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Joakim can’t say everything he knows.
And what he can say, he doesn’t necessarily know with any complete certainty.
But in his estimate, one of the factors that triggered the biggest war in Europe since World War Two was likely the medication that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was taking at the time.
»Delusions of grandeur are one of the known side effects of the type of hormone treatment that he was on,« Joakim states.
»It’s not something I can say for certain, but I think it did affect his decisions when he launched the war in Ukraine.«
The man making this stunning observation is not just anyone.
Joakim heads the Russia analysis team at FE, the Danish Defence Intelligence Service. For security reasons he is not allowed to present himself in photos or using his last name.
This is the man who leads Danish intelligence gathering on President Putin, the Russian army and Russian society.
And he is the one helping Danish decision-makers and politicians gain the best possible understanding of the threat that Putin poses to Denmark and his chances of success in Ukraine.
Now Joakim has agreed to lift the veil on a least some of this knowledge to Berlingske’s readers.
He also gives us an educated guess as to why Putin sometimes appears uncomfortable when seated and grabbing the edge of the table tightly with his hand.
But we will get to that in a moment.
Putin was close to winning
FE have asked to meet Berlingske at the parking lot in the army citadel area of Kastellet in Copenhagen, with no specific address given.
Once inside, you are asked to leave your phone, your laptop and your smartwatch in a secure cabinet, so no unwelcome ears can listen in.
But up in the corridors, Christmas decorations and institutional furniture make the place look more like a municipal office than something out of a James Bond movie.
Joakim greets us in an anonymous-looking meeting room. He presents his information with a blank face. Only the content of what he has to say indicates that these are carefully evaluated secrets being revealed to a wider public for the first time.
The intelligence service, FE, originally thought the Russians would win the war in two weeks.
»And they were close,« he says.
FE were fully aware of major problems in the Russian army with corruption, mismanagement and slow logistics.
But the Russians were fully aware of this themselves and so were able to make the necessary adjustments. This isn’t why the invasion failed.
Today it is evident that the key unknown factor was Putin’s poor decision-making.
»We put a lot of the blame for this on Putin’s shoulders,« Joakim says.
It wasn’t poor intelligence but Putin’s ideological convictions that led Russian soldiers to believe they would be greeted with flowers.
It was because of Putin that everything was planned by a narrow circle of people and only shared through the ranks at the very last minute. Because of this, the Russian forces simply did not know what they were supposed to be doing.
It was also because of Putin’s decision to call it a »special military operation«, rather than a war, that the Russian army was suddenly 30,000 infantry soldiers short for the invasion.
In practice, it meant that the Russian forces could not use their ordinary conscripts but had to deploy expensively trained specialists as foot soldiers. Yet they actually did a worse job, Joakim says:
»That’s also why you saw these units driving quickly through towns, hoping no one would shoot at them.«
But he still believes the Russians were close to succeeding. Russian paratroopers had actually captured the Hostomel airport on the outskirts of Kyiv and were waiting for reinforcements. But aircraft carrying fresh troops simply could not get there because the Russians weren’t able to defeat Ukrainian air defences.
»These are pretty small factors that ended up deciding the outcome,« Joakim says.
But the poor decisions didn’t end there.
Putin still appears to be interfering in the war far too low down the chain of command.
Shortly before Christmas he took part in a meeting with the entire staff of command from the war in Ukraine.
»That’s the worst idea in the world,« Joakim explains. »He has a general to lead this war. So he shouldn’t be sitting there getting input from all these other generals.«
The army is now so badly depleted that it will take years to rebuild it. Even then, the soldiers will be more poorly equipped than before and forced to use old armoured vehicles.
For this reason, Joakim does not believe there will be a major new Russian offensive against Kyiv in February, as Ukraine has warned. In such a short time it simply isn’t possible to train Russia’s mobilised troops for an offensive of that type.
»We absolutely expect these smaller attacks to happen like the one in Bakhmut. But an offensive like the one we saw last February, it would take them a few years to build up to that again.«
Conversely, Ukraine stands a good chance of recapturing more of the occupied territories. How much depends partly on how many weapons are provided by the West to help the Ukrainians, and partly on how hard the winter will wear out Russian morale.
»Ukrainians are well equipped to last through the winter. The Russians are not. Especially not the mobilised troops. So what will that make them do? Abandon their positions when it gets really cold?«
The biggest unknown, however, is what will happen when the Ukrainians start to hit Russia’s core strategic interests, leaving Putin to feel forced to respond with nuclear weapons.
Putin does not have a defined red line, which makes it impossible to give any precise predictions as to whether and when he will push that button, says Joakim.
To give an example, he refers to the developments that preceeded Putin’s decision in September to annex four Ukrainian regions and launch a partial mobilisation.
This came after Russia was forced into a disastrous retreat from Kharkiv. Around the same time, Putin was publicly rebuked by China, Turkey and India during a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation where they told him they had “concerns” and stated this was not the time for war.
»This isn’t really about what’s happening in the battlefield, although of course things are going really bad. It’s just as much to do with him personally being humiliated and appearing to be weak, and Putin can’t stand appearing to be weak. So there is this combination of factors that might be dangerous,« the head of the FE Russia analysis unit says.
On the other hand, there is no guarantee of making the world a safer place by stopping the counter offensive in time before it gets to the Crimean Peninsula and seeking a negotiated settlement, as some voices in the West are suggesting.
»If we do anything that Putin might see as a weakness, he might think that he can go further than what he is actually able to do. And then things might get ugly again,« Joakim says.
One step down the stairs
In spite of Putin’s many poor decisions, the Danish Defence Intelligence Service does not see any immediate risk of him being removed from power.
In its annual report from 2021, FE stated that Putin would »very likely« still be Russia’s leader after the next presidential elections in 2024.
Yet the Danish intelligence service downplayed this in its 2022 report to a less certain prediction that Putin will »likely« stay in power for the next five years.
»We don’t see anyone about to depose him. But if we did, the FSB would see it too, and that would probably get sorted very quickly,« Joakim says.
No one among the Russian elites is strong enough, as their power flows from Putin. And as things currently stand with the Russian population, FE does not see a popular uprising happening either.
»But our biggest uncertainty concerns his health, or someone removing him because of his failing health,« Joakim says.
Since the invasion, there has been growing speculation about Putin’s health in some parts of the Western media.
Thousands of people on social media have commented, with hope, on Putin being seen at various times limping across Red Square, clinging to his desk, or with some apparent weakness in his right arm.
FE does not believe that Putin is suffering from a terminal illness but rather is in serious chronic pain following several falls and accidents.
Joakim does not want to say precisely what has happened or reveal the source of his information. But it doesn’t just come from studying videos on social media.
Various media have previously reported that Putin has been suffering from the aftereffects of falling off a horse in the 2000s.
More recently, it appears he has also sustained injuries from judo and ice hockey over the past couple of years.
»That’s the curious thing. This is chronic pain that he has suffered from for quite some time now,« says Joakim.
»That’s why he tends to sit and grab things tightly. It’s to ease the pain.«
At the same time, FE believes that Putin previously had a form of cancer, and that he was having treatment for this when he started the war, which may have influenced his decision.
»He also had a moon-shaped face at the start of the year, which is another known side effect of the same type of hormone treatment,« Joakim says.
In the spring, the Russian investigative media outlet Projekt published an extensive story on the doctors who have attended to Putin over the years. Judging from the doctors who have seen him most frequently, Projekt concluded that Putin may have had cancer of the thyroid.
»That’s definitely a good bet,« Joakim replies when asked.
FE does not expect Putin to die from this illness.
But over time, it may lead the Russian elites to decide they need a stronger man at the helm.
»It’s our firm impression that part of the elite do see they are heading down the wrong track.«
Emil Rottbøll is Berlingske’s Russia correspondent
This article was translated from the original article (in Danish) here
Translation: Bibi Christensen