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We Are All Hostage To Vladimir Putin's World Now
Peace talks only work in a shared reality.
As Russia's full-scale war with Ukraine approaches its one-year anniversary, discussion of peace talks with Russia is once again in the news. There is one problem: Vladimir Putin doesn't live in the same reality as the West. From Stalin refusing to believe that Hitler was about to invade the Soviet Union in 1941 to Mikhail Gorbachev initially ignoring the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, there is a long history of Russian leaders ignoring disaster -- and Putin is no exception.
On August 12, 2000, Russia's Kursk submarine sank in the Barents Sea with 118 men aboard after a torpedo exploded in the hatch. 23 men survived the initial blast and barricaded themselves in a flooded compartment, waiting to be rescued. The Russian efforts to locate the submarine were slow and inept; authorities initially refused offers of British and Norwegian help to locate the submarine. Meanwhile, newly elected Russian leader Vladimir Putin continued to vacation in Sochi for over a week. When British and Norwegian divers eventually reached the boat nine days later, they found no survivors. When asked by Larry King on CNN that September about what happened to the ship, he replied curtly: "It sank."
Not only was the Kursk a human tragedy, but it was a PR disaster for Putin. His poll numbers dropped. Putin met with distraught mothers and widows of the ship's personnel, who lashed out at him with the television cameras rolling. Putin would blame the media for trying to "exploit" the tragedy. In the following months, he brought the editorially independent public television channel, Channel One, and the independent NTV channel, under strict state control.
Twenty-two years later, Putin's regime hasn't gotten better at responding to bad news. On the contrary, he often ignores the unwelcome, continues ahead with the plan, and delegates the task of transmitting bad news to underlings. Take, for example, the COVID pandemic: Putin left the details of unpopular lockdowns up to local governors, who took the blame for them. This pattern is evident in the Ukraine war: six weeks after Putin declared that Kherson was a part of Russia's territory forever, in October, Russia was forced to retreat. Sergei Shoigu, Russia's Defense Minister, was the one to announce that Russian troops were leaving Kherson.
The Ukraine invasion was supposed to be a quick three to four day affair, resulting in a ratings sugar high for Putin. State-owned RIA Novosti accidentally published a prewritten article, declaring Ukraine's "return" to Russia as a result of Putin's invasion, proclaiming, "Russia restoring its historical fullness, gathering the Russian world, the Russian people together." Instead, the Russian Army initially captured wide swaths of Ukraine, but has retreated from about half of it.
Putin's public appearances have become even more stage-managed than before, and sometimes no-shows. Gone are the widows and mothers from the Kursk; instead, handpicked mothers met with Putin for a photo-op, few of whom had sons who were mobilized and many of them had state connections. Putin hasn't hosted an annual call-in since June 2021. A date still hasn't been set for Putin's annual state-of-the-nation speech, despite the fact that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov promised in September that it would take place by the end of 2022. In December, the Kremlin canceled Putin's annual end-of-year press event. While Peskov didn't rule out that it could be held in 2023, there is no date set. The Moscow Times reported -- citing six officials -- that preparations were at a late stage, but they pulled the plug out of fears about questions over the Ukraine war or that Kyiv would stage a major attack in the run-up to the event.
The annual press event began in 2001 and was a way for the Russian leader to show off his command of events. I went to the hours-long press event in 2012. Like the other events, it didn't generate news, as a news conference typically does. It was all a show to illustrate that Putin was in charge. Local journalists asked some softball questions, others were tougher but staff didn't allow follow-ups, and foreign media asked some tougher questions that he batted off and moved on from. It allowed the Kremlin to boast about its transparency, but without really facing anything difficult or unscripted. It also probably served as a rare chance for Putin to get unfiltered information; he is prone to the dictator trap -- only getting the news that he wants to hear. To wit, The Wall Street Journal, citing current and former Russian officials, reported that Putin gets a daily morning briefing on the war "with information carefully calibrated to emphasize successes and play down setbacks."
It is true that Putin sometimes speaks with foreign leaders who don't share his worldview, like French President Emmanuel Macron or German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. However, there is no evidence that these talks have swayed him at all from prosecuting the Ukraine war. In the 2014 Ukraine war, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously remarked that Putin seemed to be "in another world."
That still seems to be the case. It's bad news for anyone thinking that Putin might be amenable to a peace deal, because the problem is that in his mind, he still thinks he can win. On December 21, he vowed to provide "everything that the army asks for" and added there would be "no limits" to financing. In 2023, it's not likely that we will see or hear much from Putin, let alone in even a mildly unscripted setting. However, his goal to conquer Ukraine remains unchanged -- no matter how much he might fail tactically at it.
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