Putinology: the art of analyzing the man in the Kremlin
As Russian President Vladimir Putin massed his military on Ukraine's border in late 2021, many analysts doubted Putin would actually invade.
But not Dmitri Alperovitch.
"He was seeing Ukraine slip away from his orbit. And when he saw that he could no longer control it, it was pretty clear to me that he was going to try to move in and attempt a regime change," said Alperovitch.
Americans and others who closely studied the Communist leadership of the Soviet Union used to be called "Kremlinologists." Now there's a new generation of analysts who could be called "Putinologists," those seeking to understand Russia today by deconstructing its leader and the war he's waging in Ukraine.
Alperovitch was born in Moscow and came to the U.S. at age 13 in 1994. He's never returned to Russia, though that country — and Putin — have shaped his life.
He was a founder of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, which often investigated Russian computer hacks, like the 2016 breach of the Democratic National Committee.
Here's how he describes the Russian leader: "I've always viewed him as a gambler. Most of the time he's gotten lucky. (Ukraine) is the one gamble that's probably his biggest, which has not worked out well so far."
Alperovitch now heads Silverado Policy Accelerator, a think tank with a strong focus on Russia and Putin.
"I think 'Putinologist' is a good tag line," said Alperovitch. "He sees himself as a new czar, that he has more power today as a Russian leader than really anyone has since (Soviet dictator Josef) Stalin."
From Kremlinology to Putinology
Kremlinolgists tried to interpret the Soviet Union from fragmentary information coming out of highly secretive Communist leadership, which often consisted of multiple factions.
Some analysts argue against Putinology, saying it's too simplistic to interpret a sprawling country like Russia through the study of one man. Some say the notion of an all-powerful leader also plays into the hands of Putin, who would like Russian citizens and the wider world to believe he has control over all aspects of Russia.
Yet Putin has consolidated his hold on Russia throughout his more than two decades in power, and critical decisions — like invading Ukraine — are widely seen as the work of Putin alone.
This has created a demand for Putinologists — like Julia Ioffe — who accepts the label with some reluctance.
"It's something I fought for a long time," said Ioffe, who writes for Puck News and is often interviewed by other news organizations. "But at the same time, people in the West have a really hard time understanding him. Somebody needs to translate him for the West. So OK, I'll do it."
She left Moscow for the U.S. with her family at age 7 in 1990. In college at Princeton, she initially planned to be a doctor.
"But I couldn't resist Soviet history and switched tracks," she noted. "I kept trying to do something else and kept getting sucked in professionally. So I've basically been doing this, in one form or another, my whole professional life."
That included a three-year stint in Moscow a decade ago. Her editor at the time suggested she write a column called "Kremlinology 2012."
"It was supposed to be a kind of tongue-in-cheek thing because it was like, 'Who does Kremlinology anymore?'" she recalled. "But the system was becoming more and more and more Soviet, and there were fewer and fewer ways to get into it, to understand it. So, it's back."
Ioffe traveled to Russia until a few years ago. She often writes about the way Putin shaped Russian society and prepared it for his military adventures.
"He created this cult around World War II. That glorifies war. That sanctifies war. And then once a war starts, it's pretty easy to convince Russians that this is a war just like that and that they need to go in and do it," she said.
A specialty that nearly disappeared
Michael Kofman says emphatically he should not be called a Putinologist. He's an expert on Russia's military — a specialty that nearly vanished when the Soviet Union collapsed.
"The field of Russian military studies had almost died or was on life support," he said. "So I found myself in many respects trying to work to help revive the field."
Kofman does this with his work at the Center for Naval Analyses, a government-funded research group. He's also a regular on podcasts, including appearances with Alperovitch.
He was born in Ukraine when it was still part of the Soviet Union and left at age 10, just before the 1991 Soviet breakup.
Kofman often returns to Ukraine and was there last October for a close-up view of the war. Despite his deep knowledge, he's wary of making predictions.
"Military analysts like myself thought the war was going to come, but got the initial period of war — how the Russian military was going to actually invade and how those early weeks were likely to shake out — wrong ourselves. So I spent time updating my views," he said.
He expects to go back to Ukraine. But none of these analysts plan to visit Russia in the near term.
"I would love to go back and see, and just feel how the city and the country are experiencing this war, just to get a pulse, just to get a temperature check," said Ioffe.
But she adds, "You can go to jail for spreading 'fakes about the Russian army.' It feels incredibly risky to go."
Dmitri Alperovitch knows he would not be welcome.
"One of the most bizarre things that's happened to me last year is getting sanctioned by Russia, the country that I was born in," he said. "It is somewhat of a badge of honor, but nevertheless there's certainly a bittersweet feeling about it."
Putinologists may now be in great demand, but incurring the wrath of the Kremlin is an occupational hazard.
Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. He has covered the war in Ukraine and was based in Moscow from 1996-99 with The Associated Press. Follow him @gregmyre1.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.