Inside Putin’s Mind

By Shlomo Maital  

Open walnut on pink background – Concept of brain, walnut and woman

    What is going on, inside Putin’s brain? 

      I’ve just done a quick survey of analyses on the impact of Putin’s War on the global economy.  According to the IMF, the world economy was in trouble in January, slowing after picking up in late 2021.  And now, the Putin War has dealt us a very heavy costly blow – even if it ended tomorrow, which it won’t.

      So what is this evil man thinking?  The best account I could find comes from Mikhail Zygar,  a Russian journalist,  author of “All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin.”   He wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times, published on March 10.*

      Zygar writes:  “I have been talking to high-level businessmen and Kremlin insiders for years. In 2016 I published a book, “All the Kremlin’s Men,” about Mr. Putin’s inner circle. Since then I’ve been gathering reporting for a potential sequel.

     “While the goings on around the president are opaque — Mr. Putin, a former K.G.B. officer, has always been secretive and conspiratorial — my sources, who speak to me on condition of anonymity, have regularly been correct.

     “What I have heard about the president’s behavior over the past two years is alarming. His seclusion and inaccessibility, his deep belief that Russian domination over Ukraine must be restored and his decision to surround himself with ideologues and sycophants have all helped to bring Europe to its most dangerous moment since World War II.

      Putin has been isolated for two years.  His deep feelings of anger towad the West, resentment at Russia’s humiliation, and the desire for revenge, have stewed in his head, reverberated there, and boiled over into war.   Zygar explains:

     “Mr. Putin spent the spring and summer of 2020 quarantining at his residence in Valdai, approximately halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. According to sources in the administration, he was accompanied there by Yuri Kovalchuk. Mr. Kovalchuk, who is the largest shareholder in Rossiya Bank and controls several state-approved media outlets, has been Mr. Putin’s close friend and trusted adviser since the 1990s. But by 2020, according to my sources, he had established himself as the de facto second man in Russia, the most influential among the president’s entourage.”

    Who is this Kovalchuk, Putin’s most trusted – perhaps, only – confidant and advisor?

     “Mr. Kovalchuk has a doctorate in physics and was once employed by an institute headed by the Nobel laureate Zhores Alferov. But he isn’t just a man of science. He is also an ideologue, subscribing to a worldview that combines Orthodox Christian mysticism, anti-American conspiracy theories and hedonism. This appears to be Mr. Putin’s worldview, too. Since the summer of 2020, Mr. Putin and Mr. Kovalchuk have been almost inseparable, and the two of them have been making plans together to restore Russia’s greatness.

         “According to people with knowledge of Mr. Putin’s conversations with his aides over the past two years, the president has completely lost interest in the present: The economy, social issues, the coronavirus pandemic, these all annoy him. Instead, he and Mr. Kovalchuk obsess over the past. A French diplomat told me that President Emmanuel Macron of France was astonished when Mr. Putin gave him a lengthy history lecture during one of their talks last month. He shouldn’t have been surprised.”

       Note those words. “Completely lost interest in the present”.  Translate: “Detached from reality”.   Diplomacy?  With someone who is not interested in trivial matters, like the total isolation of the Russian people, for years or decades?  The collapse of Russia’s economy?  Death of its young men?

     “In his mind, Mr. Putin finds himself in a unique historical situation in which he can finally recover for the previous years of humiliation. In the 1990s, when Mr. Putin and Mr. Kovalchuk first met, they were both struggling to find their footing after the fall of the Soviet Union, and so was the country. The West, they believe, took advantage of Russia’s weakness to push NATO as close as possible to the country’s borders. In Mr. Putin’s view, the situation today is the opposite: It is the West that’s weak. The only Western leader that Mr. Putin took seriously was Germany’s previous chancellor, Angela Merkel. Now she is gone and it’s time for Russia to avenge the humiliations of the 1990s.

      “It seems that there is no one around to tell him otherwise. Mr. Putin no longer meets with his buddies for drinks and barbecues, according to people who know him. In recent years — and especially since the start of the pandemic — he has cut off most contacts with advisers and friends. While he used to look like an emperor who enjoyed playing on the controversies of his subjects, listening to them denounce one another and pitting them against one another, he is now isolated and distant, even from most of his old entourage.”

    Zygar sees no likely figure who can oppose Putin.  “He seems to believe that complete isolation will make a large part of the most unreliable elements leave Russia: During the past two weeks, the protesting intelligentsia — executives, actors, artists, journalists — have hurriedly fled the country; some abandoned their possessions just to get out. I fear that from the point of view of Mr. Putin and Mr. Kovalchuk, this will only make Russia stronger.”

*  How Vladimir Putin Lost Interest in the Present.    NYT, March 10, 2022