Who Is Vladimir Putin?
In 1999, Russian president Boris Yeltsin dismissed his prime minister and promoted former KGB officer Vladimir Putin in his place. In December 1999, Yeltsin resigned, appointing Putin president, and he was re-elected in 2004. In April 2005, he made a historic visit to Israel—the first visit there by any Kremlin leader. Putin could not run for the presidency again in 2008, but was appointed prime minister by his successor, Dmitry Medvedev. Putin was re-elected to the presidency in March 2012 and later won a fourth term. In 2014, he was reportedly nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Early Political Career
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia, on October 7, 1952. He grew up with his family in a communal apartment, attending the local grammar and high schools, where he developed an interest in sports. After graduating from Leningrad State University with a law degree in 1975, Putin began his career in the KGB as an intelligence officer. Stationed mainly in East Germany, he held that position until 1990, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Upon returning to Russia, Putin held an administrative position at the University of Leningrad, and after the fall of communism in 1991 became an adviser to liberal politician Anatoly Sobchak. When Sobchak was elected mayor of Leningrad later that year, Putin became his head of external relations, and by 1994, Putin had become Sobchak's first deputy mayor.
After Sobchak's defeat in 1996, Putin resigned his post and moved to Moscow. There, in 1998, Putin was appointed deputy head of management under Boris Yeltsin's presidential administration. In that position, he was in charge of the Kremlin's relations with the regional governments.
Shortly afterward, Putin was appointed head of the Federal Security Service, an arm of the former KGB, as well as head of Yeltsin's Security Council. In August 1999, Yeltsin dismissed his prime minister, Sergey Stapashin, along with his cabinet, and promoted Putin in his place.
President of Russia: 1st and 2nd Terms
In December 1999, Boris Yeltsin resigned as president of Russia and appointed Putin acting president until official elections were held, and in March 2000, Putin was elected to his first term with 53 percent of the vote. Promising both political and economic reforms, Putin set about restructuring the government and launching criminal investigations into the business dealings of high-profile Russian citizens. He also continued Russia's military campaign in Chechnya.
In September 2001, in response to the terrorist attacks on the United States, Putin announced Russia's support for the United States in its anti-terror campaign. However, when the United States' "war on terror" shifted focus to the ousting of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Putin joined German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and French President Jacques Chirac in opposition of the plan.
In 2004, Putin was re-elected to the presidency, and in April of the following year made a historic visit to Israel for talks with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon—marking the first visit to Israel by any Kremlin leader.
Due to constitutional term limits, Putin was prevented from running for the presidency in 2008. (That same year, presidential terms in Russia were extended from four to six years.) However, when his protégé Dmitry Medvedev succeeded him as president in March 2008, he immediately appointed Putin as Russia's prime minister, allowing Putin to maintain a primary position of influence for the next four years.
Third Term as President
On March 4, 2012, Vladimir Putin was re-elected to his third term as president. After widespread protests and allegations of electoral fraud, he was inaugurated on May 7, 2012, and shortly after taking office appointed Medvedev as prime minister. Once more at the helm, Putin has continued to make controversial changes to Russia's domestic affairs and foreign policy.
In December 2012, Putin signed into a law a ban on the U.S. adoption of Russian children. According to Putin, the legislation—which took effect on January 1, 2013—aimed to make it easier for Russians to adopt native orphans. However, the adoption ban spurred international controversy, reportedly leaving nearly 50 Russian children—who were in the final phases of adoption with U.S. citizens at the time that Putin signed the law—in legal limbo.
Putin further strained relations with the United States the following year when he granted asylum to Edward Snowden, who is wanted by the United States for leaking classified information from the National Security Agency. In response to Putin's actions, U.S. President Barack Obama canceled a planned meeting with Putin that August.
Around this time, Putin also upset many people with his new anti-gay laws. He made it illegal for gay couples to adopt in Russia and placed a ban on propagandizing "nontraditional" sexual relationships to minors. The legislation led to widespread international protest.
In December 2017, Putin reported at his annual end-of-year press conference that he would seek a new six-year term as president in early 2018 as an independent candidate, signaling he was ending his longtime association with the United Russia party. Additionally, when posed the question of why he hadn't faced significant political opposition during his time in power, he asked, "Should I train contenders for myself?" before adding that he welcomed political competition.
Late that month, a bomb exploded in a grocery store in St. Petersburg, leaving a dozen wounded. In response, Putin said he had ordered security agents to "take no prisoners" during such terrorist attacks, suggesting he would once again ratchet up his patented "tough guy" tone in advance of his country's election.
In March 2018, during his annual address to Parliament, Putin boasted of new weaponry that would render NATO defenses "completely worthless," including a low-flying nuclear-capable cruise missile with "unlimited" range and another one capable of traveling at hypersonic speed. His demonstration included video animation of attacks on the U.S., ratcheting up tensions with Washington, though American officials expressed doubt that Putin's new weapons were operational.
Not long afterward, a two-hour documentary, titled Putin, was posted to several social media pages and a pro-Kremlin YouTube account. Designed to showcase the president in a strong yet humane light, the doc featured Putin sharing the story of how he ordered a hijacked plane shot down to head off a bomb scare at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, as well as recollections of his grandfather's days as a cook for Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin.
On March 18, 2018, the fourth anniversary of the country's seizure of Crimea, Russian citizens overwhelmingly elected Putin to a fourth presidential term, with 67 percent of the electorate turning out to award him more than 76 percent of the vote. The divided opposition stood little chance against the popular leader, his closest competitor notching around 13 percent of the vote.
Little was expected to change regarding Putin's strategies for rebuilding the country as a global power, though the start of his final term set off questions about his successor, and whether he would affect constitutional change in an attempt to remain in office indefinitely.
On July 16, 2018, Putin met with U.S. President Donald Trump in Helsinki, Finland, for the first formal talks between the two leaders. According to Russia, topics of the meeting included the ongoing war in Syria and "the removal of the concerns" about accusations of Russian attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The following April, Putin met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un for the first time. The two leaders discussed the issue of the North Korean laborers in Russia, while Putin also offered support of his counterpart's denuclearization negotiations with the U.S., saying Kim would need "security guarantees" in exchange for abandoning his nuclear program.
Chemical Weapons in Syria
In September 2013, tensions rose between the United States and Syria over Syria's possession of chemical weapons, with the U.S. threatening military action if the weapons were not relinquished. The immediate crisis was averted, however, when the Russian and U.S. governments brokered a deal whereby those weapons would be destroyed.
On September 11, 2013, The New York Times published an op-ed piece by Putin titled "A Plea for Caution From Russia." In the article, Putin spoke directly to the U.S.'s position in taking action against Syria, stating that such a unilateral move could result in the escalation of violence and unrest in the Middle East.
Putin further asserted that the U.S. claim that Bashar al-Assad used the chemical weapons on civilians might be misplaced, with the more likely explanation being the unauthorized use of the weapons by Syrian rebels. He closed the piece by welcoming the continuation of an open dialogue between the involved nations to avoid further conflict in the region.
2014 Winter Olympics
In 2014, Russia hosted the Winter Olympics, which were held in Sochi beginning on February 6. According to NBS Sports, Russia spent roughly $50 billion in preparation for the international event.
However, in response to what many perceived as Russia's recently passed anti-gay legislation, the threat of international boycotts arose. In October 2013, Putin tried to allay some of these concerns, saying in an interview broadcast on Russian television that "We will do everything to make sure that athletes, fans and guests feel comfortable at the Olympic Games regardless of their ethnicity, race or sexual orientation."
In terms of security for the event, Putin implemented new measures aimed at cracking down on Muslim extremists, and in November 2013 reports surfaced that saliva samples had been collected from some Muslim women in the North Caucasus region. The samples were ostensibly to be used to gather DNA profiles, in an effort to combat female suicide bombers known as "black widows."
Invasion into Crimea
Shortly after the conclusion of the 2014 Winter Olympics, amidst widespread political unrest in the Ukraine, which resulted in the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych, Putin sent Russian troops into Crimea, a peninsula in the country's northeast coast of the Black Sea. The peninsula had been part of Russia until Nikita Khrushchev, former Premier of the Soviet Union, gave it to Ukraine in 1954. Ukraine's ambassador to the United Nations, Yuriy Sergeyev, claimed that approximately 16,000 troops invaded the territory, and Russia's actions caught the attention of several European countries and the United States, who refused to accept the legitimacy of a referendum in which the majority of the Crimean population voted to secede from the Ukraine and reunite with Russia.
Putin defended his actions, however, claiming that the troops sent into Ukraine were only meant to enhance Russia's military defenses within the country—referring to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which has its headquarters in Crimea. He also vehemently denied accusations by other nations, particularly the United States, that Russia intended to engage Ukraine in war. He went on to claim that although he was granted permission from Russia's upper house of Parliament to use force in Ukraine, he found it unnecessary. Putin also wrote off any speculation that there would be further incursion into Ukrainian territory, saying, "Such a measure would certainly be the very last resort." The following day, it was announced that Putin had been nominated for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.
In September 2015, Russia surprised the world by announcing it would begin strategic airstrikes in Syria. Despite government officials' assertions that the military actions were intended to target the extremist Islamic State, which made significant advances in the region due to the power vacuum created by Syria's ongoing civil war, Russia's true motives were called into question, with many international analysts and government officials claiming that the airstrikes were in fact aimed at the rebel forces attempting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad's historically repressive regime.
In late October 2017, Putin was personally involved in another alarming form of aerial warfare when he oversaw a late-night military drill that resulted in the launch of four ballistic missiles across the country. The drill came during a period of escalating tensions in the region, with Russian neighbor North Korea also drawing attention for its missile tests and threats to engage the U.S. in a destructive conflict.
In December 2017, Putin announced he was ordering Russian forces to begin withdrawing from Syria, saying the country's two-year campaign to destroy ISIS was complete, though he left open the possibility of returning if terrorist violence resumed in the area. Despite the declaration, Pentagon spokesman Robert Manning was hesitant to endorse that view of events, saying, "Russian comments about removal of their forces do not often correspond with actual troop reductions."
U.S. Election Hacks
Months prior to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, multiple U.S. intelligence agencies unilaterally agreed that Russian intelligence was behind the email hacks of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and John Podesta, who had, at the time, been chairman of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign.
In December 2016 unnamed senior CIA officials further concluded "with a high level of confidence" that Putin was personally involved in intervening in the U.S. presidential election, according to a report by USA Today. The officials further went on to assert that the hacked DNC and Podesta emails that were given to WikiLeaks just before U.S. Election Day were designed to undermine Clinton's campaign in favor of her Republican opponent Donald Trump. Soon after, the FBI and National Intelligence Agency publicly supported the CIA's assessments.
Putin denied any such attempts to disrupt the U.S. election, and despite the assessments of his intelligence agencies, President Trump generally seemed to favor the word of his Russian counterpart. Underscoring their attempts to thaw public relations, the Kremlin in late 2017 revealed that a terror attack had been thwarted in St. Petersburg, thanks to intelligence provided by the CIA.
Shortly before the first formal summit between Presidents Putin and Trump in July 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the indictments of 12 Russian operatives on charges relating to interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Regardless, Trump suggested he was satisfied with his counterpart's "strong and powerful" denial in a joint news conference, and praised Putin's offer to submit the 12 indicted agents to questioning with American witnesses present.
In a subsequent interview with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, Putin seemingly defended the hacking of the DNC server by suggesting that no false information was planted in the process. He also rejected the idea that he had compromising information about Trump, saying that the businessman "was of no interest for us" before announcing his presidential campaign, and notably refused to touch a copy of the indictments offered to him by Wallace.
In 1980, Putin met his future wife, Lyudmila, who was working as a flight attendant at the time. The couple married in 1983 and had two daughters: Maria, born in 1985, and Yekaterina, born in 1986. In early June 2013, after nearly 30 years of marriage, Russia's first couple announced that they were getting a divorce, providing little explanation for the decision, but assuring that they came to it mutually and amicably.
"There are people who just cannot put up with it," Putin stated. "Lyudmila Alexandrovna has stood watch for eight, almost nine years." Providing more context to the decision, Lyudmila added, "Our marriage is over because we hardly ever see each other. Vladimir Vladimirovich is immersed in his work, our children have grown and are living their own lives."
An Orthodox Christian, Putin is said to attend church services on important dates and holidays on a regular basis and has had a long history of encouraging the construction and restoration of thousands of churches in the region. He generally aims to unify all faiths under the government's authority and legally requires religious organizations to register with local officials for approval.
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