Russians now see a new side to Putin: Dragging them into war

A demonstrator holds a "Russians Stand With Ukraine" sign during a protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in New York on Feb 24, 2022. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

MOSCOW (NYTIMES) - Russians thought they knew their president. They were wrong. And by Thursday (Feb 24), it appeared too late to do anything about it.

For most of his 22-year rule, Mr Vladimir Putin presented an aura of calm determination at home - of an ability to astutely manage risk to navigate the world's biggest country through treacherous shoals.

His attack on Ukraine negated that image and revealed him as an altogether different leader: one dragging the nuclear superpower he helms into a war with no foreseeable conclusion, one that by all appearances will end Russia's attempts over its three post-Soviet decades to find a place in a peaceful world order.

Russians awoke in shock after they learned that Mr Putin, in an address to the nation that aired before 6am, had ordered a full-scale assault against what Russians of all political stripes often refer to as their "brotherly nation."

There was no spontaneous pro-war jubilation. Instead, liberal-leaning public figures who for years tried to compromise with and adapt to Mr Putin's creeping authoritarianism found themselves reduced to posting on social media about their opposition to a war they had no way to stop.

Other Russians expressed themselves more openly. From St. Petersburg to Siberia, thousands took to city streets chanting, "No to war!" clips posted on social media showed, despite an overwhelming presence by police officers. OVD Info, a rights group, said more than 1,700 people were arrested across the country.

And in Moscow's foreign policy establishment, where analysts overwhelmingly characterised Mr Putin's military buildup around Ukraine as an elaborate and astute bluff in recent months, many admitted Thursday that they had monumentally misjudged a man they had spent decades studying.

"Everything that we believed turned out to be wrong," said one such analyst, insisting on anonymity because he was at a loss over what to say.

"I don't understand the motivations, the goals or the possible results," said another. "What is happening is very strange."

"I've always tried to understand Putin," said a third analyst, Ms Tatiana Stanovaya of the political analysis firm R. Politik. But now, she said, the usefulness of logic seemed at a limit.

"He has become less pragmatic and more emotional," Ms Stanovaya said.

On state television, Mr Putin's most powerful propaganda tool, the Kremlin tried to project an air of normalcy. The state-run news media characterised Thursday's invasion as not a war but a "special military operation" limited to eastern Ukraine.

Mr Putin was shown meeting with the visiting prime minister of Pakistan, Mr Imran Khan, as if he were still shrewdly carrying on his day-to-day business.

"This is not the beginning of a war," Ms Maria Zakharova, the foreign ministry's spokesperson, said on television. "Our desire is to prevent developments that could escalate into a global war."

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Meanwhile, Russia's stock market plummeted by 35 per cent, and ATMs ran short of dollars. On the country's Internet, still mostly uncensored, Russians saw their vaunted military sow carnage in a country in which millions of them had relatives and friends.

"The world has turned upside down," said Ms Anastasia, 44, protesting the war in central Moscow Thursday evening despite an imposing presence of riot police officers, and bursting into tears. She gave only her first name for fear of reprisal. "I cannot even imagine the consequences; this is a catastrophe."

Many Russians had bought into the Kremlin's narrative that theirs was a peace-loving country and Mr Putin a careful and calculating leader. After all, many Russians still believe, it was Mr Putin who lifted their country out of the poverty and chaos of the 1990s and made it into a place with a decent standard of living and worthy of international respect.

One of the country's ever-dwindling number of rights activists, Ms Marina Litvinovich, called for an anti-war protest to be held in Moscow on Thursday evening and was promptly arrested.

Police buses and riot police descended on Pushkin Square, where she had urged people to gather. An actor posted a directive from his state-run Moscow theatre claiming that "any negative commentary" about the war would be seen by authorities as "treason."

A person carries a banner during an anti-war protest in Moscow, Russia, on Feb 24, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

In the past three months, as US officials warned that Mr Putin's troop buildup was a prelude to an invasion, Russians dismissed such talk as the West's failure to understand their president's fundamental determination to manage risk and avoid rash moves with unpredictable consequences.

And with leading opposition figures imprisoned or exiled, there were few figures with the influence to organise an anti-war movement.

Some public figures with ties to the government reversed course, although they recognised it was too late.

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Mr Ivan Urgant, the most prominent late-night comedian on state television, had ridiculed the idea of a looming war on his show earlier this month. On Thursday he posted a black square on Instagram along with the words: "Fear and pain."

Ms Ksenia Sobchak, another television celebrity whose father was mayor of St. Petersburg and a 1990s mentor to Mr Putin, posted on Instagram that from now on she would only "believe in the worst possible scenarios" about her country's future. Days earlier, she had praised Mr Putin as a "grown-up, adequate politician" compared to his Ukrainian and US counterparts.

"We are now all trapped in this situation," she wrote Thursday. "There is no exit. We Russians will spend many years digging out from the consequences of this day."

A person holds a banner while being detained by police during an anti-war protest in Moscow, Russia, on Feb 24, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

During the pandemic, analysts had noticed a change in Mr Putin - a man who isolated himself in a bubble of social distancing without parallel among Western leaders.

In isolation, he appeared to become more aggrieved and more emotional and increasingly spoke about his mission in stark historical terms. His public remarks descended ever deeper into distorted historiography as he spoke of the need to right perceived historical wrongs suffered by Russia over the centuries at the hands of the West.

Ms Stanovaya, the analyst, said she now felt that Mr Putin's heightened obsession with history in recent years had become key to understanding his motivation.

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