Picture of Vladimir Putin in an official capacity

GIS Dossier: The many faces of Vladimir Putin

  • Russians’ civil rights and freedoms have evaporated under Vladimir Putin’s rule to the point of irrelevance
  • He gave up on trying to modernize Russia, using its oil wealth to improve living standards and beef up the armed forces
  • With the oil prices down, Mr. Putin’s personalized regime is vulnerable: it will work only as long as he is adored and feared

GIS Dossiers aim to give our subscribers a quick overview of key topics, regions or conflicts based on a selection of our experts’ reports since 2011. This survey is devoted to Vladimir Putin, to date the most consequential leader of Russia to emerge after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the shifting perceptions of this man in the outside world.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger noted in 2014 that for the West, “the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.” Four turbulent years later, one may still legitimately question whether the Western countries have in fact a Russia policy that goes beyond demonization, or punishment and containment attempts.

Why is it so? A review of 2011-2018 GIS reports on Russia, the bulk of them written by Professor Stefan Hedlund, gives a clue to this mystery. In Mr. Putin, Russia has found one of its most ambitious and enterprising leaders since the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. In the international field, he has learned to become a geopolitical challenger the West must reckon with.

The invention of Vladimir Putin as a political persona took place when Russian President Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007) was approaching the end of his second term in office. Practically unknown in August 1999, by December Mr. Putin’s popularity rating had passed 50 percent. On New Year’s Eve, President Yeltsin announced he was stepping down for health reasons and, in March 2000, Mr. Putin was elected with flying colors president of the Russian Federation.

Vladimir Putin: career path

  • Born October 7, 1952, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg); his mother was a factory worker, and his father was conscripted into the Soviet Navy
  • Graduated from Leningrad State University with a law degree and in 1976 joined an elite division of the Soviet Union's secret police and national intelligence agency, the KGB
  • 1985-1990: served as a KGB agent in East Germany; promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel
  • 1991: Entered local politics in St. Petersburg; moved to Moscow in 1996 to join President Boris Yeltsin’s administration
  • July 25, 1998-March 29, 1999: director of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), the principal security agency of Russia and main successor to the KGB
  • March 9, 1999-August 9, 1999: secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation
  • August 16, 1999: appointed first deputy prime minister by Boris Yeltsin
  • Dec. 31, 1999-May 7, 2000: acting president; gained widespread popularity for his pledge to take a tough line against Chechen rebels
  • 2000: elected president with 53% of the vote; his campaign manager was Dmitry Medvedev
  • March 2004: elected to a second term by a landslide, with 71% of the vote. Medvedev appointed first deputy prime minister in 2005
  • Barred by Russia’s constitution from seeking a third consecutive term, in 2008 he endorsed for the post – Mr. Medvedev – who proceeded to win the presidential election with 70.3% of the vote. Medvedev made Putin prime minister in his administration
  • Dec. 31, 2008: amendments to Russia’s 1993 constitution come into force, extending presidential terms from four to six years
  • 2011: announced his intention to run again for the presidency, Medvedev declared he would serve as prime minister; in March 2012, the two swap roles after a presidential campaign plagued by allegations of vote-rigging
  • March 2018: won reelection as president with 76% of the vote for a six-year term ending in 2024

The Russians acquired a youthful leader in the former state intelligence official who liked to be photographed bare-chested or as a black-belt judo wrestler. Early on, the new president was regarded as an energetic reformer cleaning up Russian politics and restoring economic and social order after the never-ending chaos of the Yeltsin era. He was genuinely popular during his first term in office.

Reality sets in

Mr. Putin inherited a political system featuring all the formal institutions of government generally associated with democracy – political parties and popular elections, term limits for elected office, an independent judiciary and free media. The rights and freedoms that existed, if ever so tenuously, during his predecessor’s years have eroded on President Putin’s watch to the point of irrelevance.

With his policy of “authoritarian restoration,” he drained Russia’s institutions of real power, making sure that it was firmly concentrated on him, flowing from top to bottom. Mr. Putin was so sure of his authority that when he proposed Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to succeed him as president in March 2008 (the office swap was to bypass Russia’s limit on consecutive presidential terms), the Kremlin did not bother to put up a single poster in downtown Moscow to announce who was running for the highest office. Russians had no doubt who actually ruled the country.

During his time working as an agent for the KGB, he saw what people power could achieve – and did not like it

When Mr. Putin relocated himself to the premiership, the real locus of power was shifted from the Kremlin to the Russian White House, leaving President Medvedev with the formal title but few instruments of rule.

During his first two terms as president, Vladimir Putin was able to ride a wave of high hydrocarbon prices (Russia is one of the world’s leading oil and gas exporters) and deliver a significant rise in living standards without modernizing the country. He was never a democratic reformer. During his time working as an agent for the KGB, the Soviet-era security service, in the old German Democratic Republic, he saw what people power could achieve – and did not like it. He has since been highly suspicious of the “color revolutions” in Russia’s neighborhood and is always ready to see a conspiracy by Western powers.

Dollars and ratings

The petrodollar bonanza ended in 2014, but the Putin regime was soon buoyed domestically by its ability to block Ukraine’s drive to enter Western structures and tear the Crimean peninsula away from that country. The display of the Russian state’s decisiveness and strength impressed its citizens, and Mr. Putin’s popularity soared to unprecedented highs.

Three and a half years later, Russia’s economy continues to reel from low oil and gas prices and Western sanctions, but Vladimir Putin looks like a winner on all diplomatic and military fronts.

On his watch, the Kremlin has reversed Russia’s postcommunist decline. It humiliated Europe in Ukraine and upstaged the West in Syria. Mr. Putin has forced NATO into a panicky restructuring of its defenses in Europe. Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova and even NATO members like Poland and the Baltic states all see reasons to fear Russia’s designs for post-Soviet reintegration. Most recently, the intensely watched summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Helsinki also seemed to go the Russian leader’s way.

The big trouble with Mr. Putin’s type of personalized rule, observed Professor Hedlund, is that it is only effective as long as the person in charge remains successful and charismatic – or fearsome.

Leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and other former Soviet republics as well as top EU officials at a highly anticipated summit to discuss the Ukraine crisis
Minsk, August 26, 2014: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at the zenith of the two countries’ conflict (source: dpa)

FACE 1: Suspicious and vengeful

When the crisis in Ukraine erupted, most Western observers assumed that the business elites surrounding President Putin had such strong financial interests in Western Europe and the U.S. that merely imposing trade and travel sanctions on them would be sufficient to force a change in the Kremlin’s behavior. They could not have been more wrong. The business elite took a beating, but the Kremlin remained undaunted, Mr. Hedlund observed. For Mr. Putin, politics always trumps business.

The media has frequently noted that Mr. Putin is resentful and vindictive. The very ethos of the KGB – the likely source of his formative experience – is its great suspicion and dislike of the West and all it stands for, wrote the expert, adding: “And as Mr. Putin himself has relished noting, there is no such thing as a ‘former’ KGB agent.” During his time in power, he has found plenty of reasons to deepen these attitudes. Here is Prof. Hedlund’s list of particulars:

  • In 1999, when NATO unleashed its bombing campaign against Serbia to curb repression in Kosovo, Mr. Putin served as head of the FSB, the domestic successor to the KGB. He felt the humiliation of not being consulted
  • In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, President Putin offered much support for the U.S., including continued cooperation on Afghanistan; in return he got the U.S. proposal to install an anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, which the Kremlin believes is a threat to its nuclear deterrent
  • In 2003, when the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq, he again felt the sting of being ignored
  • In 2004, when NATO undertook its “Big Bang” enlargement into Central Europe and the Baltics, President Putin felt betrayed by the West: Moscow’s approval of German reunification in 1990 was conditioned on it not being followed by enlargement
  • In 2011, when the West intervened in Libya to stop the civil war, Mr. Putin did at first acquiesce but then again felt betrayed by the subsequent removal and killing of Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi

“When the time came to agree on Syria, President Putin was no longer ready to play along,” the expert summarized the situation.

“The conclusions that the Kremlin has drawn from these experiences can be captured in the messages that the U.S. State Department relished sending to Moscow once the Cold War was over and the initial honeymoon with President Yeltsin, Mr. Putin’s boss and political benefactor, had ended in frustration,” Mr. Hedlund explained. Their gist, he wrote, was: “You are no longer our enemy. You are no longer our friend. You are no longer relevant.”

FACE II: Proud and ambitious

President Putin wants to go down in history not merely as the man who arrested Russia’s decline. He views himself as the nation’s savior whose destiny is to restore Russia as a great power, as Mr. Hedlund has indicated in several reports.

President Vladimir Putin addresses defense and foreign policy experts from 40 nations gathered for an annual security conference in Germany
Munich, Feb. 10, 2007: President Putin delivers his warning to the West at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy that Russia will not be pushed around anymore (source: dpa)

To members of the Soviet elite, the sense of being a superpower, superior to China and on a par with the U.S., evolved into something like a belief in a natural order. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 obliterated this worldview. When President Putin told the country’s federal assembly in 2005 that "the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century," his words resonated. Mr. Hedlund described the catastrophe this way:

The Russian Federation had been reduced to a mere shadow of its former existence. Its borders in the West had been rolled back to about where they were in the early 16th century. The economic hyper-depression of the 1990s had caused military production to drop by 80 percent. The rhetoric about how the Cold War (1947 -1991) had been won by the West had added to feelings of humiliation. By the time when Boris Yeltsin stepped down, Russia was viewed as a force to be reckoned with no longer.

Mr. Putin’s hardline speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2007 was the first clear signal to the West that Russia on his watch would no longer accept marginalization. It was now demanding to be heard and respected.

Genuine anger

According to Professor Hedlund, NATO’s military commanders are missing an important point when they argue time and again that the alliance’s expansion into what used to be a Soviet sphere of influence poses no threat to Russia’s national security. The Russian military remains capable of inflicting massive casualties on any aggressor, but the Kremlin’s anger is genuine. He explained:

The expansion drastically reduces the Kremlin’s reach and influence. Mr. Putin remains firmly in the world of Yalta and Potsdam, where the big boys sit around a table to decide the fate of the world. … [He] is angered at being denied a seat. This makes the conflict with the West direct and personal.

Personalized regime

The combination of the war in Ukraine and the Western sanctions has had a profound impact on the political system in Russia. And this is not simply a case of the population rallying around the flag.

Officially created to fight terrorism and organized crime, the massive new force reports to the president directly

Mr. Putin’s popularity after the capture of Crimea by Russian special forces may have reflected a more profound process. Professor Hedlund wrote: “At a recent meeting with Western Russia-watchers, the President’s first deputy chief of staff, Vyacheslav Volodin, noted that ‘while there is Putin, there is Russia; and when there is no Putin, there will be no Russia, either.’ His remark captured the essence of what is happening.” The expert continued:

Mr. Putin has succeeded in building a regime that consists of himself and his entourage. The country’s legal and political institutions have been hollowed out. … The war has served to finally galvanize the Russian population who now herald Vladimir Putin, the undisputed leader.

FACE III: Always insecure

When President Vladimir Putin announced the formation of a Russian National Guard in April 2016, it was widely seen as bolstering his personal power and security. Officially created to fight terrorism and organized crime, the massive new force reports to the president, bypassing the interior minister.

The likely motivation of this move, wrote Mr. Hedlund, was “that Mr. Putin fears an orchestrated threat to his regime.” He has seen regime changes brought by “color revolutions” and witnessed American-led military interventions depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. In Syria, Mr. Putin has acted to prevent President Bashar al-Assad from going the same way. “He may be apprehensive of being set up as the next in line,” the expert suggested. “It is telling,” he added, “that in Russia’s recent security strategy document, color revolutions have been elevated to a security threat.”

Another GIS expert, Dr. Pawel Kowal, concurred. He observed in May 2016:

Except for the October Revolution, leadership changes in the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia have always followed the logic of palace coups, often arranged and controlled by groups within the ruling camp. … If Mr. Putin reacts brutally to manifestations of discontent in Russia – as he did in 2012 in response to his liberal opponents’ rallies on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square – it is not because he foresees the protesters breaking into the ornate rooms of the Kremlin.

According to Dr. Kowal, the Russian president is keenly aware that instances of social instability can be used against him and that his fall from power could be precipitated by someone from his immediate entourage.

FACE IV: Master opportunist

In early October 2012, President Putin attended numerous celebrations of his 60th birthday fully aware that the business elite, the media and a good part of Moscow’s population had turned against him. Less than a year earlier, recalled Professor Hedlund, “it [still] looked as though Mr. Putin was untouchable. He lived up to his Mr. Tough image – and reveled in his 2007 Person of the Year accolade awarded by Time magazine.” Then, it all turned sour.

A picture of an pro-Putin campaign activist in Moscow
Moscow, March 16, 2018: An activist distributes election leaflets in support of Vladimir Putin on the last permitted campaign day (source: dpa)

During the months that passed since the election to the State Duma in December 2011 – which many claimed was rigged – waves of protesters took to the streets and Mr. Putin’s previously ironclad popularity rating dipped below 50 percent. In opinion polls, more than a third of respondents disapproved of his performance, and just 22 percent said they would vote for him if he were to run for still another presidential term in 2018.

Things got tougher still in the 2012 presidential election campaign, when he announced his bid for a third term as president after four years as the country's prime minister. The sheer gall of the charade angered many Russians. “Initially taken aback by the sheer force of the protests … former KGB spy Mr. Putin soon recovered and put together a real campaign,” wrote Mr. Hedlund.

Reckless promises

In the course of the 2011-12 campaign, candidate Putin made very costly promises to the electorate – from military rearmament, to raising pensions and keeping the retirement age low, doubling the salaries of doctors and teachers, handing out extra allowances to families with three children, postponing hikes in utility tariffs, and promising free flights for football fans to games in Ukraine and Poland.

“This, arguably, has been the first time since President Boris Yeltsin’s reelection in 1996 that Russia has witnessed real campaigning for the presidency,” the expert pointed out.

Mr. Putin eventually won, claiming around 60 percent of the vote. But as he was addressing celebrating supporters at a rally outside the Kremlin on Sunday, March 4, opposition groups were alleging widespread fraud and called for mass protests, reported Mr. Hedlund, an eyewitness to these events in Moscow.

The situation looked dire until the conflict with Ukraine turned Mr. Putin’s political fortunes around

One year later, Russia’s federal budget was under increasing pressure from the falling oil prices, wrote Mr. Hedlund in February 2013. Over the first two terms of Mr. Putin’s presidency, the country experienced a massive windfall gain from its hydrocarbon exports. After the trend reversed, the central government, by then long committed to buying political stability through steady increases in fiscal spending, found itself in a trap.

The price of oil needed for the federal budget revenue to cover expenditures went up from $20-$40 per barrel in the early 2000s to $120 in 2013 – a price unattainable by that time. And the worst was yet to come, as oil prices cratered in 2014 and 2015, just as sanctions were imposed by the West. The ruble took a pounding and foreign capital fled the country.

The situation looked dire until the conflict with Ukraine turned Mr. Putin’s political fortunes around. His popularity soared again. Economically, the going was tough for the next few years, but the president and his Kremlin team have weathered the worst of the crisis.

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