Analysis: This was a supreme leader marshalling his minions for a decision that will change the security architecture in Europe and may well lead to horrific war
The Guardian-Shaun Walker
Sitting alone at a desk in a grand, columned Kremlin room, Vladimir Putin looked across an expanse of parquet floor at his security council and asked if anyone wished to express an alternative opinion.
He was met with silence.
A few hours later, the Russian president appeared on state television to give an angry, rambling lecture about Ukraine, a country that in Putin’s telling had become “a colony with a puppet regime”, and had no historical right to exist.
Putin’s double bill, which was immediately followed by the signing of an agreement on Russian recognition of the two proxy states in east Ukraine as independent entities, is likely to go down in history as one of the major turning points in his 22-years-and-counting rule over Russia.
This was not a politician convening his team for discussions, this was a supreme leader marshalling his minions and ensuring collective responsibility for a decision that, at minimum, will change the security architecture in Europe, and may well lead to a horrific war that consumes Ukraine.
Putin appeared genuinely angry and passionate in his speech, which he almost certainly wrote himself.
In a symbolic sign of his increasing isolation, with no equals who can talk back to him or debate ideas, Putin has recently taken to meeting politicians, including his own ministers, across ostentatiously large tables, apparently as a Covid precaution. But at the security council meeting on Monday, when a long table for once would have seemed appropriate, Putin sat alone, surveying his subordinates from absurdly far away, as they squirmed awkwardly in chairs waiting their turn to be grilled by the boss.
From behind his desk, frequently smirking, Putin listened one-by-one to his security council. The body contains some of the few people who have Putin’s ear, but even some of them appeared overawed by the situation and nervous at fluffing their lines.
Sergei Naryshkin, the hawkish head of Russia’s spy service, known for making aggressively anti-western statements, stuttered uncomfortably as Putin grilled him on whether he supported the decision.
“Speak directly!” Putin snapped, twice.
Eventually, when he was able to get the words out, Naryshkin said he supported “the LNR and DNR becoming part of Russia.” Putin told him that wasn’t the subject of the discussion; it was only recognition being weighed up.
Some suggested this might have been a carefully scripted encounter to show the West what other options might be available, but Naryshkin’s genuinely flustered expression suggested otherwise.
It is hard to tell whether or not Putin had decided his plan for Ukraine months ago, or whether he has been making plans on the hop, but it was certainly clear that the decision on recognition had been taken well before this strange, stage-managed event.
There was very little exchange of opinion, and the idea that it was all spontaneous was further undermined by the fact that closeups of the watches of certain participants appeared to suggest that the “live” broadcast had in fact been filmed several hours earlier.
This did not stop Putin specifically emphasising that the event really was a frank exchange of views.
“Every one of you knows, and I specially want to underline it … I did not discuss any of this with you before. I did not ask your opinion before. And this is happening spontaneously, because I wanted to hear your opinions without any preliminary preparation,” he said.
The appearance of Putin just a few hours later with his long, pre-prepared and wide-ranging speech made the claim this was all a real-time decision-making process even more implausible.
Many of Putin’s team give the impression of genuinely believing the propaganda narrative Russia has built to justify its continuing aggression against Ukraine. Valentina Matviyenko, the only woman on the security council, gave an elongated harangue cobbled together from the more outlandish talking points of Russian news bulletins: innocent Russia facing down the nefarious west, which was backing the “genocidal” Kyiv regime.
Not everyone was so enthusiastic: the prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, spoke briefly and drily, looking visibly uncomfortable. Not willing to let him off the hook without swearing fealty to the decision that was already inevitably on the way, Putin asked him directly whether he supported it; Mishustin mumbled that he did. Everyone was now publicly on record as supporting this move; nobody will be able to weasel out of it later and claim they put up a fight.
The recognition decision answers some questions but others remain. There is a chance Putin may simply recognise the two republics “as they are”. This, after months of apocalyptic scenarios, would probably be privately accepted as a good outcome by Ukraine and the west.
But it seems likely that Putin has much more in mind than simply taking a nibble out of Ukraine’s east and taking formal responsibility for territories he already de facto controlled.
Putin’s final words, that if Kyiv did not stop the violence they would bear responsibility for the “ensuing bloodshed”, were ominous in the extreme. It sounded, quite simply, like a declaration of war.