Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised no one when he was re-elected Sunday for a fourth term. Nearly two decades ago though few would have guessed the dull former spy would hold his country in an iron grip that will extend for a quarter century.
In the autumn of 1999, the Kremlin – and indeed all of Russia – was in a serious crisis. A spate of apartment bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities had killed more than 290 people. The president, Boris Yeltsin, was ailing and spending most of his days in an inebriated state. The ruble crisis had taken its toll on the economy, and Yeltsin’s inner circle was desperate to find a successor who could hold the country together.
A new man had just taken over as prime minister -- the fifth in less than two years – and ordinary Russians knew precious little about the drab, gray former KGB agent who filled the post.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was the former head of the FSB (Federal Security Service), the successor to the communist-era KGB. A tough kid whose frequent scraps on the streets of Leningrad [later St. Petersburg] led him to embrace judo, Putin was no stranger to the dark underbelly of Russian politics. But he had none of the charisma of his political mentors, including Yeltsin and former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who had enabled his rise to the prime minister’s post.
Just weeks after the devastating September 13, 1999, bombing of a Moscow apartment building though, Putin issued a public threat that would catapult him into the hearts of ordinary Russians, who in turn would help turn him into “the world’s most powerful person”, according to several magazine listings.
Blaming Chechen militants for the still-unsolved apartment attacks, Putin delivered a blunt threat: ''If we catch them in the toilet, we will rub them out in the outhouse.''
His crude language, complete with Leningrad street slang, shocked the Russian populace – in a good way. The newcomer’s tough-guy image was pure manna for a humiliated nation weary of the Yeltsin-era chaos and mismanagement. With his tough talk, Putin promised to make Mother Russia great again, and if that meant crushing the opposition and squashing human rights, it was a cost Russians were willing to pay.
In the next few years, the mainly Muslim North Caucasus would be pummeled in a brutal crackdown by Russian security services. The mystery of the 1999 apartment bombings was never solved -- like many attacks and assassinations in Russia. Critics inside the country have long whispered that the attacks were conducted by “Putin’s people” and years later, Sen. John McCain told the US Congressthat "there remains credible allegations that Russia's FSB had a hand in carrying out these attacks".
True or not, the apartment block attacks and subsequent war in Chechnya were a perfect career kick-starter. By the end of 1999, Yeltsin had resigned and Putin took over as Russia’s acting president. In the presidential elections the following year, the drab former spy chief swept the polls with an overwhelming majority.
Putin would remain at the helm of power for the next 18 years, including a four-year stint as prime minister, when he continued to call the shots in Russia. With his latest triumph in Sunday’s presidential poll, the 65-year-old Russian politician is set to serve another six years in office, which will take him to a quarter century in power – a Kremlin longevity surpassed only by Josef Stalin.
From ‘extreme guard’ to ‘extreme aggression’
Nearly two decades ago, when a wooden Putin was sworn into power, Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist and author of the book, “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin,” noted that the former FSB leader projected, “both extreme guard and extreme aggression with every step.” Putin, she concluded, is a “hoodlum turned iron-handed ruler.”
While his iron-handed style of ruling was never in doubt from the get-go, it was in his third term in office that Putin appeared to cast off extreme guard for extreme aggression with the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
It was an act of hostility against a sovereign state that was met with a weak response from the international community, paving the way for Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian conflict the next year. While Moscow had resolutely backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime since a popular uprising broke out in 2011, the 2015 Russian air strikes in Syria marked Moscow’s first military intervention in the Middle East in decades.
With the Russian entry in the Syrian fray, experts promptly began drawing parallels with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Responding to the news, then US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter noted that the Russian military operation was “doomed to fail”.
By early 2018, that assessment had somewhat changed. “Putin's diplomacy is particularly successful in the Middle East, where Russia has many economic, energy and military interests,” said Arnaud Dubien from the Paris-based French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS) in aninterview with FRANCE 24.
As for the predicted drain of the Syrian military operation on Russian resources, even that assessment had changed. “The political gains are very lucrative from an economic point of view for Russia, compared with the money and resources it has invested in the region. Although the costs for Syria haven’t been made public, they are estimated at €3-5 million per day. Moscow can cover these costs, and it's far less than the Americans have spent in Afghanistan for example,” explained Dubien.
‘It’s not the economy, stupid’
Economics was never Putin’s forte -- and that didn’t seem to matter. From very early in his career, Putin set out to prove the economists and politicians monitoring the markets wrong. While Western leaders accept the Bill Clinton election campaign maxim, “It’s the economy, stupid,” Putin has long understood that when it comes to Russia, national pride matters far more than the purse.
With every fresh round of economic sanctions against Russia, experts have debated whether the economy’s dependence on oil and gas would spark the political downfall of Putin. But that has not happened so far and the black belt judo champion-politician appears to weather out all manner of storms, including the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in a British cathedral city.
Shortly after the annexation of Crimea, the US and the EU expanded sanctions on key Russian officials and entities. Following allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, sanctions were further widened to include members of Putin’s inner circle.
Over the years, Putin’s inner circle of advisors, former KGB officials, judo partners and their sons have grown fabulously wealthy and some experts believe that coterie of insiders is now controlling the Kremlin.
While Putin cultivates his tough guy image -- with publicity photos of the Russian strongman riding horses shirtless in Siberia and zooming on a motorcycle with the Night Wolves bikers’ gang around the Black Sea coast – the billionaires in their regulation suits are calling the shots, according to some Russia insiders .
It’s an assessment that goes down well with Putin’s supporters, who can blame the inner circle – not the president – when for their everyday hardships and the spiraling corruption across Russia.
Nearly three decades ago, when the fall of the Berlin Wall spelt the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, Putin was a lowly KGB apparatchik in a backwater posting in the East German city of Dresden.
As the events of history swept his nation, Putin was reduced to gathering news clips for intelligence briefings that no one was reading back in Moscow. The heady days of liberation and perestroika never impressed him and as he prepares to start his fourth term in office, it’s a lesson, he’s not about to forget.