Julia Ioffe on ‘Putin’s Road to War’Listen
[bomb sounds] Russian shells pummeling a residential neighborhood in Kharkiv.
Explosions and air raid sirens across Ukraine.
Apocalyptic scenes on the outskirts of the capital city of Kyiv.
Russian tanks and troops are continuing their assault on Ukraine. More than 2 million civilians have fled - in what the UN has described as the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. Many more remain trapped inside the country.
… with mass casualties, the Russians blocking exit routes and stopping civilians from fleeing…
The US Ambassador to the United Nations suggests the number could increase to more than 5 million before it’s over.
I’m Raney Aronson-Rath, and this is the FRONTLINE Dispatch. FRONTLINE’s new documentary Putin’s Road to War investigates the man who has brought the world to this dangerous moment - Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He's more dangerous than he's ever been at any point in the last 22 years//He will grind the country down to a fine, fine ash. And it doesn't matter how many Russian soldiers die in the process, how many Ukrainian soldiers and civilians die in the process//
That’s Julia Ioffe, an American journalist born in Russia, who is a founding partner at the media company Puck. Ioffe has been covering Russia for more than 15 years, and on this episode of The FRONTLINE Dispatch, she talks with one of the filmmakers of Putin’s Road to War, Mike Wiser.
The first thing that's important to notice, he turns 70 in October. He is, he puts a lot of stock in numbers and big, important dates and anniversaries. It's also an age to which most Russian men never live. He has outlived the vast majority of his, of his cohort. He is clearly thinking about his legacy, and has been for some time. I think Ukraine was also a missing piece in a leg– in the legacy. Um.
Far smarter people than I have written about this, but from the Kremlin's point of view– or from Putin's point of view, in the fall of 2021, he has vanquished the opposition. I mean, there's nobody left; people are either dead, in jail or in exile. Civil society has been eviscerated. There's barely any independent media left. The economy is doing pretty well; it has survived the sanctions of the last few years. He has squirreled away these massive reserves – 600-something billion.
He has slowly built up Russia's position in the world, often by playing spoiler, and often by taking the US down a few pegs. He has rebalanced the power dynamic between Russia and the US. He's built a good relationship with China. He has filled the vacuum left in the Middle East by the US withdrawal. He has moved into parts of Africa and Latin America. He has, in his mind, reestablished Russia as a superpower on the world stage.
And all that's missing is Ukraine, which, recall, he does not believe is a real country, which he believes historically is part of Russia and which needs to be brought back into the fold.
...In the middle of the Trump presidency, going up really till now, one of the things that he does is on the domestic side, the crackdown on protestors, the rewriting the constitution, jailing people. What is it important to understand in that time, going from Trump up until now, of what he's doing inside Russia?
What he's doing inside Russia is making the subtext text. So if in 2011, all of Moscow ground to a halt, wondering whether Putin would stay for a second term as prime minister or if he would come back to the throne as the president. And everybody went back and forth, will he or won't he; he couldn't possibly, that would be outrageous; it would be such a violation of the spirit of the constitution if not its form.
And then, he surprises everybody and says, "I'm going to do it." And then people say, Okay, well, he– we didn't think he would, but he did. He's going to be president for a third term.
And people figured, because he had already amended the constitution to extend the presidential term from four years to six years, that he would then do another two consecutive terms and serve till 2024. And they figured that would be that, hopefully.
And certainly, he's not going to rule forever. Eventually, maybe in 2018, maybe in 2024, maybe he will finally retire and find a successor. And he says, "No, I'm going to change the constitution to make me ruler for life."
There are two things that are amazing about this. He does it all the time. He will keep all his options open and let people believe and let people convince themselves that it's not going to be as bad, that he's not going to do the worst possible thing. He'll let people kind of self-soothe. And then he'll come out with a worst-case scenario. And people are too stunned and too shellshocked.
And for some reason people will say, Okay, well, he did that, but he won't do this next thing. The other thing that's amazing about it is, why did he have to change the constitution? Why does he still have elections. If you're going to be ruler for life, just toss the constitution. Just stop having elections. But he keeps insisting on presidential elections, on parliamentary elections. He insists on driving high turnout, which means everybody in the pyramid below him has to work really hard to get everybody in the factories and everybody in all the offices and all the schools to come out and vote.
It's a tremendous amount of work for the system, but he insists on this, you know, much as Stalin did, insists on this bureaucratic procedure. Like Stalin insisted on courts, on witness testimony, even though he had already signed these people's death sentences. But he insisted in dressing this up with things that he could both show his, show people internally in the Soviet Union, and now in Russia, and in the world wide, to say, Well, no, these aren't extrajudicial killings; they confessed. Oh, we had a court and they found them guilty. But he insists on this window dressing at every point.
Which is also what he did in invading Ukraine, right? He created the pretext that first they had to– first– because, how did it happen? He had the Duma introduce, introduce a law that said, We'd like to recognize the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics. And Putin said, No, no, no, that would be a violation of the Minsk agreements. And then they voted on it anyway. And they asked him to sign it. And he said, Okay, well, if the parliament wants me to do this, then I will acknowledge their independence. And now that they're independent republics, the leaders of these independent republics write him letters on official stationery, using official language, asking him to bring troops into these republics, which are still on sovereign Ukrainian territory.
And so, I don't– I'm still not sure who it's done for. Like, who believes that these are real documents? That these are real bills in the Duma? That these are real elections? That this is a real constitution? But it's this kind of Soviet bureaucratic training.
What does Putin see in America that might lead him to think that this is a moment when he could take Ukraine?
I think he correctly sees America as a nation so divided that it's paralyzed. That it is a nation at each others' throats that can't agree on anything. He sees a President who, on one hand, he's dealt with before. Biden was put in charge of the Ukraine portfolio in 2014 because Obama had not enough time to deal with it; and frankly, I don't think cared that much about Ukraine.
So on one hand, he has, he's dealing with a new President who is old, who has been around, who has Putin's number, who is surrounded by aides and advisors and people in the State Department and in the White House and then the Pentagon who know Putin well, who know his tricks, who see right through him.
But on the other hand, he barely has control of Congress. He doesn't have the Supreme Court. He doesn't have the American public. And then Afghanistan hap– happens, and the message that sends to Putin and I think to the rest of the world is that America's done with its adventures abroad. America's tired of it, America's turning even more inward. America has no more appetite for war. It has expended all the energy it possibly had for war. It's spent.
And if Putin were to do something now, America wouldn't retaliate because why end a long foreign war? Why take such a political hit, because this is done so messily, just to get your troops bogged down in another thing. And I think that was a very accurate read of the situation.
What do you make of those images that we've seen of Putin over the last two years? And how has that played in to this?
So in 2018, I went on a book research trip to Moscow. And I met up with one of my old friends who's a reporter in the Kremlin press pool. He's had that position forever. He's really good. He really understands the workings of the Kremlin. And we had dinner and I asked him, you know, the economy was not doing so well. There was a lot of public discontent around the presidential elections, around the fact that a lot of people had been arrested all over the country, that Alexei Navalny was disqualified from running. And he said, "You know, everybody in the Kremlin thinks everything is going great. They are not getting good information and whatever information they have, it's not getting to the top. And they have no idea what's happening. They think everybody's happy."
And that was 2018. Then COVID comes along and Putin's paranoia kicks in. His instinct for self-preservation kicks in. And even though he tells the country after a brief lockdown, he says, "Look, we can't shut down our economy. We're not a rich Western country." He said, "We don't have a rich grand– we don't have a rich auntie like America does. We have to stay at work, go to work."
Meanwhile, he retreats into total isolation. For a while there, was, um– there was this weird contraption that people had to walk through and get sprayed with this weird mist that was supposed to decontaminate them or something before meeting with Putin.
Then he started isolating. And anybody who had to see– who wanted to see him had to isolate, quarantine for two weeks in, specially– in a hotel set aside for that purpose. Staff, bodyguards, advisors. The president of Kazakhstan had to sit in a hotel room for two weeks and get meals brought to his door so that he could see Putin.
Meanwhile, you know, Russia ends up having one of the highest, per capita COVID death rate. So Russians had to go to work and die of COVID to keep up the Russian economy. I mean, nothing changed. People partied, people went to restaurants, movies, everything, like, rode the Metro. But Putin stayed in isolation.
And there's reports trickling out, again, from the presidential administration, from the defense ministry that a lot of his advisors think this is partly the product of isolation, that he went a little batty in, you know, two years of basically self-imposed solitary confinement. Which as we know does very strange things to the mind.
I do think it's funny to think though that, you know, we all got cabin fever at some point during these COVID lockdowns and most people, like, baked bread for bought too much stuff on Amazon. And he's like, "I'll invade Ukraine." It's just, um, it's wild.
It's also a physical manifestation of something that has been ratcheting up over his presidency, which is taking out critics, people who might threaten him, people who disagree with him, anybody who's outside of his own view of the world.
So I think this really started with 2014. Before 2014– well, it started with 2012/2014, before the protests, before the annexation of Crimea, Putin had a pretty diverse circle of advisors. They included the hawks, the old, his old KGB friends and KGB alums, the kind of siloviki, the strongmen. And then there were the so-called liberals, the people who had advanced economic degrees, who had worked in the banking sector, who spent all their time courting Western investors to come and invest in Russia, and who were trying to open Russia more and more to the West and to integrate it into the global economy.
And there was always a tension between those two camps, between the liberals and the siloviki. And the seesaw went back and forth, back and forth. And then, after the protests of 2012 when Putin felt that the white collar, urban, upper middle class betrayed him when he had been so good to them in making them wealthy, and in 2014 when a lot of those same liberals found the annexation of Crimea to be anathema and came out and protested against him, he basically cut out the liberals then because they were advising him not to do this, not to go further in Ukraine because there could be more and more sanctions, there would be damaging to the Russian economy, that It's not worth it for a peninsula or not worth it for this little bit of land in eastern Ukraine.
And he responded by just shutting them out. And so, then, after 2014, it was just the circle of the siloviki. And then even that circle got smaller and smaller and smaller over time. And now as far as we know, it's a circle of like two or three people, who, by the looks of things, are even crazier than Putin. Putin is like the moderating voice in that crew.
We’ll be right back with more from Mike Wiser and Julia Ioffe after this break.
It raises the next question, as he's thinking of invading Ukraine, does he understand the state of the Russian military, the views of the Ukrainian people, the approach of the West? Does he understand what is going on?
No. I don't think Putin understands. I think he made a colossal miscalculation. And we're seeing it on the ground every single day. He thought, Russian troops would be greeted as liberators, with flowers, on the streets of Ukraine. Instead they're greeting them with Molotov cocktails. They're trying to stop the tanks with their bare hands. They're greeting them with javelins… They're fighting to the death because they don't want to be part of Russia, because they disagree. And I don't think he understood or anticipated that that would happen. Even though everybody could see that that was what would happen.
Because everything that Putin has said he wanted to do in Ukraine, he has achieved the opposite of, starting in 2014. Before 2013, Ukraine really was a nation divided. There was the Russian-speaking east where a lot of the people who lived there were the descendants of ethnic Russians who were brought in by the Soviets to work in the mines and the factories. They had no Ukrainian identity, they didn't speak Ukrainian, they didn't feel any kinship with the Ukrainian west, which had a slightly different version of Christianity, which spoke Ukrainian and was culturally different.
And there was this constant seesaw. One presidential election, Ukraine would elect somebody from the Russian-speaking east that would be more friendly to the Kremlin, and then people wouldn't like that and then they would sweep them out of power and elect a kind of pro-Western western Ukrainian person. And it went back and forth, back and forth.
NATO membership was not very popular. Ukraine wasn't really sure what it was as a nation. Was it part of the old Russian-speaking former Soviet universe? Was it part of the West? Was it a European country or a former Soviet country?
And then Putin invades in 2014, lops off a very strategic part of Ukraine, a beloved part of Ukraine, where Ukrainians love to vacation. He starts a bloody conflict in the east, which by the time of this current invasion had taken more than 13,000 lives and destroyed a lot of homes and infrastructure.
And all of this has had the effect of rallying Ukrainians, both in the east and the west, around the Ukrainian flag, around the Ukrainian language against Russia. So even people in the east who used to be pro-Russian hate Russia now. Even before this invasion. They hated Russia, they didn't want to be a part of Russia anymore. You have Ukrainian politicians saying, the person who formed our Ukrainian identity the most is Vladimir Putin. He gave us a national identity. You know.
And now everybody wants to– again, before the invasion even, everybody wanted to join NATO. Then he invades and Finland wants to join NATO. Finland, which had been neutral for ever. Sweden wants to join NATO. The EU, which was waffling forever and dragging its feet on accepting Ukraine, which was one of the reasons, um– there was an EU/Ukrainian economic cooperation agreement. One of the things that set off the Maidan revolution in 2013/2014. Now it looks like Ukraine's going to get into the EU with a fast-track membership.
He wanted a stable economy. He's destroyed that. I mean, he's just, he's miscalculated on so many fronts. And I think in part it's because he's so isolated and, you know, getting high on his own supply.
What are the consequences, the human side, that Putin can make this decision that is going to affect both of these countries in such a profound way?
I don't know, I think I'm too close to it. I personally find it nauseating. I'm seeing in real time lives upended by it. And not just the way people are seeing it, you know, on their screens, of apartment buildings being bombed and a million refugees fleeing Ukraine in just a week, and that's, you know, a million stories, a million heartbreaks. It's not just these conscripts who have no idea what they're doing or why they're there. It's not just the economic fallout in Russia, which we're just seeing the beginning of.
It's, you know, I have friends on both sides of the border, and you– there's nothing like watching people close to you as their future evaporates in front of them. Just all their plans, all their hopes, all their dreams, not just for the next five years, for the next week, for the next month. Just gone, in a day, up in smoke.
And a total inability to help them, to console them, um, watching my Russian friends flee Russia just with anything they– whatever they have on their backs. You know, I have a friend who I hope she got across the border, but was, you know, gunning on, in her car to the border, trying to get to Latvia before Putin declared martial law.
It's– it's infuriating. It's infuriating. Like, for what? For one man's mistaken reading of history? For his own ego? For his own warped understanding of legacy? I mean, it's–
How dangerous is this moment right now? And how dangerous is Putin in this moment right now? There's obviously all these not-veiled threats about nuclear weapons and there's talk of other countries being dragged in by mistake or on purpose. How dangerous is Putin?
I think he's more dangerous than he's ever been at any point in the last 22 years. I think he did not expect to lose in Ukraine, and therefore he will not lose. He will grind the country down to a fine, fine ash. And it doesn't matter how many Russian soldiers die in the process, how many Ukrainian soldiers and civilians die in the process. He will not be humiliated by people he calls little Russians.
What that means for Europe, you know, if you just, even if you set that tragedy aside or that, you know, blooming tragedy aside, again, a million people in a week fled to some of the most xenophobic countries in Europe, who right now are greeting them with open arms because (a) they're their neighbors and (b) they're white and Christian and look like them. But how long does that last? How many more refugees can the West absorb?
We saw with the refugee flows from Syria, they gave us Brexit, they gave us the rise and the empowerment of the far right in Germany and Hungary, in the Czech Republic and France. Is this going to keep emboldening the far right?
And when Putin threatens the use of nuclear weapons, he threatened it the first time when he declared war on Thursday morning. He threatened again three days into the war when he saw it wasn't going well. He threatened it in 2018 when he went to that airshow and he gave that crazy presentation about all the new nuclear weapons he had that could strike the US. Um.
If people think that he won't use them, I think they're mistaken. Everything Putin has showed us at every step of the last 22 years is that every time he think– we think he won't go that far, he does. We think he won't come back for a third term; he did. He won't annex Crimea; he did. He won't invade Ukraine; he did. He won't try to kill Navalny; he did. He won't try to subvert an American election; he did.
And so, why would we believe that this time he won't do what he says he'll do?
And then what, you know? If he– people are talking about what will we do if he strikes the US with a military– with a nuclear weapon? I don't think that's the question; I don't think he will strike the US with a nuclear weapon. What happens if he hits Kyiv with a tactical nuke? It's not an EU country. It's not a NATO country. But he used a nuclear weapon for the first time since World War II. How do we respond? Do we do nothing and wait for a second? Do we retaliate and get into this nuclear spiral?
I mean it's unthinkable. Like what he has opened up with this invasion is unthinkable. And because he is losing and because the sanctions and the Ukrainians are humiliating him, because he is backed into a corner, he is the most dangerous he has ever been because it is now existential for him. And if you think he doesn't know that everybody in the world understands that the only way to end this is to put a bullet between his eyes, he knows. And that makes him also much more dangerous.
That conversation was so important to hear. Thank you to Julia Ioffe for talking with us. You can watch Julia’s interview and many others about Vladimir Putin as part of FRONTLINE’s Transparency Project on our YouTube channel and our website, frontline.org - where you can also stream Putin’s Road to War, which airs on PBS Tuesday, March 15.
This podcast was produced by Emily Pisacreta, Vanessa Fica, Brooke Nelson, and Denise Emerson - with special help from Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser, Phil Bennett, and Lauren Prestileo. Maria Diokno is our Director of Audience Development. Katherine Griwert is our Editorial Coordinating Producer. Lauren Ezell is our Senior Editor. Andrew Metz is our Managing Editor.
I’m Raney Aronson-Rath, executive producer of FRONTLINE.
Music in this episode is by Stellwagen Symphonette.
The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at GBH and powered by PRX.
We’ll be back with regular episodes of the FRONTLINE Dispatch in the coming weeks.
Thanks for listening.