Examining Putin: As Russia’s President Wages War on Ukraine, Revisit Our In-Depth Reporting

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A still of Russian President Vladimir Putin from FRONTLINE's 2017 documentary "Putin's Revenge."

A still of Russian President Vladimir Putin from FRONTLINE's 2017 documentary "Putin's Revenge."

March 3, 2022

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, it has met with fierce resistance from Ukrainians, turned a million people into refugees, killed an unknown number of others, prompted unprecedented sanctions, sparked an International Criminal Court investigation into potential war crimes, and revived fears of nuclear war.

What brought Putin — and the world — to this point?

For years, FRONTLINE has been reporting on Putin’s path to power and how he has wielded it, as well as on Russia and Ukraine’s fraught relationship. As Putin wages war on Ukraine, revisit our earlier coverage, below, to explore Putin’s rise and motivations, his history and grievances with the West, and events that presaged this moment. And stay tuned for the upcoming FRONTLINE documentary Putin’s Road to War, premiering at 9 p.m. Eastern Tuesday, March 15.


The Battle for Ukraine (2014)

This short documentary captured an up-close look at an earlier chapter of the conflict in Ukraine. When then-President Victor Yanukovych rejected a 2013 trade deal with the European Union in favor of one with his close ally Putin, Ukrainians took to the streets in protest. A brutal crackdown by Yanukovych followed and, eventually, his own ouster in 2014.

The film documented a fight between Ukrainians supporting the new national government and those who wanted to break away and become part of Russia — in particular, violent clashes involving a Ukrainian ultranationalist group called Right Sector and a militant group of pro-Russian separatists called Stronghold. The film also looked at how Putin navigated the conflict, including seizing Crimea and warning that Russia reserved “the right to use all possible force to protect” Russian speakers in Ukraine.


Putin’s Way (2015)

In this documentary with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, FRONTLINE traced Putin’s journey from unemployed spy to modern-day czar, investigating accusations of criminality and corruption that surrounded his ascent. The film examined how Putin accumulated wealth and power, leading to autocratic rule and the specter of a new Cold War. Key players — from a senior police officer who wanted to arrest Putin on corruption charges, to an investigator looking into a series of deadly apartment bombings in 1999 — shed light on unsettled questions about Putin’s rise and reign. “Instead of seeing Russia as a democracy in the process of failing, we should see it as an authoritarian system in the process of succeeding,” Putin’s Kleptocracy author Karen Dawisha, who died in 2018, told FRONTLINE.
Syrian conflict

According to Nataliya Gevorkyan, who was commissioned to write a 2000 biography of Putin in the lead-up to his first term as president, Putin was fond of a story about a rat he encountered in the one-room apartment he shared with his parents. “‘I learned very good. I learned forever: Don’t try to push somebody into the corner. They will jump. Because when you don’t have what to lose, you just — you attack,’” Gevorkyan recalled Putin saying. “I think it’s absolutely true about himself. When he’s in a corner, that’s why he’s dangerous. He can jump. He will not say, ‘OK, let’s talk.’ He will jump.”


Putin and Syria (2015 to present)

When he launched airstrikes on Syria in 2015, Putin made the case that Russia was aiding the fight against terrorists, such as ISIS. But the military intervention began as Russia was struggling under Western economic and diplomatic sanctions — a result of its annexation of Crimea and actions in eastern Ukraine. Experts told FRONTLINE Putin saw Syria as an opportunity to re-assert Russian influence in the Middle East.

The 2016 documentary Confronting ISIS (above) reported on Putin’s entry into the Syrian conflict. At a time when Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was weak, Russia “joined Assad against the opposition, thereby pouring gasoline on the civil war,” Ashton Carter, then the U.S. secretary of defense, said in the film.

Russian air forces aided Assad’s military in targeting civilian areas, including hospitals — a human toll explored in the 2019 documentary For Sama.


Putin’s Revenge (2017)

In this two-part documentary, FRONTLINE detailed how Putin saw the fall of the USSR as a catastrophe; how he rose to the Russian presidency, centralized power and cracked down on domestic dissent; how he came to see the West — the U.S., in particular — as an enemy; and his drive to return Russia to what he saw as its former glory.

As Putin seethed over what he saw as Western encroachment, the film shows how Ukraine became his proving ground for a style of hybrid warfare combining military force, diplomacy, cyberattacks and weaponized leaks, political manipulation and disinformation. Putin eventually would use elements of the strategy to strike back at the U.S. for a lifetime of grievances, seizing an opportunity in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.


The Putin Files (2017)

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This collection of 56 interviews — key source material for Putin’s Revenge — provides an extensive oral history of Putin’s political career and motivations. These conversations with intelligence officials, diplomats, journalists, scholars, dissidents and political insiders explore how and why, in the words of Russian-American journalist Julia Ioffe, the idea of U.S.-supported regime change in Russia became Putin’s “driving fear.” They also offer insight into 2014, when protests broke out in Ukraine, and Putin — blaming the U.S. and determined to respond — seized Crimea while denying he was doing so and fed a war in Ukraine’s east.

The interviews are organized by person and by theme: from Putin’s early life and how his time in the KGB shaped his worldview, to his 2008 invasion of neighboring Georgia in support of pro-Russia separatists, to his 2014 actions in Ukraine and how the U.S. responded. “I think that he successfully calculated that the hammer would not come down on him in a critically painful way if he did things deniably, stealthily, if he probed and if he boiled the frog hotter and hotter and hotter rather than attacking directly, and he was right,” said Victoria Nuland, a U.S. assistant secretary of state at the time and now under secretary of state for political affairs.

Other notable sources include Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, who almost died twice from suspected poisonings; former Putin adviser Gleb Pavlovsky; former ambassador to Russia and now CIA Director William Burns; and Antony Blinken, now President Joe Biden’s secretary of state. “For Putin, when Western democracy is successful, it’s the most profound indictment of the system that he’s built in Russia,” Blinken said. “Putin, I think, came to the conclusion that the more he could do to undermine the Western democratic model … the better [off] he would be.”


Pandora Papers (2021)

Led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and involving 150 media organizations, including FRONTLINE, this reporting initiative drew on a trove of nearly 12 million confidential documents to reveal the global entanglement of political power and secretive offshore finance, including the role of U.S. trusts.

Elites from both Russia and Ukraine were named in the papers. A short documentary from FRONTLINE and ICIJ chronicled how those close to Putin were amassing hidden fortunes abroad.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was also named, with ICIJ and media partners reporting on his controversial assets. As for Putin, The Washington Post’s Greg Miller said in the film: “There’s widely held suspicion among financial experts and U.S. officials and Western intelligence officials that he uses something called ‘wallets’ — basically individuals who he trusts. The supposition is that they are then enlisted to set up accounts holding money that really belonged to him.” The Russian president has denied such claims.


Return of the Czar, a 2000 FRONTLINE documentary examining the conditions that led to Putin’s rise and whether U.S. actions helped pave the way, is not currently streaming, but a transcript and interviews are available online. Read more of FRONTLINE’s past coverage on Russia.

The spelling of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s name has been updated to match his preferred English spelling, per AP.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

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