Putin’s path to “the grave” or retirement, from a Kremlin vet
On war and propaganda
Hi, Ari here… My new piece for you draws on insights from a rare perspective in all the coverage of this terrible war—an actual Kremlin veteran turned Putin critic.
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has many wondering what happens next. While Russia is the far stronger country, the evidence shows it is paying a steep price so far:
More than 7,000 Russian soldiers have been killed, according to U.S. intelligence estimates
Russia is now deeply isolated from most of its neighbors and trading partners
Putin is more of a pariah on the world stage than at any point in his tenure
Russia is getting hammered financially from war sanctions. The ruble is down 40%, the Russian central bank can’t access reserves, and expert estimates suggest the Russian invasion of Ukraine could wipe out 30 years of economic progress.
Many Western leaders intend these consequences to impact Putin. But will he even know about all of them?
Some are literally unavoidable, like the economic impact. Others might be more complicated, because of the way he gets information.
The “Yes Men”
A Kremlin veteran who served as Boris Yeltsin’s foreign minister explains:
Any dictator [has] the same problem: They surround themselves with boot-lickers or Yes Men [who] are afraid to [contradict the leader]... I served in the Soviet foreign ministry… it was exactly like that. Nobody reported the truth.
That is an eyewitness account of what may sound unbelievable—the leader of a country with nukes, satellites, a spy service and funding to gather all intelligence, content and media still operates in the dark on key matters.
That is the assessment, however, of Andrei Kozyrev, who served as Boris Yeltsin’s Minister of Foreign Affairs for six years.
Kozyrev’s onetime deputy is the now Putin’s aide in that same position: Sergey Lavrov. (That’s the diplomat who infamously cavorted with then-President Trump in the Oval Office after Trump fired FBI Director Comey for probing how Trump welcomed Putin’s help in the 2016 election. It was an extreme scene then, imagine an American President doing that now.)
Kozyrev said this is typically a feature of authoritarian systems, in a recent interview we did on MSNBC. So as autocrats seize more power, and shut down internal dissent, they end up saddled with their own misinformation.
His interpretation might better explain how Putin came to take all these risks in this long, costly war—that he misjudged the risk because he had bad information:
[Putin] believed that ‘there is no Ukrainian nation,’ and that he has overwhelming power and an overwhelming army. But that cannot be -- because look at the situation in Russia… corruption is overwhelming. How could the military be totally separate from that?
Many analysts say Putin expected to take the Capitol in a week; and was not remotely prepared for how long this siege is now taking, and how that amplifies global outrage and blowback. As one extensive report put it:
“The image of a Russian military as one that other countries should fear, let alone emulate, has been shattered.”
So in a very real sense, this war of aggression has Putin on defense.
There’s certainly plenty of examples of people peddling lies, and then finding themselves a victim of propaganda or misinformation. (The last U.S. President both lied habitually—to trick others—but also seemed genuinely misinformed and wrong about many topics, believing lies.)
This dynamic is a theme in stories throughout history, from using drugs to pushing propaganda. In our interview, I mentioned the famous adage “don’t get high on your own supply,” which Kozyrev later posted he had not heard before. (Twitter draws out some musings we might not ever hear about otherwise!)
“Escort him to the grave…”
If Putin is now seeing the gap between reality and what he was told, will the information loop improve?
That is the simple question I asked Kozyrev.
He told me even in this situation, Putin’s aides would sooner risk replacing him than giving him ‘bad news,’ because that is so dangerous to them. Aides giving him bad news is less likely than overthrowing him, he says, calling this a baroque “Russian tradition”:
They fear telling the boss the truth. But one day, they might come with a weapon and escort him either to the grave, or to retirement. They’d rather escort him out than tell him the truth.
On this bit of Kremlin intrigue, the insider gets the last word.
P.S. You can hear Kozyrev in two interviews below; the first “went viral,” perhaps partly because of his blunt, withering assessment of Putin.