Putin’s Surprise Triumph of the Will

Russian President Putin Attends Navy Day Parade
Photo: Contributor/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
August 23, 2022

On February 23, national security advisor Jake Sullivan was scheduled to meet Yuri Ushakov, foreign policy advisor to Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki. But, according to three sources, both in Moscow and Washington, that meeting was canceled at the last minute—not because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that Putin had planned for the following day, but because Ushakov came down with Covid. Otherwise, the meeting would have gone ahead. For Sullivan, who knew the invasion was coming, the planned conversation with Ushakov would have been yet another Hail Mary, last-ditch effort to stop a looming catastrophe—or, at the very least, a final warning to the Kremlin that there would be serious consequences. (A spokesperson for the National Security Council said this was “not accurate,” but did not clarify further.) 

But according to people close to Ushakov, the Kremlin advisor was, like most everyone else in Moscow, completely convinced that the invasion was not happening, that all those Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s borders—tens and tens of thousands of them—were there for bluster and optics, to add some oomph to the negotiations he and the Foreign Ministry were leading all winter. On the morning of the 24th, however, Ukrainians, Russians, and the rest of the world found out that those troops hadn’t been there to bluff after all; they’d been there to invade. Since then, there have been dozens of accounts of surprise up and down the ranks of the Russian state, from published accounts of soldiers not knowing where they were going to stories circulating around Moscow of members of the presidential administration learning about the invasion that morning in their pajamas. 

All winter, I heard from sources at the State Department that their Russian counterparts seemed to have little control over what they were negotiating and that they were frequently cut out of the Kremlin loop. I also heard more and more stories like the one about Ushakov. One account featured a very senior Russian silovik who had an interview with an American media outlet scheduled for the 25th—and who only canceled once the invasion was already under way, on the 24th. Another source told me that Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov found out about the invasion just 48 hours in advance, while a third source who knows Lavrov insisted that the foreign minister of the Russian Federation only found out after the invasion had already begun.