In Vladimir Putin's head, this is how the 'tsar' who invaded Ukraine thinks

Ever since he was a street kid, the Russian leader has thought: 'You don't get involved if you're not ready to go all the way.' Philip Short, author of the latest biography of him, tells what else he discovered about him, sorting out legends and fake news

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It has been written of Vladimir Putin that he bathes in deer blood, that he is dying, that he has accumulated assets of 200 billion dollars and that he personally gives orders to the officers engaged in the war in Ukraine. In the past he has been attributed illicit enrichment with the Petersburg mafias, massacre plans, crazy nights with dozens of young odalisques, shamanic rites – video

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Without fear of contradiction, because the Russian president is extremely secretive, he keeps everyone at a distance, he doesn't let anything leak out, but he doesn't care much about what is said about him outside Russia. And above all, he doesn't use the internet. Around this information vacuum – for ten years the Russian media have been subjected to increasing censorship, and no journalist has privileged access to the Kremlin anymore – the indiscretions, legends and false news spread by his opponents have multiplied. The most hated tyrant in the West is also the most talked about, with hundreds of books published in the last twenty years which, however, have a limit: they lack direct sources.

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In his monumental biography, which is now published by Marsilio, Putin, a life, his time , Philip Short, for a long time the BBC's Moscow correspondent, collected the testimonies of those who knew and had dealings with this former KGB official who became deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, and therefore premier and president, in the decade following the end of the 'Ussr, to grasp the real man beyond the myth. A portrait that also debunks some conspiracy theories that have flourished around him, such as that of a rise to power made possible by the bombs that bloodied Russia in 1999, as part of a precise strategy of tension orchestrated by the Kremlin. 'If the Russian services had taken part in those attacks, it would have been impossible to keep the secret for so long', Short ruled today, connected via Skype, based on British and American intelligence sources.

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Putin was already Putin even before joining the KGB, you write. «The years in the services have certainly influenced his way of thinking, however reinforcing the characteristics already present. It is Putin who recounts that many of the lessons he received in the KGB he had already drawn from his experience as a street kid, who got into fights with his peers in Leningrad in the early 1960s'.

According to one of these lessons 'if something happens, it is impossible to back down, you have to go forward to the end'. Sounds ominous, in light of recent nuclear threats. «But in the KGB there was also another rule: do not resort to a weapon if you are not prepared to use it. On the street it works the same way, Putin once explained: you clear up with your fists. But don't get involved if you're not ready to go all the way. One of his benchmates observed how as a kid he was devoid of any instinct for self-preservation: it didn't even cross his mind that a rival could be stronger. Twenty years later, KGB examiners noted that he had little sense of danger.

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A hooligan, a bully and a murderer, as US Senator John McCain called him. “Many in the West are convinced that Putin is behind all the unsolved murders in Russia over the past two decades. With the exception of Aleksandr Litvinenko ( former spy poisoned in London with polonium , ed), it's not like that. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead on Putin's birthday ( on October 7, 2006 , ed), the former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemcov 100 meters from the Kremlin. In both cases, the investigations led to the identification of the instigators in the entourage of the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. If anything, Putin was an accomplice in the misdirections that followed, and bears indirect responsibility for the climate of impunity that made them possible. But this is not the same as ordering the death of an opponent.'

After the invasion of Ukraine there was speculation that the tsar had gone mad… «The staging of the very long table with which Putin received ministers and heads of state, keeping them six meters apart, has been interpreted as a sign of megalomania and madness. Actually that theatrics was a way to put the other party at a psychological disadvantage. Like his obsessive self-control, arriving late or speaking so softly that others have to make an effort to understand him ».

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Franz Sedelmayer, Putin's closest foreigner in the early 1990s, said he looked different depending on who was in front of him. He returned the image he thought others had of him. He now he is crazy with the atomic bomb. «The Ukrainian crisis has matured over thirty years. Already in 2008 the head of the CIA, Bill Burns, had warned that, if the United States continued with their plans to enlarge NATO, Putin would react. He wants to show the Americans that they cannot do what they want in Europe, but must take Russian interests into account'.

There had already been initial friction in 1999, with the NATO raids in Serbia, which the UN had not authorised. “Without that American-led intervention, Kosovo, which was a province of Serbia, would not have become independent. It was the first time, since the post-war period, that the borders of Europe were changed with the use of weapons. Putin was the secretary of the Russian Security Council and the conflict with NATO came close'.

In 2012 the turning point. Having reached his third term, Putin becomes radicalized, rediscovers tradition and dreams of a Russia no longer subject to American dictates. He poses as a poet and declares war on the political, economic and cultural hegemony of the West. «First there is the Arab Spring, with the NATO attack on Libya and the overthrow of Gaddafi, which Putin defines as a medieval crusade. Much of what happens next can be explained by the term revenge. The annexation of Crimea is a revenge for Kosovo. The intervention in Syria is revenge for Libya and Iraq. The meddling in the 2016 US elections was revenge for US attempts to impose its values ​​on Russia.

We arrive at the present, and the invasion of Ukraine. “America is convinced that it has a leading role in the world, but Russia refuses to be led. Putin's real goal is to question the order built by the US after the end of the Cold War'.

The topic of succession in the Kremlin has been open since 2018. Putin turned 70. Many in the West hoped that his state of health would hasten his exit. «The news of his alleged illness is illusory, Putin has only aged. But as long as there is a war in Ukraine, any transfer of power to Moscow will be blocked.'