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CNN Special Reports
Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin. Aired 9-10p ET
Aired May 21, 2022 - 21:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: December 5th, 1989, it was a cold night in Dresden, East Germany, and it would change the course of Vladimir Putin's life. The Berlin Wall had just fallen.
All over East Germany angry crowds roamed the streets, lashing out at symbols of communist rule.
That night in Dresden, they found a target. A local KGB headquarters. A mob surrounded the building. As the hour grew later, the crowd grew larger. Inside, peering through the curtains, was a young KGB lieutenant colonel named Vladimir Putin.
MASHA GESSEN, PUTIN BIOGRAPHER: He was terrified that they were going to storm the building.
ZAKARIA: Putin was a junior officer, but the boss was away. He was in charge.
EDWARD LUCAS, SENIOR EDITOR, THE ECONOMIST: The Berlin Wall had come down. Police weren't going to help, and he called for instructions.
ZAKARIA: Desperate for help, Putin dialed KGB headquarters in Moscow over and over again. Finally one official told him simply Moscow is silent.
GESSEN: And I think it felt like a deep betrayal to him.
ZAKARIA: Vladimir Putin was on his own. He went down into the bowels of the building and fired up the furnace.
DAVID REMNICK, EDITOR, THE NEW YORKER: He finds himself in a basement at a furnace shoveling documents as he hears demonstrations out on the streets.
LUCAS: They are burning the secret files so fast that the furnace is blowing up.
ZAKARIA: Putin torched thousands of pages of KGB documents in secrets as the crowds closed in. With the fire still raging, Putin went downside and faced the mob by himself. There are armed guards inside, he told them. They will shoot you.
LUCAS: And he's able to bluff his way out of this and tell the crowd, don't try it here, you are going to get hurt. ZAKARIA: Putin's threat worked. The mob dispersed.
REMNICK: This is the drama that stays with Putin all the time. The fear of popular uprising.
ZAKARIA (on-camera): Good evening. I'm Fareed Zakaria.
We used to think we understood Vladimir Putin. Smart but cold, ruthless by calculating, tough but rational. The KGB man who bluffed away that angry mob in Dresden, the leader carefully accumulating power over a country that spans 11 time zones.
But now we see a different Vladimir Putin. Reckless, emotional, a gambler. That terrible bloody assault on Ukraine despite military failures and massive economic costs. He's even made nuclear threats.
Should Americans be afraid? 92 percent do not trust Putin, the highest negative rating Pew Research has ever recorded for a world leader.
What is Putin doing? What is he thinking? Finding the answers could be a matter of life and death. The story begins at the moment he first rose to power.
(Voice-over): December 31st, 1999. One minute until the 21st century begins. One minute until Vladimir Putin becomes president of Russia.
It's a moment of high drama. Russia reeling over Putin's sudden ascendance.
REMNICK: A lot of things happened very quickly.
ZAKARIA: Outside the halls of the Kremlin many know nothing about him. It had all started just hours earlier. Suddenly Yeltsin appeared on television.
Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Democratic Russia, abruptly resigned.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The surprise announcement from Boris Yeltsin that he is resigning as president and turning over power to his prime minister, Vladimir Putin.
ZAKARIA: It was clear. Yeltsin had been struggling.
REMNICK: Drinking. And he's barely being propped up, and physically propped up. He disappears for weeks at a time. He's obviously had heart attacks.
ZAKARIA: The sudden handover of power left Russia and the world with one overwhelming question. Who is this guy?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Americans and others don't know a great deal about him, and people who predict exactly what type of a president he would make are essentially blowing a lot of smoke. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He could be the person that brings Russia out of
its decline, or he could be the leader that makes Russia into an authoritarian regime again.
ZAKARIA: No one had the slightest idea what Putin would do.
GESSEN: He came out of obscurity. It was I'd say an accident that he was picked by Boris Yeltsin to be his successor.
ZAKARIA: An accident because Boris Yeltsin had already gone through five different prime ministers.
GESSEN: And that one he'd pretty much cycled through everybody.
ZAKARIA: They had diverse talents but had to meet one requirement.
GESSEN: They had to guarantee that Yeltsin would not be prosecuted after his term was over.
ZAKARIA: The corrupt Yeltsin needed a get-out-of-jail-free card.
REMNICK: They settled on Putin because they knew that Putin would be loyal to the Yeltsin family. That Yeltsin could retire and not be put in jail.
ZAKARIA: Vladimir Putin delivered.
REMNICK: The first decree that Putin passed was to protect the Yeltsin family, so the deal was made. The deal was made.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Vladimir Putin, a virtual political unknown three months ago, now clearly in charge of Russia.
ZAKARIA: Putin's lightning-fast rise was remarkable, but to really understand it, we need to go back to the dramatic story of his life.
St. Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great.
ROBERT GATES, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: Three hundred years of history.
ZAKARIA: The capital of the old Russian empire and the birthplace of Vladimir Putin. He grew up not among grand monuments but instead in the city's darkest corners.
JULIA IOFFE, FOUNDING PARTNER, PUCK NEWS: He's a kid from the projects. This scrappy small kid from the street.
GESSEN: They lived in a single large room in a communal apartment.
REMNICK: He grew up basically in a courtyard of this really crummy building, rats.
ZAKARIA: He was the only surviving child of a janitor and a factory worker.
GESSEN: His parents were working class. They worked all the time. ZAKARIA: Young Putin often got into fights.
IOFFE: He took up judo because he was small, he was short, and he wanted some advantage over the bigger stronger boys.
ZAKARIA: The childhood bully Putin recalls most vividly was not another boy, it was a rat. When I saw one, he says, I will chase it. It was a game. He would scare them off with a stick, but one day one rat refused to run.
GESSEN: And he corners the rat, and then the rat lunges at him, and all of a sudden he's defending himself and the rat is chasing him rather than him chasing the rat.
ZAKARIA: He escaped the rat, but in Putin's tellings of this tale it has a moral. Remember, he says, it is better not to corner anyone.
(On-camera): It would be a theme throughout Vladimir Putin's life, trapped in a corner only to fight his way out. Remember, as a young KGB agent in Dresden he was unarmed, outnumbered, face-to-face with an angry mob, yet he still managed to turn the tables.
(Voice-over): But then in 1990, he encountered a force he could not defeat.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are shouting freedom, freedom.
ZAKARIA: He came home to the Soviet Union, a country he did not recognize. His homeland had been transformed by Mikhail Gorbachev and his policy of openness, glasnost.
PETER JENNINGS, ABC NEWS: This evening the Soviet experiment with glasnost, people are talking more freely.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is a sense things are changing.
REMNICK: A romance with things Western, the popular culture begins to transform, the media opens up, albeit in very rough ways.
ZAKARIA: Freedom came fast and it exposed the rock at the heart of communism.
GESSEN: All of a sudden anything was possible.
TOM BROKAW, JOURNALIST: Three of the most powerful republics now have joined forces and declared the old union dead.
ZAKARIA: In 1991 the Soviet Union finally collapsed.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tonight in Moscow at the Kremlin, the red flag of the failed Soviet Union at last came down, and the flag of Russia rose.
GATES: Three hundred years of history erased.
ZAKARIA: Soviet institutions ceased to exist. Among them Vladimir Putin's beloved KGB.
GESSEN: It wasn't clear who he was anymore.
ZAKARIA: Suddenly Russia began to look like the United States.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Today we're opening the first McDonald's in Moscow.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's very nice. I like it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Big Mac is Big Mac. Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola.
ZAKARIA: Almost overnight.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mickey Mouse.
ZAKARIA: New freedoms, capitalism, Western values. It all looked great from the West. To Vladimir Putin, it was a catastrophe.
DAVID SANGER, NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, NEW YORK TIMES: Vladimir Putin views the break-up of the Soviet Union, as he said himself, to be the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.
ZAKARIA: But it wasn't just geography to Putin. The breakup, he said, tore millions of Russians away from the country they loved, the country in which they belong.
REMNICK: Tens of millions of Russians, Russian speakers were, quote- unquote, "abandoned" and ripped away from us. It didn't have to be. The Soviet Union was our common past.
ZAKARIA: The most painful separation for Putin?
GATES: Of all of the former parts of the Soviet Union, Ukraine mattered the most.
ZAKARIA: Ukraine, the loss Putin never got over. Part not just of the Soviet Union but also the czar's empire.
GATES: And because it had belonged to Russia for 300 years.
ZAKARIA: Putin's brutal assault on Ukraine may be the fulfillment of his greatest dream. The world sees an unprovoked bloodbath. Putin sees a chance to restore the core of the Russian empire.
GATES: I think that down deep in Putin there is this sense of extraordinary humiliation over the collapse of the Soviet Union because it wasn't just the Soviet Union. It was the Russian empire.
IOFFE: He has seen the collapse of empire once. I think in his mind he is rebuilding what was lost in 1991.
ZAKARIA: The man who is fighting for his imperial dreams has cut himself off from the world. Putin's isolation began during COVID and has worsened while Russia wages war.
IOFFE: Putin has really changed in the sense that he has become much more isolated.
ZAKARIA: His inner circle is said to be very small.
IOFFE: Fewer than a handful of people.
ZAKARIA: Now with the war going badly and a constant barrage of condemnation and sanctions from the West.
ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: Intentionally killing civilians.
DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: And unspeakable war crimes.
ZAKARIA: Putin frequently lectures on values.
MIKHAIL ZYGAR, AUTHOR, "ALL THE KREMLIN'S MEN": The moral values in the West are rotten.
IOFFE: We're better than the decadent West, immoral, weak, soft, comfort-obsessed.
ZAKARIA: To Putin, some of the most decadent are LBGTQ people.
ZYGAR: LBGT people are destroying the Christian faith and Christian churches.
IOFFE: He has brought up gender fluidity. A man is a man and a woman is a woman. The men are in charge.
ZAKARIA: In a recently televised conference he mocked people who, quote, "cannot get by without so-called gender freedoms."
And he has condemned gay marriage. Every family, he says, must have a mom and dad. Yet his own family is not exactly leave it to beaver.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: The woman who is rumored to be Vladimir Putin's girlfriend is a new target in the latest round of E.U. sanctions against Russia.
ZAKARIA: He has two adult daughters, but since his 2014 divorce, he's said to have fathered several younger children with his girlfriend, a former Olympic gymnast. Putin denies all of it. His private life is never talked about on Russian television.
REMNICK: There's absolutely no critical words about Vladimir Putin on the Russian airways, none. Not one word.
ZAKARIA: The propaganda, the isolation, the bizarre behavior, all of it worries those who study him closely.
IOFFE: He's extremely dangerous. He's backed into a corner.
ZYGAR: He's more dangerous than he has ever been.
ZAKARIA: Mikhail Khodorkovsky was once Russia's richest man. When he became a Putin critic, he ended up in prison for 10 years.
MIKHAIL KHODORKOVSKY, EXILED RUSSIAN BUSINESSMAN (through translator): When he was not greeted with flowers, it drove him literally insane. More scary, he has a mission to show the whole world he is great.
ZAKARIA: Erratic, obsessed, enraged. Is Putin now that cornered rat he once encountered? Up next.
When Vladimir met Hollywood. The Putin-America bromance.
GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT: We're going to have a very good meeting.
ZAKARIA: That goes downhill fast.
ZAKARIA: September 11th, 2001. As a horrific attack unfolded in New York Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin, turned to a top adviser and asked, what can we do to help the Americans? He was the first world leader to call the White House that day.
PRES. VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (through translator): I would like to say that we are with you.
ZAKARIA: In a heartfelt speech he told Americans we feel your pain. Soon Putin visited Ground Zero, provided weapons and crucial intelligence to fight the Taliban, and declared emphatically to the world the Cold War is over.
There were glimmers of hope early on. That Putin could be America's friend. Those hopes are now long forgotten. How did the man who once felt America's pain become the man who hated the West?
In his first year as president, the world saw a very different Vladimir Putin.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Handshakes and more handshakes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The British prime minister.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The prime minister of Canada, Jean Chretien.
ZAKARIA: He charmed word leaders everywhere, visiting 18 countries around the globe. He made a dramatic speech to the German parliament in German. Promising that Russia was a friendly European nation.
PUTIN (through text translator): Russia is part of the European culture.
BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT: Based on what I have seen so far I think that the United States can do business with this man.
REMNICK: Putin started out making gestures towards wanting to join NATO.
ZAKARIA: Most famously --
BUSH: We had a great dinner last night. We had a little Texas barbecue.
ZAKARIA: Putin won the heart of President Bush.
BUSH: How are you? Good to see you. What we're talking about is a new relationship so that we can work together to make the world more peaceful.
ZAKARIA: Convincing him that he was a fellow Christian.
BUSH: I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul.
ZAKARIA: But there was more in Putin's soul beneath those kind words for the West. A manipulative former spy, well-trained in the art of deception.
GESSEN: Well, he was a KGB agent.
ZAKARIA: And a bitterly humiliated Russian patriot, hell bent on making Russia great again. Biding his time --
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Empty stomachs and empty wallets.
ZAKARIA: While his nation was still weak.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Food shortages, deteriorating living conditions.
ZYGAR: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economic crisis in the beginning of the '90s was really terrible.
ZAKARIA: But in the 2000s oil prices skyrocketed.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Russians have never had so much money to spend.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And they are spending it like there's no tomorrow.
ZAKARIA: Russia got rich.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Money is flooding into Russia.
ZAKARIA: And Putin grew bolder.
BUSH: We will defend our freedom.
ZAKARIA: He rebated America for invading Iraq. Blasted the expansion of NATO. And in 2007 he unleashed a tirade.
PUTIN (through translator): The United States has overstepped its national borders in every way.
ZAKARIA: In a startling speech in Munich that marked a turning point.
PUTIN (through translator): It leads to a situation where nobody feels secure.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Tough Russian rhetoric.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Blistering criticism of American foreign policy.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Hasn't been heard since the Cold War.
GATES: He spent almost an hour excoriating the United States and blaming us for everything.
IOFFE: He says now we were living in a world of unchecked American power. You say you're bringing democracy and freedom, but you're bringing bloodshed and chaos.
GATES: In retrospect, it's clear that it really was a portend of what was to come.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Fierce battle broke out today on the fringe of the former Soviet Union.
ZAKARIA: Putin began to strike back.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Russian planes again bombing Georgian targets this morning.
ZAKARIA: Invading a former Soviet republic, Georgia.
GESSEN: Occupies 20 percent of the country in the course of five days.
ZYGAR: There was no potential reaction to that war from the West.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Putin bluntly told the president war has started today.
ZYGAR: It was forgotten and neglected and ignored within a month.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The only question now, where will the Russians go next?
ZAKARIA: In 2014, Putin struck again.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Armed men who may be tied to the Russian military.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Up to a dozen trucks full of Russian troops have crossed --
SCIUTTO: Violated the sovereignty of another country, and that is Ukraine.
ZAKARIA: He seized Crimea with its nearly two million Russian speakers.
LUCAS: That's just the sort of thing that Adolf Hitler did in the 1930s. We thought those days were gone.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mystery gunmen in military --
PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Having removed all identifying marks from their uniform.
ZAKARIA: Unidentified soldiers.
CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Can we ask you guys where you're from?
ZAKARIA: Russia's little green men.
SCIUTTO: Thirty thousand Russian troops.
ZAKARIA: Had crossed the border secretly.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They are known by their nickname, the little green men.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Equipped just like Russian Special Forces.
BLACK: These were not Ukrainian troops.
ZAKARIA: Putin made bold-faced denials to Western leaders. But soon he was celebrating Russia's new land. In a gala at the Kremlin. Having stoked the fires of nationalism, his approval rating, which had been sagging, shot up.
GATES: Putin has given them their pride back.
DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT: It wouldn't be bad to get along with Russia, right? It wouldn't be bad.
ZAKARIA: Putin also found a great admirer in America.
BLITZER: Donald Trump wins the presidency.
ZAKARIA: Trump's victory in 2016.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Trump's victory will be a celebration for all humanity.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): To Donald Trump's victory.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are the champions.
ZAKARIA: Prompted wild celebrations in Moscow.
TRUMP: Number one NATO is obsolete. It's obsolete. It's obsolete.
ZAKARIA: Putin now had a president who wanted America to withdraw from NATO.
TRUMP: It's great to be with you.
ZAKARIA: An admirer of Putin.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016.
ZAKARIA: Who believed him.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Who do you believe?
TRUMP: President Putin, he just said it's not Russia.
ZAKARIA: Over his own intelligence agencies.
BLITZER: He breached a historic moment in this election.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Joe Biden.
ZAKARIA: Putin's friend would end up losing the White House.
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The people of this nation have spoken.
ZAKARIA: His successor was firmly anti-Russian.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Outside of Kabul International Airport, chaos reigned.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Taliban said we are going to burn you and your families alive.
WARD: Afghans desperately trying to hold on.
ZAKARIA: But he also presided over a fiasco in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, oil prices were once again going through the roof, and Europe was deepening its addiction to Russian energy.
PUTIN (through text translation): I made a decision to conduct a special military operation.
ZAKARIA: The moment felt right for Putin to take back the jewel in Russia's imperial crown.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Up to 150 civilians might be buried here. A Russian execution --
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Calls for a war crimes trial.
ZAKARIA: But when Putin became the butcher of Ukraine. BLACK: Undeniable truths about the brutality of Russia.
ZAKARIA: The West had an awakening.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Billions of dollars' worth of NATO weapons flooding into Ukraine.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The goal here is a victory for Ukraine.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Weapons provided by NATO countries.
ZAKARIA: Europe began arming Ukraine to the teeth.
BIDEN: Putin is getting exactly the opposite of what he intended. He thought the West and NATO wouldn't respond. I'm authorizing additional strong sanctions.
ZAKARIA: The Biden administration rallied the world.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Western brands have suspended production.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The ruble plunged nearly 30 percent.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A new iron curtain around Russia right now.
PRES. VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINE (through text translator): We are all here defending our independence, our state.
ZAKARIA: And Ukraine gave the world a new Churchill.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Much of the world is united, been inspired.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The leadership of Ukraine's president.
ZAKARIA: Years of Putin's efforts to divide the West.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You now have the floor.
ZAKARIA: Were undone in a matter of days. But Putin has not given up. Not by any means.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Putin, get out of here.
ZAKARIA: In late 2011 rebellion arrived in Moscow. Chants of Russia without Putin rang out. Tens of thousands gathered blocks from the Kremlin.
IOFFE: As the winter went longer and longer and got colder and colder the protest got bigger and bigger.
ZAKARIA: Russia's largest since the fall of the Soviet Union. ZYGAR: All of us were very optimistic. We were absolutely sure that we
are witnessing the last if not days, but, OK, months of President Putin.
ZAKARIA: Putin had long feared being ousted by the West, but now he saw something even worse. His own people trying to throw him out.
REMNICK: Popular uprising. If there's anything that animates Vladimir Putin's political moves, it's to stave off popular uprising.
ZAKARIA: So Putin turned the tables, blaming the protests on the United States of America. The strategy worked. In 2012 Putin was re- elected president in a landslide. It was a rare moment of raw emotion for the strong man.
PUTIN (through text translator): Thank you to all those who said yes to a great Russia.
ZAKARIA: Back in control, Putin looked to strike at the heart of the opposition, those behind the protests.
ZYGAR: He realized that he needs to do something that protests of 2011 and 2012 were the turning points.
ZAKARIA: A cold winter night in 2015, a man and woman walk across the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge right next to the Kremlin. Inside the circle are the final moments of Boris Nemtsov. Nemtsov was a well- known opposition leader and a key figure during the 2011 protests, but on this night --
BLITZER: The breaking news coming in from Russia. Boris Nemtsov shot and killed in Moscow.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Four of the shots hit him in the back.
IOFFE: The assassination was extremely professional.
There were four or five people working. There was a spotter. There was a guy driving a snowplow to block the camera. And Nemtsov's girlfriend who he was walking with didn't realize he been shot until the car was already driving off.
ZAKARIA: The Kremlin has denied any involvement in Nemtsov's murder. But death has come often for Putin's opponents. During the president's reign, dozens of his critics have met a similar fate, but not every voice has been silenced.
Alexei Navalny electrified crowds during the 2011 protests.
ZYGAR: Alexei Navalny was probably the brightest star of those protests.
ZAKARIA: And his popular YouTube videos exposed the regime's corruption. ALEXEI NAVALNY, RUSSIAN OPPOSITION LEADER (through text translation):
They are becoming millionaires and billionaires with the help of corruption.
ZAKARIA: In 2020 Russia's only independent pollster asked who is the most inspiring person in the country. President Putin came in first but surprisingly Navalny showed up second.
August 2020, Alexei Navalny's cries fill an airplane. He tells a flight attendant, I'm going to die. He has been poisoned. His underwear laced with a Cold War-era nerve agent.
IOFFE: If the plane hadn't landed, Navalny would certainly be dead.
ZAKARIA: He spent the next five months in Germany recovering and investigating who poisoned him.
WARD: Is it your contention that Vladimir Putin must have been aware of this?
NAVALNY: Of course, 100 percent.
ZAKARIA: Putin laughed at the accusation. Who needs him, he says. But to Putin, Navalny represents the threat of a popular uprising at home.
And years earlier Putin was rattled by the color revolutions abroad. In Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Three popular uprisings led by people he still saw as Russian, each ending with a toppled strongman. All of it moved Putin to form his own personal army.
In 2016, he created a National Guard, separate from the armed forces and under the direct control of his Ministry of Internal Affairs. Precisely for these kinds of threat. Its commanding general is Victor Zolotov, once Putin's personal bodyguard.
It's now a massive force with almost unlimited powers. It can arrest anyone, disband any group, even fire on Russians without any need for judicial edicts or papers. It has recruited among its ranks thousands of Chechen fighters legendary for their brutality. When protests did come --
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets.
ZAKARIA: Like early last year.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The biggest show of opposition to Vladimir Putin in years.
ZAKARIA: National Guard troops and riot police were used to stomp them out.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Ukraine has always been just a tool for the Western states to restrain Russia.
ZAKARIA: Even with Putin controlling what Russians see in the news, his war in Ukraine sparked more unrest and more crackdowns. 15,000 were detained in the weeks after Russia invaded. Three times more than in all of 2012.
ZYGAR: That proves that no protest is tolerated and no protest would be tolerated in the future.
ZAKARIA: He may have insulated himself from a popular uprising, but what about a rebellion among a select few? Right in his own house?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Talk of courage to overthrow Vladimir Putin.
GESSEN: That's less of a fantasy but still a fantasy because Putin hands out money, hands out power, he controls everything.
ZYGAR: Russian elites are dependent on Putin 100 percent so I guess he's pretty safe for now.
ZAKARIA: Vladimir Putin now lives like a Roman emperor. Housed in a massive dacha outside of Moscow, protected by his pretorian guard and impervious to pressures of any kind.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Vladimir Putin.
ZAKARIA: But one is reminded of the line about autocracies. They do seem eternal until they fall, and then we wonder how they lasted as long as they did.
ZAKARIA (on-camera): And now my final thoughts. I met Vladimir Putin for the first time when he came to the World Economic Forum in January 2009. I was with a small group of editors who were granted an hour of time off the record with the Russian president. He was almost an hour and a half late which is very unusual in Davos because things usually run with Swiss punctuality, but I'd read somewhere that this was one of Putin's power moves, to establish the difference between him and the other person.
Putin is not tall or imposing. He's shortish, of medium build and with fairly non-script features. He seemed slightly annoyed to be there and began by mocking an editor whose magazine had published some tough articles on Putin over the size of his ring. The man was wearing one of those large college rings.
Again, Putin seemed to enjoy putting others at discomfort, at some kind of disadvantage. The meeting began and Putin came across as intelligent, extremely well-briefed and deeply aggrieved. He began a litany of complaints against the West and America in particular, NATO, Kosovo, arms control, Iraq.
Later at Davos when Michael Dell offered to build out Russia's digital infrastructure, Putin snapped at him saying Russia was not an invalid, a developing country, it would build its own stuff. He seemed highly nationalistic and yet highly rational. And that my impression of Putin in our subsequent meetings, including one interview.
Is this a new Putin we are now witnessing? Reckless, emotional? I don't know, but we do know that the Russian president has not stayed the same over his extraordinary reign.
(Voice-over): In his first years he courted the West, seductively, convincing President George Bush that he was a spiritual man, telling the German Bundestag that Russia's destiny lay in the West, a speech he made in Germany.
(On-camera): But in those early days Putin desperately needed help from the West.
(Voice-over): Russia had big debts and its economy had crashed. Then came almost a decade of high oil prices and the Russian economy rebounded with vigor. Putin's petrol state was rich and with that change came greater confidence, ambition and even expansion.
(On-camera): Putin began to do what perhaps he'd always wanted to do, retrieve those Russian-speaking lands that were part not of the Soviet Union but the older Russian empire.
(Voice-over): Putin sees himself not as a Soviet commissar but as a Russian czar, in the tradition of his hero, peter the great.
(On-camera): Perhaps what changed was not Putin but the circumstances. When he could, he was aggressive. This year he acted because, again, oil and gas prices were sky high. The West seemed internally divided and weak, and Europe in particular had become dependent on Russian energy. When he thought he had power, we can see what he wanted, total control over all of Ukraine, and when he couldn't get that, we see the viciousness with which he has waged war on ordinary Ukrainians, even women and children.
Whatever the provocation, what leader would be that merciless? Is he this way due to isolation because of COVID, 22 long years in office? Some even wonder about an illness or mental condition. Perhaps, but I would rather not pathologize his behavior. This is an occasion not for clinical analysis but moral judgment. Putin may not be sick. He may be evil which is worse.
I'm Fareed Zakaria. Thank you for watching.