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A View Inside The Mind Of Vladimir Putin


And joining us to talk about Putin's intentions in Ukraine and beyond is the editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick. He's a former Moscow correspondent and is recently back from Sochi. His latest New Yorker column is titled "Putin Goes To War." David, welcome back to the program.

DAVID REMNICK: It's good to talk to you, even though the subject is so grim.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about that. I was wondering if you heard a very familiar Vladimir Putin world view reflected in those comments at the news conference today.

REMNICK: Well, it's a familiar world view, especially the deep, deep suspicion of the West; the sense of resentment that has been brewing for a generation now since the fall of the Soviet Union; the feeling that the West has been dancing in the end zone about the end of the Cold War and its victory in the Cold War.

But I have to say, this news conference today seemed more unhinged. You know, Putin is a man of enormous discipline in many ways. This session seemed not to have that. Some of the things that you quoted before and then we heard translated are really this side of preposterous.

BLOCK: Well, when you talk about him being unhinged, The New York Times did report on comments allegedly from Angela Merkel following a conversation she had earlier this week with Vladimir Putin in which she thought he had lost contact with reality. And it's hard to know quite how to interpret that report of a report but it seems to be indicating the same thing that you're talking about here.

REMNICK: Well, the notion that somehow the Ukrainian uprising was the product of an American experiment is pretty shocking but it's also an old theme. Remember where this comes from. Vladimir Putin, ex-KGB officer, found the fall of the Soviet Union and what followed not a great triumph but a fantastic, unbearable tragedy and saw the West as perpetrating an enormous kind of conspiracy against it in which people like Gorbachev and Yeltsin were merely tools of the West. That's his view of the world and that didn't go away in 1991 or '95. It persists.

And, you know, it long-precedes this incident that there have been documentaries and commentary on Russian state-run television in which the United States and the West is seen as fomenting uprisings in Moscow as if agents of the West are going to climb the Kremlin walls and commit what's called a color revolution, as was seen in 2004 in Ukraine and in Georgia, as well. He is deeply, deeply suspicious of us and our motives.

BLOCK: Do you think we should see Russia's actions in Ukraine now in the context of trying to right or reverse what he called the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century - the collapse of the Soviet empire?

REMNICK: Well, I don't think Putin is foolish enough - and by the way, he's extremely smart in his way - that somehow the Soviet Union is going to be reassembled. And certainly he has no interest in the old communist ideology, has no interest whatsoever. What his interest is is the reestablishment, the reassertion of Russian power, Russian greatness as he sees it, and Russian interests in the region. And what he saw as the loss of Ukraine, what he saw as the betrayal of the Ukraine is an unbearable thing for a Russian nationalist like that.

And remember, Russia does have longstanding - centuries longstanding - historical, cultural, linguistic and political ties to Ukraine in a way that we do not, certainly. So this uprising was - he took extremely personally. And he answered it in the way he has. And to say that there are no Russian troops in Crimea is just, you know, ridiculous. You know, it's equally true that I'm the queen of Romania.

BLOCK: I wasn't going to put that forward as a possibility, but now that you raised it, I was wondering.

REMNICK: Now it's out there.

BLOCK: I want to talk to you a bit about what else is going on in Russia right now. We just saw the splashy international spectacle of the Sochi Olympic Games. And then, right on the heels of those games, we saw one of Putin's strongest critic, Alexei Navalny, put under house arrest. So they've effectively silenced a very influential blogger and opposition figure. Are we seeing here Vladimir Putin's contradictory impulses at work or are these really just two sides of the same coin?

REMNICK: I think it's the latter. You remember, right before the Olympics, he played down the rhetoric where it regards anti-gay propaganda laws. He released two members of Pussy Riot from jail. Khodorkovsky, the oligarch who went to jail for a decade because he was seen as a political opponent, he was brought home. Alexei Navalny, who seemed headed for jail, suddenly wasn't. There was - for foreign consumption, there was a kind of pre-Olympics public relations truce.

The Olympics are over. The mood has changed and changed even more darkly than we could've imagined because of the invasion of Crimea. We're now extremely nervous that this could even extend to eastern Ukraine, which is the economic center of that country. And part of this is a crackdown on dissent and it's not just limited to who can be on state-run television. But Alexei Navalny is a pain - a source of great pain to Putin because he talks about one of the most forbidden subjects in all of Russia, and that's corruption and where the money goes for something like the Olympics.

BLOCK: David Remnick, thank you very much.

REMNICK: It's always a pleasure.

BLOCK: David Remnick is editor of The New Yorker. His books include "Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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