I Was Wrong About Putin

When U.S. intelligence started saying that Russia would invade Ukraine, I didn’t believe it.

A black-and-white photo illustration of Vladimir Putin with his eyes scratched out
Sergei Guneyev / Getty; The Atlantic

In February 2000, I met my friend and mentor, the anthropologist Vladimir Arsenyev, for a beer in a musty St. Petersburg University cafeteria. We were talking politics, and we fell into a conversation about the upcoming presidential election, which Vladimir Putin was obviously bound to win. Putin had succeeded Boris Yeltsin after the latter’s resignation and was seeking his first full term in power.

Arsenyev, then in his early 50s, was a fiery postcolonial leftist who hated the Soviet Union, but considered the emerging Russian mix of imperialism and capitalism to be even worse. He was not popular among his colleagues and was also disliked by some of his students who saw him as a kind of anti-corporate maverick.

My political orientation was rather different. I was decades younger than Arsenyev, and my whole childhood had been colored by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Because I had experienced chaos, I believed in a strong hand. I regretted that Russia was no longer a superpower and thought that my country deserved a bigger role in world politics. I suppose you could say I wanted to make Russia great again.

Arsenyev put down his beer and said (in Russian, of course): “This man, Putin, will bring this country to hell. I know this for sure. It is the worst thing that could ever happen to us.”

“Why?” I asked.

“He is a Chekist,” he said, meaning an agent of the secret police. “Once a Chekist, always a Chekist. He is pure evil.”

I didn’t argue; I just changed the topic. The secret service meant Lavrentiy Beria and Nikolai Yezhov for Arsenyev, and James Bond for me. I respected Arsenyev immensely, but I saw him as a relic. And I was bewitched by Putin's cold, metallic charisma, that way he had of suggesting that he knew more than he said. I was definitely not alone in my admiration: Putin won the election—one of the very few fair elections we’ve ever had in Russia—with 53.4 percent of the vote.

Despite my patriotism, like many Russians of my generation I was encouraged by my parents to go West. I spent the next few years in the Netherlands, studying for a Ph.D. in math. But after a while I grew bored with abstract theorems and Dutch Calvinist orderliness, and I returned home. Russia was already a different country from the one I had left. In Putin’s hands it seemed much more stable, both economically and politically. I told myself that Arsenyev had been wrong about Putin, and that I had been right.

“Stability” (stabilnost) was, in fact, something of a slogan for Putin, one he adopted early in his presidency. He used the goal of stability to justify ruthless military operations in Chechnya. Another price of stability was having the same people in government from one election cycle to the next. In 2008, Putin’s ally Dmitry Medvedev took over the presidency, but everyone understood that Putin was still running the country as prime minister. I can’t say I cared much. Medvedev was promising to build a Russian Silicon Valley. People from all over the world wanted to move to Moscow. Life was good, and everything that wasn’t good I considered an anomaly, like the disgraceful war in Georgia. That was just a deviation from the norm, wasn’t it? Besides, our government insisted that it had to come to the assistance of the South Ossetians. I tried, moreover, to simply ignore politics. I became a journalist, but I focused on science and technology.

And so for many years I told myself that all was well. In 2011, Medvedev declared that he would not run for a second term and suggested that he would pass the presidency back to Putin, like a tennis ball. That was uncomfortable, but I tried to focus on the stability I still enjoyed. The parliamentary elections a few months later finally woke me up a bit: They were not just uncomfortable; they were a disaster. The results, which solidified Putin’s power, were obviously, shockingly, impudently fake. I took the metro to one of the first big protests of that winter with a friend. I asked him with sincere naivete, “Are the protests going to change anything?” My friend, who understood Putin much, much better than I, said, “Let’s just do what we can.”

Little by little, over a decade, I came to see that my country’s political deterioration was real and severe, and compromising everything else—very much including our scientific progress. I abandoned technology reporting for investigative journalism. I no longer strained to call frightening political developments, such as the ban on foreign adoption of Russian children, a mere deviation from the norm. I understood that these were signs of the new normal, and that the new normal was getting worse with every year.

As a journalist, I took part in investigating the infamous Unit 29155, tasked with destabilizing Europe; modern Russian Nazis; the production of Novichok, the nerve agent used to poison Sergei and Yulia Skripal and Alexei Navalny; corruption in the Federal Security Service; Russian hackers; the obnoxious wealth of Putin’s close circle of friends; paramilitary groups. I learned a lot about how Putin’s Russia works.

Most Russians, however, simply adapted. The degradation of our society was slow enough that many could choose not to notice it. This was Putin’s way: sticking the knife in gradually. Less drama, same result.

And I admit that even I continued to make excuses for Putin long after doing so was reasonable. For instance, I condemned the 2014 annexation of Crimea even as I indulged in whataboutism, pointing out that Putin was hardly the only leader on the world stage to disrespect national boundaries. Perhaps because of my math-and-science background, I had a tendency to coldheartedly look for rational explanations for outrageous behavior.

In fact, my last illusion about Putin was that he was a rational actor. Navalny often described the Russian president and his people as “crooks and thieves.” This was his way of mocking Putin, of depriving him of his superpower aura. I myself was torn, until recently, between seeing the man as a chess player and a petty criminal. If these two images were in conflict, they were not entirely so. Both chess players and petty criminals know how to calculate their advantage.

Sure, Putin was evil, as Arsenyev had said. Arsenyev had also called him a Chekist, and Chekists are cunning. I thought Putin’s cunning was undeniable. And that is why, when U.S. intelligence started saying that Putin would invade Ukraine, I didn’t believe it. Despite all my reporting experience, everything I had seen, I thought it was nonsense. I was almost angry. I couldn’t see any logical reason, any advantage, any positive outcome of the invasion. It was painfully obvious that a war would be catastrophic. I told myself, Putin is evil. But he is not an idiot.

That’s what I kept telling myself right up until the night of February 24. At about 4 a.m., I switched on my smartphone and immediately saw dozens of videos of Russian rocket blasts all over Ukraine. These blasts were proof of Putin’s evil and his irrationality. Putin had brought our country to hell, just as Arsenyev had foretold, and he was bringing Ukraine to hell too.

Arsenyev died in 2010. I’m almost glad he didn’t live to see how right he was.