Vladimir Putin: A Primer on the Russian President

As President Trump and Vladimir Putin meet as presidents for the first time at the G20 Summit, here's a small primer on the life and carefully crafted image of the Russian president.
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Vladimir Putin in 2005

Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2005. 

In the 17 years Vladimir Putin has been on the world stage, he has played the role of supportive ally, political puppeteer, and international provocateur. He has emerged from being a second-string political operative to major player on the world stage. Along the way he has taken the art of self-promotion to almost cult of personality levels. Here is a small primer on Vladimir Putin: “man of mystery.” 

Formative Years

Vladimir Putin was born of modest means on October 7, 1952, in St. Petersburg, Russia (then known as Leningrad) in the Soviet Union. He grew up an only child in a communal 5th floor walk-up apartment with his parents. His father was a factory worker and mother a homemaker. Though not a good student in his early years, young Vladimir excelled in sports as a teenager and this success gave him confidence in school and ambition in life. In 1970, he entered Leningrad State University, earning a degree in law in 1975. Leningrad State served as a finishing school for future government and military leaders. That same year, Putin joined the communist party and soon entered the Soviet Union’s main security agency, the KGB, as an intelligence officer. 

A “007 Wanna-be”

Vladimir Putin is often reputed to have become a cunning, master manipulator while serving in the KGB. The truth might be a little more modest. Soon after graduation, Putin spent a few years spying on foreigners in Leningrad before being transferred to Dresden, in East Germany. It is believed that the Dresden KGB was a main conduit for passing Western technology secrets to Moscow. It’s not clear what Putin’s official duties were, but evidence indicates his main task was recruiting agents. According to many intelligence experts, Dresden was considered more of a “backwater” assignment compared to being in Berlin, the hotbed of Cold War spy intrigue. Putin was later assigned assistant dean of international affairs at Leningrad State University, reportedly monitoring the loyalty of students. U.S. and European intelligence operatives who have studied Putin’s 17-year KGB career say there is no record of Putin ever conducting an intelligence operation. 

Entry into Politics

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Vladimir Putin retired from the KGB as a Lt. Colonel and entered politics supporting firebrand politician Anatoly Sobchak for mayor of Leningrad. Putin served as head of public relations and later as deputy mayor. After Sobchak’s defeat in 1996, Putin moved to Moscow where his organizational skills and KGB experience caught the attention of Boris Yeltsin’s administration. He was selected to head the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Yeltsin’s Security Council. In August, 1999, President Yeltsin appointed Putin prime minister and later that year, Putin became acting president when Yeltsin resigned. In March, 2000, Putin was elected President of the Russian Federation with 53 percent of the vote. Promising political and economic reforms, Putin launched criminal investigations against high-profile members of Russia’s plutocracy. He also continued Russia’s brutal military campaign in Chechnya.  

Vladimir Putin and Boris Yeltsin in 1999

Outgoing Russian President Boris Yeltsin (right) shakes hands with Russian Prime Minister and acting President Vladimir Putin (left) as he leaves Moscow's Kremlin in 1999.

Shaping the Presidency in his own Image

During Vladimir Putin’s first term as president, he took actions that indicated he could be an effective and cooperative leader and possibly reset the relations between Russia and the West. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Putin pledged Russia’s support in combating terrorism. In 2002, he and U.S. President George W. Bush signed a treaty to reduce strategic nuclear weapons. In 2003, Putin brought the Chechen rebellion under control with a new constitution that established a semi-autonomous Chechnya as part of the Russian Federation. In more recent years, Putin has played a key role in reducing Syria’s chemical weapons and in eliminating nuclear materials in Iran, which helped facilitate the Iran nuclear agreement.  

At home, Putin consolidated his authority by ending the power struggle with Russian oligarchs and allowing them to maintain their economic influence in exchange for their unequivocal support. Uncooperative challengers were neutralized with relentless investigations and prosecutions and political opponents were intimidated to toe the line or face consequences. 

The Presidential Merry-Go-Round

In 2004, Vladimir Putin was reelected president in a landslide victory, receiving 71 percent of the vote. During his two terms he weathered several terrorist attacks on Russia, emerging with record approval ratings for his decisive actions during the crises. Barred from running for a third consecutive term in 2008, Putin handpicked his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, who won with a 70 percent majority of Putin constituents. Medvedev served for four uneventful years while Putin held the reins of power, serving as prime minister and shaping Russian policy. In 2012, Putin ran and won for another term as president in a rout, despite widespread accusations of election fraud. Medvedev was nominated prime minister by Putin and quickly confirmed by the State Duma, the legislative house of the Russian government.  

Hobbies and Nurturing his Brand

Vladimir Putin likes to engage in several “manly” activities and cultivate his brand. He has been photographed horseback riding in Cossack-style attire and hunting bare-chested in the wild during his working vacations. He has driven a Formula 1 car to promote F-1 racing in Russia and skin-dived in the Black Sea looking for ancient Greek artifacts. He is known to frequently join in a pick-up game with Russia’s national hockey team.

Vladimir Putin in 2009

Vladimir Putin rides a horse during his vacation outside the town of Kyzyl in Southern Siberia in 2009.

Vladimir Putin has also worked to cultivate his softer, more generous side. During Russia’s raging forest fires, in 2010, he co-piloted a firefighting plane, releasing water dumps on the raging fires. He is credited with saving a television crew from a tiger attack at a national park by shooting the charging animal with a tranquilizer gun. Putin has also served the interests of endangered species by joining an expedition of biologists studying polar bears and attaching satellite tracking devices around their necks. In 2012, Putin elevated his reputation as a lover of animals by flying in a light aircraft to track the migration routes of Siberian cranes. 

Playing the Role of Provocateur 

In a 2005 speech at the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin described the fall of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the Twentieth Century.” His subsequent aggressive actions towards several of Russia’s neighbors has led many analysts to believe Putin wants to return Russia to the “glory days” of the Soviet Union. Finland and the Baltic countries have felt political and military pressure from Russian military operations, seemingly conducted to intimidate and keep them on edge. In 2008, the Russian army invaded a then-independent Georgia when it experienced internal dispute and now Moscow holds great influence there. In 2015, Russia annexed Crimea and occupied parts of eastern Ukraine, presumably to restore order after the Ukrainian president was ousted from power, but more likely to gain a foothold on former Soviet territory. More recently, Putin has injected the Russian military into the Syrian civil war on the side of embattled Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in direct opposition to Western nations’ attempts to have Assad step-down from power. 

One thing that can be said is Vladimir Putin never ceases to keep Western officials off guard and keep the curious, sometimes adoring attention of the media. He has cultivated an image of boogie-man and cunning operative, of a helpful ally and master of the universe. He works hard to promote a multifaceted personae that keeps much of the world guessing as to what might be his true motives and future plans. The world needs to keep watching to learn more.