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Putin’s Russian enemies in Ukraine hope ‘criminal’ war will be his downfall.

The eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine finds the former close allies locked in a full-scale war that has already taken thousands of lives.

When 444 Russian deputies decided on March 20th, 2014, whether to approve the occupation of the Black Sea peninsula, only one voted no – and two years later he emigrated to Ukraine and took its citizenship as the Kremlin cracked down ever harder on dissent.

Now Ilya Ponomaryov says he is somewhere “near Kyiv”, carrying a rifle and protected by armed associates, as Russia’s troops menace the Ukrainian capital and its covert operatives reportedly try to infiltrate the city and kill targets on a Kremlin “hit list”.

“I know I am on the list, but what can I do? We are at war and we are fighting. I am armed, my people are armed, and we are ready to face the enemy,” he told The Irish Times late one recent evening.

He spoke as the Kremlin’s bombs devastated largely Russian-speaking cities in eastern and southern Ukraine, liberals fled Russia on a scale that some likened to the post-revolution exodus of a century ago, and massive western sanctions threatened to plunge its economy into the kind of chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

“I was absolutely sure Putin was bluffing and this was a major disinformation campaign by the West,” Ponomaryov recalls of the fraught build-up to the February 24th invasion and US warnings that Russian president Vladimir Putin wanted all-out war.

“From the very start I thought this offensive on Ukraine would have a devastating effect and would mean miserable defeat for Putin and a lot of casualties – that’s why I was absolutely sure he would not do such a stupid thing,” he explains.

‘Touch with reality’

“All rational concerns and ideas speak against this [war]. The only possible explanation is that Putin was sitting for such a long time in his bunker, with a very, very limited circle of people that he spoke with . . . and did indeed lose touch with reality.”

Putin (69) has taken extreme isolation measures during the coronavirus pandemic, and now famously seats foreign leaders and even his own top officials at the far end of a vast table when he meets them.

Ilya Ponomaryov: ‘The only possible explanation is Putin was sitting for such a long time in his bunker, with a very, very limited circle of people that he spoke with . . . and did indeed lose touch with reality.’

Ilya Ponomaryov: ‘The only possible explanation is Putin was sitting for such a long time in his bunker, with a very, very limited circle of people that he spoke with . . . and did indeed lose touch with reality.’

Close observers of Putin’s rule say he has grown detached from Russian and international reality, bored with the daily affairs of state, and increasingly focused on history, his own legacy and perceived slights inflicted by the West and a stubbornly independent Ukraine.

At the same time, he has become increasingly reliant on a tiny circle of contemporaries whom he has known for decades, and who share his background in the Soviet-era security agencies and his conviction that the West sees Russia as an eternal enemy.

These men include Russian security council secretary Nikolai Patrushev and FSB security service director Alexander Bortnikov, but also personal friends of Putin from his days as an official in Saint Petersburg, including “Kremlin banker” Yuri Kovalchuk and his physicist brother Mikhail, the director of Moscow’s Kurchatov Institute for nuclear research.

Journalist Mikhail Zygar, whose book All the Kremlin’s Men profiles Putin’s main allies and enemies, says Yuri Kovalchuk has become “de facto second man in Russia, the most influential among the president’s entourage”.

“He is . . . an ideologue, subscribing to a worldview that combines Orthodox Christian mysticism, anti-American conspiracy theories and hedonism. This appears to be Mr Putin’s worldview, too,” Zygar wrote recently in the New York Times.

‘Rejecting occupation’

“Since the summer of 2020, Mr Putin and Mr Kovalchuk have been almost inseparable, and the two of them have been making plans together to restore Russia’s greatness.”

It is already clear that Putin appears to have severely underestimated the resistance he would face in Ukraine, where his losses in troops and armour are quickly mounting and even cities with long and deep ties to Russia are fiercely rejecting occupation.

“There is no way he can win,” says Ponomaryov.

“He was thinking the support base for [Ukrainian president] Volodymyr Zelenskiy is very thin, that the country is split and just a fraction of its society is nationalist . . . and the rest just want peace, and this can be used – but no, it’s not working that way,” he explains.

“Yes, Ukrainians want peace, and they are not radical nationalists at all, but when it’s a question of their independence they will unite and fight, and that’s exactly what’s happening now. He’s made a major miscalculation.”

Only three weeks into Putin’s war, thousands of Russians have been jailed for protesting against it, a few loyal tycoons have expressed tentative doubts over its wisdom, and two senior FSB officers have reportedly been placed under house arrest for misusing state funds and giving the Kremlin an inaccurate picture of today’s Ukraine.

Yevgeny Kiselyov, a top Russian television journalist of the 1990s and early 2000s who moved to Ukraine as Putin crushed independent media, says the former KGB officer still sees the world through a prism of conspiracy, and tries to run Russia accordingly.

“Putin prepares some of his decisions and carries them out in the manner of a clandestine operation,” says Kiselyov, who was director of Russia’s NTV channel during its combative heyday and has lived in Kyiv since 2008.

‘Clandestine operation’

“A clandestine operation is usually carried out in total secrecy, with as few people involved as possible. But when you are planning a full-scale war . . . with many, many repercussions, you can’t do it with only three or four men in an atmosphere of total secrecy,” he tells The Irish Times.

“Then you cannot involve experts, advisers, all kinds of people who could give you different scenarios. And the few people you share this with are the most inclined to support your ideas and to act as sycophants.”

Former Russian television network director Yevgeny Kiselyov: Putin ‘is a scoundrel, a product of his difficult streetwise childhood, a petty street crook. Knowing who he is, I should have expected this war to come.’ Photograph: Laski Diffusion/Getty

Former Russian television network director Yevgeny Kiselyov: Putin ‘is a scoundrel, a product of his difficult streetwise childhood, a petty street crook. Knowing who he is, I should have expected this war to come.’ Photograph: Laski Diffusion/Getty

Kiselyov thinks Putin rules according to lessons he learned during his hard early years in post-war Leningrad and as a mid-ranking KGB officer in the late Soviet empire.

“He is a scoundrel, a product of his difficult streetwise childhood, a petty street crook. Knowing who he is, I should have expected this war to come,” he says.

“Many people were saying this [invasion] would be completely irrational . . . but Putin is a psychopath. He is not a rational man. He wanted to take over Ukraine and conquer Kyiv and raise the Russian flag over the city. This did not happen and now he is angry, bitter and wants revenge.”

Kiselyov argues that it should now be clear to western leaders – and Russians – that Putin ordered the jailing and murder of many Kremlin critics over the last two decades, and the near-fatal poisoning and subsequent conviction of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Russian prosecutors are now calling for Navalny, who is already serving a 2½-year jail sentence, to be given a further 13 years in prison on new charges.

Poverty and anger

“The result of all this will be the disintegration, the collapse of our country,” Navalny said in court this week, describing Putin and his clique as “insane, crazy old men”.

“They care about no one and nothing. And in the end, they don’t care about our country.”

Ponomaryov says he is “not sure that Russia as a country will actually survive what is going on right now” but he is certain that Putin and his regime of 22 years are doomed.

He believes Putin could be ousted by protests that become armed and violent as poverty and anger grow, or that military defeat by Ukraine could lead to his removal.

Another possible scenario, Ponomaryov says, is an assassination attempt by someone “not in Putin’s very inner circle, but someone who has access to him and is supported by businesspeople.

“I think it is impossible that he will compromise [over Ukraine]. It’s not in his character. That’s why my forecast is that he will die soon – I don’t think he will survive the next new year.”

Kiselyov sees a Kremlin coup as “plausible but very unlikely”.

“They seem so afraid of Putin that they do not dare to act . . . Being afraid of him turned into a permanent habit of the Russian ruling elite a long time ago.”

Both exiles fear the West is correct to suspect that Putin could use chemical or nuclear weapons during the war, particularly if facing defeat.

“I don’t think he cares for the lives of the civilian population. But in my opinion, he has already lost this war,” says Kiselyov.

“He will remain in history as an international war criminal. This is now irreversible.”

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