Early in his war against Ukraine, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia seemed tense, angry and even disoriented. He spent days out of the public eye, threatening the West with nuclear strikes and lashing out at anti-war Russians as “scum.”
But in June, a new Putin emerged, very similar to his pre-war image: relaxed, patient and confident.
While courting young people, he casually compared himself to Peter the Great, the first emperor of Russia. At an economic conference, he rejected the idea that sanctions could isolate Russia and exclaimed that they were doing more harm to the West. And on Wednesday, he smiled across a sun-drenched airport tarmac in Turkmenistan, slinging off his jacket before ducking into his Russian-made armored limousine bound for a five-nation summit.
It was Mr Putin’s first foreign trip since the invasion of Ukraine, and his first multi-day foreign trip since the pandemic — a seemingly calculated bit of counterprogramming to the NATO summit in Spain, where Western nations announced a new strategic vision, with Moscow as their main opponent. Mr Putin also sent a message to the Russians and to the world that, despite the fighting in Ukraine, the Kremlin is starting to become a routine again.
The trip was the latest step in a broader transformation of Mr Putin that has become apparent in recent weeks. He telegraphs a shift from wartime crisis mode to the aura of a calm, paternalistic leader who protects the Russians from the dangers of the world. It suggests that Mr Putin believes he has stabilized his war effort and his economic and political system, following Russia’s initial military failures and an avalanche of Western sanctions.
“The initial shock is over and things are not going well,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Mr Putin, who described the president’s perspective.
But Mr Putin’s change also illustrates his return to his old instincts in trying to cover up the risks that still loom: a Ukraine showing no signs of giving up the fight; an extraordinarily united and growing NATO; and a fragile calm on the home front where the effects of sanctions and the ripple effects of war’s death and destruction are still unfolding.
“He understands that his legitimacy is based on being strong and active, on acting and winning,” continued Mr Gallyamov, now a political adviser who lives in Israel. “Paralysis and absence from the public are like death to him. So he has mastered himself and is trying to do this now.”
The key to Putin’s message this week is that Russia’s global isolation is far from total — and that NATO summit statements — a determination to support Ukraine and strengthen the alliance’s eastern flank — are of little concern.
Understanding the war between Russia and Ukraine better
Mr Putin’s trip to Central Asia was notable not only because it marked the first time he had left the country since he began the invasion on February 24, but also because he took extraordinary pandemic precautions. After flying to Dushanbe, Tajikistan on Tuesday to meet with the country’s president, Emomali Rahmon, Mr. Putin spent the night there — the first time he has spent the night outside of Russia since January 2020.
On Wednesday, Mr Putin flew to Turkmenistan for a meeting of the leaders of the five countries surrounding the Caspian Sea, which also include Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Iran. The summit had practical significance as Russia seeks to expand its influence in the economically vital, energy-rich region, while at the same time trying to fill the power vacuum created by the US withdrawal from nearby Afghanistan.
But the summit was also symbolic for Mr Putin’s public at home, providing a split-screen view of diplomatic activity and Russian soft power just as Western leaders gathered in Madrid. Mr Putin presented two handmade sabers and a chess set from the Urals to Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the eccentric former leader of the island of Turkmenistan who was celebrating his 65th birthday; at the meeting with Caspian leaders, Mr Putin called for more regional cooperation, including a Caspian film forum.
Afterward, Mr Putin held a brief press conference for the few members of the press who accompanied him, rejecting the idea that his invasion of Ukraine had backfired as it led Sweden and Finland to join NATO. A western-allied Ukraine, he insisted, would pose a much greater threat than the two Scandinavian countries.
He also set out to look at the physiques of Western leaders, in response to a joke this week by Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson about being photographed bare-chested, as Mr Putin has been. “I think at the very least this would have been a disgusting sight,” he said.
For Tatiana Stanovaya, a longtime Kremlin expert based in France, Mr Putin’s wave of appearances is the latest iteration in his regular oscillation between periods of intense private and intense public activity.
Mr Putin can keep quiet for weeks in periods of high pressure – as he pre-empted the winter invasion, when he went more than a month without speaking publicly about Ukraine. In the weeks following the invasion, he repeatedly went days without appearing on camera.
But in other cases, Mr Putin may embark on a flurry of Kremlin-standard freewheeling events — as he did this month when he spent more than 90 minutes in a town hall session with young entrepreneurs, and a week later when he showed up. almost four hours on the stage of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
“After some very loud and shocking steps, he needs feedback,” Ms Stanovaya said of Mr Putin. “He’s starting to be active in public, he’s starting to open up, he’s starting to be more outspoken. It’s like stepping into the light to see what he’s really done.”
Mr Putin’s isolation was exacerbated by the pandemic and was accompanied, authentically or intentionally, by outbursts of remarkable anger and grievances against the West. In his speech announcing the start of the invasion, he called the American-led West an “empire of lies” and threatened all countries that tried to interfere with “consequences you have never seen in your history.” In March, Putin lashed out at pro-Western Russians as “scum and traitors” whom society would spew “like a fly.”
The ominous language, combined with Western arms deliveries to Ukraine and Russian battlefield setbacks, led many analysts — including Ms. Stanovaya — to conclude that Mr. Putin was considering limited use of nuclear weapons to force the West into submission.
But recently, Mr Putin has renounced the serious threats and has returned to a more relaxed public persona. In an aside in his town hall, the Russian leader likened his battle to Peter the Great’s wars of conquest in the 18th century, making clear that he saw himself as a historical figure on a years-long quest to regain lost land – and glory. to give. To Russia.
Nevertheless, predictions that Mr Putin would make an official declaration of war and install compulsory military service have not materialized. And Western moves that other Russian officials have described as hostile — such as granting Ukraine candidate status for the European Union and inviting Sweden and Finland to NATO — have not led to harsh retaliation from him.
Instead, his strategy now appears to be to wait and see, expecting Western resolve to falter under economic pressure and the government of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to crumble as Russia pound its troops and cities. And Ms. Stanovaya sees Mr. Putin as some sort of relaxation with Washington, noting that President Biden is putting limits on the extent of his aid to Ukraine in order to avoid a wider conflagration.
“He is betting that in time the Kiev authorities will have to accept everything,” Ms Stanovaya said of Mr Putin. Russia has followed closely the statements of the Biden administration, she continued, “and has decided, ‘Okay, the rules of the game are set. They are acceptable to us. So we can calm down and just wait.’”
This approach naturally entails great risks. Mr Putin’s apparent expectation that many Ukrainians would welcome the Russians as liberators exposed his distorted understanding of the country. And within Russia, the ramifications of sanctions are still playing out — a point underlined by economics minister Maksim Reshetnikov, who warned on Wednesday that the ruble’s unexpected strength threatened the viability of Russian exporters.
Yet Mr Putin did not mention Ukraine or its confrontation with the West in his eight-minute speech in Turkmenistan on Wednesday, another sign of how he expects a return to normalcy. Instead, he spoke of Russian efforts to improve transportation and tourism in the region, and to tackle pollution and depleted fishing.
The first Caspian cruise ship, he said, would sail from Russia’s Astrakhan region on the Volga Delta next year. The name of the ship: Peter the Great.