualties, mobilisation and economic sanctions. Several hundred thousand Russians have left the country since the start of the war, many of them young, skilled and educated: a brain drain that will hurt Russia’s economy even more.
As a result of the war, suddenly, there are a lot of groups around with guns, including private military companies, like Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner group and regional battalions. Relations with the regular armed forces are far from harmonious. The conflict between Russia’s Ministry of Defence and Wagner is an example of public infighting within the elites.
Instability plus private armies is a dangerous cocktail.
“Civil war is likely to cover Russia for the next decade,” believes Konstantin Remchukov, owner and editor of Moscow-based newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “There are too many interest groups who understand that in these conditions there’s a chance to redistribute wealth.”
“The real chance to avoid civil war will be if the right person comes to power immediately after Putin. A person who has authority over the elites and the resoluteness to isolate those eager to exploit the situation.”
“Are the Russian elites discussing who the right man or woman is?” I ask Konstantin.
“Quietly. With the lights off. They do discuss this. They will have their voice.”
“And does Putin know these discussions are happening?”
“He knows. I think he knows everything.”
This week the speaker of the lower house of Russia’s parliament declared: “As long as there’s Putin, there’s Russia.”
It was a statement of loyalty, but not of fact. Russia will survive – it has managed to for centuries. Vladimir Putin’s fate, however, is linked irrevocably now to the outcome of the war in Ukraine.