Early in his war against Ukraine President Vladimir Putin of Russia appeared tense, angry and even disoriented. He spent days out of the public eye, threatened the West with nuclear strikes, and lashed out at anti-war Russians as “scum.”
But in recent weeks a new Putin has emerged, very much resembling his prewar image: relaxed, patient and self-confident.
Holding court with young people, he compared himself casually to Peter the Great, Russia’s first emperor. Addressing an economic conference he dismissed the notion that sanctions could isolate Russia and crowed that they were harming the West even more. And last Wednesday he strode, smiling, across a sun-baked airport tarmac in Turkmenistan, slinging off his suit jacket before ducking into his Russian-made armoured limousine to head for a five-country summit meeting.
It was Putin’s first trip abroad since the invasion of Ukraine, and his first multiday foreign trip since the pandemic – an apparently calculated bit of counterprogramming to the Nato summit in Spain, where Western nations were announcing a new strategic vision, with Moscow as their primary adversary. Putin also sent a message to Russians and to the world that despite the fighting in Ukraine, the Kremlin is settling back into a routine.
The trip was the latest step in a broader transformation of Putin that has become apparent in recent weeks. He is telegraphing a shift away from wartime crisis mode back toward the aura of a calm, paternalistic leader shielding Russians from the dangers of the world. It suggests that Putin thinks that he has stabilised his war effort and his economic and political system after Russia’s initial military failures and an avalanche of Western sanctions.
“The initial shock has passed and things have turned out to be not all that bad,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Putin, describing the president’s perspective.
But the change in Putin also illustrates that he is reverting to his old instincts in trying to paper over the risks that still loom: a Ukraine that shows no sign of giving up the fight; an extraordinarily united and expanding Nato; and a fragile tranquility on the homefront where the consequences of sanctions and the ripple effects of the war’s death and destruction are still playing out.
“He understands that his legitimacy is based on being strong and active, on acting and winning,” Gallyamov, now a political consultant living in Israel, went on. “Paralysis and absence from public view are like death for him. So he has mastered himself and is now trying to do this.”
Key to Putin’s message last week is that Russia’s global isolation is far from total – and that the declarations at the Nato summit – a determination to back Ukraine and strengthen the alliance’s eastern flank – are of little concern.
Putin’s trip to Central Asia was notable not just because it was the first time he had left the country since he began the invasion on February 24th, but also because he has been taking extraordinary pandemic precautions. After flying to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on Tuesday for a meeting with the country’s president, Emomali Rahmon, Putin spent the night there – the first time he is known to have spent the night outside Russia since January 2020.
On Wednesday Putin flew to Turkmenistan for a gathering of the leaders of the five countries surrounding the Caspian Sea, which also include Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Iran. The summit held practical significance because Russia is trying to expand its influence in the economically vital, energy-rich region, while looking to fill the power vacuum left behind by the American withdrawal from nearby Afghanistan.
But the summit was also of symbolic importance for Putin’s audience back home, offering a split-screen image of diplomatic activity and Russian soft power just as Western leaders gathered in Madrid. Putin presented two handmade sabers and a chess set from the Urals to Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the eccentric former leader of insular Turkmenistan who was celebrating his 65th birthday; at the gathering with Caspian leaders Putin called for more regional co-operation, including a Caspian film forum.
Afterward Putin held a brief news conference for the few members of the press accompanying him, dismissing the idea that his invasion of Ukraine had backfired because it led Sweden and Finland to seek to join Nato. A Western-allied Ukraine, he insisted, would be much more of a threat than the two Nordic countries.
He also got in a dig at the physiques of Western leaders, responding to a quip by prime minister Boris Johnson of Britain this week about being photographed bare-chested as Putin has been. “I think this would have been a disgusting sight, in any case,’’ he said.
To Tatiana Stanovaya, a longtime expert on the Kremlin, who is based in France, Putin’s flurry of appearances is the latest iteration in his regular oscillation between periods of intense private and intense public activity.
Putin can be tight-lipped for weeks in high-pressure periods – as he was ahead of the winter invasion, when he went more than a month without speaking publicly about Ukraine. In the weeks after the invasion he repeatedly went days without appearing on camera.
But in other cases Putin can embark on a flurry of, by Kremlin standards, freewheeling events – as he did this month when he spent more than 90 minutes in a town hall session with young entrepreneurs, and a week later when he appeared for nearly four hours onstage at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum.
“After some very loud and shocking steps, he needs feedback,” Stanovaya said of Putin. “He starts to actively appear in public, he starts to open up, he starts to be more outspoken. It’s as though he’s going out into the light to see what he has actually done.”
Putin’s isolation was magnified by the pandemic, and was accompanied, whether authentically or by design, by outbursts of remarkable anger and grievance directed at the West. In his speech declaring the start of the invasion he called the US-led West an “empire of lies,” and threatened any countries that tried to interfere with “consequences you have never faced in your history”. In March, Putin lashed out at pro-Western Russians as “scum and traitors” whom society would spit out “like a fly”.
The ominous language, combined with Western arms deliveries to Ukraine and Russian setbacks on the battlefield, prompted many analysts – including Stanovaya – to conclude that Putin was contemplating a limited use of nuclear weapons to cow the West into submission. But recently Putin has dialled down the dire threats and returned to a more relaxed public persona. In a casual aside in his town hall the Russian leader compared his fight to Peter the Great’s wars of conquest of the 18th century, making it clear that he saw himself as a historical figure on a years long quest to return lost lands – and glory – to Russia.
Nevertheless, predictions that Putin would make an official declaration of war and install a military draft have not come to pass. And Western steps that other Russian officials have described as hostile – such as granting European Union candidate status to Ukraine and inviting Sweden and Finland into Nato – have not provoked any harsh retaliation from him.
Instead, his strategy now appears to be to wait things out, expecting Western resolve to falter under economic pressure and the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine to crumble as Russia pounds its forces and cities. And Stanovaya sees Putin as having entered a sort of détente with Washington, determining that President Joe Biden is setting limits on the scale of his aid to Ukraine to avoid a broader conflagration.
“He’s betting that with time, the Kyiv authorities will have to accept everything,” Stanovaya said of Putin. Russia has been following the Biden administration’s statements closely, she went on, “and has decided: ‘okay, the rules of the game have been established. They are acceptable to us. So we can calm down and simply wait.’”
That approach, to be sure, comes with major risks. Putin’s apparent expectation that many Ukrainians would welcome the Russians as liberators exposed his warped understanding of the country. And inside Russia the consequences of sanctions are still playing out – a point underscored by Maxim Reshetnikov, the economy minister, who warned on Wednesday that the unexpected strength of the ruble was threatening the viability of Russian exporters.
Putin did not mention Ukraine or his showdown with the West in his eight-minute speech in Turkmenistan on Wednesday, another sign of how he is projecting a return to business as usual. Instead, he spoke of Russian efforts to improve transportation and tourism in the region and to address pollution and depleted fisheries.
The first Caspian cruise ship, he said, would sail next year from Russia’s Astrakhan region at the Volga River delta. The ship’s name: Peter the Great.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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