What an ‘Unhinged’ Meeting Reveals About Vladimir Putin’s War on Ukraine
Three days before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Feb. 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine, he presided over a meeting with his security council that struck seasoned Western observers as an alarming piece of political theater.
Sitting alone, far across the room from his council, Putin asked its members whether he should recognize two pro-Russia separatist regions in Ukraine as independent — a move some Western observers saw as a prelude to a full-scale invasion.
“It was unhinged — having his national security team, one by one, press him to invade Ukraine,” Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, observes in the opening scene of Putin’s Road to War, a FRONTLINE documentary that premiered on PBS March 15, 2022, and is now streaming online and on-demand.
The meeting looked “more like something you would see in a royal court than you would see in a modern government,” according to Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson.
“They went up there and dutifully said what the master wanted them to say,” says Julia Ioffe, an American journalist born in Russia who is a founding partner of and Washington correspondent for the media company Puck. “It just felt like they were dancing bears performing for their master who is impossible to please.”
When one adviser appeared to stumble, Putin bore down on him, as the opening scene of Putin’s Road to War, embedded above, spotlights.
“What was especially weird and creepy was the way he dressed down the head of his foreign intelligence service, [Sergey] Naryshkin,” says Daniel Fried, currently a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Poland from 1997 to 2000 and as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs from 2005 to 2009.
“[Putin] seemed to go off the rails, angry and berating his intelligence chief,” recalls Schake, who previously served at the U.S. State Department, the Department of Defense and the National Security Council. “It was such a strange and such an orchestrated performance, that that’s the moment when I realized that Putin was actually going to attack Ukraine.”
He would, three days later. In the weeks since, Russia’s invasion of its western neighbor has met with fierce resistance from Ukrainians, turned millions of 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.
Putin’s Road to War examines what led the Russian leader, the West and the world to this dangerous tipping point. From acclaimed filmmaker Michael Kirk and his award-winning team, the documentary traces how Putin went from low-ranking KGB agent to longtime Russian president. The film delves into Putin’s crackdown on dissent — and the media — inside Russia. It reveals how, driven by grievances towards the West and a desire to expand Russia’s footprint, he has tested the West’s appetite for confrontation over and over again, including by annexing Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014. And it raises difficult questions about the path forward from here.
In revisiting that security council meeting, Ioffe says: “You see how this all went down. How much of it was driven just by one man, his deranged ideas, and everybody around him was too scared to say anything about it or to resist.”
“It seemed almost as if Putin had drawn up a plan a long time in advance, and now he had finally decided to execute it,” says Susan Glasser, columnist at The New Yorker, former Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post and co-author of Kremlin Rising. “This was not the war of the Russian people against the Ukrainian people. This really is Vladimir Putin’s war.”
For the full story, watch Putin’s Road to War, above. The documentary is also available to stream on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel and in the PBS Video App. Putin’s Road to War is a FRONTLINE production with the Kirk Documentary Group. The director is Michael Kirk. The producers are Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser, Vanessa Fica, Jim Gilmore and Philip Bennett. The writers are Michael Kirk and Mike Wiser. Explore interviews with sources from the making of the film on FRONTLINE’s website and YouTube channel as part of FRONTLINE’s ongoing Transparency Project.