Vladimir Putin has 'completely lost interest in the present': Russian journalist examines Putin's thinking

Vladimir Putin has 'completely lost interest in the present': Russian journalist examines Putin's thinking
Vladimir Putin orders Russian troops into Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine has triggered worldwide curiosity about what is really going on inside his head, and by extension, within the secretive walls of the Kremlin.

Putin has put forth no qualms about his ambitions – he has made it his life's mission to reexpand Russia's sphere of influence to the former borders of the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. But his behavior over the last few years has strained his relationships with the most influential people in his inner circle, who now have little if any access to the 69-year-old autocrat.

Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar speculated in an editorial in Thursday's New York Times about how Putin's paranoia and self-imposed isolation will affect Russia's malevolence toward and interactions with the West.

"What I have heard about the president’s behavior over the past two years is alarming," Zygar said of Putin. "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's acute remoteness was amplified during the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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," Kygar learned from his contacts. "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."

But those closest to Putin have revealed something disturbing.

"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," Kygar wrote. "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."

Yet even in the face of almost universal international condemnation of his assault on Ukraine, Putin remains steadfastly beholden to his credence that the West is weak and can be defeated.

"It seems that there is no one around to tell him otherwise," Zygar explained. The Russian leader "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."

The lengths to which Putin has gone to sequester himself from human contact are extreme.

"His guards have imposed a strict protocol: No one can see the president without a week’s quarantine — not even Igor Sechin, once his personal secretary, now head of the state-owned oil company Rosneft," Zygar wrote. "Sechin is said to quarantine for two or three weeks a month, all for the sake of occasional meetings with the president."

On top of that, Putin's ambivalence toward his ministers has festered into open disdain.

"His contempt for them was clear," Zygar noted. Putin "seemed to relish their sniveling, as when he publicly humiliated Sergey Naryshkin, the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, who started mumbling and tried to quickly correct himself, agreeing with whatever Mr. Putin was saying. These are nothing but yes men, the president seemed to say."

Thus, Putin, Zygar continued, "has really and truly come to believe that only he can save Russia. In fact, he believes it so much that he thinks the people around him are likely to foil his plans. He can’t trust them, either."

This puts Russia and its population in a very precarious situation as economic penalties accumulate, protests against the war in Ukraine intensify, and growing numbers of citizens opt to flee the country.

"As the casualties mount in Ukraine, the president appears to be digging in his heels; he says that the sanctions on his country are a 'declaration of war,'" Kygar added."

Kygar concluded that in Putin's eyes, the dwindling opposition, coupled with his ossifying resolve, will "make Russia stronger."

For the rest of us, however, that is a very dark prospect.

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