At the start of his war against Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared tense, angry and even disoriented. He spent his days out of the public eye, threatening the West with nuclear strikes, and calling anti-war Russians “scum.”
But in June, a new Putin appeared, much like his pre-war image: relaxed, patient, and confident.
When caring for young people, he casually compared himself to Peter the Great, the first emperor of Russia. Speaking at an economic conference, he dismissed the idea that sanctions could isolate Russia and said they hurt the West even more. And on Wednesday, he walked smiling down the sun-scorched runway of an airport in Turkmenistan, removing his jacket and diving into his Russian-made armored limousine to head to the five-nation summit.
It was Mr. Putin’s first foreign trip since the invasion of Ukraine and his first multi-day foreign trip since the pandemic — a clearly calculated counterprogram before the NATO summit in Spain, where Western countries announced a new strategic vision and Moscow was their main opponent. Mr. Putin also sent a message to Russians and the world that, despite the fighting in Ukraine, the Kremlin is returning to routine.
The trip was the latest step in Mr. Putin’s broader transformation that has become apparent in recent weeks. He telegraphs the transition from a wartime crisis to an aura of calm, paternalistic leader protecting Russians from the dangers of the world. This suggests that Mr Putin believes he has stabilized his military operations and his economic and political system after Russia’s initial military setbacks and an avalanche of Western sanctions.
“The initial shock passed, and it turned out not to be so bad,” said Abbas Gallyamov, Putin’s former speechwriter, describing the president’s point of view.
But Mr. Putin’s change also shows him reverting to his old instincts, trying to hide the risks that still looming: a Ukraine that shows no signs of giving up the fight; an extremely cohesive and expanding NATO; and a fragile calm on the home front, where the effects of the sanctions and the ripple effects of the death and destruction of war are still being manifested.
“He understands that his legitimacy is based on being strong and active, acting and winning,” continued Mr. Gallyamov, a political consultant now living in Israel. “Paralysis and being out of the public eye is like death to him. So he got himself under control and now he’s trying to do it.”
The key to Mr. Putin’s message this week is that Russia’s global isolation is far from complete – and that statements at the NATO summit – a determination to support Ukraine and strengthen the alliance’s eastern flank – are not particularly worrisome.
Better Understand the Russo-Ukrainian War
Mr. Putin’s trip to Central Asia was notable not only because he left the country for the first time since he launched the invasion on February 24, but also because he took extreme precautions in response to the pandemic. Flying to Dushanbe, Tajikistan on Tuesday for a meeting with President Emomali Rahmon, Mr. Putin spent the night there, the first time since January 2020 that he has spent the night outside of Russia.
On Wednesday, Mr. Putin flew to Turkmenistan for a meeting of the leaders of the five countries surrounding the Caspian Sea, which also include Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Iran. The summit had practical implications as Russia seeks to expand its influence in the economically important, energy-rich region while seeking to fill the power vacuum left by the withdrawal of US troops from neighboring Afghanistan.
But the summit also held symbolic significance for Mr. Putin’s audience at home, presenting on a split screen Russia’s diplomacy and soft power just as Western leaders were gathering in Madrid. Mr. Putin gave two homemade sabers and a Ural chess set to Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the eccentric former leader of island Turkmenistan, who was celebrating his 65th birthday; In a meeting with Caspian leaders, Mr. Putin called for greater regional cooperation, including a Caspian film forum.
After that, Mr. Putin held a brief press conference for a few members of the press who accompanied him, dismissing the idea that his invasion of Ukraine backfired because it prompted Sweden and Finland to seek NATO membership. He insisted that Ukraine, allied with the West, would pose a much greater threat than the two Scandinavian countries.
He also unearthed the physique of Western leaders, responding to british prime minister boris johnson joke this week about being photographed bare-chested, as Mr. Putin did. “I think it would have been a disgusting sight anyway,” he said.
For Tatiana Stanovaya, a longtime Kremlin expert based in France, Mr. Putin’s flurry of speeches is the latest iteration in his regular swings between periods of active private and active public activity.
Mr. Putin can remain silent for weeks at a time of high pressure—as he preceded the winter invasion, when he did not speak publicly about Ukraine for more than a month. In the weeks following the invasion, he did not appear on camera for several days.
But other times, Mr. Putin may launch into a flurry of, by Kremlin standards, riotous activities — as he did this month, when he spent more than 90 minutes at a city hall meeting with young entrepreneurs, and a week later, when he spent almost four hours stayed on the stage of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
“After some very high-profile and shocking moves, he needs feedback,” Ms. Stanovaya said of Mr. Putin. “He begins to actively appear in public, begins to open up, becomes more outspoken. It’s like he’s stepping into the light to see what he’s really done.”
Mr. Putin’s isolation has been exacerbated by the pandemic and has been accompanied, whether in fact or intentionally, by outbursts of visible anger and discontent directed at the West. In his speech announcing the start of the invasion, he called the American-led West an “empire of lies” and threatened all countries that tried to intervene with “consequences that you have never experienced in your history.” In March, Mr. Putin lashed out at pro-Western Russians, calling them “scum and traitors” who would be spit out by society “like flies.”
The ominous language, combined with Western arms sales to Ukraine and Russian failures on the battlefield, has led many analysts, including Ms. Stanovaya, to conclude that Mr. Putin was contemplating a limited use of nuclear weapons to force the West into submission.
But recently, Mr. Putin has ditched the dire threats and returned to a calmer public image. In an informal conversation in his town hall, the Russian leader compared his struggle to the aggressive wars of Peter the Great in the 18th century, making it clear that he sees himself as a historical figure in a long-term quest to return lost lands – and glory – to Russia.
However, predictions that Mr. Putin would formally declare war and enter military service have not materialized. And moves by the West that other Russian officials have described as hostile, such as granting Ukraine candidate European Union membership and inviting Sweden and Finland into NATO, have not elicited any harsh response from the West.
Instead, his strategy now seems to be to bide his time, waiting for Western resolve to falter under economic pressure and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government to collapse as Russia brings down its forces and cities. And Ms. Stanovaya believes that Mr. Putin has begun a sort of détente with Washington by deciding that President Biden is setting limits on the extent of his aid to Ukraine in order to avoid a wider conflagration.
“He’s betting that over time the Kyiv authorities will have to come to terms with everything,” Ms. Stanovaya said of Mr. Putin. Russia followed the Biden administration’s statements closely, she continued, “and decided, ‘OK, the rules of the game are set. They are acceptable to us. So we can calm down and just wait.”
Such an approach is, of course, fraught with great risks. Mr. Putin’s apparent expectation that many Ukrainians would greet the Russians as liberators exposed his distorted understanding of the country. And inside Russia, the consequences of the sanctions are still manifesting themselves, – this was emphasized by the Minister of Economy Maxim Reshetnikov, who warned on Wednesday that the unexpected strengthening of the ruble threatens the viability of Russian exporters.
Yet Mr. Putin did not mention Ukraine or his standoff with the West in his eight-minute speech in Turkmenistan on Wednesday, another sign that he plans to return to business as usual. Instead, he spoke about Russia’s efforts to improve transport and tourism in the region, as well as to tackle the problem of pollution and depletion of fish stocks.
According to him, the first Caspian cruise ship will depart next year from Russia’s Astrakhan region in the Volga Delta. Name of the ship: Peter the Great.