Some years ago, I lived on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, one of the wide, radial roads that leads into central Moscow — and the favored route of President Vladimir Putin’s motorcade to the Kremlin.
Putin never liked traveling in helicopters so the 18-vehicle extravaganza, including outriders, an ambulance and a string of gleaming, black limousines with tinted glass, was a familiar sight.
Around 45 minutes before it passed, the road would be sealed — and I mean sealed. A security man was stationed in the doorway of my apartment building preventing residents from leaving.
The Russian president has always been security conscious, but today, on the losing side of his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine for which he has only himself to blame, Putin is more paranoid than ever.
He rarely ventures even into his office at the Kremlin now, preferring to do business from his grand, yellow-painted, pillared mansion on his summer estate, Novo-Ogaryovo, in an exclusive suburb popular with rock stars and oligarchs just west of Moscow.
People come to him if and when he wants to see them. And increasingly, he doesn’t.
He has his staff, his bodyguards, his team of food tasters and so on, but for months senior ministers, advisers and aides with whom he would once frequently consult, have been kept at a distance. The pandemic facilitated this — but he shows no sign of wanting to change the status quo.
It is impossible not to be reminded of Adolf Hitler’s last days, when a war he started was also going against him. Of course, Putin’s enemies are not at the gates of Moscow as Hitler’s were in Berlin, yet there are parallels in both leaders’ refusal to listen to counsel, and their insistence on micro-managing military maneuvers despite not having the experience to do so.
It is impossible not to be reminded of Adolf Hitler’s last days, when a war he started was also going against him.
Day-to-day, Putin’s habit is to get up late, take a swim, and then start work. He doesn’t trust the Internet and insists on paper briefings. Since the invasion, the military reports take priority, then documents from the SFV, the intelligence service, telling him what is going on internationally; then the report of the FSB, the federal security service, on what is happening inside Russia; and finally a digest of the doings of Russia’s elite — his oligarch cronies and enemies alike — from the FSO, the federal protection service.
Then he decides who he wants to talk to. He prefers video conferencing rather than face-to-face encounters, as it gives him control over what he hears and what he doesn’t.
Take, for example, a recent encounter with the head of the Central Bank, Elvira Nabiullina. She was explaining the impact of the invasion of Ukraine on Russia’s economy and said: ‘This war is flushing the economy into the sewers.’ Putin cut off the conversation.
We know that Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, is working closely with Putin but seemingly more as an aide than as an adviser. Gerasimov is a tough veteran of the tank forces, he has been to the front line — the Ukrainians tried to kill him with an artillery strike — and he knows exactly how badly the war has been going for Russia. But there is no sign that he has any influence on the president.
Intriguingly, the Pentagon confirmed that Gerasimov recently spoke with the top U.S. military officer, General Mark Milley, for the first time since the conflict began. Other than the fact they had agreed to keep ‘lines of communication open’, no details of the conversation have been revealed. Personally, I am sure this is not the war Gerasimov would have fought.
Meanwhile, Putin’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu, 66, who is widely regarded as the great political survivor of Russian politics since the fall of the Soviet Union, is being seen less rarely with the president, leading to speculation that he is lined up to be the fall guy for military failures.
Dedicated Kremlin-watchers believe that Putin is spending much of his time alone, brooding on the war and thinking about strategy on the ground — which is alarming for Russia because history tells us that this is the exact opposite of what he should be doing.
Putin has absolutely no meaningful military experience, despite (like many politicians) being unable to pass a tank or a fighter plane without pausing for a photo op.
As a young man, he evaded national service because he went to university (he studied law at Leningrad State University) where students did reserve officer training instead.
This ‘training’ consisted of a bit of marching and a couple of summer exercises and Putin graduated as a lieutenant in the artillery. Post-university, reservist training required the odd week away in military service every year, but Putin immediately joined the then-KGB and could claim an exemption.
He has insisted that he ‘commanded an artillery battery’ but the truth is he commanded nothing. He is more a military fanboy than a military mastermind.
Which brings us to the unveiling of Russia’s laser weapon system. This month, the Kremlin claimed its new generation of lasers would allow it to destroy satellites orbiting 900 miles above the Earth in seconds.
In mocking response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said it reminded him of the Nazis’ search for a Wunderwaffe — a wonder weapon — during the Second World War.
Indeed, there is an old military adage: amateurs talk about tactics, professionals talk about logistics. Amateurs think wars are won by ingenious weapons or cunning strategic ploys. For the professionals, it’s getting the boring stuff right that makes the difference — ensuring there is enough fuel and ammunition and that troops get good equipment and hot meals. In this, Russia has singularly failed.
Hitler did serve in the First World War, but he was no military genius. Nor was Joseph Stalin. Both began their part in the Second World War by interfering in the deployment of their forces — in Stalin’s case with disastrous consequences.
He was sure Hitler would not attempt an invasion of the Soviet Union following the non-aggression pact between the two countries. Then when the tide of war turned in 1941, he refused to believe his generals who were telling him that an attack was imminent. He thought it was a British plot to foment trouble and as a result the Soviet forces were pretty much destroyed on the ground.
Stalin realized his mistake and from that point let his generals get on with it. Hitler never learned that lesson. Right up to the end, in his bunker below the streets of Berlin, he was micro-managing his troops.
In intelligence studies there is a long-standing debate over whether the British should have assassinated Hitler, given the chance. The answer is, before the war, yes. But after the war started, no — because someone competent might have replaced him. In that respect, at the moment, Putin is Ukraine’s best friend.
The reason Russia’s military offensive has gone so wrong is not that its forces are useless, but that they have been used so badly. They haven’t been able to fight the way they are meant to.
The reason Russia’s military offensive has gone so wrong is not that its forces are useless, but that they have been used so badly.
This is Putin’s fault. He was adamant the Ukrainians weren’t going to resist, that his ‘special operations’ would be over in a couple of days. He told his generals that they didn’t need great supplies of ammunition, to prepare their ground or establish supply lines. As a result, the planned siege of the capital Kyiv was abandoned and the Russians have been driven out of areas they took early on.
But whatever happens in Ukraine Putin will claim it as a victory, because he has to. Time is running out. He’ll be 70 in October and he is clearly unwell. Rumor has it that he may have Parkinson’s disease, or thyroid cancer or blood cancer. I am not a doctor, but I have been watching Putin closely for 25 years and there is something very wrong.
It was strange to see him — the man who made such political capital out of his black belt in judo, his ice hockey and bare-chested horse-riding — sitting at the Victory Day commemoration of triumph over the Nazis in Moscow on May 9 surrounded by ten bodyguards and with a blanket over his knees. Alongside him were 90-year-old veterans, their chests emblazoned with medals, who sat comfortably without.
And the change in him goes far beyond the physical. The young Putin — the inscrutable Putin —rose through the ranks of the KGB and post-Soviet politics as everyone’s ideal bagman, the clever, discreet sidekick who would liaise with business but also with crooks and gangsters. The man who would make sure his boss got his payoff and everything moved smoothly.
He excelled in people skills — not in a touchy-feely way but in working out how to play people, how to impress or intimidate. It is a skill he appears to have lost.
At a televised meeting of his security council before the invasion I saw a very different Putin to the cool, chief executive in total command of himself and those around him that I’d expected.
Here was a man who was visibly emotional and angry for much of the time. While his prime minister Mikhail Mishustin tried to tell him about the economic situation, it was clear that Putin was not listening — pouting and playing with his pen instead.
Dmitry Kozak, his chief negotiator with the Ukrainians, gave his report, but when he said he would like to add his personal take, Putin cut him off. He tried again. Putin cut him off again.
When the head of the foreign intelligence service, Sergey Naryshkin, stumbled in his delivery, Putin began to bully him, barking at him to speak up more clearly. Naryshkin is not a friend but he’s been a loyal adviser, yet here was Putin clearly enjoying humiliating him.
Putin once spoke of the difference between enemies and traitors: enemies you can fight with, but some day you hope to be able to make a deal, he said. Traitors you can do nothing with, you just have to wipe them out.
I think that statement explains his hostility to Ukraine. As far as he’s concerned, Ukraine isn’t a real country, it’s part of Russia, and therefore the fact that Ukrainians want to break away or to fight is a betrayal of the motherland — so they deserve whatever they get.
That is a scary thought for his senior politicians. Putin has made it clear that Russia is at war — even if they don’t call it that — so there is no room for loyal opposition. In Putin’s Russia, you’re a patriot or you’re a traitor — and now is the time to decide.
We know Putin has a desire, almost an obsession, with being seen as one of the state-building heroes of Russia. Ukraine was supposed to be the triumph that cemented his legacy. It might even have allowed him to step down from the presidency, because I think that, at heart, he’s bored with the day-to-day job.
Belarus is already pretty much a Russian dependency, and bringing together the three great Slavic nations — Russia, Ukraine and Belarus — under Moscow would have been Putin’s great achievement. Stepping down in glory would mean an escape from the tedium of campaigning at elections in 2024, having to pretend to care whether pensioners in Omsk are being properly looked after or whatever.
Now he’s stuck. He can’t step down because the opportunists around him would make him the scapegoat for the war in Ukraine. He is micro-managing tactics because yes, it’s fun and he feels he is shaping the world, but he knows that ultimately his neck is on the line.
However badly things go, I can’t see him coming to Hitler’s end, at his own hand — he is too much the pragmatist and there is still some rationality there. When Putin realized things weren’t going his forces’ way in Kyiv, he cut his losses and thought, ‘OK, let’s focus somewhere else.’
Could he use a tactical nuclear weapon? Three months ago I’d have said no. Now he’s much less in control. In a case of total failure, he could escalate the conflict, but in that instance I would hope other forces would prevail.
For all his power, there is no Putinism, no ideology. It’s fundamentally different to what happened during the Second World War. Right to the end, there were people who were fanatical Nazis, who believed not just in Hitler but in his ideals.
Putin is surrounded by ruthless pragmatists. If he wanted to nuke Nato there would be people who would think, ‘Right, the boss is getting too dangerous.’
What is very striking now is how isolated Putin seems to be. There aren’t many of those around him who I believe would take a bullet for the president. Whenever, and however, Putin finally does go, no one will be weeping.
Mark Galeotti is an honorary professor at the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies and the author of 24 books on Russia, including a biography of Vladimir Putin