What is Vladimir Putin thinking? | NYT

Read more from Opinion

April 28, 2022

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By Tim Schneider

Staff Editor, Opinion

What is Vladimir Putin thinking?

The question has been asked — in accusation and wonder, bafflement and belligerence — for much of his tenure. Why did he annex Crimea and intervene in Syria? What led him to crack down on a still marginal opposition? What was going on with the bear thing? Dozens of books, articles and podcasts have tried to crack the code. But the Russian president has remained unfathomable, endlessly opaque.

With the horrific invasion of Ukraine, apparently undertaken at Putin’s whim, the question has become more urgent than ever. In Opinion, we’ve made our own attempts at answering it — by providing a detailed (and deeply disturbing) account of his inner circle, for example, and digging into his ideological underpinnings. But the question stubbornly persists, all the more unavoidable for being essentially unanswerable.

So when Ilya Yablokov, a historian of Russian media, sent me an email asking whether I’d be “interested in a piece about Putin’s war and conspiracy theories,” I wrote back immediately. Yes, I would. Because perhaps the best way to understand the Kremlin would be to listen to what it — and the media system it controls — was saying.

Few are better placed than Yablokov to take that task on. For the last 15 years he’s been immersed in the lurid world of Russian propaganda (work I don’t envy). Adept at parsing the hysterics and distortions and outright lies, he noticed something new. Since the start of the war, the way conspiracy theories functioned in Russia seemed to be changing.


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