The current and long serving leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin, is undoubtedly a polarizing figure on the world stage and certainly unapologetic with his foreign policy objectives and use of force where he himself deems it necessary. Many fingers point at him for the intimidation and even death of journalists and rival politicians, his support of authoritarian leaders and his apparent meddling and undermining of Western democracy.
This former KGB agent has been an astute political player who has successfully climbed the ladder of Russian politics and whose resume taps into Cold War fears that still bubble under the surface of American society to this day. Here we take a look at what made the most powerful man in Russia one of the most polarizing and secretive, yet enigmatic leaders to rise to the forefront of todays global political landscape.
Born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) on October 7, 1952, in the early years of the post war geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union and the United States, he lived in a communal apartment along with three other families. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was the youngest of three children, his mother Maria Ivanovna Putina was a former factory worker but stayed at home while his father was a conscript in the Soviet Navy before also becoming a factory worker. Sadly, soon after his birth both his brothers would die leaving Putin as essentially an only child.
Although through his early school years he did not excel academically, Putin would set himself apart through athletic competition, particularly the martial arts disciplines of Sambo and Judo. His mother initially disapproved of her sons athletic ambitions despite proving himself to be a worthy and skilled competitor in both disciplines. He would soon garner his parents support when one of his coaches came to the Putin household to praise their sons sporting prowess. His love of Sambo and Judo continues to this day as he still serves as the President of the same Dojo he practiced in while growing up. He is also the first world leader to practice at an advanced level in these sports.
Despite not establishing himself academically in the early years of his school life, Putin would attend a magnet school where his focus was on chemistry. While not initially covering himself in academic glory, his teachers noted his potential and encouraged him to use the same focus he had for martial arts. By the sixth grade, his refocus saw his grades improve and he was welcomed into the Young Pioneers, the youth group run by the Communist Party, an organization he had been previously rejected from.
In 1970, Putin would carry on his education at the Leningrad State University (now known as Saint Petersburg State University) where he would study law and write a thesis entitled “The Most Favored Nation Trading Principle in International Law”. Before graduating in 1975, like his fellow students, Putin was required to join the Communist Party. However, unlike most of his colleagues, he would hold a very low opinion of the party, calling it “a beautiful and harmful fairy tale.” before leaving the party and denouncing communism in 1991.
Although his affiliations to the Russian system were severely tested in his time at the Leningrad State University, this would also be the institution where he would meet an assistant professor who would help shape and nourish Putin’s burgeoning political ambitions, Anatoly Sobchak. Sobchak would not only be a key component to Putin’s political success but he would also go on to co-author the Constitution of the Russian Federation and serve as the first democratically-elected mayor of St. Petersburg.
After his graduation in 1975, Putin would join the ranks of the powerful and much feared Soviet Union security agency, the KGB. First training at the 401st KGB school in Okhta, Leningrad, he would soon serve as Second Chief Directorate of counter intelligence before being transferred to the First Chief Directorate where his job was to monitor foreigners and consular officials stationed in Leningrad. In 1984, he was sent to the prestigious Yuri Andropov Red Banner Institute, the Soviet Union’s top espionage academy, where he would receive further training.
Between 1985 and 1990, using the cover as a translator, Putin was sent to Dresden in Soviet controlled East Germany where he would experience first hand, the collapse of the system he was raised in. As the fall of the Berlin wall began on November 9, 1989, it was reported that Putin feared that the KGB office would be stormed and he would suffer the wrath of the now free Germans, so he allegedly spent that time burning every KGB file he could. His early connections to the KGB would live long in the memories of his future democratic opponents and give them cause to continue to be suspicious of Putin’s intentions, actions and decisions.
Two years before his deployment to Dresden, Putin would marry Lyudmila Shkrebneva, a flight attendant for the Kaliningrad branch of Aeroflot, and they would have two daughters together, Maria and Yekatarina while in East Germany. Much like with his career in the KGB, Putin’s personal life has remained private, some might even say secretive. His marriage to Lyudmila would end in divorce in 2013 with both parties splitting amicably, however it was reported that Lyudmila felt he was more married to his position as leader of Russia than her. An extramarital affair was also cited as a possible reason, but with everything else in Putin’s private life, it’s hard to confirm such rumors.
As the wall came down in November of 1989, the KGB was seemingly soon to crumble as the fall of the Soviet Union would not be far behind. Putin moved his family back to Russia and took a job as a professor at the State University of Saint Petersburg. Despite his name tag having the profession of professor written on it, it would have been more appropriate to have Lieutenant Colonel as he was still on the payroll of the KGB. He was tasked with evaluating the students suitability and promise as future KGB agents. While working at the university, he would rekindle his relationship with his former mentor Anatoly Sobchak.
This would spell the start of Putin’s political career as when Sobchak was elected as Mayor of St. Petersburg in 1991, Putin would join his team as an advisor up until Sobchak lost re-election in 1996. Putin could have decided to work with Sobchak’s successor but that would go against his loyalty to his mentor, so instead, he made his way to Moscow and began working with the new Yeltsin Administration.
When Yeltsin became president of the new Russia, Putin would see his star quickly rise as he was appointed as Deputy Chief Administrator for the Kremlin and by 1999, he would be a key advisor to Yeltsin as he was named the Secretary of the Security Council, advising Yeltsin on foreign relations and intelligence.
Putin would hold several positions in the Yeltsin administration, firstly being appointed First Deputy Chief of Presidential Staff for regions, then as head of the commission for the preparation of agreements on the delimitation of power of regions and the federal center attached to the president, before becoming Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor of the now defunct KGB.
The unpredictable and vodka soaked Yeltsin then decided he was unhappy with the current Prime Minister and promptly replaced him with Putin, while simultaneously announcing to the people of Russia and the wider world that he saw him as his natural successor. Only a few months would pass before Yeltsin would surprisingly resign making the increasingly more powerful Putin the Acting President of Russia in December 1999. That power would become official only three months later when in March 2000, Putin was elected as the President of Russia by defeating ten opponents.
His ascension to the highest office in Russia would be the first time in the country’s history where a transfer of power was peaceful and one that had a democratically elected President. As the newly appointed President, Putin would initially embrace more progressive policies, especially with regards to international relations.
He would approve the START II arms treaty, a bilateral treaty between the United States of America and Russia on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms and would support the early stages of the United States’ War on Terror after the events of September 11 but would not support their invasion of Iraq. He would also make moves to improve relations with their communist bedfellow, China.
However, Putin’s early reign would experience tragedy when the Kursk Submarine sank in the Barents Sea in August, killing all 118 crew members. His response to this event would see him attacked and vilified by many citizens. He was on vacation at the time and didn’t rush back when the disaster struck and doubled down on this mistake by making the ill advised statement ‘it sank’ when asked what went wrong for the Kursk. Despite this misstep, his image and rating with the Russian people didn’t suffer too much. So much so, that by his re-election campaign in 2004, he would win 70% of the vote and usher in a second term as President.
His disdain for the antiquated communist system would also rise to the surface with his implementation of some serious economic reforms. He would embrace a more capitalist economic system but one with tighter regulations and strict oversight. This would see the Russian economy stabilize and begin for the first time in decades to grow, some even estimating by 7% annually.
The good times however, wouldn’t last as the global financial crash of the mid-2000’s would stunt that growth. Despite these global economic woes, the fact the everyday Russians could see double the amount of disposable income now in their pockets, most believed this was entirely down to Putin.
Putin would also make a historic visit to Israel, the first by any Russian leader, in the hopes of getting a more prominent seat at the table of any discussions or agreements regarding the Middle East peace process. The talks between the two countries would largely focus on security issues and the hope they could strengthen ties, thought the Russian sale of missiles to Syria was a major stumbling block. Putin’s focus was not just on external security issues as the tragic events of 2004 at the Beslan School would make clear and show just how steely his resolve truly was.
In September, for three days Chechnyan separatists held over 1,000 people, almost 800 of them children, hostage at the Beslan School in North Ossetia, a federal subject of Russia. The militants demanded that Chechnya be granted immediate independence from Russia, however, they had grossly underestimated what the response from Putin and, in turn, the Russian military, would be. Instead of caving in to the demands of these terrorists, Putin would send in the troops.
A special forces unit would enter the school after hearing explosions from inside and the ensuing battle would cost the lives of over 300 innocent people, most of them children. As the country was mourning, Putin would famously say in a televised speech, “We showed ourselves to be weak. And the weak get beaten.”
Although this catastrophic event played out on television screens across the world and many criticized his response, Putin and his government insisted this was their only course of action, regardless of the European Court of Human Rights suggesting otherwise. They accused Putin of using excessive force when storming the school and failing to take into consideration the risks this action would pose to the innocent people held inside.
In Russia there was of course anger, consternation and despair about how the events unfolded and the apparently needless loss of innocent life but Putin’s handling of the situation did not cause any lasting damage to his reputation in the eyes of the Russian people. A poll conducted after the massacre showed that 83% of the populous still supported the president and he would use this to his advantage by changing the laws regarding the electing of governors in regions like North Ossetia and Chechnya, now that decision would be down to Putin himself.
Regardless of his apparent altitudinous approval rating and his clear desire to remain in the upper stratosphere of Russia’s government, the country’s constitution would just not allow it. However, Putin wasn’t ready or even willing to leave the international stage just yet, so, like his predecessor Yeltsin, he would groom then appoint his own protégé and successor in Dmitri Medvedev. Medvedev, who had greatly benefited from Putin’s time in office, would in turn appoint his mentor as Russia’s Prime Minister and the reigns of power would apparently be passed on but the strings were mostly likely still attached to marionette Medvedev.
As Prime Minister, he would continue his economic reforms, mostly in response to the financial crisis that had dented his earlier efforts but also as a way to grow Russia’s now ailing population, one that had been dropping by an estimated 1 million per year. The more money the populous had in their pockets, the easier it was to support a larger family.
In 2012, while nearing the end of his third term as Prime Minister, Putin would successfully gain entry to the World Trade Organization, something Russia had been trying to do since the fall of the Soviet Union. That same year he would again seek the presidency, much to the chagrin of large swathes of the population, with many protesting and claiming that he was sidestepping the constitution in order to regain power. Regardless of the mass protests, his political maneuvering was successful as he was inaugurated in May of 2012 and now serving a six year term, but as the year is now 2020, it seems that his rule of Russia is far from over.
Putin has placed himself as the sole founding father, architect and arbiter of 21st century Russia and few would be able to deny that his tenure at the top of Russian politics has seen Russia rise from the ashes of a communist system that left the country in near ruin. His continued re-election and re-appointment have shown, regardless of the craft involved, he has successfully molded Russia in his own image, strong, uncompromising and both unwilling and unaffected by outside influences.
This stance and attitude have left many in the West suspicious and nervous about his motives and intentions on the world stage. As much as he has painted himself as a seemingly progressive and powerful leader, the long shadow of dictatorship has darkened the ground around him, making many Western countries focus solely on his more authoritarian leanings. This has certainly not been without merit.
Next year will see Putin’s political influence and power reach its third decade, and in that time there have been some highly questionable actions on his and his governments part, first and foremost, the murder of journalists who have been openly critical of him, most notably the ‘unsolved’ murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and the assassination of political rivals, usually by means of poisoning as the recent events of the alleged poisoning of opposition politician Alexei Navalny have brought back into sharp focus.
The list of deaths among vocal critics is uncomfortably long and one that includes more than just journalists and an opposition leader. A former Deputy Prime Minister, oligarchs, lawyers and several former KGB agents can be counted among those numbers as well. Putin himself remains unphased and unmoved by accusations of political skullduggery and his projection of strength remains as cast iron as it’s ever been.
In recent years Putin has placed himself back in the center of the world stage with his support of the government of Bashar Al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War. A strange sort of proxy war with the United States as the U.S. supports the Syrian rebels, yet both sides continued to fight the presence of ISIS in the region. Even more recently, the accusations have come thick and fast, especially with regards to Russia’s apparent meddling in the U.S. elections of 2016 at the behest of Putin himself.
This is seen as an effort to sow political and social discord and many intelligence agencies seem to think so. With the 2020 election just round the corner, many are asking if Putin’s fingerprints will be all over it again, only time, and the work of U.S. intelligence agencies, will tell. One this is for certain, Putin is not quite ready to exit stage left just yet. He looks to continue to hold on to the reigns of power and maintain Russia’s place at the table as a formidable world power with a great deal of influence.