They were wrong.
And Thursday, it seemed too late to do anything about it.
For most of his 22-year rule, Vladimir Putin exhibited an aura of calm determination at home – an ability to shrewdly manage risk to navigate the world’s greatest country through treacherous shoals. His attack on Ukraine has denied this image and revealed him as a completely different leader: the one who drags the nuclear superpower he leads into a war with no foreseeable outcome, the one who, by all appearances, will put an end to attempts to Russia over its three post-Soviet decades to find a place in a peaceful world order.
Russians woke up in shock after learning that Putin, in an address to the nation broadcast before 6 a.m., had ordered a full-scale assault on what Russians of all political stripes often call their “brotherly nation”. .
There was no spontaneous pro-war jubilation. Instead, liberal-leaning public figures who for years tried to compromise and adapt to Putin’s creeping authoritarianism found themselves reduced to posting their opposition to a war on social media. that they had no way to stop.
Other Russians spoke more openly. From St. Petersburg to Siberia, thousands of people took to the streets of the city chanting “No to war! clips posted on social media showed this, despite an overwhelming presence of police. OVD Info, a rights group, said more than 1,700 people had been arrested across the country.
And in Moscow’s foreign policy establishment, where analysts have overwhelmingly called Putin’s military buildup around Ukraine an elaborate and shrewd bluff in recent months, many admitted on Thursday that they had seriously misjudged a man that they had spent decades studying.
“Everything we believed turned out to be wrong,” said one of those analysts, insisting on anonymity because he didn’t know what to say.
“I don’t understand the motivations, goals or possible outcomes,” said another. “What is happening is very strange.”
“I’ve always tried to understand Putin,” said a third analyst, Tatiana Stanovaya of political analysis firm R. Politik.
But now, she says, the usefulness of logic seems to be at its limit.
“He became less pragmatic and more emotional,” Stanovaya said.
On state television, Putin’s most powerful propaganda tool, the Kremlin tried to project an air of normalcy. State media described Thursday’s invasion not as a war but as a “special military operation” limited to eastern Ukraine. Putin was shown meeting visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan as if shrewdly going about his daily business.
“This is not the start of a war,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told TV. “Our desire is to prevent developments that could escalate into a world war.”
Meanwhile, the Russian stock market fell 35% and ATMs ran out of dollars. On the country’s still largely uncensored internet, Russians watched their vaunted army wreak havoc on a land where millions of them had relatives and friends.
“The world has turned upside down,” said Anastasia, 44, who was demonstrating against the war in central Moscow on Thursday night despite a heavy presence of riot police, and burst into tears. She only gave her first name for fear of reprisals. “I can’t even imagine the consequences; it is a disaster.
Many Russians had bought into the Kremlin’s narrative that their country was a peace-loving country and Putin a cautious and calculating ruler. After all, many Russians still believe that it was Putin who lifted their country out of the poverty and chaos of the 1990s and made it a place with a decent standard of living worthy of international respect.
“It’s so strange that Russia can attack anyone,” a 60-year-old pensioner said on Thursday as she strolled through Moscow’s breathtaking Zaryadye park, which international architects designed before the FIFA World Cup hosted by Russia in 2018. “This has never happened before in history.
Like many on Thursday, she refused to reveal her name for fear that the outbreak of war would lead to a further crackdown on freedoms.
One of the dwindling human rights activists, Marina Litvinovich, called for an anti-war protest in Moscow on Thursday night and was promptly arrested. Police buses and riot police descended on Pushkin Square, where she had urged people to gather. An actor has issued a directive from his state-run Moscow theater saying ‘any negative comments’ about the war would be viewed by authorities as ‘treason’.
Over the past three months, as U.S. officials warned that Putin’s troop build-up was a prelude to an invasion, Russians dismissed those remarks as the West’s failure to understand their president’s fundamental determination to manage risks and avoid rash moves with unforeseeable consequences. And with prominent opposition figures imprisoned or exiled, few figures had the clout to organize an anti-war movement.
Some government-linked public figures backtracked, though they acknowledged it was too late. Ivan Urgant, the most prominent late-night comedian on state television, had ridiculed the idea of an impending war on his show earlier this month. On Thursday, he posted a black square on Instagram with the words: “Fear and pain”.
Ksenia Sobchak, another TV celebrity whose father was mayor of St. Petersburg and Putin’s mentor in the 1990s, posted on Instagram that from now on she would only “believe in the worst possible scenarios” on the future of his country. A few days earlier, she had praised Putin as a “mature and adequate politician” compared to his Ukrainian and American counterparts.
“We are now all trapped in this situation,” she wrote on Thursday. “There is no exit. We Russians will spend many years digging into the consequences of this day.
During the pandemic, analysts had noticed a change in Putin – a man who isolated himself in a bubble of social distancing unparalleled among Western leaders. Isolated, he seemed to grow more aggrieved and emotional and increasingly spoke of his mission in stark historical terms. His public remarks descended deeper and deeper into distorted historiography as he spoke of the need to right the perceived historical wrongs suffered by Russia over the centuries at the hands of the West.
Political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky, a close adviser to Putin until his falling out with him in 2011, said he was stunned by the president’s grim portrayal of Ukraine as a dire threat to Russia in his hour-long speech to the nation on Monday.
“I have no idea where he got all this from; he seems to be reading something totally strange,” Pavlovsky said. “He became an isolated man, more isolated than Stalin was.”
Stanovaya, the analyst, said she now feels Putin’s heightened obsession with history in recent years has become key to understanding his motivation. After all, the war against Ukraine seemed impossible to explain strategically, as it had no clear resolution and would inevitably only increase anti-Russian sentiment abroad and intensify Russia’s confrontation with Russia. NATO alliance.
“Putin has gone to a place where he considers it more important, more interesting, more compelling to fight for restoring historical justice than for Russia’s strategic priorities,” Stanovaya said. “This morning I realized that a certain change had taken place.”
She said that by all appearances the ruling elite around Putin did not realize Thursday’s war was coming and were unsure how to react. Beyond state television personalities and pro-Kremlin politicians, few prominent Russians have spoken out in favor of the war.
But that, she said, did not mean Putin risked some sort of palace coup, given his grip on the country’s sprawling security apparatus and his extensive crackdown on dissent over the past from last year.
“He can still act for a long time,” Stanovaya said. “In Russia, he is virtually immune to political risks.”