The Rise of Putin and the Ukraine Endgame (A View from the Bridge)


By Wayne Allensworth

It was November in Moscow, 24 years ago. I was taking a walk, killing a little time before my next meeting with one of my Russian contacts. As I had often done in the past, I walked across Red Square, past the red walls and golden domes of the Kremlin. The air was cold, but not yet frosty, and I pulled my collar closer around my neck. I was headed for the Bolshoy Moscow River Bridge, just east of the Kremlin, which spans the river behind the exotic onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral and connects Red Square to Bolshaya Ordynka Street on the far bank.

That morning had begun like all the others on the trip. Very early, I left my hotel to scour the kiosks at the Kievskaya metro station for a haul of the morning editions that I read while eating an early breakfast and sipping my coffee. I took a few notes, prepping for the day’s work of meeting with contacts in the city, making calls, missing some (Is Valeriy Ivanovich in yet? No? When are you expecting him? Sometime today  OK), connecting with others (Meet me in front of the state library at the statue of Dostoevsky. I’ll be carrying a copy of Izvestiya with me. … We can take a walk and discuss the situation). I savored those early mornings and the relative quiet in the massive metropolis as the city was just awakening. I felt the tantalizing tug of curiosity about what I might learn each day.

When the first meeting was over, I strolled over to the bridge, gazing at the panoramic view of the Kremlin and the House on the Embankment, where party leaders nervously attempted to sleep during Stalin’s purges. I had earlier visited the reconstructed Cathedral of Christ the Savior just southwest of the Kremlin, which had recently reopened. The Soviets demolished the original cathedral in 1931 and built a vast swimming pool in its place. Its rebirth was taken by some Russians as a sign of the country’s rising from under the rubble of the defunct Soviet Union. In the years ahead, Boris Yeltsin, the first post-Soviet president of Russia, would lay in state under the cathedral’s vast dome before his burial in the historic Novodevichy Cemetery.


The bridge and events around it would subsequently figure prominently in my job of trying to unravel the Byzantine puzzles of Russian politics. In February of 2015, I watched surveillance video of the bridge taken from the nearby TV Tsentr studio at the time that Boris Nemtsov — one-time Russian vice premier, later a leader of the opposition to Vladimir Putin — was assassinated. I played the video over and over. It came from the only camera operating in the vicinity that night as Nemtsov and his girlfriend were crossing the bridge on the way back to his apartment. A city utility vehicle clearing snow off the bridge had passed by, and then Nemtsov was down. Someone had jumped on the vehicle prior to it reaching the bridge and had shot Nemtsov several times in a matter of seconds. I recall taking a handgun of mine and timing how many shots I could get off in a span of a few seconds.

I had first encountered Nemtsov in the 90’s when he visited Washington, and again in his offices in the Russian White House, the seat of the government, when he was a vice premier. The Kremlin was said to be considering Nemtsov as a possible Yeltsin successor. The occasion for my visit was a birthday party given in his honor. A Nemtsov advisor, a contact of mine, had invited me over. It was a happy occasion, one I would recall often in the years ahead.

Nemtsov’s murder sent shockwaves through the Russian elite. For nearly 10 years prior to the shooting, the key players had been safe — safe, at least, from assassination. Vladimir Putin had established an equilibrium among the economic/political “clans” that were the power behind the scenes in Russia, as well as some informal rules for elite power struggles. Putin’s lengthy stay in the Kremlin was partly based on the relative security of the big sharks in the Russian tank. It was one facet of the systemic order he had established following a decade of fearful chaos.

For days after the murder, Putin dropped out of sight. Rumors of rumblings in the corridors of power floated to the surface. By all accounts, Putin was livid about the killing. He had not seen Nemtsov as a threat to Russian stability. The potentially destabilizing killing was a political embarrassment as well. Indeed, the former vice premier was no longer a key player in the game of power. But his death was a startling reminder to elites of how fragile that stability might be. We heard stories of Putin’s dressing down subordinates and of his extreme displeasure with Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov was most likely the zakazchik in the killing, the man who had placed an “order” for a murder contract. Nemtsov had been a relentlessly fierce critic of Kadyrov, a man who did not take personal criticism lightly. Kadyrov probably had help from within the security detail responsible for the area adjacent to the Kremlin. Thus, the surveillance cameras were switched off.

There was little Putin could do as angry as he was about the killing. Winning the second Chechen War partly by securing an understanding with the Kadyrov faction was a linchpin in Russian security arrangements. Removing Kadyrov could disrupt the delicate balance among the players, and the Kremlin had no one who could replace him. The tremors in Russian “big politics” gradually settled down. Five perpetrators were eventually caught and sentenced to prison in 2017. A sixth suspect in the case killed himself with explosives when police surrounded his apartment in Grozny, the Chechen capital. No effort was made to dig further into the plot. An informal memorial was established for Nemtsov at the bridge. The flower-laden memorial was dismantled by the authorities, then reassembled by Nemtsov’s supporters. The duel of the flowers between vlast — the powers that be — and those supporters has continued every February 27, the anniversary of the killing.

Putin reestablished the system’s equilibrium. Deaths of certain figures under questionable circumstances still happen —  think of Yevgeniy Prigozhin or Aleksey Navalny — but not as a routine matter as they had during “the wild ’90s.” Cars don’t explode in parking garages, and wild shootouts on city boulevards are not so common. Business disputes can usually be settled with an applied use of political and police power instead of with bullets and bombs.

And it is not only elites who are largely content with Putin’s system. It is difficult for those who did not witness the chaos of post-Soviet Russia, never fully acknowledged in the West, which was too busy celebrating its Cold War triumph, to fathom how much the country has changed under Putin. Watching man on the street interviews in Russia today, I see people who look healthy and fairly prosperous. The country is functional in a way I could not imagine 20 years ago. Perhaps the best indicator of positive change is increased life expectancy, which has risen dramatically with Putin in the Kremlin: By 2019, life expectancy in Russia was about 74 years, up from 65.5 in 2000. Life expectancy for Russian men soared from about 58 in the 1994 to 68 in 2019, prior to the Ukraine war. And Russians are proud of their country again. A sort of tentative optimism, for Russians are a fatalistic people, has reshaped Russian reality. 

Russians are not naïve. They have no illusions about vlast. They expect bigwigs to feather their own nests. As for the war in Ukraine, judging from Levada Center polling, generally considered a reliable source among Russia watchers, a shorthand way of describing public attitudes is that the public largely supports Putin, but almost half would like to see peace talks. Russians generally blame the war on the West and on the Ukrainian leadership, but they also say that the war has been too costly. Meanwhile, Putin’s Levada approval rating hovers around 82 percent. It appears that despite weariness with the war, which Russians expect to win, there isn’t going to be any revolt against Putin, elite or popular. That was always a fantasy of Washington Beltway types who view Russia as a roadblock on the way to a globalist Nirvana. Putin is a remarkable, if ambiguous, figure, a man who has brought Russia back from the brink of collapse. I understand why he is popular in the way that Russian leaders can be popular, with a large grain of salt added.

What’s more, Putin has sought accommodation with the West many times since he took power, only to be rebuffed those many times. The West had its chance to establish a new security arrangement in Europe following the collapse of Soviet power and recklessly blew it, thinking it could arrogantly do as it pleased, with no regard for the vanquished. Putin and the war in Ukraine are the results.


The day before my visit to the bridge, I had been in a rush. I was running late to a meeting with the general director of a Russian TV channel that was under pressure from the Kremlin. Putin was moving quickly to take control of the country’s central TV stations, which were controlled by anti-Putin oligarchs who were hostile to him, and, in his view, to Russian stability. I had no right to pass judgment on Russians with whom I spoke and took opposite sides in the fight. I understood both sides. Some saw Putin as restoring order by cutting the oligarchs down to size. Others, drawing from their Soviet-era experiences, feared state control of the media. I thought that their idealization of Western democracy was misguided, but I understood where they were coming from and why.

When I arrived at the TV station offices and announced myself to a receptionist, I was hurriedly taken up to the director’s office. He was on the phone. He ditched the call quickly (The Americans are here!) and launched into a spiel about his troubles with the authorities. I felt a bit uncomfortable. He seemed to think I would immediately report his concerns to the White House. I felt a bit sorry for him. I flinched at his reflexive pleading and thought of Washington’s reflexive interference in matters that were really none of its business. What I learned at the meeting with the hapless TV executive was that Putin, unsurprisingly, was moving to consolidate his power, and that would inevitably mean more state control over the media. As noted above, this was not at all a cut and dried matter. Americans like clearly delineated narratives with “good guys” and “bad guys,” narratives in which Washington can play the role of savior. A “good empire” vs. an “evil empire.” I listened politely to the TV exec, then quietly left. In my own mind, I was simply trying to form a picture of the Russian situation as Putin asserted himself. Russia was an important country, and it would be necessary for us to have some understanding of the players and their aims in order to effectively interact with the new leadership. It didn’t work out that way, of course.


I walked off the bridge that day and made my way to the metro. My next contact would meet me at my hotel. My visitor was a reserve captain in the Russian army, a veteran of the first Chechen war. He was subsequently the military correspondent for the leading “patriotic” newspaper in the Land of the Firebird. The “patriotic movement” had loathed Yeltsin and all his works, chafing under the shock of the Soviet collapse, Russia’s loss of status, and Russia’s humiliating post-Cold War poverty and dependence on the International Monetary Fund. They blamed the West for much of what had happened. It was not an entirely baseless charge, though Russia’s predicament was also partly self-inflicted.

But the captain and I had hit it off from our first meeting. I wasn’t there to lecture him or preach about “democratic values,” a dreary mantra with which he and so many other Russians had grown weary. I made it clear to him that I respected his opinions and wanted to hear the patriotic camp’s views, and that I personally believed that Russia should be left to choose her own course. I hoped for understanding between our respective countries. It was my normal approach to my Russian interlocutors, who invariably responded with surprise and honest conversations. A few words and a willingness to listen broke the ice. One of my Russian acquaintances told me that he had never heard an American address Russians like that. Unfortunately, I knew what he meant.

The second Chechen war was on. The patriotic movement had been less than enthusiastic about what they saw as the Yeltsin clan (“The Family”) protecting itself — and maintaining a partial hold on power — by elevating Putin as Yeltsin’s chosen successor. But that attitude was changing, as Putin had made it clear that he would not allow Russia’s disintegration. Leading figures of the patriotic camp were invited to the Kremlin for an audience with the new president. The “national patriots” were warming to Vladimir Putin. The movement was soon absorbed into Putin’s broader support base.

Before the captain left that day, he made his support for the president’s course clear. Putin was a determined man, he thought, and the West must listen to Russia. But he felt the West liked a weakened Russia it could manipulate, and that was an untenable position. He stopped before he walked out the door and shook my hand, telling me that we all had our duties to perform. When the Russians launched their invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago, the captain turned up on Russian TV, commenting on the course of the battle, and warning of the battles ahead.


Before Yeltsin named Putin as his successor in 1999, yours truly had taken a position on who I thought was the best man for the job. I defended that position in discussions with my colleagues, even as I felt a blush of embarrassment about the arrogance of attempting to influence the choice of another country’s leader. But saying so in our debates was a non-starter and I knew it. I backed Aleksandr Lebed, an airborne forces general who was admired, even loved, by the men he commanded. He ran against Yeltsin in 1996, came in third, then threw his support to Yeltsin in return for a position as secretary of the Russian Security Council. I believe Lebed could satisfy the public’s desire for a “strong hand,” someone who would restore order and curb post-Soviet chaos. And he was not hostile to the United States. He favored developing a market economy but was a gradualist. At first, I thought Nemtsov might be his best partner as premier and, indeed, the two men cooperated. Lebed later established warm relations with Grigory Yavlinsky, an economist who had proposed a more restrained transition to the market as an alternative to the disruptive “shock therapy” the Yeltsin administration chose. My view was that Lebed could command enough respect among the siloviky (the security and defense sectors) and the bureaucracy to reign in corruption relative to the Yeltsin years, while curbing the appetites of the oligarchs. I thought he would be a man our side could deal with.

Putin has proved to, in large part, be that man. I have ambivalent feelings about him, but I understand that, as Russian leaders go, he has done a lot of good for his country. Frankly, he has surprised me. There was no denying that he had made life better for most Russians. Official corruption in Russia is still a serious problem, as it has been for centuries, a fact that Putin himself has lamented, even as he tolerates his friends enriching themselves. And he has a reputation for enjoying the good life himself. But Putin, like his country, is a paradox. At once a hard-nosed, even brutal, player of the great game of Russian politics, and a man who undoubtedly loves Russia and is determined to defend her and secure her future. As far as the ridiculous screeching about Putin as Hitler or Stalin, the body count we can attribute entirely to Putin is almost certainly far less than that of the despicable George W. Bush, whose illegal and reckless invasion of Iraq was a major catastrophe for the Middle East from which it is still reeling. We can thank “W” for much of the destructive disorder there today, as removing Saddam Hussein destroyed the strategic balance in the region. What’s more, this country has been at war, often on very dubious grounds, for most of my lifetime. Freedom? The national security state has tightened its grip over all of us over the last twenty odd years. Edward Snowden simply revealed what a lot of us suspected. Using the state apparatus to punish political foes? Need I go farther than the absurd politicized judicial persecution of Donald Trump? Election interference? The United States government has been a habitual busybody, seeking “regime change” in some cases, financing foreign politicians in others, for as long as I can remember. It’s time to deal with the other great powers on a basis of foreign policy realism based on national interests, not crusading ideologies. I doubt that will happen, and I doubt the national security state will be reined in either. The truth is that much of the world sees Washington as the most reckless bully on the block, and with good reason.

All my years as an intelligence analyst and Russia specialist taught me something. The societies and politics of other countries are far too complicated, and too many Americans are far too ignorant, to be messing around in them. The destructive meddling of the likes of Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, are a case in point. Hubris coupled with arrogance is no formula for an effective foreign policy. The only real security concern the American Remnant has is right here at home. “We,” whoever that may be any longer, have no right, much less the ability, to tell others how they should run their countries. Some restraint and a sense of limits are in order. Strangely enough, it is not a Russia that survived Stalinism that has lost its collective mind, whatever that country’s faults. It’s the West, steering down the path of woke totalitarianism, that is the global mad hatter.


The Russians appear to be approaching an endgame in Ukraine. Better equipped Russian forces are using their numerical superiority, as well as sheer firepower, to bear down on the Ukrainian army and chew it to pieces in a ghastly war of attrition. Even as anti-Russian a platform as The Telegraph has admitted that the Ukrainians are suffering a 70 percent casualty rate. Ukrainian front-line soldiers, often men in their 40s or even 50s, are being tossed into a meat grinder as morale falters. The Russians are reportedly advancing on all fronts, approaching Kharkov in the north, apparently preparing for a final drive to clear the Donbas in the east, and possibly clearing the way for an eventual seizure of Kherson and Odessa in the south. The Russians are winning, and are methodically, slowly going about their business, leaving devastation in their wake. As noted in this space numerous times, it could not turn out any other way. The Western globalists who did their best to provoke this war bear a large part of the responsibility for what has happened.

All along, the Russians have moved slowly and methodically, fearing, I believe, that a sudden breakthrough might prompt a panicked West to intervene directly. When France’s President Macron recently began chattering about deploying NATO troops to Ukraine in the event of a Russian breakthrough, the Russians quickly reacted. Putin, especially, has made it clear that he would not rule out using all the weapons at Russia’s disposal in the event of a threat to Russia’s “existence,” or its “sovereignty and independence.” If the West did not observe Russia’s “red lines,” Russia would not recognize any such lines, either. Putin even ordered exercises simulating the use of Russian tactical nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, former undersecretary of state and chief Washington Russophobe Victoria Nuland has urged the US to lift any restrictions on the Ukrainians using American weapons systems to strike at the Russian heartland. Ukraine has demanded that NATO countries allow such strikes on the Russians. Officials in Moscow have warned that such action could prompt Russian strikes at targets in those countries. As of this writing, France’s Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have voiced support for allowing Ukraine to use Western supplied weapons systems to strike at targets inside Russia.

The Russians have already made their aims plain. It’s time to stop this madness and negotiate a settlement. Putin will do whatever he thinks necessary to protect Russian security. That’s the view from this observer’s bridge, one even hapless Western elites might understand. 

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of  The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood. For thirty-two years, he worked as an analyst and Russia area expert in the US intelligence community.

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