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Interview: Putin Has 'Unleashed Too Much Torment' For An Easy Exit, Says New Yorker's Jon Lee Anderson

The fact that Russia's losing on the battlefield in Ukraine also means that Russian President Vladimir Putin "is becoming more dangerous" says Jon Lee Anderson. (file photo)
The fact that Russia's losing on the battlefield in Ukraine also means that Russian President Vladimir Putin "is becoming more dangerous" says Jon Lee Anderson. (file photo)

War correspondent, biographer, investigative journalist, and New Yorker staff writer Jon Lee Anderson has reported from conflicts from Afghanistan to Northern Ireland to Uganda, and throughout the Middle East. He has profiled iconic Latin American strongmen from Fidel Castro to Hugo Chavez and Augusto Pinochet.

RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Vazha Tavberidze caught up with Anderson by telephone in Brazil, and he asked him about the course of the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin's past and future battles, and where the Kremlin leader could go from here. Anderson describes a "drip, drip, drip" of rogue behavior long before Putin's "little green men" invaded Ukraine, an awkwardly "atomized" Russian public, and the former KGB officer's eventual unmasking.

RFE/RL: Over your long and storied career, you have had to deal with many controversial characters and become a chronicler of sorts of dictators of various kinds. "How does it end? The dictator dies, shriveled and demented, in his bed; he flees the rebels in a private plane; he is caught hiding in a mountain outpost, a drainage pipe, a spider hole. He is tried. He is not tried. He is dragged, bloody and dazed, through the streets, then executed. The humbling comes in myriad forms, but what is revealed is always the same: the technologies of paranoia, the stories of slaughter and fear..." This is the opening of your piece, titled King Of Kings, describing the last days of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi. Do you reckon you'll get to write something along those lines on President Putin, too?

Jon Lee Anderson: [laughs] Maybe? One has the impression that it can only end badly. It's difficult to imagine that Vladimir Putin, after what he's done, will simply die an old man, you know, in his mansion in Sochi or wherever he is, with his grandchildren running around him, petting a dog. He has harnessed too many cyclones and nightmares. He has unleashed too much torment. And maybe it's a superstitious faith in "what goes around comes around," but one senses that Russia today under Putin is a much more precarious place, a violent place, even in the halls of power around him. You see these characters emerging from the wars that he has unleashed, who are now these powerful figures when he commands to go and wreak more havoc on Ukraine.

And the appearance now of this dark character, [Yevgeny] Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner [mercenary] group, taunting the world with what he's doing, openly sending mercenaries from different countries to fight… They even look like villains from some bad movie.

So it's as if the mask is coming off. I remember eight years ago when Putin went into Crimea with the so-called Little Green Men, you know. It was always a bit of a misnomer, calling them that -- it made them sound cute, like Smurfs, but they were Russian special forces. This was somehow a kind of warmer, gentler time; this was Putin's Russia with the mask on, even though we could see that it was fake, that it was false.

He did this Kabuki dance, he did this mask dance. And everybody sort of went along with it, partly because I think they knew he was obviously dangerous and had been for some time. But he still appeared at, you know, the summits of the G8 or the G20. And he received Western dignitaries. The stuff he had done that was violent seemed to be skirmishes along the Russian frontier. Chechnya happened a long time ago, right in the kind of cowboy days after the fall of the Soviet Union. Then began the murders of journalists, of critics, the skirmishing with other oligarchs. The murders in foreign countries like Britain, the killing of [Russian journalist] Anna Politkovskaya [in 2006]...

RFE/RL: Then the war in Georgia. And within Georgia as well.

Anderson: Of course, and within Russia as well. So there was this kind of drip, drip, drip of Putin behaving like a rogue, but it was just drip-drip enough for the Western powers, anyway, to still argue that they could somehow deal with him -- it was better to keep him in than to keep him out. They temporized with him. And this reinforced the growing idea in his mind that they were weak and he was strong.

And I think the four years of [U.S. President Donald] Trump in the White House really helped seal the deal in his mind -- this guy who was clearly obsequious to him. I mean, we don't know yet whether Trump actually gave him secrets. Who knows? Anything's possible with Trump. But it's clear that he admired him, and Putin must have realized this, he must have seen this, and tried to use it to his advantage.

We now know -- and Prigozhin told us the other day, "Of course we have interfered in your elections." So what we read, and we thought about Trump and Putin, seems to be true: that he held something over Trump or Trump knew that he had helped him get elected. And so he doubled down on this idea of fake news. He went to war against his critics, he wanted to be seen as having really won the elections.

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And all of this assisted Putin, of course. The denial of the research and the intelligence of America's own security agencies -- favoring Putin's information above that -- was the ultimate confirmation that Putin had somehow prevailed. And he managed to get America's institutions, under Trump, to effectively drop their trousers repeatedly in public. He fouled up not only the justice system, but repeatedly attacked his own intelligence agencies, weakening them effectively in the field. This strengthened Putin clearly.

And so when he lost the election and Biden came along, Biden -- who seemed older, maybe, depending on the moment or the speech he gave, you could make yourself believe that he wasn't really equipped to be president, certainly there are people who thought like that. And then the really terrible fumble of the Afghanistan pullout last year, I think, convinced Putin that it was time to roll the dice in Ukraine. He thought it was now or never. And probably [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] in China nodded and said, "Yeah, Vlad, you should do it, we'll buy your gas at discounted rates," or whatever he told him.

And it seems that, as we've heard, even from the Russians, that they really did think they were going to take Kyiv, and the country within three or four days. And we now know that [from] just very few people at the top.

I used to be told -- and I used to think that this was kind of mean-spirited by Russian critics -- that it was a few hundred thousand people that were educated and worldly, and the rest were peasants and people living in shacks or apartment blocks, and really horrible places, and then it was just the oligarchs at the top -- the few around Putin. But now that this has happened, and especially since forced conscription, we can kind of see that it was true. I mean, the degree to which he prevails over -- you know, we've seen the hundreds of thousands who've fled, the intelligentsia.

Who's still left? An atomized public afraid to oppose him, in some cases, fully believing what he says to be true, I guess, afraid to oppose the kind of very raw power he wields, and a group of real rogues around him who have been given huge power over life and death. And it's ugly and frightening to look at. It seems almost like a caricature of a criminal autocrat, a criminal dictator from a movie.

RFE/RL: I don't know about taking Kyiv. But a couple of hours ago, we saw a rather crestfallen Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordering the withdrawal of Russian troops from the city of Kherson. Could that be a seminal moment in the war, something of the magnitude that started the demise of all those dictators you've written about?

Anderson: It could be, although we are all aware -- those of us who are watching in Ukraine -- and there is worry that Shoigu and Putin might have something up their sleeve with Kherson, right? That they're trying to kind of double feint? Does Prigozhin have something to do with this? Are they trying to draw the Ukrainian forces in and then do something terrible? God forbid, something like a dirty bomb or anything like that -- but I mean Russian dirty bomb -- or some kind of ambush where they kill a lot of people. I worry that there is something like that going on.

He's clever, like a fox, you know, Putin, although he's shown himself to be clumsy as well at this war. It could be the beginning. Kherson was the first city taken [by Russian troops]. And this shows that the war has really failed and that they can only use raw power and terror to prevail. But that's what they've been doing since the beginning. The fact that they're losing on the battlefield also means that Putin's becoming more dangerous, he's destroying the energy infrastructure, making life difficult for the Ukrainians, and this is something that's terrible to see.

RFE/RL: That means depriving Ukrainians of electricity, of hot water, warm homes, warm meals, of television, of the Internet. And one wonders whether this might prove more effective than bullets and rockets to undermine the Ukrainian will to fight? Can a modern person survive without all of this and still be up for a fight?

Anderson: Only Ukrainians can answer that. It's a very legitimate question. I think it depends on the society. The Ukrainians have shown extraordinary spirit and strength in their response to the aggression. And while, yes, on the one hand, they inhabit Europe, and they have grown used to all of the comforts of the modern world which are now being torn away with missiles and drones. They seem to be a people who are very cognizant of what's happening and their place in history. And perhaps it's in their social DNA, this idea of having been a battleground of history -- although they didn't expect to have to do it -- of having to do it again in this generation.

Destruction, Joy, And Mass Burial: One Day In Liberated Kherson
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I was there recently, and every woman I met, her boyfriend or husband or brother was at the front. And most of them were people who were accountants or poets or something else before, you know; and now they're soldiers, too. So yes, it's terrible. And I don't know that this will stop the Ukrainians. Of course this will be a blow to morale, to ordinary civilians, to families; the basics of life are common to all of us. But I've seen people fight before in terrible conditions, and in general, once you start spilling blood, the will to fight only increases among the people who are being bludgeoned. And people will fight. And maybe not all peoples are like this, but I've seen it before.

I remember I visited a besieged Bosnian village, and I stayed with them for some time. And I saw that they were adapting to the worst possible circumstances. Their, in this case, Serbian neighbors were now on the hills and bombing them, firing tank shells at them, sniping at them. And they were still living there. Most of the men and boys were at the front, in what used to be the main town on the river. The Serbs were on the heights on the other side. But the civilians were still there, except they had barricaded themselves in their houses. They now ran between houses, because they knew the sniper was on duty from this hour to this hour. So they would only come out, and they would run behind from Misha's house to Ludmila's house, they would do this; and from the other house, they would do that. And they would cook, but they would cook with what they call those Vietnamese chimneys, where the smoke came out 100 meters from the house, not in the house, and not from the chimney of the house so [the enemy] didn't know. And they would milk their cows at night, and things like this. So there were farmers, and they continued stubbornly to live there…. There was a spirit there.

And I felt the same thing when I was in Ukraine, however brief my visit. It's not going to be a clean or clear picture across the board of the whole country, of course. But one can already see that the country, the people, have prepared themselves for whatever comes.

RFE/RL: You are in Brazil now, and you've written extensively on Cuba, the Far East, Africa -- pretty much all the parts of the world that one would not necessarily describe as belonging to the proverbial West. And it's about them that I want to ask you. Those that either remain passive or outright support Russia. Why? Why can't they relate [to the Ukrainian experience]?

Anderson: There are a few reasons. I think we're only at the beginning of any sort of serious effort to change minds. There has not been a serious or concerted effort either by Ukraine -- of course it's in the midst of war -- or its allies to effectively counter the sort of Russian narrative, which is that somehow Putin is the victim of NATO expansionism and everything else is just sort of underbrush. That's really the message that prevails, and to quite a large extent holds, in the minds of leaders and, say, the political class, but also ordinary people in parts of Latin America, Africa, and I would say the Middle East, too.

Jon Lee Anderson (file photo)
Jon Lee Anderson (file photo)

It's not across the board. I think a lot of people are genuinely not just concerned but sympathize with ordinary Ukrainians -- to the extent that they understand or pay any attention to the conflict. The problem is that everything becomes normalized; we become conditioned to seeing missiles rain into apartment buildings. People are no longer shocked. And once you get past the initial shock and horror, you still see Putin behaving as if nothing's happening.

And somehow we live in an age where this barrage of imagery, and the way people live inside these hives of their particular social media has a derailing effect when it comes to global public opinion. We don't see people on the streets of capitals around the world demanding that Russia withdraw from Ukraine; we don't see people even in Europe doing it. Why not? I'm not sure, but it's a good question.

This transcript has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Vazha Tavberidze from RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics about the war's course, causes, and effects. All of his interviews can be read here.

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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.

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