Messy Fight Among Russia, China, US Ramps up Nuclear War Chances


RakeshApril 3, 2022

One evening in early March, a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine, I emailed Vladislav Surkov to see whether he might be interested in telling me Vladimir Putin’s side of the story.

Surkov’s name, while not well known in the West, is a notorious one in Moscow. Known as the Kremlin’s “gray cardinal,” Surkov was by Putin’s side for more than 20 years. One poll of Russia’s elite had him as the country’s second most powerful man — right behind Putin, and ahead of the prime minister. This was a man who could recite beat poetry in English and wrote lacerating, whimsical fiction. Before leaving the Kremlin in 2020, he’d kept pictures of Barack Obama and Tupac Shakur on display in his office. Who from Putin’s inner circle was more capable of explaining Putin’s mindset to an American audience?

The email address I got for Surkov was provided by his American publisher. It took Surkov less than a day to reply:

“Your interest is appreciated. Such dedication is even admirable now when the position of reality appears to be most occluded by optical barricades and firewalls. Yet it is precisely in these moments that the contradictions of ever-churning narratives, like celestial bodies in collision, produces such massive friction as to allow truth to form itself in the plasmic heat of conflict.”

I was baffled, but I could see what he was getting at. It was “admirable,” in his view, that I had reached out to him in the midst of the “ever-churning narratives.” And the “truth,” as he sees it, was going to emerge from the invasion — “the plasmic heat of conflict.” He continued:

“People, including those I once called friends, have termed what I do public relations or perception management, but really I am a pyromancer, a keeper of this flame from which new realities are born. Is there anything truer than a blank slate? You may send along your inquiries.”

And so I did. I asked Surkov why Putin invaded. I asked him whether mistakes had been made, in hindsight, in either the invasion’s genesis or its execution. I asked him what it was like to have been the target of US sanctions. Surkov, after all, was the one who had engineered Putin’s incursions into Crimea and the Donbas in 2014. He has been unable to travel to or do business in the United States since then.

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