The first time Sergei Jirnov met Vladimir Putin was in 1980, during the Moscow Olympics. The current president questioned him for two hours at the headquarters of the KGB, the Lubyanka. Jirnov, who was 19 years old and worked as a volunteer at the sporting event, had raised suspicions because of his long conversation with a Frenchman. Already then Putin seemed “disgusting”. Years later they met again on three occasions: as students of the Andropov Institute -the KGB school-, at a reception in Dresdenin communist Germany, and in St. Petersburg.
Jirnov, a brilliant student and polyglot, became a KGB commander in its prestigious foreign service. Putin, on the other hand, was rejected because he “cannot conveniently measure the consequences of his decisions.” Jirnov loves to remember it. He achieved the feat, being a spy, of being admitted to the National School of Administration (ENA), the nursery for high-ranking French officials, including Emmanuel Macron. A refugee in France since 2001, he works as a consultant, journalist and writer. He has published several books, including L’éclaireur, about his fictional life, and L’engrenage, about the war in the Ukraine. The interview took place in Boulogne-Billarcourt, the southern suburb of Paris where he lives.
Already on February 24, in a television program, you spoke about the possibility that Putin would use a tactical nuclear bomb. It caused a furor. Do you still think the same?
Yes, even more.
At first Putin evoked nuclear weapons so that the West would not prevent him from waging war. It was just to be scary. There was a small risk, not a huge one. He now he has lost the war. Everyone has understood that you cannot win it. His army does not exist. The Ukrainians can win. And the closer they get to this victory, the closer we get to the effective use of nuclear weapons.
What will using it bring you?
The same as the United States against Japan in 1945.
Stop the war?
Exact. It would create such a shock that Ukraine will decide to stop.
Would it be a sizeable bomb, not a small device?
In the nuclear, size does not matter. It is the fact. Last September 30, when Putin gave the speech to welcome the four annexed regions, he said that the United States created a precedent, so they cannot blame him for using this bomb because the United States did it.
It is a terrifying scene. What will be the Western response?
We do not know. There are two answers. Do nothing, as Macron has said. The second is the United States. Biden himself has said that if Putin uses the atomic weapon, there will be dire consequences for Russia.
What do you think?
The Pentagon has already said that there may be a conventional response, probably using American bases in Europe, to destroy all Russian forces in Ukraine and on its border, including the Russian Black Sea fleet. Then they will tell Putin: this is over. But will Putin stop? Putin, for a few years now, is no longer interested in money. He has enough. The only thing left is power. Also, he gets old. What obsesses him is his historical legacy. I think he is obsessed with one thing, being the second character to use the nuclear bomb. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are in all the history books. He wants to go down in history as the Russian strongman who has used her in the war. I think that is what motivates him. Anyway he is no longer rational. You cannot say that he is crazy, but he has become a maniac, a psychopath. He has built a world that has nothing to do with reality, but he truly believes in what he does.
Do you think it should be negotiated?
It is a false debate. Putin does not negotiate. He has occupied five regions, he wants to stabilize the front and keep them. That is not negotiation. His goal is to continue preparing for war and, in two years, start over and take over half of Ukraine. Then the whole country. For Kyiv, negotiating is not acceptable now. For me, the only solution is to disassociate Russia from Putin, as Zelensky has already said. You can negotiate with Russia but not with Putin. That would also be an exit door.
And do you see that possible? Is it the only hope?
Not only the only one but the best. All the people around Putin have understood that there is no escape, that Putin is stubborn. If he doesn’t give in, he will lose this conventional war. Then he will use the nuclear weapon, the Americans will respond, and a global nuclear war may break out.
Do you think anything will happen before that dramatic step?
All those people around Putin are rich, billionaires. For eight months they have been saying that Putin has lost his mind, that we could live very comfortably with our money. Why did this war start? It’s no use. It’s a suicide. And there is something else. On February 21, before the invasion began, Putin recognized the two republics, Lugansk and Donetsk. People have forgotten that Russia is a federation with 23 republics in which there are nationalists who want to be independent. So when he recognized those republics, in Yakutia, Chechnya, Ingushetia or Tatarstan, they said perfect, then it would be his turn.
In the event of Ukraine’s victory and Putin’s fall, is there to be fear of chaos in a sinking Russia?
For me it is clear, there is no doubt. Even Putin if he uses the nuclear weapon, there will be a response and he will lose. Either way, Russia is screwed. In five years, today’s Russia will not exist.
Will there be an implosion?
That will be very dangerous for the world.
Exactly. That’s the problem. And probably that will be perhaps what will make the people around Putin decide to liquidate him. The only way to stop all this is to say that we have a madman, alone, who has made these decisions that threaten the whole world with war, that threatens the disappearance of Russia. Now we arrest him, we judge him, we kill him. Does not matter.
You have written that you are the most protected man in the world. Is not easy.
Yes, unless this decision is made by the person who leads your watch. There are two generals who head, respectively, the presidential guard and the protective service of all Russian political authorities. There are always armed people around Putin. They could block it whenever they wanted, like during the coup against Gorbachev in August 1991.
Do you think that this scenario of prior elimination of Putin is more likely than that of the use of the nuclear weapon?
We are currently at 50% for both cases. But if he uses the bomb, he will be eliminated. There I would say 100%. Perhaps the people around him expect him to use the bomb, and perhaps they push him to use it.