This week on “Intelligence Matters,” host Michael Morell speaks with Andrew Weiss, a former White House Russia expert and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees research on Russia and Eurasia. The two discuss his new graphic novel biography Accidental Czar: The Life and Lies of Vladimir Putin, what motivates the Russian president and what misconceptions the U.S. has about his strategy in Ukraine.
- Lies and Putin’s political culture: “The lies are pervasive and it’s a part of Russian and I think Putin’s political culture to assume that you know that I know that you know that I’m lying. And that there’s no perception on his part that lying is necessarily a bad thing. And that’s one of the problems for people observing this from the outside is the things Russia says and does are often justified solely on the basis of things that are totally made up. And if we don’t recognize that and we take at face value, for example, the idea that it’s NATO enlargement that forced Russia to invade Ukraine, we’re going to miss and totally not comprehend what our own interests are and what the dangers that we’re facing actually are.”
- No checks on Putin’s power: “Putin is nimble. And the way the Russian decision-making system is set up, there aren’t any checks and balances anymore. Those existed earlier on in his tenure. And you had people who had served with him in the KGB or who had been his lifelong associates who were in senior positions. And you had something that looked a lot more, not exactly like the Politburo, but at least created some semblance of checks and balances. That has gone out the window over the course of the two decades Putin’s been in power. And increasingly, the people who surround Putin are implementers.”
- What’s driving Putin: “And then there’s the fact that the Russians aren’t done yet. And we just need to keep reminding ourselves that the goal Russia has, which is regime change, forceable destruction of Ukraine as an independent sovereign nation, and its reabsorption into Russia, those are still what’s driving Vladimir Putin. And there’s nothing we can give him that’s going to make him go away.”
INTELLIGENCE MATTERS WITH ANDREW WEISS — TRANSCRIPT
PRODUCER: PAULINA SMOLINSKI
MICHAEL MORELL: Andrew, welcome to Intelligence Matters. I am really excited about this conversation today. So it’s great to have you.
ANDREW WEISS: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.
MICHAEL MORELL: Andrew, you’ve just published a very unique book titled Accidental Czar: The Life and Lies of Vladimir Putin. So congratulations. I’d like to start by asking you why you wrote the book. What art form you chose for the book, and why you chose that art form.
ANDREW WEISS: I am a policy guy by background. I worked in different policy staff roles at the State Department, the Pentagon, the White House in an earlier stage of my career. And now I sit at a think tank. And one thing that’s become pretty clear to me, the longer I work at a think tank, which is a great existence, is how the people who do what I do for a living are oftentimes pretty insular. And we’re talking just to each other a lot of the time. And it’s not really reaching the kinds of audiences that I think have right now- notice that Vladimir Putin is having an outsized impact on their daily lives. And we in our fields, I’m lucky to be an expert on Russia, have a pretty big, I think, obligation to help people grapple with some of these foreign policy things.
And it’s part of why I love your show so much. And I’m not just saying that. Because people care about what’s going on in Ukraine and they want to know more. And this book in part was aimed at them. It was also aimed at young people who really love graphic novels. And then graphic novels themselves are just magical. And I don’t know if you’ve looked at some of them, but they deal with hard subjects a lot of times. But they grab you in a very heavy duty way. And it was all of those motivations wrapped up together.
MICHAEL MORELL: And then can you say a few words about your illustrator, Brian “Box” Brown because the illustrations are just knock your socks off.
ANDREW WEISS: Thanks for saying that. I’m sure Brian will be really gratified to hear that. I was, like a lot of people, I’m not super nerdy about graphic novels, but the ones I’ve read all tend to look pretty literal. And when I was first connected to the editor of this book, who’s a graphic novelist himself but runs an imprint at Macmillan, he gave me a bunch of books to read as a source of inspiration. He gave me books about the theory, like the academic theory of how comics work and why they’re so effective at grabbing people and your emotions and your brain. And then he gave me these books by Box Brown, and the books Brian had written are on pretty wacky topics. He’s written about Andre the Giant. He wrote about Andy Kaufman, the comic actor from the eighties, a book on Taxi. He wrote a history of Tetris, so he’s never illustrated someone else’s book. But when I heard from my editor, Mark Siegal, that Brian was interested in drawing this book, even though he’d never drawn someone else’s book, I was just shocked because Brian’s work doesn’t look like a kind of latter day Dick Tracy. It has this really unique, kind of minimalist feel. And then the last thing I’ll say is that when Brian and I started working together, I gave him tons of visual hints of what I wanted to be depicted in the book. But I was really adamant like, no dancing bears, no matryoshka dolls. Let’s steer clear of visual cliches and let’s build something new.
MICHAEL MORELL: Andrew, the title. I want to ask you about three words in the title, Accidental, Czar, and Lies. Could you explain the use of each of those in the title?
ANDREW WEISS: Sure. Vladimir Putin was plucked out of obscurity in the waning days of Boris Yeltsin as president to be his successor. And the reasons why he was plucked out have now increasingly either been lost to history or embellished. We all take it for granted that this guy has been around for two decades, and surely it was preordained that Vladimir Putin was going to be this formidable player on the world stage. Nothing of the sort. The Yeltsin presidency was unraveling. His family was deeply worried about retribution, imprisonment or worse. And they needed a loyal set of hands. And they turned to someone who had done that for a previous boss who had been the disgraced mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak. And as kind of the fixer around Sobchak, Putin helped get him out of the country, one step ahead of the law, and had made sure that his boss never faced any kind of accountability for crimes committed in office. And Putin lived up to that role.
The other thing that happened at the time was the people around Yeltsin wanted to figure out who the Russian people would embrace. And when they did focus groups, and this is a big part of the book, I tell the tale of how they went out and did testing of different historical figures of average Russians to try to figure out who they would rally around. And the person they found people would like the most, and it’s kind of perverse, was a Nazi movie hero who was an undercover Soviet intelligence operative named Otto von Stierlitz, and he was played by a character actor who looked a lot like Jon Hamm from Mad Men. And so in the early days, when Putin was first being rolled out to the Russian public, they dressed him up to look like a dashing guy. And he flew in a jet fighter and he wore a Navy suit, a sailor suit, and did all these things to kind of look like an action hero. And it was a big managed effort to convince the Russian people that the country was in good hands. But unfortunately, over time, people in the West never really were in on the joke, and they never really understood why Putin’s image was so cartoonish. And that was a big part of the motivation of writing it.
MICHAEL MORELL: So that’s accidental.
ANDREW WEISS: Accidental. And then the czar stuff, is that at every point Putin has tried to legitimize himself. And the two easiest ways to do that are to embrace Russia’s great victory or the Soviet Union’s great victory over the Nazis in World War Two. And to treat that as like the sacred moment and the full legitimizing of whatever Putin does as he’s the inheritor of this great thing that saved the world from Naziism. As well as harkening back to the great imperial legacies of the czars. And that’s why you always see Putin and the Kremlin and these golden rooms and various Russian philosophers and things like that. But most of this is artifice. A lot of this is deliberately intended to create several things. One, a sense that it’s historical, and whatever Putin’s doing, therefore, is okay, as well as to harken back to this notion that Russia is surrounded and that they’re a besieged fortress, surrounded by Western enemies, that will only survive if people rally around Vladimir Putin. So it’s totally self-serving and it’s artificial.
MICHAEL MORELL: And then lies.
ANDREW WEISS: The lies are just constant and there’s not that much we know for sure about Vladimir Putin, like even writing a book like this, where I’m trying to tell the story of recent history, like why is he at war in Ukraine? What is motivating him? The lies are pervasive and it’s a part of Russian and I think Putin’s political culture to assume that you know that I know that you know that I’m lying. And that there’s no perception on his part that lying is necessarily a bad thing. And that’s one of the problems for people observing this from the outside is the things Russia says and does are often justified solely on the basis of things that are totally made up. And if we don’t recognize that and we take at face value, for example, the idea that it’s NATO enlargement that forced Russia to invade Ukraine, we’re going to miss and totally not comprehend what our own interests are and what the dangers that we’re facing actually are.
MICHAEL MORELL: I walked away from reading the book with a handful of themes about Putin. And let me ask you about each one of them. And for each one, if you could explain sort of how the theme plays out, where it came from in terms of Putin’s background and his history and how it impacts his decision making today. And the first one that jumped out to me was that this is a highly emotional guy.
ANDREW WEISS: So the book starts literally, the very first scene in the book is to convey this notion that Putin can be highly emotional and impulsive. And there’s a side of him which is very cunning and very opportunistic and nimble. And I don’t want to deny the man all that he’s accomplished as a result of those characteristics. But Putin spent ten years, he spent his whole childhood dreaming of joining the KGB, and then he spent ten years in a series of menial low end jobs and backwater assignments. And when the time came, this is literally the first scene in the book, for him to go into the training program to go overseas. He totally screwed it up. He was back home in his hometown of Leningrad on a subway train, and he got into a fight with some random people who were bugging him and he broke his arm. And the scene that opens the book is him talking to his best friend and saying, I don’t think people in Moscow are going to really understand this. And I think there are going to be consequences. And I can’t prove it, but I think it’s a big part of how he ended up in East Germany in a backwater assignment in Dresden working in a tiny villa with six operatives. It was not where you put high flyers. It’s where you put someone who’s a hothead and who has real trouble keeping his emotions in check.
MICHAEL MORELL: I was interested that you sat in on President Clinton’s last call with Putin and how emotional Putin got in that call.
ANDREW WEISS: So to set the scene, this was in early January of 2001, and we didn’t use the call for simply exchanging pleasantries. It was done for policy purposes. And at the time, we knew that this hothead side of Clinton, of Putin, rather, was something that you could exploit, that if you made him lose his cool, especially compared to a smooth as silk person like Bill Clinton. It provided a little bit of leverage and an advantage to the U.S. side. And we were pushing the Russians to stop bullying one of their neighboring countries, Georgia. And as Clinton went through the talking points, Putin just lost it. And you can find the declassified memorandum of conversation in the Clinton library. I’ll probably post it on my Twitter account after the show. And you can see that the person taking notes very politely says, at this point in the call, Putin becomes very enraged and loses control of himself.
MICHAEL MORELL: And what was he enraged about?
ANDREW WEISS: It was the classic thing of you shouldn’t be bossing me around. And you don’t understand what a dirty rat the leader of Georgia is. And just a grievance, an inventory of grievance. And this is something that now CIA Director Bill Burns talks about a lot, just that Putin, over the course of 20 plus years in power, has accumulated endless grievances against the United States for these things that he believes we’ve done wrong to Russia. And a lot of this is in his head. A lot of it is maybe based on his sense of inferiority or his sense that the U.S. is so much more powerful than Russia. But it animates him in a daily way and it really shapes his agenda.
MICHAEL MORELL: The second theme, Andrew, that jumped out to me is that Putin is impulsive. And it sounds similar to being emotional, but it’s but it’s a bit different. Could you talk about that?
ANDREW WEISS:Two really pivotal moments of Putin’s impulsivity. One is in 2014, when he’s presiding over this great party at the Sochi Winter Olympics and he’s trying to show off how prosperous Russia has become under his rule. And the revolution breaks out in Ukraine. And in an impulsive moment, he decides that this is the moment to seize Crimea. And at the moment, it’s a masterstroke. No one’s killed. But then he pushes further and launches a covert war in eastern Ukraine, which becomes a total debacle. And you have different competing parts of the Russian intelligence apparatus supporting different groups of separatists. And this culminates in the shoot down of a passenger jet, a Malaysian airliner in July, that kills almost 300 people over eastern Ukraine.
The second is when Putin believes, and I think it’s key to why he’s at war today, he watches the fall of the Afghan government in summer of 2021. And we had come pretty close to war in Ukraine in the spring. And that crisis was defused somewhat mysteriously by Joe Biden offering a meeting to Putin where he says, let’s talk about some of the stuff. So the Russians pulled back their forces in early 2021. But it’s really the fall of the Ghani government, Afghanistan, plus the departure of Angela Merkel as Germany’s leader and the fact that the Zelensky government in 2021 was mired in endless trouble and mishaps that pushed Putin to feel like, hey, this is my moment. I can just invade this country and do it with a very small force which was not equipped to manage any kind of complicated insurgency or pushback by the Ukrainians. And he goes all in on a large land invasion of a neighboring country that’s as big as Ukraine. It was incredibly foolhardy.
MICHAEL MORELL: The third that jumped out to me was that he constantly seems to be seeking tactical advantage.
ANDREW WEISS: Putin is nimble. And the way the Russian decision making system is set up, there aren’t any checks and balances anymore. Those existed earlier on in his tenure. And you had people who had served with him in the KGB or who had been his lifelong associates who were in senior positions. And you had something that looked a lot more, not exactly like the Politburo, but at least created some semblance of checks and balances. That has gone out the window over the course of the two decades Putin’s been in power. And increasingly, the people who surround Putin are implementers. They’re either much younger or less experienced, and there’s no one who gets ahead in the Kremlin these days by challenging the boss.
And so the problem we’ve got is as Putin gets more and more backed into a corner in Ukraine and the losses keep mounting, is how does he respond to that? And is that sort of tactical, nimble side of him, which has brought great reward, for example, by saving the Assad regime in Syria in 2015? Is that becoming a source of risk and escalation? And I think that’s a big part of why leaders like President Biden are so worried about all the nuclear saber rattling, because we just don’t know what Putin might resort to if he starts to feel desperate.
MICHAEL MORELL: What are Putin’s overriding goals as the leader of Russia? What does he want from a big picture perspective? I’m not talking about just Ukraine here, but rather rather overall. And what’s the fundamental source of his objectives as the leader of Russia?
ANDREW WEISS: A big part of why I wrote the book was precisely to get at that issue and to dispel some of the myths and self-serving narratives that circulate in Western media or even an official discourse about Russia, and not to mention Russian discourse. The three things that I think animate Putin every day are first, regime security. So he’s deeply concerned about staying in power, and he’s been worried over the course of these two decades about spontaneous grassroots demonstrations in various parts of the world, most famously in the Arab Spring and then before that in a series of color revolutions in post-Soviet countries. He’s really worried that people might take things into their own hands and say to him, you’re out. So that animates him.
Second factor is the notion of a strong state and that when he took over as president in 2000, the Russian state had really atrophied. The Yeltsin years had been a period of great devolution of power. And what he’s done over the course of the 20 years is re-centralized power in the Kremlin. And there’s a word in Russian which means a believer in a strong state, and the interests of the state should trump everything. It should trump the rule of law, should trump the rights of the individual.
And then lastly, and this is where the United States comes in, he has been believing for the better part of almost 20 years now that the U.S. is overbearing and that it’s important for the new international system to emerge where the U.S. is not at the center, we’re not creating the rules. And that other rising powers, whether it’s China, Russia, India, Brazil, you can come up with your own list that they should have more of a leadership role in setting the rules and that effort to kind of undermine the U.S., to chip away at our legitimacy on the international stage, to humiliate us, to show us to be hypocrites. That’s a big part of Russian foreign policy, and it’s been that way since the era, which you’ll remember a former Russian prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, who, of course, before being prime minister, had been the head of the SVR, the Russian intelligence service.
MICHAEL MORELL: There was a number of stories that you tell in the book. You’ve mentioned some of them are ready. All of them grabbed me when I read the book. And what I would love to do is I’d love to throw out some of those stories and get you to talk about them and talk about how they fit into the narrative of who Putin is and what he’s doing in the world. And the first one, it comes to my mind, is the attempted overthrow of Tsar Nicholas I in December 1825. I found this fascinating.
ANDREW WEISS: At that point there were a group of nobles who had been meeting in secret societies. Russia was an aristocratic society and there were people of means who would get together to talk about the ideas of the Enlightenment. And the Decemberists tried to overthrow the Tsar and insist on having some of the more basic aspects of representative constitutional monarchism introduced into Russia. And it’s worth reminding people, because this is just a key part of how Russia diverged from the West, that, for example, the notion of private property and allowing aristocrats to own the land that they were in charge of emerged 500 years after it emerged in England. So Russia has just lagged behind all the rest of Europe. And what happened when the failed overthrow of Nicholas I occurred was he set about building a much more repressive state. And so the forerunners of the secret police that the Tsarist era and then the Soviet era, modernized and expanded, were created in that time frame. Intense level of censorship over people in the world of culture and arts was introduced and to give Tsar Nicholas I some credit. There were a wave of popular revolutions across Europe in the 1840s. And Russia totally dodged that bullet.
MICHAEL MORELL: This seems very linked to what you just talked about in terms of the strength of the state, regime security. Is that the right way to think about it?
ANDREW WEISS: Absolutely. And it was a much lighter touch form of repression. It was mostly aimed at people in the elite. And I think that lays some of the seeds for what we’ve seen in the subsequent 100 plus years, which is the Russian elite tends to be pretty servile and it doesn’t tend to get up on its hind legs and say things like, stop the criminal war in Ukraine. We can’t take it anymore. They more or less know what’s expected of them, and they understand that if they don’t obey, and this comes out in the book. For example, prominent aristocrats were stripped of their titles for participating in this December’s rebellion. Others who wrote long essays criticizing some aspect of the Tsar system were put in an insane asylum for having challenged the tsar. The view then which I think is still the view today is you should keep your opinions to yourself and obey.
MICHAEL MORELL: Another story that jumped out at me was the impact of World War Two on Putin’s family, particularly his parents and his brother.
ANDREW WEISS: It’s a horrible story. And it really is the collective sense across Russian society and all the post-Soviet successor states that losing 27 million people in a war is a big deal. And it affected Putin’s family very directly. His father came home from fighting during the siege of Leningrad, in which nearly a million people died of starvation or during the shelling of the city. People resorted to eating the glue on the back of wallpaper and boiling leather goods to stay alive and eating nettles and things like that. Putin’s older brother died. He was taken away from the family and put in an orphanage so he’d have enough to eat. Putin never met his brother. His brother is buried in a mass grave somewhere in Leningrad. And Putin’s father supposedly came home one day and found his wife on a cart laden with corpses. And he said, she’s not dead yet. And he badgered the people driving the cart to pull her back into his apartment.
MICHAEL MORELL: And in what way did all of this affect Putin himself?
ANDREW WEISS: Putin grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, and his parents were a simple working class family. He was an only child. So he definitely got a lot of attention, but he didn’t really perform well as a kid, and he fell into the wrong crowd. He spent a lot of time getting into trouble as a teenager. And his family, this is literally in the first pages of the book, gives up on him. And what changed his life was he became obsessed with pop culture, glorifying the KGB, which was very prevalent in the time when he was a teenager in the sixties and then later in the seventies. And when he was in ninth grade, he walked up to the main KGB building in Leningrad and knocked on the door and said, I want to work here. And the person who answered the door said, we don’t take walk-ins, kid, beat it. And Putin then said, what do I need to do to work here? And the guy said, you need to go to college or go serve in the military. And Putin threw himself into school work and to give the man his due again. He is a seriously hard worker who spent a lot of effort in high school getting into the hardest law school, most selective law school in Leningrad, and then wormed his way into the KGB. He shows the power of persistence and careerism in that system.
MICHAEL MORELL: Another one that jumped out at me was the protesters outside the KGB villa in East Germany during the collapse of that country. And of course, Putin was inside.
ANDREW WEISS: This comes back to what we were talking about earlier, which is the lies. And when Vladimir Putin was stuck in this nowheresville assignment in Dresden, there were several things that were happening. And I think they are cardinal to understanding what motivates him today. The then East German regime unraveled really quickly over the course of 1989. You had people power. You had people on the move trying to escape out of East Germany, to get to the west, to get to freedom. And then you had people on the streets and they attacked the main Stasi building, the East German secret police building. And at some point, Putin sees the protesters leave the main Stasi building and prison where they’ve liberated political prisoners. And they came to the villa where he was working as this member of a small KGB team and as the hagiography of Putin has run and accelerated over the course of two decades. What was once just a small, pretty nothing incident has now been transformed at the hands of Kremlin propaganda into a situation where Putin single handedly staved off a crowd of thousand plus people and fended them off with a gun. And they broke through the fence and all the stuff. Again, it’s all artifice. He basically told people, scram, this is a Soviet military facility. Please leave me alone. And ultimately, they went away.
MICHAEL MORELL: And then two stories about the U.S., the first President Clinton’s stop in Moscow on his way to Vietnam in 2006.
ANDREW WEISS: This was a moment when the U.S. policy toward Russia was largely to ignore Russia in the wake of the Iraq war. You’ll remember national school adviser and then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had this slogan, which was punish France and ignore Russia. And that at that point, the president wanted to fly from the U.S. to an Asian leaders summit, and they needed to have a refueling stop and to just show you how low Russia’s stock was in the world when they made the plan for the president to refuel Air Force One. They didn’t want him to go into Moscow and meet Putin at his office. They insisted that Putin come to the airport, sort of like the poor relation or the supplicant, and have a meeting with the president in an airport lounge. And that’s in fact, what happened.
MICHAEL MORELL: It must have been humiliating for Putin.
ANDREW WEISS: Absolutely.
MICHAEL MORELL: And then the second are the protests that occurred in Russia after the presidential election there in 2011. And Putin’s perceptions of those protests.
ANDREW WEISS: This is a great illustration of both why, even if you’re paranoid, you do have enemies. There was a spontaneous outpouring of anger in 2011 when Putin announced that he was going to come back to the Kremlin and that the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev was basically a big sham and that he’d been term limited out by the Russian constitution, and he had just stuck his friend and longtime associate Dmitry Medvedev in a make believe presidency.
The protests that broke out in Moscow in late 2011, though, which were spontaneous and showed the main beneficiaries of the Putin regime coming out on the streets and saying, we can’t just be subjects. You need to treat us like citizens. At that moment, when the very first protests had occurred, Putin very opportunistically came out and claimed falsely that the State Department had orchestrated the whole thing and that anybody who was out on the streets was just in the employ of the evil U.S. government and was out there trying to bring Russia back to the bad old days of the 1990s.
That has been a very successful tactic for Russian politics for the past 20 years. If you portray your enemies as being a fifth column or the agents of George Soros, that is the way to discredit them. The other thing that- and this connects to a big theme of the book is Putin put on this kind of make believe clothing around this time as a family values moral conservative. And he tried to use that set of themes as a way of discrediting anyone who was out on the streets protesting. Ultimately, people around the world have come to see Putin as someone who stands, for example, against LGBT equality, and they don’t seem to really understand that again, that’s artifice, that that’s not really who the guy is.
MICHAEL MORELL: I’d love to ask a couple of questions about Ukraine. Why did Putin do this? Why did he invade Ukraine?
ANDREW WEISS: About a year ago, one of my Carnegie Endowment colleagues and I, who’s the former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia, Eugene Rumer, and I wrote a paper about why war was coming. And the name of the paper was Ukraine: Putin’s Unfinished Business. And what we looked at was how after the first phase of the war had begun in 2014, there were a series of things happening inside Ukraine that made the Russian leadership, particularly Putin, very uncomfortable. And you had basically every year more and more funding going in for strong bipartisan support to modernize Ukraine’s military, to do other security type things. And it was basically creating an aircraft carrier parked off the coast of southern Russia in metaphorical terms. And Putin, looking at this, definitely thought, wow, if this mushroom is going to grow, it would be better to get it now.
The other thing that we looked at was how there was something about the failure to protect strategic depth made Putin and the Russian leadership feel more vulnerable vis a vis the United States and Europe. And if you look at one of the major animating factors of Russian foreign policy going back a couple hundred years, it’s really this concern about control over the land between Moscow and Berlin and the loss of strategic depth and basically having a NATO friendly country right along Russia’s borders is what made them so nervous.
And then lastly, and this is it gets at the kind of bizarreness of how the pandemic treated Putin, who is, as I’ve been joking, had the worst work from home experience of any major leader. He marinated himself during that pandemic and social isolation with a handful of bodyguards, one or two friends, and read a ton of archival releases from the Russian state archives of diplomacy and vague history about why Ukraine is not a real country. And he really convinced himself that the people of Russia and Ukraine are just the same and that we should be together. And he wrote this really long treatise. It’s about a 7,000 word article in the summer of 2021, laying all this out. And every time you asked the man a question, he repeats the same pseudo historical portrayal of Ukraine as a country that just doesn’t really exist. And it’s a fantasy.
MICHAEL MORELL: So how dangerous is the situation? This talk of the use of nuclear weapons, the risk of escalation given our involvement. How do you think about that question?
ANDREW WEISS: I think it’s remarkable how much the Ukrainian side has been able to achieve. A lot of us got that wrong and thought that the Russians would walk all over them. The Ukrainians showed incredible pluck and creativity and they’ve had a ton of help. They’ve obviously gotten $19 billion worth of American weapons and a ton of intelligence and other support from us and our European allies. It’s a remarkable coalition that is supporting them. But the danger is that escalation can still happen. And we’ve seen a couple of attacks in the last couple of months. For example, the attack on the bridge to Crimea. There was an attack on the headquarters of the Black Sea fleet. About two weeks ago, there was a car bombing, a targeted killing in Moscow. So there are things that are happening that suggest that something may happen, which none of us can predict, that sends this crisis into a new, more dangerous phase. And then there’s the fact that the Russians aren’t done yet. And we just need to keep reminding ourselves that the goal Russia has, which is regime change, forceable destruction of Ukraine as an independent sovereign nation, and its reabsorption into Russia, those are still what’s driving Vladimir Putin. And there’s nothing we can give him that’s going to make him go away.
MICHAEL MORELL: How do you think about his staying power in Russia as a result of what he’s done here?
ANDREW WEISS: I think we all overstate our hopes that something, whether it’s a street protest or an unhappy bodyguard or some group of well-placed tycoons are going to march in Vladimir Putin’s office some day and say, knock it off. But Putin has built 20 plus years of regime that is aimed at keeping him in power. And the economy has been shattered by what he’s done in Ukraine. He’s deglobalized his country after 30 odd years of integrating it into the global mainstream. He has made Russia undoubtedly more backward, more isolated and poorer than any previous Russian leader going back into the Soviet period. You’d have to look there to see someone or Gorbachev.
And the problem is, there just are no counterbalances. There’s no public pressure on him. The public is heavily atomized and de-politicized. They’re worried about their kids being called up and sent to Ukraine. But what you see is that the people who are resisting the call up are the most worldly and educated, highly educated segment of Russia’s population. So it creates a kind of more downtrodden segment of the country that’s left behind. And in fact, that creates more of an insurance policy for Vladimir Putin. All of that said, it’s a rickety place and stuff happens. And we’ve been surprised multiple times by the collapse of the Soviet bloc in ’89, by the collapse of the Soviet in ’91. People in my line of work have got to be very humble about our predictive capabilities.
MICHAEL MORELL: There’s a great quote on the jacket cover of the book, and it says that Putin has successfully cast himself as a cunning, larger than life political mastermind and that the rest of the world has played into his hands by treating him as one. Can you talk about that?
ANDREW WEISS: There’s a tendency to portray Putin as like a chess master who always thinks things through and who’s two or three moves ahead of stuff. And in fact, what we see is someone who most of the time is improvising and engaged in trial and error. And the most recent examples of this are the horrible attacks on civilian infrastructure where he’s trying to make it miserable and cold and unpleasant. There’ll be no drinking water, there’ll be no heat in people’s apartments during the brutal winter that lies ahead in Ukraine. He’s similarly destroyed Russia’s very lucrative energy relationship with Europe. He’s engaged in a series of trial and error experiments right now to somehow get an edge and to get the momentum that he’s never had on the ground in Ukraine in military terms.
We shouldn’t assume that Vladimir Putin knows where his red lines are. That is a big part of the problem of dealing with someone like him, is he doesn’t communicate what his goals are. And by keeping them shrouded, we’re all forced to just keep guessing. What is it Russia really wants or what does Putin really care about? There’s a good line that was true in the first phase of the war, and it’s true today. It’s possible that Putin really doesn’t know what his red lines or know what he actually wants out of Ukraine and that he’s just making it up in a very ad hoc way and that makes him all the more dangerous.
MICHAEL MORELL: Andrew, last question. There’s a spot in the book where you say that a senior Western diplomat once gave you the best explanation you’ve ever heard about what it’s like to deal with Putin. Can you share that?
ANDREW WEISS: This is one of my favorite illustrations, and it really captures why Brian Brown is such a genius artist. So I was briefed by a Western diplomat once about the three sections of Putin’s brain. And the first section is all the garbage that’s poured into his brain every day by the Russian intelligence services and the career bureaucracy. It’s conspiracy laden, hall of mirrors, carnivalesque stuff that just is wacky. The second hemisphere of his brain is what’s accumulated over 20 plus years of actually being in the room and doing all these important things. And it’s the grievances and the historical understanding of how the world came to be in his mind so unfair and all the ways Russia’s been mistreated. And then the third hemisphere is the one that we all live in just by reading the newspaper and being attentive to what’s going on. And the problem when you’re talking to Putin is he toggles among those three hemispheres back and forth in the course of any conversation. You just never know which of the three is what’s driving what’s coming out of his mouth.
MICHAEL MORELL: The book is Accidental Czar: The Life and Lies of Vladimir Putin and the author is Andrew Weiss. Andrew, thank you so much for joining us.
ANDREW WEISS: It’s a pleasure to have been here. Thank you, Michael.