It was a dark night in Crimea six years ago when masked gunmen appeared on the road in front of my car.
Having covered parts of Russia’s war in Chechnya 15 years before, I immediately recognized them as Russian special-forces troops. Not only were they very well-trained, they wore matching, recently polished, black boots. Their position was supported by an armoured personnel carrier, the sort of vehicle that’s difficult for a civilian militia to spontaneously acquire.
This, I thought at the time, was breaking news. I rushed to get a story onto The Globe and Mail’s website laying out my scoop: Russian troops had been seen outside of their base in Sevastopol, appearing to take over a strategic position in another part of Crimea, a peninsula rapidly falling out of Ukraine’s control.
Then the disinformation washed in. The Kremlin denied that any Russian troops had left their bases. Other correspondents passed by the same checkpoint on the Simferopol-Sevastopol highway later in the day, and found a rag-tag “local militia” in the place I had seen the soldiers. Even I began to doubt what I had seen, and an edited version of the story on the Globe and Mail website still says only that “Russian-backed fighters” were on the road that night.
Less than a month afterwards, I was on Red Square in Moscow as Vladimir Putin gave a public speech announcing the annexation of Crimea. “Russia! Russia!” the crowd chanted around me.
Only a year later, on the anniversary of the annexation – an event now central to his legacy – did Mr. Putin admit that there had indeed been Russian special-forces in Crimea in the spring of 2014, ushering events along. It was when I finally heard it from Mr. Putin that I fully believed what I’d seen with my own eyes.
Confusion – the fog of war – has always been a central part of human conflict. But no one in recent history has mastered its use as well as Mr. Putin, who has ruled Russia for 20 years while waging an almost-continuous series of wars against enemies foreign and domestic.
It’s a tactic that helped turn a mid-level KGB agent – if that was the entire truth – into Russia’s longest-ruling leader since Joseph Stalin. Under Mr. Putin’s rule, misinformation has also helped turn his country from the divided and chaotic place he inherited back into one of the world’s great powers. Its status will be on display this week as Moscow puts on a massive military parade that will be one of the first important geopolitical events since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But despite the rows of tanks, troops and intercontinental ballistic missiles – meant to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany – the parade won’t exhibit the weapons that Russia has used most effectively over the past two decades.
Mr. Putin has changed our world by mastering the art of blurring the lines between fact and fiction, right and wrong. Did Islamist extremists from Chechnya really blow up a series of apartment blocks in 1999, killing hundreds of people as they slept, before Mr. Putin sent the Russian army to punish the renegade region? Did Crimeans, 15 years later, want Mr. Putin to save them – by forcibly annexing their land – from a “Nazi” regime in Ukraine?
The questions have kept coming: Is President Bashar al-Assad a secular leader fighting “terrorism” in Syria with the aid of the Russian air force? Are the deaths of Mr. Putin’s domestic critics a series of isolated incidents that the ruler knows nothing about? Is it “Russophobia” to suggest the Kremlin meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election?
If you have spent the past two decades inhaling Kremlin propaganda, you might answer yes to all five of the above questions. Even if you haven’t, the real answers almost don’t matter anymore. The real, very tangible truth is that Mr. Putin did what he wanted in each case, and altered our reality in the process.
Twenty years after Mr. Putin – a former KGB agent with a background so murky that he was dubbed the “Man from Nowhere” – first became the President of Russia, another hard truth is that he’s winning.
Wednesday’s parade was supposed to be a showcase of that triumph, with world leaders including Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron standing alongside Mr. Putin on Red Square as the military that seized Crimea marches past.
Now, a much smaller collection of leaders will be on hand because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but few today can ignore the Kremlin. What Mr. Putin might do next is a central concern not only inside Russia and among his country’s immediate neighbours, but as far away as the Middle East, the Balkans and Afghanistan, as well as corners of Africa where he has restored much of the clout once held by the Soviet Union.
Countries such as Ukraine and Georgia, which tried to tie their fates to the West, were instead dragged into grinding “hybrid wars” – another of Mr. Putin’s murky creations that mixes violence, propaganda and other destabilizing actions – paralyzing the economies and politics of both countries, keeping them dependant on Moscow. Faced with losing a long-time ally in Syria, Mr. Putin sent his military to rescue Mr. al-Assad’s teetering dictatorship, an intervention that was supported by waves of propaganda and which has improbably made Russia a key player across the Middle East from Libya to Iran. Meanwhile, investigators in the United States and the United Kingdom are still puzzling over how much Russia’s “influence operations” tilted the election of Donald Trump, as well as the U.K.’s 2016 referendum decision to leave the European Union.
We live in a Kremlin-made ball of confusion, a world where many accept “alternate facts” created in Moscow (including conspiracy theories designed to undermine the truth about the use of chemical weapons by Mr. al-Assad’s forces in Syria, as well as who was responsible for the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, a region controlled by Kremlin-backed fighters).
Those who know Mr. Putin personally say his worldview is shaped not by his time in the KGB, but by the fact he is a child of the USSR. “It’s not about our profession. It’s our generation,” said Alexander Mikhailov, a retired major-general in the KGB and FSB who says he has a friendly relationship with the President. “We grew up in the Soviet Union. That’s the picture of the world we had.”
Growing up in the Soviet Union, Mr. Mikhailov said, created a generation of Russians – led by Mr. Putin – who are willing to tolerate hardships, such as the Western sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea, to achieve national goals. “We know what a Cold War is, and what it’s like to live through one.”
That influence of having grown up in the USSR was on display this week as Mr. Putin – in a lengthy essay for the U.S.-based National Interest magazine – attempted to rewrite the history of the Second World War. In his version, Stalin had no choice but to sign a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany at the start of the war. He also blamed Poland for the events that led to its division between the Nazis and the Soviets, and said the USSR’s 1939 annexation of the Baltic States was “in line with international and state law.”
It was time for the rest of the world to understand these things, Mr. Putin wrote. “We all need the truth and objectivity … . Neglecting the lessons of history inevitably leads to a harsh payback.”
If history shaped his worldview, the KGB is responsible for Mr. Putin’s inscrutability, Mr. Mikhailov said. The West’s inability to read the President’s intentions allowed Russia to surprise the world with military moves into Georgia, Ukraine and Syria.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the foreign-policy journal Russia In Global Affairs, said that Mr. Putin is a tactician, rather than a strategist. He likes to keep his options open as long as possible before making a move.
“He’s very reluctant and sober in assessing how everything is working. He has no illusions or ideology, just pure pragmatism,” Mr. Lukyanov said. “He really believes that anything can happen and the only natural way to act is to be prepare for almost anything and to be ready to react and ready to reposition yourself if something big happens.”
Mr. Putin and his manipulations of the truth look likely to remain with us for some time to come. Facing the end of his presidency in 2024, the Kremlin has proposed changes to the country’s constitution that would conceivably allow Mr. Putin to remain in power for another dozen years beyond that date. With Russia’s media largely under Kremlin control – and the political opposition prevented from organizing protests during the pandemic – the result of a July 1 referendum on the new constitution is widely considered a formality.
The Man from Nowhere has made himself one of the most important people in the world. How that really happened depends on which version of recent history you believe.
The haze of unprovable semi-truths extends all the way back to before Mr. Putin was a public figure. Born in 1952 in Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg), he began his rise to power – and perhaps acquired his taste for deception – in the KGB, the notorious secret services of what was then the Soviet Union. He joined immediately after graduating Leningrad State University, where he had studied law, in 1975. In the late 1980s, Mr. Putin was posted to the industrial city of Dresden, in East Germany, where, by his own description, he was a low-ranking case officer.
In his memoir, First Person – written shortly after Boris Yeltsin stunned the world by abdicating and naming Mr. Putin acting president on Jan. 1, 2000 – Russia’s new leader describes living in a modest Dresden apartment block a short walk from the KGB headquarters in the city. He and his then-wife Ludmilla could look out their apartment window and see their daughter at play in the nursery next door.
The Putins’ idyllic communist world collapsed in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union’s hold over Eastern Europe began to crumble with it. By Dec. 5 of that year, Dresden had joined the uprising. A crowd of several thousand converged on the local headquarters of the Stasi, East Germany’s feared secret police, and took over the building. A smaller group of perhaps a few dozen people broke away and made the short march to the KGB outpost.
What happened next was either a formative moment in Mr. Putin’s life, or the first of many myths he and his entourage would create. As the crowd converged on the office, Mr. Putin strode out to meet them alone. In perfect German, he told them the building was property of the Soviet Union and anyone trespassing would be shot.
It was a bluff. In his memoir, Mr. Putin says that not only did the KGB officers in Dresden not have orders to shoot, they had no orders at all.
“We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow. And Moscow is silent,” is what Mr. Putin says he was told when he called the local Red Army detachment. He wrote: “I got the feeling that the country no longer existed. That it had disappeared.”
Most of the story appears to be true. The Globe and Mail found Mr. Putin’s identification card in the Stasi archives, which are now open to the public. Herbert Wagner, a Dresden resident who was one of the protest leaders (and later the city’s mayor), said a friend who lived near the KGB office recognized Mr. Putin as the man who confronted the crowd on Dec. 5, 1989.
Beyond those verifiable facts, there is only fog. In some retellings, including a 2009 documentary shown on Russian state television, Mr. Putin was waving a pistol around as he dissuaded the protesters. Mr. Wagner says he doesn’t recall anyone seeing a gun that night.
And why did Mr. Putin address the crowds that night, rather than his commanding officer? The Globe and Mail spoke with one former member of the Stasi who worked along with Mr. Putin to inspect military institutions; the two men designed counter-intelligence measures to protect the facilities from NATO espionage during the last days of the Cold War. He said none of what’s publicly known about Mr. Putin’s time in Dresden matches his own experience working with Russia’s president-to-be.
Mr. Putin was not a low-level operative, but rather the KGB station chief in Dresden, according to the former agent. He and his family did not live in the modest apartment block overlooking his daughter’s nursery but in a spacious villa reserved for the top KGB official in the city. The former agent says he knew this because he frequently picked up Mr. Putin in his car from the villa, and took him for long drives to tour East German military sites.
“He was the big boss. I know this for sure,” said the ex-Stasi officer, whom The Globe is not identifying, since his neighbours don’t know about his previous career. (The Stasi archives confirm the now 61-year-old did, in fact, work for the East German secret services during the period Mr. Putin served in Dresden.)
As proof, the ex-Stasi agent pointed to birthday cards – also now housed in the archives – that Horst Bohm, the chief the Dresden Stasi, sent to Mr. Putin each year. A lower ranking officer wouldn’t merit such personal attention.
“From the bottom of my heart, I wish you well achieving your very important tasks in the fight against our mutual enemy,” reads a message delivered to Mr. Putin on Oct. 7, 1987, the KGB officer’s 35th birthday. A handwritten note at the bottom of the typed letter reminds whoever sends it to include flowers and a beer stein. Mr. Bohm died by suicide in February, 1990, months before the country he served ceased to exist.
Asked why Mr. Putin would describe himself in his memoirs as a lower-ranking KGB official than he really was, the ex-Stasi agent shrugged. “He’s a genius. I’m not surprised he’s the President now.”
It’s not easy to meet with Akhmed Zakayev these days. Once the most high-profile member of the Chechen rebel movement – its spokesman, during the days of war, and now the prime minister of its unrecognized government-in-exile – Mr. Zakayev is understandably cautious about whom he meets, and under what conditions. Opponents of Mr. Putin’s regime, particularly Chechens, have a long history of dying under circumstances that are often mysterious, but sometimes perfectly clear.
After a prolonged e-mail exchange via an interlocutor, a time is finally set. For security reasons, the location is given to me only on the morning of the interview.
When we finally do meet, it’s in Mr. Zakayev’s office, which is in the basement of his home in London, where he has lived in exile since 2002. The walls of his tiny working space are crammed with photos of Russia and Chechnya in another era. In one, he is part of a Chechen delegation sitting across a table from Mr. Yeltsin, as the two sides negotiated the end of the First Chechen War.
That peace making came to a shuddering halt in September, 1999, when someone started bombing apartment buildings around Russia. Four massive blasts – two in Moscow, two in cities in the south of the country – killed 367 people that month.
There was almost a fifth attack. On Sept. 22, a resident of an apartment block in the city of Ryazan, 200 kilometres southeast of Moscow, raised the alarm after he spotted three men carrying large sacks into the basement of another apartment block. Police arrived and arrested three men who, instead of Chechen extremists, turned out to be agents of the FSB, the post-KGB secret services that Mr. Putin had led until a month earlier.
Cornered, the FSB improbably declared that the Ryazan incident had been a “training exercise,” and that the sacks being carried into the basement were full of sugar, rather than explosives. With a swiftness that immediately made him the country’s most popular politician, the newly appointed Prime Minister Putin blamed Chechnya for the bombings, and sent Russia’s army to crush the semi-independent Chechen state.
Russia would go on to restore its control over Chechnya, reversing one of the greatest humiliations the country had experienced during the humbling 1990s. After a decade of Mr. Yeltsin’s bumbling rule, alongside a rotating cast of forgettable prime ministers, the country now had the strong, decisive leader that many Russians believed the country needed. Within months, Mr. Yeltsin had stepped aside and made Mr. Putin acting president.
The Man From Nowhere has remained in power ever since.
“These attacks were ordered by Putin himself. Not [Mr. Putin’s successor as FSB boss, Nikolai] Patrushev – Putin. He had been the director of the FSB,” Mr. Zakayev said.
As proof, Mr. Zakayev lists off the names of public figures who accused the FSB of masterminding the 1999 attacks: Alexander Lebed, a general-turned-politician who said he was “almost convinced” the government had carried out the bombings, died in a 2002 helicopter crash. Duma deputy Sergei Yushenkov, who opened an investigation into the apartment bombings, was shot outside his apartment in 2003. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who dug relentlessly into the FSB’s dealings in Chechnya, was gunned down in Moscow in 2006. A month later, former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who wrote a book called Blowing Up Russia focused on the apartment bombings, was poisoned with radioactive polonium in London.
“They’re all dead now,” Mr. Zakayev said. “This was all part of Operation Successor.”
Operation Successor sounds like a conspiracy theory, but in 1999 and 2000 it was a real thing – the informal code name that Kremlin spin doctors gave to the effort to rally Russian public opinion behind The Man From Nowhere. All of a sudden, a grey figure that few Russians had ever heard of was to be portrayed as the answer to all of the country’s problems. Where Mr. Yeltsin had lost the First Chechen War, Mr. Putin was delivering military victory. Where the 1990s had brought financial crises, the new President was delivering the stability that Russians craved.
Marina Litvinovich was part of that effort. As a member of a group called the Foundation for Effective Politics that advised the Kremlin on public-relations strategy, her job was to draw up the temnyki – the media guidelines about how to cover the new President. At first, the instructions were sent only to media outlets controlled by Kremlin-friendly oligarchs. As Mr. Putin’s hold on power deepened, and the Kremlin gradually squelched all critical media, the temnyki were sent to every influential television station in the country.
“In time, these temnyki became a guidebook to propaganda,” Ms. Litvinovich recalls when we meet at a Moscow café. “They completely excluded actual journalism, where you provide different points of view. That was considered completely unnecessary.”
The Second Chechen War, she said, was the forge. A documentary investigating the 1999 apartment bombings was blocked from being broadcast. All criticism of the war was kept off the air. Instead, Russians were fed a diet of nationalist propaganda, capped by one of Mr. Putin’s now-patented man-in-action photo shoots, as he sat in the co-pilot’s seat of a Russian fighter jet landing in the recaptured Chechen capital of Grozny.
It’s a recipe Mr. Putin has returned to again and again over the subsequent two decades: multiple versions of the “truth,” a nationalistic haze, suspicious deaths and a military triumph.
Fifteen years after the Moscow apartment bombings, I found myself thinking of the sacks of sugar in Ryazan as I drove down Crimea’s main highway. I pondered how the peninsula’s two million residents were being whipped into a pro-Russian frenzy by Kremlin-controlled TV stations that relentlessly delivered the message that the revolution in Kyiv was run by “Nazis” intent on driving all traces of Russian language and culture out of Ukraine. (That narrative intentionally exaggerated the role played by far-right nationalist groups in Ukraine that did support the revolution.)
“If Putin had been stopped in Chechnya, there would have been no wars in Georgia, Ukraine or Syria,” Mr. Zakayev, the Chechen leader, said, pausing our conversation to take a phone call from Maria Litvinenko, the widow of the assassinated ex-KGB agent. “The course of history would have been different.”
While the world was caught off guard (at least in 2016) by Russia’s online interventions in Western elections, no one was more surprised than Ms. Litvinovich. She has the dubious distinction of being the woman who taught Vladimir Putin how to use the Internet.
In 2001, Ms. Litvinovich, as one of the younger faces in the presidential administration, was tasked with prepping the country’s then 49-year-old President for an online question-and-answer session with voters on the Kremlin’s website.
“It happened in this funny place – the situation room under the Kremlin. It was like a film set. As far as I understood, it was a war room, an alternate centre of command for the military,” Ms. Litvinovich recalled.
She said she had about half an hour to prep the President for his online town hall. Google was still in its infancy, but she showed Mr. Putin how to use Yahoo! and its Russian equivalent, Yandex.
“I tried to put it in a way he would understand. Since he has an FSB background, and understands databases, I told him it’s a huge database where anything can be found. ... We searched for some things, but I didn’t see much interest on his side.”
Indeed, despite the confusion Russia has sown online, Mr. Putin has never been known to use e-mail, let alone social media. While Mr. Trump sprays his opinions on Twitter, Mr. Putin interacts with the public via formal news releases posted to the Kremlin website – plus a marathon, hours-long media conference each December.
“No one can ever guess Putin’s thoughts or plans,” Mr. Mikhailov, the former KGB agent, said in an interview at the Moscow office of the secret service veterans’ association he heads. “You cannot play cards with Putin because he has six jokers in his back pocket.”
On the Internet, a joker is a troll. And nobody deploys trolls – those anonymous Twitter and Facebook accounts that drag conversations into the gutter, smear opponents and spread doubt about what’s real and what isn’t – like Mr. Putin’s Russia.
The version of hybrid warfare that Russia wages via the Internet is carried out largely via “troll farms” where paid employees post the pro-Kremlin message on as many platforms as they can from their desks in anonymous office buildings. The most famous of those was the Internet Research Agency in Mr. Putin’s native St. Petersburg, owned by one of Mr. Putin’s most trusted associates, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
In 2018, FBI special counsel Robert Mueller indicted Mr. Prigozhin and the Internet Research Agency for “waging information warfare against the United States of America.”
But the most serious damage has been done to Russia’s own democracy.
When Mr. Putin first came to office, he could also claim a genuine popular mandate. Viewed solely as a political campaign, Operation Successor achieved its aims by convincing a broad spectrum of Russians that Mr. Putin represented the change their country needed. The 2000 presidential election was deeply flawed – Mr. Putin, aided by both the presidential administration and the powerful oligarchs, won 53 per cent of the vote – but Russia still looked like an emerging democracy.
Few would say the same just four years later. Mr. Putin’s first term in office was marred by scandals and failures – most notably the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine and a deadly hostage-taking by Chechen militants at a Moscow theatre, which left more than 200 people dead when Russian special forces bungled the rescue. But the country’s media had been brought almost entirely under Kremlin control by then, meaning Mr. Putin’s record in office received only praise, and little scrutiny. With no serious political opposition left in the country, Mr. Putin cruised to victory in the 2004 election with 71 per cent of the vote.
Every subsequent election cycle has seen Russia veer further from democracy, even as Kremlin propaganda told Russians that the opposite was true.
In 2008, Mr. Putin stepped away from the Kremlin and into the theoretically junior post of prime minister, in deference to a constitutional bar on presidents serving more than two consecutive terms. Dmitry Medvedev’s signature accomplishment during his time in the top job was to extend the length of presidential terms from four years to six, so that when Mr. Putin returned to the office in 2012, he did so with the ability to remain in the post until 2024.
Even that won’t be enough. In January, the Kremlin rolled out proposed constitutional changes that will, most notably, open the door for Mr. Putin to stay in power for another dozen years beyond 2024. Though Mr. Putin’s approval ratings have fallen dramatically over the past year – to 59 per cent in April, down from 82 per cent 12 months earlier – the outcome of the referendum is assumed.
One of the greatest sleights-of-hand Mr. Putin accomplished was to convince Russians – and many outside the country – that he was the only person who could hold the country together. In many ways, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As the Kremlin targeted independent media and liberal politicians, it created a system where the only parties allowed to exist were either pro-Putin, or token opposition from the far left and far right. The message was simple but effective: the only people who didn’t support the Kremlin were either fascists or communists.
But, like many of Mr. Putin’s stories, it was only true if you closed one eye.
Stanislav Belkovsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor who now advises Russia’s scattered opposition, says Boris Yeltsin very nearly set Russia on a very different course 20 years ago by choosing Boris Nemtsov – the young and charismatic reformer who had the misfortune of rising to the post of deputy prime minister just as the 1998 financial crisis erupted – as his successor.
It’s almost impossible to envision what Russia would look like today had Mr. Nemtsov – who later became one of the most outspoken opponents of the Kremlin’s authoritarian turn – taken power instead of Mr. Putin. That possibility ended for good in 2015 when Mr. Nemtsov was shot dead at age 55 on a bridge overlooking the Kremlin’s red walls.
Mr. Nemtsov’s daughter Zhanna left Russia shortly after the funeral, having received threats against her own life after criticizing the investigation into her father’s murder. Five Chechens were convicted in 2017 of the murder, but Ms. Nemtsova says those who ordered the assassination have not faced justice.
Ms. Nemtsova doesn’t go so far as to accuse Vladimir Putin of direct involvement in her father’s death. But she says that the relentless propaganda – aimed at whipping up nationalism after the annexation of Crimea, as Russia moved into confrontation with the West – played a role.
“People were really angry. There was this euphoria, you could call it, in the air. The few people who objected to this [Crimea] policy, who criticized it – and my father was one – were under incredible attack because they were called national traitors,” Ms. Nemtsova said over coffee in Bonn, where she worked until recently as a journalist on the Russian-language service of Germany’s state broadcaster, Deutsche Welle.
“It was really very difficult to survive in this atmosphere. This propaganda partly led to what happened to my father. Those who masterminded [the assassination] thought it was the best moment to kill political opponents. And it was.”
But Russia, she said, is changing again, in a way that couldn’t be controlled by Mr. Putin and his propaganda machine. Ms. Nemtsova said the surge of patriotism that came with the annexation of Crimea and the early successes in Syria had been replaced by a deeper concern over falling standards of living. Many Russians wonder why their government can afford to send troops and fighter planes to Syria, but can’t deliver decent health care services in many regions of Russia. The questions have deepened as Russia has been one of the countries in the world hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking before the pandemic, and Mr. Putin’s plunge in the polls, Ms. Nemtsova predicted that Russians were beginning to emerge from haze of disinformation, and to question whether the past 20 years really had been good for them. “Tactically, [Mr. Putin] has had some victories,” Ms. Nemtsova said. “Strategically, we are losers.”
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