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Putin’s obsession: Why Russia’s leader is so fixated on taking Ukraine 

One of the most difficult aspects of the Ukraine war for many people in the West to understand is why it’s even happening in the first place. Why would anyone want to cause so much death and destruction?

So, much of the focus has been on the personality of Russia‘s president, Vladimir Putin.

Sky News has spoken to some of those in the know, who are free to speak out, for a new documentary, in a bid to look inside the mind of the man who launched the invasion of his country’s neighbour.

They help explain Putin’s obsession: Why he is waging the fight for Ukraine.

People have said that Vladimir Putin is dreaming of a new empire. Or rather – a return to a previous one and that he is obsessed with the idea of “Mother Russia”. It is a land that gave birth to a great people, with a common heritage, the Slavic people.

But, in order to fully understand why he thinks and feels the way he does about Ukraine, experts say its necessary to look at where he came from.

Adrian Furnham, a professor of psychology and co-author of the soon-to-be published book The Psychology of Spies And Espionage, says his upbringing may have much to do with it.

He told Sky News: “His parents had two children before him who both died, and he was thought of as something of a miracle child.

“And I think this has given him some sort of sense of omnipotence.”

Russian ex-chess grandmaster and renowned Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov, who had to flee his homeland after opposing Mr Putin in a presidential race, knows his former adversary well.

“He grew up in the streets of Leningrad,” he told Sky News. “It’s a kind of sub-criminal culture, and it’s all about strength. It’s all about, you know, it’s like street fighters… the animal instincts.”

Putin exit ‘being discussed behind the scenes’ – live Ukraine updates

Vladimir Putin grew up in Leningrad at the height of the Cold War. Pic: AP
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Vladimir Putin grew up in Leningrad at the height of the Cold War. Pic: AP

Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at The New School in New York and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s granddaughter, says he had firm ambitions from the outset.

“As a child, he wanted to be part of the KGB,” she says. “In fact, asked early on what he needed to do to get there: Go to law school, have good grades, meet with the representatives of the KGB. So we know that if he decides he wants something, he’s going to get it.”

Obviously, the KGB spotted something in the young Putin that it liked as it signed him up. Russia’s secret police was known for its manipulation of enemies, and ruthless elimination of threats. Perhaps they spotted one of their own.

He was posted to the East German city of Dresden. Far from home, he had the opportunity to operate as he saw fit.

Anne Applebaum, a Polish-American journalist and historian who has written extensively about communism and eastern Europe, says his belief the KGB had to right to do whatever it needed was absolute.

She says: “He believed it had a right to rule over East Germany and had a right to rule over central and eastern Europe, and he thought of it as a kind of empire in which he was one of the imperial guards.”

Along with East Germany, another of those countries within the Soviet empire at the time was Ukraine.

But the relationship goes back to a time before the Soviet Union.

For centuries, Ukraine has been integral to how Russian rulers see their realm of power.

Nina Khrushcheva says: “Ukraine… has been always important for any Russian leader.

“In translation, it’s called ‘on the edge’. So that is it’s on the edge of Russia. But of course, now we see it, it’s on the edge of Poland. So it’s on the edge of both the West and East.”

At the height of its power, Soviet rule spanned nearly a sixth of the Earth’s land surface.

One central, communist government controlled political and economic power with a tight grip.

But the engine of that economic power was industrialised and fertile Ukraine.

Because of its importance to the Soviet economy, the often-brutal leaders kept a tight stranglehold over Ukraine to ensure it remained firmly under their control.

Anne Applebaum says: “During the course of the 1920s, Stalin became more and more worried about Ukraine.

“It had its own identity, it did things independently.”

View from the Kremlin: An interview with Putin’s spokesman

In the 1930s, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin launched the Holodomor - or "murder by hunger" - to quell Ukrainian resistance. Pic: AP
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Stalin launched the Holodomor to quell Ukrainian resistance. Pic: AP

In 1932, Josef Stalin – who was Soviet leader from 1922 to 1953 – used Soviet control of food supplies to generate a horrific man-made famine, with the aim of stamping out the Ukrainian resistance.

It was called the Holodomor – or “murder by hunger”.

Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK and ex-foreign minister, says: “Millions of people died. It’s very deep in their memories of all these people in these villages, these years of Holodomor – all Ukrainians understand what was happening.”

Anne Applebaum adds: “Putin doesn’t know the story of the famine. Or if he’s been told it, he doesn’t believe it.

“There’s a whole Russian industry devoted to denying the famine, covering up the famine.

“One of the sources of Putin’s misunderstandings of Ukraine is that he doesn’t know that part of Ukrainian history, and so he doesn’t understand why Ukrainians would fight back against Russians once again.”

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed.

What had been one country, made up of a supposedly federal union of 15 national republics, splintered, with all the separate entities becoming independent states.

Some, such as the Baltic states, had left earlier, eager to escape what they felt was the Soviet yoke, under which they had been placed illegally.

Others just looked forward to self-government.

Vadym Prystaiko says: “It was huge celebration. People were quite happy. At that time, nobody actually wanted the Soviet Union to survive.”

Many of the new nations remained in what came to be called the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an organisation not unlike the EU’s ancestors, which aimed to promote co-operation in economic, political and military affairs.

But, despite the talk of remaining close, for many of those who were paid up members of the Soviet system, the fact that Moscow no longer controlled what had previously been vassal states was galling.

Anne Applebaum says: “Putin experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union as a personal tragedy.

“He never experienced the euphoria, when people genuinely were optimistic about how the country might change and improve. Instead, he merely experienced that whole era as one of defeat and decline.”

It may have been a personal tragedy, but he didn’t let it hold him back. After arriving back in Russia, as it went from communism to capitalism in the blink of an eye, he stepped into a rapidly changing world where there was a power vacuum.

Read more: Inside the mind of Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin built his reputation in Russia on his crackdown on Chechen rebels. Here he presents and award to a Russian police officer in the region in 1997, weeks after becoming PM. Pic: AP
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Putin built his reputation on his crackdown on Chechen rebels. Here he presents an award to a Russian police officer in the region in 1997. Pic: AP

It helped make his rise meteoric.

Working at the heart of the Kremlin, he became part of President Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle and was soon running the FSB – the successor spying organisation to the KGB.

A year later, Yeltsin personally appointed Putin as his prime minister.

It coincided with a series of apartment bombings that the Russian authorities blamed on Chechen rebels, from the breakaway republic.

As Putin cracked down on those he accused of terror attacks, his law-and-order approach boosted his popularity, so that by the time Boris Yeltsin stepped down, he was able to step up, first as acting president and then as elected leader.

Just four years into his presidency, Ukraine, which had already downgraded its membership of the CIS to associate member, was split between those who favoured remaining close to Russia and those who wanted to be more like the EU, which had expanded to take in the former Eastern Bloc.

The year 2004 saw a critical moment, as elections were under way.

Putin backed a pro-Russian candidate, Victor Yanukovych.

His opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, was one of those who wanted to turn Ukraine towards the West.

Anne Applebaum says: “This division between a pro-Russian corrupt president on the one hand, Yanukovych, and a pro-Western president Yushchenko on the other, really crystallised this competition for control of Ukraine.”

Vadym Prystaiko adds: “We were working on an association agreement with the European Union and we were playing with NATO ideas.

“So, it was becoming obvious for Putin that sooner or later, if he doesn’t do anything, Ukraine will leave and will go West.”

As the election approached, Yushchenko fell sick so that his face was left disfigured. Afterward, the Kremlin and Yanukovych were accused of poisoning him.

Yanukovych was declared the winner but many Ukrainians were furious, certain that a majority had wanted Yushchenko to win.

Protests broke out that became known as the Orange Revolution. It forced a new poll that, this time, resulted in Yushchenko taking power.

Read more: Why does Putin want Donetsk and Luhansk?

Pro-EU Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko in 2002 and 2004, before and after his alleged poisoning. Pic: AP
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Viktor Yushchenko in 2002 and 2004, before and after his alleged poisoning. Pic: AP

It left the Kremlin smarting.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition leader and journalist, says: “If Ukraine becomes democratic, if a country like that breaks away from its Soviet legacy, that is not just an annoyance, but actually an existential threat to a regime such as Vladimir Putin’s.”

Oliver Bullough, a journalist and expert on Russia, adds: “With Ukraine, Russia is a great power. Without Ukraine, it isn’t. I think that’s the vision for Russian nationalists. So, when Ukrainians rejected Yanukovich, it was a real slap in the face.”

Ukraine’s future direction remained on a knife edge until 2014, when Yanukovych finally won power.

He set about dismantling a trade agreement with the EU and did a deal with Russia instead, invoking the fury of those Ukrainians who saw their country’s future with Europe.

It prompted another outpouring of violent protests on the streets of Kyiv – the Maidan protests.

Within three months, Yanukovych was gone again, but it didn’t stop Putin trying to retain control, as Crimea was annexed and war broke out in the eastern Donbas region where the majority are Russian, rather than Ukrainian, speakers.

In 2019, President Petro Poroshenko was voted out in favour of a new kind of Ukrainian – a TV comedian who epitomised its modern citizens who are committed to democracy and openness, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

It looked as if the battle between East and West had been won.

To understand Vladimir Putin’s relationship with power, you have to go right back to the war in Chechnya.

Amid the chaos of the early Russian Federation, Chechen separatists declared independence and beat off attempts to suppress their rebellion before war broke out again in the aftermath of the apartment bombings.

It has been suggested that Chechens were not behind the bombings, but that the FSB and Putin himself may have had a hand in them.

Whoever was responsible, as prime minister, Putin launched a full-scale assault on the rebel-held territory, reducing the capital Grozny to ruins.

Rosemary Thomas, former British ambassador to Belarus, says: “What he did was show that if you were going to go into a war that you would have to prosecute it ruthlessly and use whatever tactics that you saw fit.”

Mr Kara-Murza adds: “We saw then in Chechnya, all the same things that we are seeing today in Ukraine.”

It took until 2009 before the Second Chechen War was over, but today, Grozny has been rebuilt with billions of dollars of Kremlin money.

Vladimir Putin Avenue is lined with glass-fronted skyscrapers – and a puppet regime has been installed.

For the Kremlin, this is what the successful outcome of a special military operation looks like.

A landmark moment came in 2007 when, despite Western efforts to reach out and embrace the Russian leader, by involving him in their attempts to improve worldwide relations, he criticised the US, saying the “unipolar model” of the world – that’s to say, one in which the US and its values are the dominant power and ideology – was “unacceptable”.

Meanwhile, at another summit, he told NATO leaders that Ukraine doesn’t exist.

It was an indication of what was to come.

Watch: Vladimir Putin is ‘losing strength’

Grozny, the Chechen capital, was left smashed by Russian forces as they tackled separatist rebels in the region's second war. Pic: AP
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Grozny was smashed by Russian forces as they tackled separatist rebels. Pic: AP

Simultaneously, with two terms as president nearly under his belt, another term as prime minister to come (during which time the president was his proxy) and a further two presidential terms after that, Putin set about dismantling 1990s efforts to remake Russia using the Western democratic model.

Mr Kara-Murza says: “When Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia was a democracy. An imperfect one, no question. But we had a functioning democratic system of government with periodic competitive elections, with vibrant independent media.

“There was no single moment when Putin turned Russia from democracy to dictatorship.”

Garry Kasparov adds: “His is a very steady process of turning Russia, a feeble democracy with some very nascent democratic institutions with no real traditions, into a full-blown fascist dictatorship that attacked its neighbours and tried to spread violence around the globe.”

“Vladimir Putin in effect followed the advice once given by Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator in Italy, who said that you should pluck the chicken feather-by-feather to lessen the squawking,” adds Mr Kara-Murza.

With independent media finding it harder and harder to operate, he began to go unchallenged, slowly becoming a dictator not unlike those Soviets who preceded him.

In the following years, his regime would undertake increasingly shocking acts of violence, including the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko using a radioactive element and a chemical weapons attack on Sergei Skripal on British soil, waging a brutal war to help its ally in Syria, and a series of other suspected political assassination attempts.

Mr Kara-Murza, himself a target of an assassination attempt, says the “most high profile” was that of Boris Nemtsov, a Yeltsin cabinet minister and reformer, who was also a Putin critic.

“This was… the most brazen political assassination in the modern history of Russia,” says Mr Kara-Murza.

“Sometimes they use bullets, as they did with Boris Nemtsov. Sometimes they use poisons, as they did with Alexei Navalny, myself and several other opposition activists in Russia.”

Oliver Bullough adds: “Putin killed tens of thousands of Chechens, he murdered Alexander Litvinenko, he attempted to murder Sergei Skripal with nerve agent, there have been assassinations by Russian agents in Berlin, Vienna, attempted assassinations elsewhere over the years.

“Any one of these should have made people sit up and say, ‘who are we dealing with here?'”

But it was the annexation of Crimea that really set the course for the war we are witnessing today.

Garry Kasparov says: “What made Putin [the] Putin [of] today was Crimea. That’s what changed Putin’s view in the eyes of many Russians, because he restored, as they thought, Russia’s greatness. Not by just seizing Crimea and annexing it, but doing it… without a single shot.

“Crimea’s triumph convinced Putin that now he could go much, much further.”

A number of experts have said they believe the isolation imposed on Putin by coronavirus helped foment a state of mind that has led to the current crisis.

Insight into what he was thinking may have come during the COVID period when he penned a treatise that claimed the Russians and Ukrainians were one people, and that they were being pulled apart by forces from the West.

Either way, on 24 February, his tanks rolled across the border from Belarus, Russia and Crimea into Ukrainian held sovereign territory, opening a new chapter in East-West relations.

The question is, what happens now? For some, the only answer is to fight with the same determination as Putin.

Garry Kasparov says: “I think the invasion was inevitable because that was Putin’s plan.

“But it was inevitable since the free world showed no appetite to stop this aggression early days.

“The behaviour of Volodymr Zelenskyy in the first days of this war, it’s one of the key factors why Ukraine survived.”

Vadym Prystaiko adds: “We have to mobilise every possible soldier, every possible last piece of army equipment, and fight to the death.”

And as the Russian army are being forced back by a united Ukraine, some Russians are starting to question what they’re being told.

Read more: What Putin’s body language may tell us

It is the fortitude of Ukrainian forces as they fight back at Russia that could defeat Vladimir Putin's ambitions
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It is the fortitude of Ukrainian forces as they fight back at Russia that could defeat Putin’s ambitions

Whether this leads to Putin losing power is too early to say but, either way, it does not look good for Russia in the coming months and years if it does not change direction.

Former investor in Russian businesses Bill Browder, whose activism led to the Magnitsky Act being named after his lawyer who died in Russian custody, says Putin is likely to keep power.

“The most probable outcome is the North Korea scenario that Putin continues to alienate the rest of the world, but somehow is able to lock down his own country, scare the living daylights out of every person there, and maintain his power,” he says.

Others, however, disagree.

Oliver Bullough says: “It’s been not just a tragedy and a horrible thing that he’s done, but also a profound mistake… He has managed to accelerate the decline of Russia rather than somehow cement its position.”

Vadym Prystaiko adds: “As of now, we see that he is not getting close. He actually might be signing his own sentence, that Ukraine will withstand this pressure and will lead by example.”

Nina Khrushcheva says one thing is certain – that Ukraine-Russia relations will never be the same again.

“Ukraine is lost for us,” she says. “For the Russians as a brotherly nation, we are no longer relatives. No connection at all.”

Putin’s Obsession: The Fight for Ukraine goes out on Wednesday 25 May at 9pm on Sky Documentaries, and on Sky News on Friday at 9pm. It will also be shown on 9 June on Sky Showcase.

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