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'Messianic' Putin Fell Victim To His Own Propaganda, Says Veteran Journalist

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a screen on Moscow's Red Square in September 2022 as he addresses a rally marking Russia's attempted annexation of four partially occupied regions of Ukraine after staging referendums that were widely dismissed as fraudulent.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a screen on Moscow's Red Square in September 2022 as he addresses a rally marking Russia's attempted annexation of four partially occupied regions of Ukraine after staging referendums that were widely dismissed as fraudulent.

Susan Glasser is a veteran U.S. journalist and editor and co-author of the 2005 book Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia And The End Of Revolution. Her work abroad has included coverage of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and four years co-leading the Moscow bureau for The Washington Post.

She is a staff writer and columnist for The New Yorker, and she and her husband, Peter Baker, co-authored a book in 2022, titled The Divider: Trump In The White House, that was highly critical of former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Glasser talked with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service about Vladimir Putin’s evolution from “incrementalism” to “messianism,” authoritarianism and the “Russian river” of history, and Putin and the Ukraine war in the context of looming U.S. elections.

RFE/RL: The first question, and pretty much most of the questions will be about the man in Moscow whom you studied and reported on for years. Are there still moments that he surprises you, or does something that you didn’t expect?

Susan Glasser: I would say that, because we were warned so explicitly in the advance to the run-up and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I can't say that it was a surprise. But it's still a shocking decision, especially because it was extremely risky. Some people previously saw Vladimir Putin as being an incrementalist, certainly aggressive, but careful within that. And you could say that the invasion of Ukraine was certainly not incremental, except perhaps by some crazy logic.

One of at least the short-term consequences of this invasion of Ukraine has actually been to increase the level of repression and eliminate the possibilities for opposition inside of the Russian system…

I think that Putin, in the big picture, has surprised us all. Let's not forget that 20 years ago, if we were having this conversation and we said, “Well, he will have become the longest-serving leader of Russia since Josef Stalin, that he will have invaded not one but two of his neighbors, that he will be forging a new alliance with China that will have a ‘no limits partnership’ as the definition of this alliance,” we would have been shocked. It was not in the frame of possibility. So, in a big-picture sense, I would say that Vladimir Putin has surprised us all, actually….

I think that he seems to have become perhaps more messianic, more wrapped up in his own vision of personalized power over the 20 years that he has been in power. That's not surprising -- that's happened in many dictatorships -- but it does seem that Putin views himself now as a sort of heir to the tsars.

RFE/RL: Is there a kind of a “I am the state” thinking behind that?

Glasser: Yes. The cult of the leader is something that he would have grown up with in the Soviet Union to a certain extent. He is clearly more in the mold of the early leaders of the Soviet Union -- the Lenins and Stalins -- than he is of the mold of collective leadership in the later days of the Soviet Union. I've always thought that he viewed himself as the sort of successor to the KGB leader who became one of the final leaders in the Soviet Union, Yury Andropov, and that he sees himself…

RFE/RL: Accomplishing what Andropov couldn’t?

Glasser: Exactly. That Andropov died too soon and was succeeded [after Konstantin Chernenko's brief stint in power] by [Mikhail] Gorbachev, who obviously is not a hero to Vladimir Putin.

RFE/RL: How much does Putin embody modern Russia? Has he molded the state into his image, or was it Russia that molded him according to a popular demand or something like popular sentiment of what Russia wanted to be?

Glasser: You know, it's very interesting, because I was based in Moscow in the first years of Putin's tenure as leader, the first four years, and I remember interviewing once one of the pollsters who worked for Putin -- Aleksandr Oslon -- when he first was elected Russian president. And Oslon said, “You know, the Yeltsin years, this idea of democracy in Russia, it was like taking a river and putting a dam in and eventually the river overflows and goes back to its natural course.”*

And so he and those who helped to create Putin perceived Putin, in a way, as simply being a part of the inevitable restoration of the Russian river flowing in the direction that it would. And I think to him, the idea was that Putin could have been anyone, in effect; that Putin was simply the natural and logical manifestation of a return to a more authoritarian state.

Russian President Vladimir Putin answers questions during his annual press conference at the Kremlin in December 2004.
Russian President Vladimir Putin answers questions during his annual press conference at the Kremlin in December 2004.

I don't know what he would say today, and that’s an interesting question. Because I think many Russians, not just Westerners, were fooled, I think, by Putin in the early years. And at the time they actually still used words like “democracy” inside Russia. In Putin’s first inaugural address, that was a word he used. He did not use it by the time of his second inaugural address; the river was returning to its course. How much Putin shaped that course is something, I think, that historians will be looking at for many, many years to come.

RFE/RL: The established consensus right now among experts is that Putin miscalculated when he started the war. Was not everything leading up to this [invasion] convincing enough, pushing him into that direction…. We often hear him likened to a poker player, right? He’s got a perfect hand, why not go all in?

Glasser: I think that when people talk about Putin's miscalculation, first of all, you can say that their war plan was a terrible miscalculation. So those are two separate questions, right? In a way, you can say, “Was it logical by Putin's logic to embark on this?” That he thought now was the time and that the West would not aggressively push back or that it would be sanctions, a slap on the wrist, and that he could weather it, especially with his new partnership with China? I think that, yes, you could absolutely say that there's a 15- to 20-year story of the West essentially caving into Putin's excesses -- essentially never really wanting to provoke a full-scale confrontation, often being the player that backed away -- and so he could reasonably expect that that would happen once again.

The Tavberidze Interviews

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.

Where I think you could say that he not only miscalculated but disastrously so was the war -- how he decided to go about this war in Ukraine, invading the country with insufficient people to accomplish his military aims, having essentially a shock-and-awe plan for moving quickly into Kyiv and deposing the [Volodymyr] Zelenskiy government, and then appearing to have zero Plan B when that did not succeed. And that did not succeed. It's remarkable.

Clearly he also had either misinformation or a poor understanding of Ukraine itself and what the people would do. I think they were clearly expecting that there was a far larger segment of the population that would support Russia than turned out to be the case, even among the Russian-speaking peoples of eastern Ukraine.

That’s number one. Geopolitically an incredible screw up, right? There's just no other way to think of it. If you had told Putin, “Well, the consequence of your war will be to massively unify the Ukrainian people on a decisively anti-Russian and pro-Western course of action, number one; number two, you will ensure that Finland and Sweden are permanent members of NATO and you will have added something like 1,000 miles of direct border between Russia and NATO,” that by any stretch of the imagination…would be enough to shock him. He thought that he had more or less bought Germany, and he didn’t.

And I think, honestly, something that he did not expect was the United States to respond the way it did. He made a misassessment of [U.S. President] Joe Biden. We used to have a saying back at school: You know you're in trouble when you're lying to yourself and believing it. And it seems to me that, to a certain extent, Putin may have been a little bit of a victim of his own propaganda about the West and about the United States -- that he shouldn't have believed it.

RFE/RL: Do you see Putinism ending for natural reasons?

Glasser: The “gradually, then suddenly” metaphor from [Ernest] Hemingway is often used, and I think that’s a fair one. If you told me tomorrow that some crazy thing had happened and Putin was gone, it would be plausible, it would be believable. It is certainly not something that would totally stun us. But at the same time, it seems to me the story here is that there are very few power centers left inside Russia except for the military and the security services that could potentially depose Vladimir Putin. One of at least the short-term consequences of this invasion of Ukraine has actually been to increase the level of repression and eliminate the possibilities for opposition inside of the Russian system….

RFE/RL: The end of Putin doesn’t necessarily mean the end of Putinism.

Glasser: I worry that that is almost another example of wishful thinking. When you have a society that for 20 years has been a system that has been developed and has worked over time drawing on themes and traditions that go far back -- we're talking about…millions of Russians who are participants in that system. This may be a war that was launched by Vladimir Putin, but Vladimir Putin is not the person who personally conducted the atrocities in Bucha; he is not the person who is conducting war crimes and human rights violations. He may be responsible for a strategy of attacking Ukraine civilian infrastructure, but he's not flying the airplanes, he's not launching the missiles, he's not doing that himself.

Millions and millions of Russians are participating in this -- as in World War I. And Putin interestingly invoked World War I during the very short-lived Prigozhin mutiny [when Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin led a brief revolt in June]. Putin gave this really remarkable speech, an extraordinary speech, admitting weakness in a way that we'd never seen Putin do before. But he invoked the specter of World War I, when thousands and thousands of Russian soldiers laid down their arms and refused to fight anymore for the tsar in the West. And that hasn't happened. You know, the Russian soldiers could lay down their arms, they could refuse to fight an illegal war of aggression against their neighbors, and they're not doing that. So, no, I think the frame of this idea that there's just going to be the end of Putinism, I don't buy that.

RFE/RL: Before I ask about Trump, let me ask you about the upcoming U.S. elections. Generally, how much is at stake for Kyiv in this election?

Glasser: The fate, I would say, of the war in Ukraine in part depends on what happens in the 2024 election. And I say that because it's very likely that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee. And even if he isn't the Republican nominee, there are several other candidates who also are not supporting Ukraine in the war against Russia, and they certainly are not supporting the continued large amounts of billions and billions of dollars of U.S. military assistance to the Ukrainians. And so, yeah, Ukraine is on the ballot next year in the United States.

RFE/RL: One particular quote of Trump’s sticks in my mind, that he would end the Ukraine war in one day. How would he go about that?

Glasser: Well, you know, Trump has a lot of exaggeration and hyperbole in what he says. Just like Mexico did not pay for his wall at the U.S. southern border, it's probably pretty clear that he wouldn't end the war in Ukraine in 24 hours -- unless he called up Vladimir Putin and said, “Don't worry, we're withdrawing all of our support.”

It would be a really, really tough day for Ukraine. And, you know, even throughout his presidency, the first term… Donald Trump…came into office and he said he wanted to make his own “reset” with Russia, he wanted to make a deal with Vladimir Putin.

He publicly accepted Russia's propaganda that Ukraine is essentially not a real country, that Crimea was never Ukrainian and should belong to Russia, and yet, interestingly, there were enough members of the Republican Party still on Capitol Hill as well as within his own government who did not agree with Trump on Russia. And this is an area where they were more or less successful in constraining him.

U.S. journalist Susan Glasser (file photo)
U.S. journalist Susan Glasser (file photo)

He was not politically able really to pursue his reset policy, his deal with Vladimir Putin. He thought about lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia; he was not able to do that. He was clearly not very enthusiastic about supporting Ukraine with military assistance, and yet he went ahead and signed it -- reluctantly -- when the U.S. Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, supported it.

So that was an example actually, in Trump's term in office where the politics in the United States as well as some of the people in his own administration constrained him, they stopped him. And I think one of the things that's most worrisome about the possibility of Trump coming back to power in the U.S. is that he would certainly try very hard not to have people like that in his own government. And so that would be a very big shift from Trump's first term.

RFE/RL: With that in mind, if it really happens, and if Trump does [get elected and and is able to] end the war on his terms, would he be able to sell it to America as some sort of success? Would America buy it?

Glasser: Well, look, we're having a hypothetical conversation anyway.… [T]he polls are clear: Americans do support Ukraine. That's Republicans and Democrats. Now, I think what you're seeing is a gradual ebbing of support in particular among Republicans for continuing to send large amounts of military assistance to Ukraine. But that's different than saying, “We don't support Ukraine and we want them to lose the war.”

I think Americans do support Ukraine, very much so. You know, it's built into our national DNA, and I don't think even Donald Trump can stop Americans from identifying with a country whose freedom has been challenged by an absolute aggressor. And the specter of tanks rolling across the [Ukrainian] border unprovoked is something that I just don't see Americans switching their loyalty and support away from Ukraine.

But these are really unprecedented times in our politics, I have to say, and if you told me 20 years ago that not only would Vladimir Putin still be in power but in the United States we would have a leader of the Republican Party who was an open admirer of Vladimir Putin and other dictators around the world, I would not really have believed it.

RFE/RL: If your book is anything to go by, that admiration was very much one-sided.

Glasser: There are some great anecdotes, you know, in our reporting, that we heard from people about Putin and Trump; and really it did seem that Vladimir Putin might have seen some advantage in Donald Trump. But he certainly was clear-eyed about Trump's nature, too. And there's a great scene in their last face-to-face meeting, which occurs in the summer of 2019 on the sidelines of the G20 [summit]. And Putin and Trump are meeting and Trump is bragging and making big claims and he's saying, “Well, Vladimir, you know, they are going to name a fort after me in Poland for Trump, and they are going to name a settlement in Israel after me in the Golan Heights [that] they're going to call Trump Heights.” And Putin, according to two sources that we spoke with who witnessed this, Putin just looks at him and says, “Well, Donald, maybe they should just name all of Israel after you.”

U.S. President Donald Trump with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, arrive for a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki in July 2016.
U.S. President Donald Trump with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, arrive for a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki in July 2016.

RFE/RL: Why do you think Putin did not reciprocate? Why he did not indulge in ego stroking, as so many other world leaders did?

Glasser: You know, that is an interesting question. Certainly, many world leaders understood Trump's need for flattery and that it would be effective. Probably the number one at doing that was Shinzo Abe, who had been at the time the Japanese prime minister. He flew to see Donald Trump even before Trump was inaugurated in the White House, which is a big break with tradition. He played golf with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. Many other people tried to suck up to Donald Trump…

RFE/RL: But Putin clearly didn’t.

Glasser: No, Putin did not. And go back to that amazing image in Helsinki and the infamous press conference that they held together. The visual is quite remarkable, because it is not Putin standing there smiling and grinning while Donald Trump is taking his word over that of 17 U.S. intelligence agencies. Putin actually looks like he’s kind of smirking at Trump, he seems almost disdainful of him. And it's very interesting that he did not even really hide that.

I think other world leaders, even adversaries or rival powers, they didn't like Trump's volatility; they didn't like that he was so unpredictable that he had made the world's biggest superpower, the United States, to be something of a factor of instability in the world. And you know, the world system, and even leaders of authoritarian states like China and Russia, they like stability. And Donald Trump was very unpredictable.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
*CORRECTION: The pollster who worked for Russian President Vladimir Putin was Aleksandr Oslon, not Aleksandr Aslund.
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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.