How Putin’s War Changed My Moscow

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Trenin has always been patriotic, and some considered him too close to the Kremlin. But I appreciated his sober analyses. He found Putin’s fixation on NATO’s eastward expansion exaggerated, and Russia’s intervention on the side of the rebels in the Donbas in 2014 to be “the most serious mistake of Putin’s foreign policy.” He argued that it isn’t the territories of Ukraine that should be collected by Russia, but rather those inhabitants of Ukraine who would prefer to live in Russia. I read his last book as a pure rejection of the idea of a new war in Ukraine.

Just a week before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, when Washington was warning daily of a Russian invasion, Trenin assured me with firm conviction: “A war was never planned.” He was already talking in the past tense, as if the crisis were already over. He considered Putin’s deployment of troops to merely be a threatening gesture.

The Trenin I meet in Moscow five months later is a changed man. Or had I just been wrong about him? Trenin hasn’t uttered a single critical word about the invasion of the neighboring country since February. He supports a larger war effort. Trenin has insinuated that the West wants to “finally solve the ‘Russian question” and, as such, there is no room for serious dialogue. Russia, he says, needs a “self-purification” of materialism and other wrong values, a new “Russian idea.”

“I told my American friends right away on Feb. 24: I’m a veteran officer. So long as the war lasts, I will not say or write a word that could harm the Russian army, its leadership or the commander-in-chief,” Trenin says in the café. He describes Russians who spoke out against the war as “hypocrites” because they hadn’t criticized previous wars or as “anti-state.” Besides, he adds, he’s an advocate of realpolitik, not a pacifist.

Trenin strikes me as being something like a German professor in August 1914. He speculates coolly about a liquidation of the neighboring country (which, as a “maximum variant,” is “unlikely”) and about whether what is left of Ukraine will still have its capital in Kyiv (“currently open”).

His hope is for Russia’s “self-purification” through the war. “When so many people are sent to war – significantly more than in Chechnya – and kill or get killed there, it undermines the cult of money in the country.” The old corrupt elites might even end up with some competition from the soldiers now fighting in Ukraine. The country needs an ideology now – “russkaya pravda,” Russian truth or “justice,” as he has called it – and a different, managed economy.

Analysts who merely reflect on the world, Trenin argues, should out of principle not put themselves in the role of those who change the world. That’s his explanation for why he didn’t foresee Putin’s moves. He had measured Putin against his own rationality. To me it sounds like: Putin isn’t someone you understand. He’s someone you follow.

On a Friday morning, I board a plane and fly two and a half hours east, to Yekaterinburg in the Urals, the hometown of Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. The city is home to a large Yeltsin Center, a museum and archive modeled on American presidential libraries. It provides a window into Russia’s past before Putin, but also into a Russia as it might have become without Putin.

On television, the nineties now serve only as a dark foil against which Putin’s rule is made to shine. But it was also a time of pluralism and media diversity and hope. The good as well as the bad that emerged in Russia had already been laid out.

At the entrance of the museum, an animated film tells Russia’s story as that of a society striving for freedom. Various possible Yeltsin successors are portrayed, Putin being only one of them. In the end, Yeltsin can be heard with a weary voice handing over the official duties of office to Putin. “Be happy. You’ve earned it,” he tells the Russians.

What might a future Putin center look like? What role will the invasion of Ukraine play in it? What message will a weary Putin give his citizens at the end of the exhibition?

The future of the Yeltsin years seemed open. Now, the country appears set for a long decline. “The best time of our lives is behind me,” my colleague Lena told me in Moscow. It sounded infinitely sad.

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