An Early Look at Some of the Source Interviews for ‘Putin’s Road to War’

The latest addition to the library of interactive transcripts that I’ve been helping PBS Frontline build are the source interviews for Putin’s Road to War, a Frontline documentary airing tonight.

The source interview postings are following a slightly different script this time. Three of the interviews have been published ahead of time rather than at the same time as the documentary.

So you can take a look at source material from Julia Ioffe, Washington correspondent for Puck; Eugene Robinson Washington Post columnist; and Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, before the documentary airs.

Every sentence of every interview transcript has a unique URL so you can select an excerpt, then copy the link to point directly to it.

So if you want to dive deeper into the mess on today’s world stage you can see all the context for everything that makes it into the documentary, including interesting bits that didn’t fit.

Here are three quotes from the Julia Ioffe interview in tonight’s documentary. Click on a link below, then click play to see that quote in the context of the full transcript and video.

But you see how this all went down, or you’re starting to see in retrospect how this all happened, and how much of it was driven just by one man, his deranged ideas, and how everybody around him thought it was a terrible idea but was too scared to say anything about it or to resist. And it just makes me feel like, oh, I’m getting a sneak peek into how it worked in the 1930s.

I don’t think he expected Trump to win, so that was a huge bonus because, at the time, everybody in the Kremlin and in Russia thought—well, at the time, everybody in the Kremlin and everybody who was Kremlin-adjacent thought that Trump was their greatest ally and that he would be there, as one former Kremlin adviser told me, that he would be “our wrecking ball inside America.”

Meanwhile, he retreats into total isolation. For a while there was—there was this weird contraption that people had to walk through and get sprayed with this weird mist that was supposed to decontaminate them or something before meeting with Putin.

Here are a couple of quotes from the Eugene Robinson source interview from tonight’s documentary:

He took this risk, and it paid off for him. And so he must take the lesson that “I can push further; that I can do more.” And look at the relationship he had with Donald Trump, who stood next to him in Helsinki and essentially said, “I take Vladimir Putin’s word over the word of the U.S. intelligence community,” a shocking thing for a U.S. president to say and do. So I think, as long as Trump was president, I think Putin felt he had a free hand, essentially, to pursue his own goals without much fear of U.S. interference or pushback in any way, not even rhetorical pushback, the kind of pushback that you would expect.

And so I think he’s been surprised at the strength and the unity of the reaction, both worldwide and within the United States. … I think he anticipated more division inside the United States about how to respond if he took a step like the one he’s taking now.

And here are more than a couple quotes from the Kori Schaki source interview from tonight’s documentary:

And those two things look to me like the motivating forces for Putin to try and strike at the United States, because, remember, authoritarians rarely understand civil society. They rarely understand that the Nobel Committee isn’t under the control of the Norwegian government and that newspapers in free societies do as they please under constitutional protections. And so authoritarian governments, like Putin’s Russia, tend to try and blame governments for any action of free society.

Disinformation campaigns don’t need to persuade people of what they’re arguing. They just try and muddy the waters enough that you don’t believe anything, and you believe that, for example, an election in the West is no freer or fairer than an election in an authoritarian country. They don’t have to win the argument; they just have to muddy the waters enough that it challenges the faith of people in what they believe they know.

It does seem like an increasing paranoia and a decreasing rationality in his judgments. You know, the speech that he gave attempting to justify the invasion of Ukraine, you know, wildly claiming that the country was run by Nazis and that the entire country had to be disarmed, first of all, is wildly untrue. But second of all, those kinds of expansive war aims aren’t things you can achieve with the use of an invasion force of 190,000 troops.

So the decreasing connection between his political objectives and the political, economic and military levers he’s using to achieve them, those things are no longer connected in time. And instead of reining in his objectives, he is expanding them, and that does speak to decreasing rationality.

He’s not invoking Russian history. He’s rewriting Russian history in an attempt to rationalize his choices, right? The Russian history that Putin is attempting to tell would puzzle Russian historians.

It’s incredibly dangerous that Vladimir Putin is willing to destroy Russia’s economy; to make Russia an international pariah; to see the complete isolation of his country and the destruction of much of the Russian military by Ukrainian forces in this invasion, in order to prevent a country on Russia’s periphery from becoming stable, democratic and prosperous.