At about 1am on February 24 last year, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, received a troubling phone call.
After spending months building up a more than 100,000-strong invasion force on the border with Ukraine, Vladimir Putin had given the go-ahead to invade.
The decision caught Lavrov completely by surprise. Just days earlier, the Russian president had polled his security council for their opinions on recognising two separatist statelets in the Donbas, an industrial border region in Ukraine, at an excruciatingly awkward televised session — but had left them none the wiser about his true intentions.
Keeping Lavrov in the dark was not unusual for Putin, who tended to concentrate his foreign policy decision-making among a handful of close confidants, even when it undermined Russia’s diplomatic efforts.
On this occasion, the phone call made Lavrov one of the very few people who had any knowledge of the plan ahead of time. The Kremlin’s senior leadership all found out about the invasion only when they saw Putin declare a “special military operation” on television that morning.
Later that day, several dozen oligarchs gathered at the Kremlin for a meeting arranged only the day before, aware that the invasion would trigger western sanctions that could destroy their empires. “Everyone was completely losing it,” says a person who attended the event.
While they waited, one of the oligarchs spied Lavrov exiting another meeting and pressed him for an explanation about why Putin had decided to invade. Lavrov had no answer: the officials he was there to see in the Kremlin had known less about it than he did.
Stunned, the oligarch asked Lavrov how Putin could have planned such an enormous invasion in such a tiny circle — so much so that most of the senior officials at the Kremlin, Russia’s economic cabinet and its business elite had not believed it was even possible.
“He has three advisers,” Lavrov replied, according to the oligarch. “Ivan the Terrible. Peter the Great. And Catherine the Great.”
Under Putin’s invasion plan, Russia’s troops were to seize Kyiv within a matter of days in a brilliant, comparatively bloodless blitzkrieg.
Instead, the war has proved to be a quagmire of historic proportions for Russia. A year on, Putin’s invasion has claimed well over 200,000 dead and injured among Russia’s armed forces, according to US and European officials; depleted its stock of tanks, artillery and cruise missiles; and cut the country off from global financial markets and western supply chains.
Nor has the fighting in Ukraine brought Putin any closer to his vaguely defined goals of “demilitarising” and “de-Nazifying” Kyiv. Though Russia now controls 17 per cent of Ukraine’s internationally recognised territory, it has abandoned half of the land it seized in the war’s early weeks — including a humiliating retreat from Kherson, the only provincial capital under its control, just weeks after Putin attempted to annex it.
But as the war rumbles on with no end in sight, Putin has given no indication he intends to back down on his war efforts.
At his state-of-the-union address on Tuesday, Putin insisted the war was “about the very existence of our country” and said the west had forced him to invade Ukraine. “They’re the ones who started the war. We are using force to stop it,” he said.
Even as the huge cost of the invasion to Russia becomes apparent to him, Putin is more determined than ever to see it through, people who know him say.
“The idea was never for hundreds of thousands of people to die. It’s all gone horribly wrong,” a former senior Russian official says. With the initial plan in tatters, Putin is searching for new rationales to justify the war effort, insisting he had no choice but to pursue the invasion by any means necessary, current and former officials say.
“He tells people close to him, ‘It turns out we were completely unprepared. The army is a mess. Our industry is a mess. But it’s good that we found out about it this way, rather than when Nato invades us,’” the former official adds.
The Financial Times spoke to six longtime Putin confidants as well as people involved in Russia’s war effort, and current and former senior officials in the west and Ukraine for this account of how Putin blundered his way into the invasion — then doubled down rather than admit his mistake. All of them spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
The people who know Putin describe a leader who has become even more isolated since the start of the war. “Stalin was a villain, but a good manager, because he couldn’t be lied to. But nobody can tell Putin the truth,” says one. “People who don’t trust anyone start trusting a very small number of people who lie to them.”
‘If you don’t agree with it, you can leave’
Last year was not the first time Putin had withheld plans of an invasion from close advisers. When Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, he did not inform his own security council — instead on one occasion gaming out the peninsula’s annexation with his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and three top security officials all night until 7am.
Initially, the advisers urged Putin against sending troops into Crimea, according to a former senior Russian official and a former senior US official. “Putin said, ‘This is a historic moment. If you don’t agree with it, you can leave,’” the former Russian official recalls.
When the west, fearful of escalating tensions to a point of no return and jeopardising Europe’s economic ties with Russia, responded with only a slap on the wrist, Putin was convinced he had made the right decision, according to several people who know the president.
In the years after the 2014 invasion, Putin’s inner circle began to shrink further as he became increasingly consumed with what he saw as growing western threats to Russia’s security, the people say. His isolation deepened when the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020: for fear they could infect a germaphobic Putin, even top officials were forced to spend weeks at a time quarantining for a personal audience.
One of the few people to spend extended time with Putin was his friend Yuri Kovalchuk, a former physicist who in the 1990s owned a dacha adjoining the future president’s in the countryside outside St Petersburg.
The secretive Kovalchuk — a banker and media mogul who the US says manages Putin’s personal finances — almost never speaks in public and did not reply to a request for comment.
People who know him say he shares a passion for Russian imperial revanchism with his older brother Mikhail, a physicist whose conspiracy theory-laden rants about US plans to develop super-soldiers and “ethnic weapons” have, on occasion, popped up later in Putin’s speeches.
During the height of the pandemic, Putin was largely cut off from comparatively liberal, western-minded confidants who had previously had his ear. Instead he spent the first few months in his residence at Valdai, a bucolic town on a lake in northern Russia, essentially on lockdown with the younger Kovalchuk, who inspired Putin to think of his historic mission to assert Russia’s greatness, much as Peter the Great had.
“He really believes all the stuff he says about sacrality and Peter the Great. He thinks he will be remembered like Peter,” a former senior official says.
Increasingly, Putin became fixated on Ukraine as his relations soured with its energetic young president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
One of Zelenskyy’s early moves was to curb the influence of Viktor Medvedchuk, a close friend of Putin’s who headed the largest opposition party in parliament. Whereas former president Petro Poroshenko had used Medvedchuk as a crucial go-between with Moscow, Zelenskyy’s team sought other intermediaries in the belief that his influence on Putin had begun to wane.
But as Putin began drawing up plans for a possible invasion, Medvedchuk insisted that Ukrainians would greet Russia’s forces with open arms.
One part of the plan involved Viktor Yanukovych, a former president who has been in Russian exile since fleeing the 2014 revolution against him. He was to deliver a video message conferring legitimacy on Medvedchuk — and anointing him to rule Ukraine with Russia’s backing.
The vision was starkly at odds with political realities in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian minority that Medvedchuk represented was vastly outnumbered by those who despised him for his ties to Moscow. But it proved seductive for Putin, who authorised payments through Medvedchuk’s party to pay off local collaborators.
There was plenty of scepticism in Moscow. “If Medvedchuk says it’s raining, you need to look out of the window — it’ll be sunny,” says another former senior Russian official. “You have polls, you have the secret services — how can you do anything serious based on what Medvedchuk says?”
However, his assessment was backed up by the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, which assured Putin victory was certain — and paid large sums in bribes to officials in Ukraine in the hope that this would guarantee success.
“The FSB had built a whole system of telling the boss what he wanted to hear. There were huge budgets given out and corruption at every level,” a western intelligence official says. “You tell the right story up top and you skim off a bit for yourself.”
Dissenting voices in the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, and Russia’s general staff attempted to raise doubts. At the security council meeting three days before the invasion, even Nikolai Patrushev, security council secretary and Putin’s longest-standing and most hawkish ally, suggested giving diplomacy another chance.
“He knew what a bad state the army was in and told Putin as much,” a person close to the Kremlin says.
But just as he had in 2014, Putin overruled them, insisting he was better informed.
“Putin was overconfident,” a former senior US official says. “He knows better than his advisers just the way Hitler knew better than his generals.”
The invasion began to unravel almost immediately after Putin set it into motion. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, had drawn up a plan to seize the Hostomel airfield outside Kyiv, giving Russian elite paratrooper squadrons a platform from which to attack Zelenskyy’s government headquarters.
Some of Medvedchuk’s collaborators worked as spotters for the advancing Russian forces, painting markings on buildings and highways to direct the invaders to key locations. Others joined in the attack on the government quarter. In southern Ukraine, they helped Russia capture a large swath of territory including Kherson with little to no resistance.
Most of Medvedchuk’s network, however, simply took the money and ran, refusing to join in the invasion — or went straight to Ukrainian authorities and warned them of the instructions they had been given, according to a senior Ukrainian official and former US and Russian officials.
Prewar predictions that Ukraine’s army would collapse had largely been based on the assumption Russia’s air force would quickly establish control of Ukraine’s skies.
Instead, amid widespread disarray among the invaders, Russia’s army shot down a number of its own aircraft in the early days of the invasion. As a result, it ran out of pilots with experience of combat operations involving ground forces who were also prepared to fly, according to two western officials and a Ukrainian official.
“It may not have been double digits, but it’s more than one or two” Russian aircraft shot down by friendly fire, says the former senior US official. “There was a lot of fratricide.”
He adds: “They may not have had pilots with combat experience who were willing to fly over Ukraine and risk their necks in that crazy environment.”
Vadym Skibitsky, deputy head of Ukrainian military intelligence, adds: “It happened. From artillery units, from tanks, and we even saw it from our intercepts of their conversations. They shot down their own helicopters and they shot down their own planes.”
On the ground, Russia’s advances came at the price of huge casualties and did not help it capture any major cities apart from Kherson. By the end of March, the invading forces were in such a poor state that they withdrew from most of central and north-eastern Ukraine, which it portrayed as a “gesture of goodwill”.
The brilliant plan had proved a failure.
“Russia screwed up,” says Skibitsky. “Gerasimov initially didn’t want to go in from all sides like he did. But the FSB and everyone else convinced him everyone was waiting for him to show up and there wouldn’t be any resistance.”
‘A unique war in world history’
As the consequences of his invasion became clear, Putin searched for a scapegoat to hold responsible for the intelligence blunders underpinning it. That person was Sergei Beseda, the head of the FSB’s fifth directorate, which is responsible for foreign operations and had laid the groundwork for the invasion by paying off Ukrainian collaborators, according to two western officials.
Initially, Beseda was placed under house arrest, according to the officials. His time in the doghouse, however, did not last long. Weeks later, US officials arrived for a meeting on bilateral issues with their Russian counterparts wondering, after news of Beseda’s detention leaked to the Russian media, whether he would turn up and how the Russians might explain where he was.
Instead, Beseda walked in and said, paraphrasing Mark Twain: “You know, the rumours of my demise are greatly exaggerated,” according to the former US official.
Beseda’s quick comeback demonstrated what advisers see as some of Putin’s biggest weaknesses. The Russian president prizes loyalty over competence; is obsessive about secrecy to a fault; and presides over a bureaucratic culture where his underlings tell him what he wants to hear, according to people who know him.
The steady drumbeat of propaganda around the war and Putin’s demands for loyalty from the elite have only increased the incentive for advisers to tell him what he wants to hear, the people say.
“He’s of sound mind. He’s reasonable. He’s not crazy. But nobody can be an expert on anything. They need to be honest with him and they are not,” another longtime Putin confidant says. “The management system is a huge problem. It creates big gaps in his knowledge and the quality of the information he gets is poor.”
For many in the elite, the stream of lies is a survival tactic: most of Putin’s presidential administration and economic cabinet have told friends they oppose the war but feel they are powerless to do anything about it. “It’s really a unique war in world history, when all the elite is against it,” says a former senior official.
A small number, including former climate special representative Anatoly Chubais, have quietly resigned. One former senior official who now heads a major state-run company went so far as to apply for an Israeli passport while still in his post, and started making plans to leave the country, according to two people close to him.
As the war continues to sputter, the scale of Russia’s miscalculation has begun to dawn on Putin, prompting him to seek out more information from people at lower levels, people who know him say. A cohort of ultranationalist bloggers who are critical of the military establishment have held at least two closed-door meetings with Putin since last summer; some were guests of honour at a ceremony to annex the four Ukrainian provinces in September.
On occasion, Putin has used information from his informal channels to trip up senior officials in public. Last month, Denis Manturov, a deputy prime minister, told Putin the government had signed contracts with Russian aviation factories to produce new aircraft, one of the industries worst hit by the difficulty of procuring components under the sanctions. Putin replied: “I know the factories don’t have contracts, the directors told me. What are you playing the fool for? When will the contracts be ready? Here’s what I’m talking about: the factory directors say they don’t have contracts. And you’re telling me it’s all on paper.”
Putin’s newfound scepticism, however, is limited by his unwillingness to admit the invasion was a mistake in the first place, the people say. Some of the liberal officials who oppose the war have attempted to convince him to end it by pointing out the economic damage the sanctions are likely to wreak on Russia’s economy.
But Putin tells them “he has already factored in the discounts”, another former senior Russian official says. “He says, ‘We pay a huge price, I get it. We underestimated how difficult it could be.’ But how can you convince a crazy man? His brain will collapse if he realises it was a mistake,” the person adds. “He doesn’t trust anyone.”
Asked about the discrepancy between the defence ministry’s statements and complaints from fighters at the front about poor equipment in December, Putin paraphrased a character from his favourite TV show, the Soviet espionage drama Seventeen Moments of Spring: “You can’t trust anyone. Only me.” Then he chuckled.
Existential fight continues
Putin’s state-of-the-union address on Tuesday demonstrated his determination to “solve the tasks before us step by step” as he insisted Russia’s war would go on until a victorious end.
The remarks underscored how existential the fight has become for Putin as the threat he sees from a hostile west consumes him. Putin spent comparatively little time discussing Ukraine itself, instead focusing his ire on the US, which he accused of trying to “destroy” Russia and use “national traitors” to break it up.
The speech marked his first return to nuclear rhetoric since last autumn, when he made veiled warnings to “use all the means at our disposal” in defence of Russia’s conquests and suggested Russia could carry out a nuclear first strike.
Those threats worried western countries sufficiently that the US, UK, and France, Nato’s three nuclear powers, delivered a joint message to Russia vowing to retaliate with conventional weapons if Putin decided to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, according to the former US and Russian officials.
According to two people close to the Kremlin, Putin has already gamed out the possibility of using a nuclear weapon in Ukraine and has come to the conclusion that even a limited strike would do nothing to benefit Russia.
“He has no reason to press the button. What is the point of bombing Ukraine? You detonate a tactical nuke on Zaporizhzhia,” says a former Russian official, referring to the Ukrainian-held capital of a province Putin has claimed for Russia. “Everything is totally irradiated, you can’t go in there, and it’s supposedly Russia anyway, so what was the point?”
Instead, Putin said Russia would suspend its participation in New Start, the last remaining arms treaty with the US governing the countries’ nuclear arsenals. The suspension was the most concrete step Putin has taken on the escalation ladder since the war began: Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, said “the whole arms control architecture has been dismantled.”
This time, however, Putin made no threats to actually use nuclear weapons — which analysts interpreted as a sign he had begun to realise Russia’s limitations.
“The war’s been going on for a year. Putin has been saying he’s fighting the west, not Ukraine, for a long time. You can’t just keep talking about it, you need to take steps to demonstrate something tangible,” says Abbas Gallyamov, a former Putin speechwriter. “Otherwise in his paradigm it’s going to look like the west is wiping the floor with Russia and [he] can’t say anything in response.”
Putin’s calculation, people close to the Kremlin say, is that Russia is more committed to the war than the west is to Ukraine, and resilient enough to see out the economic pain. Senior Republicans have openly questioned how long the US can go on supporting Ukraine to the same extent and the party retains a realistic chance of capturing the White House in 2024.
In ramping up military support for Ukraine, western officials are mindful anything less than a crushing defeat for Russia risks failing to deal with the problem.
“We need to ask ourselves: How do we want to this end up? Do we want to end up in a situation when Putin will survive and he will have more time?” says an EU foreign minister. “Something like the lull between the first and second world war.”
Putin, by contrast, is betting that he can see through that strategic turbulence, people who know him say. Instead of insisting that most Russians are unaffected by the war, as the Kremlin did in its early months when life largely went on as normal, Putin has adopted mobilisation rhetoric, urging all of society to unite behind the invasion.
The scenes at a patriotic rally on Wednesday underscored how far Putin had come down that road in just a few years. At Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, where the World Cup final was held five years ago, a soldier rapped about “the difficult hour we did not anticipate” alongside Russia’s military choir and the parents of people killed fighting for Russia made speeches to a huge flag-waving crowd. The rally’s hosts welcomed a group of children “saved” by the Russian army in Mariupol, a city in south-eastern Ukraine it razed to the ground last spring.
Then Putin appeared, shook hands with a select group of soldiers, and told Russians to take inspiration from them. “The motherland is our family,” Putin said. “The people standing up here are deciding to defend the most valuable and dear thing they have — our family. They are fighting heroically, courageously, bravely.”
Russian independent media reported that tens of thousands of state employees and students were paid small sums or forced to attend. The fact the Kremlin evidently did not think it could fill a stadium to support Putin without forcing people to go suggests officials know how difficult mobilising society around the war will be.
“Even in his own mind, he realises it’s not going to happen soon. It’s going to be a costly, lengthy process,” the former US official says. “He’s got, he thinks, the time — he’s 70 — and the resources, the oil and gas money to achieve it. And that’s what he’ll be remembered for: gathering the Russian lands the way Peter the Great did.”
But the alternative, one former senior Kremlin official says, may be too difficult for Putin to contemplate.
“It’s scary to think what happens if this ends in a disastrous defeat for Russia,” the former official says. “That means disastrous mistakes were made and the man behind it needs to exit this life, whether it’s via a bullet, cyanide, or something else. And if there’s no justice in this world, then nobody gets to have it,” he adds.
“It’s like when two chess players are playing. One of them is losing and bashes the other one over the head with the chessboard. Does that mean he won? No, it’s just an act of desperation.”
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Brussels and Anastasia Stognei in Riga
Russia at war: a two-part series
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Source: Financial Times