During the Cold War, Vladimir Putin manned the KGB’s post in Dresden, East Germany, recruiting local journalists, scientists, and engineers to spy on the West. It was a cushy job for a while: Putin took his family on weekend trips to Saxony, ate lunch at home, and drank the finest beers East Germany had to offer, straight from the keg. After the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, Putin and his fellow agents in Dresden burned so many secret documents that their furnace broke. At one point, a mob of locals surrounded the office, preparing to ransack it. When Soviet troops stationed nearby refused to help, Putin pulled out a pistol and warned the trespassers in German that he would open fire if they came closer. The crowd dispersed, but Putin recounted in his memoir that he viewed the USSR’s demise as a personal humiliation. “The whole country no longer existed,” he lamented. “It disappeared.”
A quarter-century later, that experience goes some way toward explaining Putin’s decision to launch a military adventure that has pushed Russia to the brink of war with neighboring Ukraine, a country of 46 million; sent the Russian stock market plunging and the ruble to record lows; and provoked the most bitter clash between the Kremlin and Washington in a generation. Putin has long seen his role in epochal terms—to restore Russia’s imperial glory and reclaim the sphere of influence the nation surrendered after the collapse of communism. The Feb. 22 overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was as much a blow to Putin’s self-image as to Russian national interests. In ordering troops to assert control over Crimea, a predominantly Russian-speaking peninsula given to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev, Putin dispelled any doubt about his willingness to use force to advance his ambitions.