JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
The crisis in Ukraine has many in this country wondering what on earth Vladimir Putin is thinking. Hillary Clinton compared him to Hitler; many world leaders have called his actions insane in recent weeks. How is it that we know so much about Russia's president and yet so little? To help us with that, we've called in someone who's spent a lot of time thinking about Vladimir Putin. Masha Gessen is the author of a best-selling biography of Putin called "The Man Without a Face." Masha Gessen, thank you for joining us.
MASHA GESSEN: Thank you for having me.
LYDEN: So, you wrote an op-ed in the L.A. Times this week with the headline: Is Vladimir Putin Insane? And then you answered your own questions - hardly. So, could you explain, please?
GESSEN: I think Putin has a very consistent worldview. He thinks that what he is doing is right. Everything that he sees around him confirms that what he's doing is right. Among other things, he's really boosted his popularity with the Ukraine effort. His approval ratings dropped around the time that the Russian protest movement erupted and they didn't actually recover until last week.
LYDEN: You are writing that Putin is obsessed with imminent catastrophe and annexing territory. What motivates him?
GESSEN: What motives him is he actually has recently discovered that he has a civilizational mission. He wants a Russia that will become the traditional values capital of the world, that would hold back Western encroachment. This is what he sees happening in Ukraine. He's carrying out his historical mission. A subtext of it is also recreating the Soviet Union and sort of gathering Russian lands, but that's not even the most important part at this point. The most important part is that he thinks that Russia has a unique place in the world and a unique civilization to protect.
LYDEN: Is there a particular political ideology here or would you say rather a conservative moralistic anti-Western ideology that's driving his actions?
GESSEN: That's exactly right. It's a conservative, moralistic anti-Western ideology. It is mostly based on negatives. There's very little that he can say in the affirmative except for the very vague notion of traditional orthodox culture. But the negatives are actually effective in mobilizing a population, in creating a sense of fear and imminent danger.
LYDEN: Has he been persuasive, do you think, internally, with his arguments that what he's basically doing is protecting Russian interests and people?
GESSEN: Oh, yeah. I mean, the latest opinion polls are absolutely mindboggling. Only 6 percent of Russians, according to a poll by the Levada Center, which is an independent polling organization, only 6 percent of Russians believe that Russia should not be invading Ukraine. The vast majority of Russians believe that Russian speakers and ethnic Russians are in danger in Ukraine. They believe that there is anarchy and no government in Ukraine. And they believe that the invasion is warranted.
LYDEN: Well, the view here in the United States is certainly changing. The whole fundamental disconnect is really quite difficult for people to absorb. Surely, this is affecting U.S.-Russia relations.
GESSEN: Well, I feel a little exasperated. You know, it's about time that the view of him in the United States were changing. I still think there is a lot of misguided conversation that is, again, based on the American worldview. There is conversation about how to help put some save face and pull out of Ukraine. There is no issue of Putin saving face by going out on Ukraine. That's sort of not on the agenda. He is benefiting by being in Ukraine. He's doing exactly what he wants to do and he's getting the results that he wants.
LYDEN: So, what should the U.S. do in this case, do you think?
GESSEN: Measures such as real economic sanctions - not symbolic economic sanctions - but sanctions that would actually affect the Russian elite, Russian business, Russia's place on Western markets. This is all possible. Those would have an impact on the Russian economy. But we have to understand that they will also accelerate the mobilization in Russia and actually lead Putin to escalate the war effort. And if a military response were even on the table, which it's not, but if it were, it would escalate the mobilization even further. So, would any one of the three avenues basically leading to a dead end strategically. Politicians have to ask themselves what's the right thing to do. And I think the right thing to do is to isolate the dictator, to turn Putin into the pariah state that he has put so much effort into creating.
LYDEN: Masha Gessen is the author of "The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin." Masha Gessen, thank you very much.
GESSEN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.