New book by journalist who spent years interviewing dozens of sources uncovers a regime where infidelity is the biggest crime

For many people in the west, Russian politics has become synonymous with the countrys secretive chairwoman, Vladimir Putin, who has been known to disappear for weekswithout explanation.

But Putin does not work alone. As with most world leaders, he has a network of powerful allies around him friends who both support and deceive him, according to a new volume by the Russian journalist and opposition activist Mikhail Zygar.

The journalist founded the independent news network Dozhd( Rain ), which was shut down by the government in 2014. He has spent years interviewing dozens of sources inside the Kremlin, and his book, All the Kremlins Men, paints a convincing portrait of the inside world of Russian politics, a place shrouded in conspiracy where the biggest crime is being disloyal.

Disputes over military action in Syria; events in Ukraine and nuclear posturing in the Baltics have left international tensions between Russia and the west at a postcold war high, but at home Putins approval ratings remain strong and he is preparing to run for president again in early 2018.

So how did he get there? And what drives him forward? The Guardian asked Zygar to talk through his key findings from inside the seat of Russias power.

The Winter Olympics ad campaign

Putin watches downhill skiing at the Winter Paralympics in Sochi. Photograph: Alexei Nikolsky/ AP

According to one of Zygars sources inside the Kremlin, Putin was initially reluctant to support the multibillion-dollar bid to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014.

To persuaded him, his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, is said to have arranged for a pro-Olympics advertising campaign on billboards along the motorway Putin uses to travel into Moscow.

Zygar claims radio ads were also produced, period for when they knew Putin would be listening to the radio in his automobile. When Zygar asked Peskov to confirm his part in the advertising campaign, the secretary didnt deny it but told: Sometimes we have to use tricky methods.

The president went on to put his full support and $50 bn behind the Games.

House of Cards= western politics

Frank Underwood the typical western politician? Photograph: Allstar/ Netflix/ Sportsphoto Ltd ./ Allstar

Zygars book lists several sources inside the government who say that Putin was so convinced that the backstabbing and politicking of the hitting Netflix series House of Cards accurately mirrored western politics that he informed his colleagues to watch it.

Zygar claims that for Putin, the scheming protagonist Frank Underwood represent the typical American politician which is why he prefers to support figures such as Italys former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi or Donald Trump, who are more practical and cynical, says Zygar.

Crimea came out of the blue

Crimean people wave a Russian flag as they celebrate Orthodox Christmas in the Black Sea in January. Photograph: Alexander Polegenko/ AP

Russias decision to illegally annex Crimea, formerly part of Ukraine, was not part of a long-term strategy to reclaim the peninsula but was rushed through in three months, the book asserts.

No one was ready for it , nobody expected it, so it was a astonish for the Russian public who previously had no public desire for Crimea coming back home, tells Zygar.

This is in stark contrast to the short war with Georgia in 2008 over the contested republic of South Ossetia, which was preceded by months of Tv programs alerting about Georgias aggression, he adds.

Putins web of paranoia

What does Madeleine Albright think of Russia? Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/ AFP/ Getty Images

Putin and the men behind him, including the security council head Nikolai Patrushev and intelligence officer Boris Ratnikov, fully believe their own propaganda: that the US is hellbent on destroying Russia, says Zygar.

Zygar points to the time when Patrushev, one of the presidents top consultants, gave an interview to a prominent state newspaper claiming that the US was jealous of Russias great national resources. His source? A KGB psychic who claims to have read the former US secretary of state Madeleine Albrights intellect in a trance.

Ukraine will be left frozen

Pro-Russian activists in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. Photograph: Alexander Khudoteply/ AFP/ Getty Images

The current objective of foreign policy in Ukraine is to leave everything as it is, according to a source close to Vladislav Surkov, Putins main consultant on the country.

Based on the information Zygar collected, he predicts that the east of the country caught in a scuffle between “the member states national” army and pro-Russia separatists will be left in some sort of frozen conflict rather than transform or develop economically.

This helps Russias cause because its leveraging that can be used against Ukraine It cannot develop its economy. Its always affected by civil unrest, Zygar tells.

The secret behind that Siberian lake photo

Third day lucky, claims Zygar. Photo: RIA Novosti/ Reuters

Putin has built a personality cult around his hardman stunts over the past 15 years, the most infamous being him riding a pony topless in Siberias Tuva region in 2009 and doing the butterfly in a cold Siberian lake.

Zygar says the idea was to show the Russian public that Putin is young, energetic and active … a real human. What they may not know is that Putin had to swim across the lake three times before the killer shoot was nailed, or so the book claims.

How Medvedev was persuaded to step aside

Corridor of power: Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin after United Russias victory in recent parliamentary elections. Photograph: TASS/ Barcroft Images

Another reason for Putins hardman photoshoot, taken when he was prime minister, was to show that he was different, better and stronger than Dmitry Medvedev, who was president between 2008 and 2012.

According to Zygars sources inside the Kremlin, Putin wanted to be president again and persuaded Medvedev to step aside in the 2011 elections by advising him that Russia could be a target of a new conspiracy organised by the US.

Putin is was mentioned in the book as telling Medvedev that the the situation is hard and we could end up losing the country if leadership isnt strong enough. He went on to win the election in 2011 and was inaugurated in May 2012, when Medvedev became prime minister.

The winter of 2011 -1 2

The opponent protests of 2011-12 shaped Putins thinking today. Photo: Epsilon/ Getty Images

The most important event shaping modern political life in Russia was the staging of opposition protests in winter 2011 -1 2, when thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to protest against the governmental forces.

According to Zygar, this left Putin with one conclusion: that his support base was no longer the middle-class intellectual elite living in the capital, but the working-class heartlands across the country, who were more conservative, more religion, distrustful of reformers and feel more nostalgia for the Soviet period a legacy evident in many of Putins subsequent policies.

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