When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Enjoy unlimited access to quality journalism.

Limited time offer

Get your 30-day free trial!
FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

When Did Putin "Turn" Evil? That's Exactly The Wrong Question

Look back over the past two decades, and you'll see Vladimir Putin has always been the man revealed by the Ukraine invasion, an evil and sinister dictator. The Russian leader just managed to mask it, especially because so many chose to see him as a typically corrupt and greedy strongman who could be bribed or reasoned with.

Photo of Vladimir Putin entering through a door in Grand Kremlin Palace 2022

Putin arrives for a ceremony to accept credentials from 24 foreign ambassadors at the Grand Kremlin Palace on Sept. 20.

Sergiy Gromenko*


KYIV — The world knows that Vladimir Putin has power, money and mistresses. So why, ask some, wasn't that enough for him? Why did he have to go start another war?

At its heart, this is the wrong question to ask. For Putin, military expansion is not an adrenaline rush to feed into his existing life of luxury. On the contrary, the shedding of blood for the sake of holding power is his modus operandi, while the fruits of greed and corruption like the Putin Palace in Gelendzhik are more like a welcome bonus.

In the last year, we have kept hearing rhetorical questions like “why did Putin start this war at all, didn't he have enough of his own land?” or “he already has Gelendzhik to enjoy, why fight?” This line of thinking has resurfaced after missile strikes on Ukrainian power grids and dams, which was regarded by many as a simple demonstration of terrorism. Such acts are a manifestation of weakness, some ask, so is Putin ready to show himself weak?

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

Sign up to our free daily newsletter.

However, you will not arrive at the correct answer if the questions themselves are asked incorrectly. For decades, analysts in Russia, Ukraine, and the West have been under an illusion about the nature of the Russian president's personal dictatorship.

If we imagine it in a very generalized form, we get the following: Young Putin barely survived the “swinging 90s”, where he achieved the apex of his life aspirations as head of state is personal enrichment.

Ukraine war as a revelation

Certain facts perfectly fit into this concept, from unexpected billionaires among Putin's friends, such as the cellist Sergei Roldugin, to luxurious private residences. The president also cultivated this image himself, declaring that at the beginning of his civilian career in the new Russia he even had to work as a taxi driver to earn a living.

Thus to some, the Putin regime was classified as a "banana dictatorship." That would be cut in the mold of those regimes in South America, Africa and Asia where leaders who, having reached the head office of the country, forgot about everything except stuffing their own pockets with cash.

It's worth mentioning here that even Ukraine during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych was very close to such a status. Therefore, it is not surprising that a similar label has been attached to Russia.

However, over time, there were other facts showing that the Putin regime is different. It was noticed in the tendency toward Russian imperialism after Putin's Munich speech in 2007, or the invasion of Georgia in 2008. Of course, plenty revised their view of Putin after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Well, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 took the blinders off the eyes of anyone who is not an idiot or on the Russian payroll.

Putin KGB agent

A young Vladimir Putin in KGB uniform circa 1980.

Russian Archives/ZUMA

Different kind of dictator

In order to somehow “reconcile” the good old Putin, who helped the U.S. fight international terrorism and was content only with the monopolization of oil and gas revenues, with the supposed "new" evil Putin, who unleashed the biggest war in Europe since World War II, many began to discuss the evolution of the Russian leader. They say, yes, he used to be just a thief, but now he has become a maniac; yes, the Russian elites used to steal at home and spend abroad, and are now worried about Putin's ambitions of “Russian world” (Russkiy mir) ... So how, they ask, did this all happen?

Perhaps at the beginning of his reign, Putin was more like Mussolini than Hitler or Stalin.

However, the harsh truth is that Putin did not turn from a corrupt official into a terrorist. There is indeed no "evolution." Putin from the very beginning was not just a thief, but a real bloodsucker. This is what the world could not or simply did not want to see.

Yes, perhaps at the beginning of his reign, Putin was somewhat more like Mussolini than Hitler or Stalin, but the Italian leader eventually got involved in a world war.

In any case, even then everything was clear with the Russian president — he was not going to build a democratic society, he sought to revive the USSR with himself in charge.

In the first two terms, he simply had to disguise himself and pretend to be a good boy who does not curse or break dishes in someone else's house. Firstly, because not everyone inside the country was yet under his control, and secondly, because Russia was still too poor (and therefore too weak) to make demands in the foreign policy arena.

A litany of crimes

But Putin has shown his true colors from the very earliest days. His reign began with the organization of apartment bombings during the Second Chechen War. And the Chechen invasion of Dagestan, which initiated the hostilities, looks too suspicious.

Then the Soviet anthem was restored and the government took over ORT, NTV (television channels) and Yukos Oil Company. The West ignored the explosions, forgave the war, and explained "nationalization", i.e., the biggest theft of private property in Russian history, in the logic of the "banana dictatorship" — unpleasant, but not fatal.

However, even when he usurped the assets of the first generation of oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, it wasn't just financial greed. He also ordered de facto torturing, with the latter serving 14 years of hard time, because he'd refused to go into exile.

But perhaps the most revealing episode of these past two decades was Putin's reaction to the sinking of the Kursk submarine. He refused to accept foreign aid to save the crew, and the explanation of the reasons as: “it sank”, and carelessly calling widows: “twenty-dollar whores.” Putin's lack of empathy was thus not only directed at civilians, but also his military.

The list of his crimes would take up a whole book. And in recent years, he did not commit them more often, just more attention was paid to newer victims. Many rightfully talked about the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, but much less about the polonium murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko. The 2015 murder of reformist Boris Nemtsov became a landmark, but long before that, the security services killed an assortment of post-Soviet political chiefs over the years.

Photo of protesters against the war in Ukraine in Berlin

Protesters came to denounce the war in Ukraine in Berlin in early March 2022, with this placard reading, "Stop Putin — Stop the War."

Jan Scheunert/ZUMA

From bad to worse

In 2007, Putin finally completed the consolidation of power inside Russia, and by then had accumulated enough resources to launch his ongoing challenge to the world order. The shortsightedness of the West would give him the space to do so: Georgia-Crimea and Donbas-Syria-Ukraine, brings us to the final stage where we now find ourselves.

He has always been like this

Let's remember how long Putin has been clear about his ultimate objectives: not just with Crimea and the Donbas in 2014, but ten years earlier. He angrily told the then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in 2004: "Don't you understand that there is no Ukraine?"

So, it makes no sense, in my opinion, to look for some would be "turning point" separating the good old Putin from the new bad one. He has always been like this, and the fact that now his terrorist intentions have emerged is not the result of his internal evolution, but a change in external circumstances.

Let's not forget that Hitler too was also bad from the very beginning, and did not get worse somewhere along the way — just read Mein Kampf from 1925. It's just that since 1939 he stopped being ashamed of his crimes, before launching full-scale genocide in 1941. What comes next for Putin?

KGB roots

And finally, about the source of his evil. This is a false narrative that Putin grew up poor, and he turned corrupt to lift himself out of poverty. But it was privilege not poverty that made him this way, the work in the KGB laying the foundation for Putin's bloodthirstiness. The agency neglected morality, regarded people as cogs — and when the KGB officer headed the state, he transferred these principles to the entire echelon of power.

This late state socialism of the Andropov version is the core of Putin's worldview. Religion and traditional values are nothing more than a wrapper. Putin saw that there was a demand for Russian imperialism and Orthodox messianism after Boris Yeltsin's liberal rule, and brought them under his banner. No more than that.

So do not ask why Putin suddenly began to behave this way. That's how he's always behaved. It is better to ask when exactly you realized that a cold-hearted spy is running a neighboring country, for whom your life has no value.

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

In The News

War In Ukraine, Day 285: Three Dead In Ukraine's First-Ever Attack On Russian Air Bases

Reports of Ukraine's possible use of kamikaze drones deep inside Russian territory.

War In Ukraine, Day 285: Three Dead In Ukraine's First-Ever Attack On Russian Air Bases

Engels-2 airbase in Russia

Alex Hurst, Anna Akage, and Emma Albright

Updated 11:45 p.m.

Separate explosions Monday morning at two different Russian air bases, which have killed at least three and injured eight, have demonstrated that Ukraine has the capacity to use drones to attack targets deep inside Russia.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

Sign up to our free daily newsletter.

Russian state media reports that a fuel tanker exploded early Monday in an airfield near the city of Ryanza, southeast of Moscow, killing three and injuring six people. Another two people are reported to have been injured in another morning explosion at the Engles-2 airbase in the Saratov region, farther to the southeast.

Later Monday, both Russian and Ukrainian government sources confirmed that the attack was carried out by Ukraine, a major escalation in Kyiv's war effort.

Keep reading...Show less

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

The latest