A comically large table separated Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron after the French president flew to Moscow last week for crisis talks aimed at averting a war in Ukraine.
The official explanation for the yawning distance was that Macron declined to take a Russian-administered coronavirus test, but the image underscored the gulf between Putin and the west as Moscow continues to build up troop deployments on the Ukraine border.
Macron’s advisers and officials were struck at how Putin had changed in recent years, saying he had become preoccupied by the loss of Russian influence since the Soviet Union collapsed and the need to be tougher with the US and Nato, even if that meant cosying up to China.
“Putin has got much harder even in private since 2014,” one French official said. “He’s obsessed by re-examining what happened in the past 30 years. This is a Putin who no longer believes in the west . . . He wants to be feared by the west.”
Weeks of intense diplomatic effort to convince Putin to de-escalate appear not to have changed the Russian leader’s thinking.
A senior US official admitted that a call between President Joe Biden and Putin on Saturday brought “no fundamental change in the dynamic” that has been unfolding since Russia began building up its troops at the Ukrainian border last year, adding Moscow “may decide to pursue military action anyway”, even as diplomacy continued.
But the frenetic atmosphere around the deployments and the increasingly frequent airing of security grievances with the west may have already brought significant dividends for Putin, according to two people close to the Kremlin.
Biden in his call “did not put his emphasis” on possible US sanctions that could follow if Ukraine was attacked, said Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s foreign policy adviser. Instead, according to his account, Biden came up with “a whole number of ideas that he thinks take many of Russia’s concerns into account”.
Macron said before heading to Moscow for more than five hours of talks that it was “legitimate for Russia to raise the issue of its own security concerns”. He also claimed Putin had signalled a willingness to de-escalate even as troop movements suggested otherwise.
“They [the west] have read the signals . . . Putin has showed you can use this situation to get the results we want,” said a senior Kremlin official, adding to the idea that Moscow’s strategy was paying off. “They need to start thinking about our demands more, and they are.”
People close to the Kremlin say Putin’s increasingly hardline stance is partly owing to the extensive efforts he takes to avoid falling sick with Covid-19.
Putin makes most of his Russian visitors self-isolate for two weeks before meeting him, according to people familiar with the Kremlin’s quarantine protocols. Foreign dignitaries such as John Kerry, US climate envoy, have travelled to Moscow just to speak to him on the phone.
Since the pandemic began, Putin has only made a handful of foreign trips, holds most of his cabinet meetings via video, and has sharply cut the number of events he attends.
The public appearances he does make are often notable by the absence of other people. Last month he attended an Orthodox Christmas service in a chapel empty except for the priests and a cameraman.
The restrictions have made Putin, 69, increasingly reliant on a small group of security advisers, said a former senior Kremlin official. “His circle of contacts is getting smaller. It affects his mind,” the former official said. “He used to see things in 360 degrees — now it’s more like 60.”
Many of his key advisers — such as security council secretary Nikolai Patrushev, foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin and Alexander Bortnikov, head of the FSB, Russia’s main security service — share Putin’s background in the KGB and a deep-rooted scepticism of the west that borders on the conspiratorial.
The comparatively liberal economic officials in Putin’s cabinet and administration, meanwhile, are increasingly loath to challenge him, the former official said. “If you value your place you won’t argue with him. The Kremlin has become a besieged fortress,” he said.
In a sign of his narrowing worldview, Putin’s public comments and conversations with western leaders have become increasingly preoccupied with a litany of grievances against the US and Nato dating back decades.
The anti-Nato rhetoric increased following Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and its subsequent annexation, and has been prolonged by the slow-burning proxy war in the eastern Donbas border region.
Yet the current crisis over Ukraine is the first time that Moscow has felt the west is listening to its demands, the people close to the Kremlin said.
“This antagonism might be bad in the long term, but it’s good for us in the short term,” the Kremlin official said. “They [the west] may not start off by saying yes, 100 per cent, but this is a longer process.”
Macron and his advisers hope there is a chance that Putin will avoid war if he is given a face-saving exit so that he can declare success and also back down.
“He remains in a state of mind that is simultaneously pushy and provocative through these military exercises, while nevertheless taking care to keep all options open for dialogue,” said another senior official after Macron and Putin spoke for nearly two hours on Saturday.
But Putin’s ultimate plans remain a mystery to all but his closest advisers. “It’s just four guys at the end of the day,” said a western diplomat in Moscow, referring to Putin and his inner circle. “They have some tea, go over some papers, and decide everything. He’s not someone who enjoys a lot of company.”