American billionaire investor Bill Browder is not an entirely dispassionate Putin observer, having been expelled from Russia and seen his upstanding lawyer die a mysterious death in a Russian prison. He has, however, known Putin since his early days in power. He calls Putin a “highly rational sociopath”, who thought he had his domestic situation under control until President Yanukovich of Ukraine was brought down by the Maidan protesters. “Putin didn’t want to end up like Yanukovich, and the only reason Putin invaded Ukraine is to create a massive distraction,” he argues. Yanukovich’s helplessness in the face of angry protesters mirrors that of Putin himself, who, aided only by KGB guards, defended the Dresden KGB office in the autumn of 1989 when East German democracy protesters demanded access.
Top politicians are largely cut off from contact with ordinary people. “That changes the mind of anyone,” says a former friend of Putin’s. “But Putin’s KGB background makes him different. Other long-time leaders’ psyches change the normal way, but his is changing the KGB way: everyone else is an enemy, you can only trust the KGB network. You become paranoid.”
That paranoia fuels the madman game. “On one hand it’s easy to say that Putin is crazy,” reflects the former friend. “Because of him, now we’re starting to think about nuclear war, which is completely different from two-three years ago. But on the other hand, his actions are not crazy at all. He’ll do anything to stay in power, and using nuclear rhetoric is a means to that end. It’s effective for him, but it’s a mad strategy for Russia.” That narcissist streak was visible long ago. A West German mole at the KGB office in Dresden became good friends with Putin’s wife, Lyudmila, who told the mole that her husband beat her and was an incurable skirt chaser.