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REPORT: Towards a Political Biography of Vladimir Putin: From Commissar to Accidental Revolutionary From Above, 1975-2003

by Gordon M. Hahn


Western analyses and perceptions of Russian President Vladimir Putin if not caricatures are most often distortions that take the man outside the realm of the common mortal – with his/her nuances, changes over time, positives and, to be sure, negatives. He is portrayed as made in the KGB as nothing but a colorless, cynical, Soviet-style secret policeman and unwavering apparatchik so beginning from his entrance into the organs in 1975 inevitably ending so in the grave. In fact, Putin is a significantly complex person. One can question his moral and ethical qualities as a person and leader, but there is significant evidence that Putin is a decisive leader.

Although Putin’s political and leadership “smacks of a strong, decisive, authoritarian streak,” keener observers have also noted his human complexity; very few — political complexity. A former US State Department psychiatrist specializing in ‘political psychology’ convincingly described the complexity of the man: “In 2000, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, then a relative unknown outside of Russia, visited Japan.  Part of his trip included a visit to the Kodokan, the historic Judo school founded by Jigoro Kano. Putin participated in a demonstration, showing off his martial arts skills with a young Japanese student, who threw him using a classic hip throw.  Afterwards, Putin bowed formally to her with grace and good cheer, and the crowd gave him a proper ovation. Several years later, after the tragic terrorist attack in Beslan, where over 300 schoolchildren lost their lives in its carnage, an emotionally-distraught Putin spoke to a sorrowing nation, reminding Russia that it had been beaten because of its weakness.”[1] One might add the even more emotionally distraught Putin at the February 2000 funeral of his perhaps most important political mentor, law professor and first mayor of post-Soviet St. Petersburg, the pro-democratic Anatolii Sobchak.[2] 

Similar to the way Putin’s political psychology is more complex than the KGB/Soviet stereotypes, so too his biography includes several formative episodes and resulting character traits and political orientations that contradict the Western-made oversimplified image of the hardline, neo-imperialist strongman and ‘Stalin of today’ forged by 16 years in the KGB. For example, Putin’s main formative experience outside the home before pursuing a KGB career was his adoption and deep attachment to judo as a disciplinary and social art, instilling in him, self-control, respect for one’s opponent, and loyalty to his allies and mentors. Former U.S. consul to St. Petersburg notes, I think accurately, how this may have influenced Putin’s development: “Most Western analysts have focused on the fact the sport requires the player to use the strength and weight of his opponent to his own advantage.  That theory conveniently supports the contention that Putin has played Russia’s relatively weak hand well in dealing with stronger adversaries, but there is another aspect that is usually overlooked: the sport comes from the East, Japan, I believe.  Contestants prepare for combat in a friendly, collegial way. They bow to each other as a sign of respect before engaging, and again afterwards. It is a bloodless affair, almost courtly, with strict rules and formalities, although it does require real strength, agility, and skill. Putin has won numerous black belts.  But he is a good sport: memorably, he allowed himself to be thrown by a much younger opponent while visiting Japan. It also requires sobriety, flexibility, and self-control, qualities that Putin exhibits in abundance.”[3]

Usually, Putin is associated strictly with the negative and stilted aspects of the USSR; no other influences dare be broached: not his Petersburg period, not his early years in Moscow, nor his years in top positions in the FSB, government, and finally the presidency. The Putin of these early, post-KGB, post-Soviet years, covering the 1990s and the first few years of Putin’s first term as president, the formation of his early and mid-career political and ideological orientation, and the development of the man as a political leader are the main foci of this study. These periods encompass Putin’s transformation from: (1) a loyal KGB operative to (2) quasi-liberal ‘revolutionary from above’ driven to abandon his prior biography and much of his belief system for new values in the brave, chaotic, and dangerous world of post-perestroika Russian life and politics, and finally to (3) his development of significant leadership skills during his rise up the political hierarchy in Moscow.

Leningrad-Dresden: 1970-1990

The story of Putin’s request to join the KGB as a high school student and his entering Leningrad (St. Petersburg) State University’s (LGU/SPGU) Faculty of Law in 1970 as he was advised to do when he was first rejected is well-known. There he met his future mentor, then law professor Anatolii Sobchak. Entering the KGB in 1975, after training Putin was assigned to counterintelligence in Leningrad keeping tabs on foreigners and was then transferred to Moscow. At the dawn of perestroika with the rise to the CPSU CC General Secretaryship of Mikhail Gorbachev in March 1985, Putin was stationed to Dresden, East Germany.

Putin’s stint in Dresden was rather unremarkable as KGB careers might go. A former KGB colleague in Dresden, Vladimir Usol’tsev, in his 2003 book Colleague (Sosluzhivets), states that Putin and his colleagues were well aware that the USSR was in decline. He describes Dresden Putin as a run-of-the-mill KGB agent, competently and thoroughly carrying out tasked functions, mostly recruiting KGB agents among the Soviet students in communist Eastern Germany, technology theft, and monitoring and reporting on the East German leadership. Putin was “pragmatist” and “complete conformist,” who thought one thing but said something else,” taking no political risks, as most Soviets who sought to protect their position had to. However, according to Usol’tsev, Putin was a very different person in small company with close colleagues. In small groups, such as during his Dresden office mates’ weekly sojourns to the sauna, he opened up and surprised his colleagues with his politics. Putin was clearly disturbed about the abuse of the law in the USSR and sympathized with the regime’s leading critics, including dissident Andrei Sakharov, whom he “respected for his consistency.” He disagreed with the view prominent in the organs that Jews were innately anti-Soviet and regarded them as “completely normal people.” On the other hand, he thought the Soviet system could not change and doubted that the extent of the crimes under Stalin were as great as revelations under glasnost’ evidenced. According to Usol’tsev, as summarized in the New York Times: “Putin concealed his energy behind a studied air of politeness and courtesy. When interacting with his superiors, he gave the impression of being extremely obedient, even dependent. This…made him the constant favorite of his superiors, in Dresden, at headquarters in Karlshorst, and probably later on with his political mentor Boris Yeltsin.”[4] Thus, Putin was already demonstrating some ideological flexibility and tendency to a moderate conservatism punctuated by splashes of what passed for liberalism in those days and that career path. Consistent with the approach of his first top boss, KGB Chairman Yurii Andropov, recommended to KGB case officers to “work with the people,” Putin was developing some promise as a “specialist in human relations,” as he later described himself.[5]

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and a certain amount of revolutionary chaos in the GDR, Putin was forced to go out and confront an angry crowd of Germans hoping to enter the Soviet consulate, warning that his colleagues inside had orders to shoot should the crown break in. This and the general Soviet collapse formed the first trial of Putin’s political career, summed up by his complaint that when he phoned Moscow for assistance as to what should be done he received no satisfaction. In recounting this in 2000, he recalled: “I had the feeling that the country was no more. It had disappeared.” This likely a harrowing sense for someone on the wrong end of a revolution.

To sum up the influence of Putin’s KGB career on his future personal and professional development, it seems that he must have imbibed some of the suspicion of others and hidden enemies, especially those tied to the West. However, these attributes became recessive or at least less dominant than in his hierarchy of values and attitudes by dint of confusion created by the collapse of the Soviet Bloc he once viewed as invincible. This shock and resulting ideological confusion could only have been compounded in the next few years as the Soviet demise proceeded.

Putin as ‘Revolutionary from Above,’ St. Petersburg, 1990-1991

In 1990, Putin returned to a late Soviet Leningrad transmogrifying into St. Petersburg and would end up on the right side of Russia’s ‘revolution from above’ consummated in the limited August revolution from below that resisted a restorationist coup attempt by CPSU hardliners and siloviki.[6] Leningrad was experiencing growing political polarization like the rest of the country reformed and inadvertently destabilized by CPSU General Secretary and later USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. In the city of the first Russian revolution and where Bolshevik power was born, Putin began hedging his Soviet bet, siding with the creeping revolution from above.

His KGB bosses inadvertently gave him an exit path from the sinking Party-state regime. It was apparently they who assigned him or supported his appointment to the post of assistant to the deputy rector in international affairs department of SPGU. There, although Putin continued working for the KGB, carrying out recruitment and surveillance, he renewed ties with Sobchak, who was now a star in the democratic opposition movement and an ally of the democratic opposition’s top leader Boris Yeltsin in the USSR Congress of People’s Deputies. In April 1990, Sobchak was elected to Leningrad City Council (LenSoviet), and the council elected him its chairman in May, making him the de facto mayor of the city.

Under the combined liberalizing effects of simultaneous revolution from above and perestroika, both Leningrad and Moscow saw free and fair popular elections for their respective mayors, held simultaneously with popular elections for the new office of the Russian presidency on 12 June 1991. Yeltsin won the Russian presidency, and Sobchak won the Leningrad mayoralty. This deepened the revolutionary situation by exacerbating the condition of dual sovereignty in the country, as a powerful set of completely non-Party state institutions emerged in Russia alongside the still Party-penetrated state institutions of the USSR. Putin became Sobchak’s first deputy mayor for international affairs. In that position he actively resisted the 19-21 August 1991 Party-state hardline coup at Sobchak’s side in Leningrad, while Yeltsin fought off the putsch in Moscow.[7] The Washington Post reported in January 2000 that during the coup Putin had “quietly played a key role” on August 19th in securing Mayor Sobchak’s safe return to Leningrad from Moscow, where he had declared his support for Yeltsin against the coup plotters.[8] Sobchak then led the northern capitol’s resistance to the coup. Putin claims that he did not resign from the KGB until 20 August 1991, the second day of the Party-state hardline coup against Gorbachev and Yeltsin.[9]

It appears that up until that day Putin had been hedging his bets and did not make a final decision on whether he would stand with his old (Sobchak) or new boss (the KGB) in any confrontation. On that day, August 20th, the confrontation had arrived, as 400,000 Leningraders massed on Palace Square in support of Sobchak and the Leningrad government’s fight against the Soviet coup plotters—a clear demonstration, along with the comparable demonstration before the Moscow White House, that Russia’s revolutionaries from above would prevail in the August standoff, given their mass public support. In a documentary film about Sobchak, ‘Delo Sobchaka’, produced by his daughter Kseniya in 2018, Putin described his situation when the coup began as a dilemma in terms of a certain indecision: “On the one hand, I worked with Anatolii Sobchak, and he was on the side of the acting authorities (Gorbachev and Yeltsin). But on the other hand, there is this coup attempt, and the coercive organs, they were on the side of those who carried this out; I could not be there and there simultaneously.”[10] During the coup Putin told Sobchak: “I have made my choice.” In the 2018 interview, he added that he said to Sobchak: “I should feel, first, confident, and therefore in the given situation the most correct (thing) for me (to do) is to write a report on my resignation, and to that he (Sobchak) said to me: ‘Good, do that. I will phone (KGB chief Vladimir) Kryuchkov’.” Sobchak called and Putin’s resignation from the KGB was accepted.[11] The August 20th popular resistance to the coup, like nothing earlier had pushed Putin to get off the fence.

With the coup’s collapse, the Party-state regime met its demise and by December the Soviet state itself had collapsed, all symbolized by Leningrad’s return to its former name, St. Petersburg. In sum, Putin was a reluctant, perhaps, ‘revolutionary from above’ or at least a situational, opportunistic ally of Yeltsin’s revolution from above against the remnants of the Soviet regime. Like Yeltsin himself, along with many Soviet regime soft-liners-turned revolutionaries from above, Putin had limited knowledge and commitment to the fledgling democracy and free market of post-Soviet Russia’s brave, if tumultuous new world. In essence, he positioned himself as moderate liberal: something like today’s state or ‘system liberals,’ who are typically more liberal than the Putin of today, especially as regards non-economic issues. For comparison, Putin’s future tandem partner, the more liberal former president and prime minister Dmitrii Medvedev, was studying with Sobchak and working for his election to the LenSovet in spring 1989, while Putin was still working for the KGB in Dresden.[12] 

It appears as for most Soviet citizens Gorbachev’s glasnost’ had its effect on the now former KGB operative’s thinking on Lenin, Leninism, and Soviet history. Although Putin has never addressed the issue of Lenin’s collusion with the Germans in the making the February revolution and especially the October coup, Putin seemed to hint at it in accusing Lenin of “treason” twice in 2012. Otherwise, he has been highly critical of Lenin, the Bolsheviks, and at times even Soviet power. Like many Party-state apparatchiki who jumped the sinking Soviet ship of state in 1990-91, then deputy mayor of St. Petersburg Putin rejected “that person” and Marxism-Leninism in a 1991 interview. (It is characteristic of Putin to refuse to mention the name of people he has come to dislike; not his perfect record in never mentioning Russian opposition figure Aleksei Navalnyi by name.) Specifically, Putin stated in the interview that he had come to understand as he matured “more and more clearly the obvious truth” that communism was but “a beautiful but harmful fairy tale; harmful because its implementation or any attempt to carry it out in life in our country brought in the end enormous damage.” He charged that the Bolsheviks “destroyed what glues, molds the people of civilized countries – market relationships. They destroyed the market, emerging capitalism. The only thing that they did to keep the country together within common borders – was a barb wire.”[13]

Two decades later, at the beginning of his third term as Russia’s president, the glasnost’ effect on Putin still held. He accused Lenin and the Bolsheviks of “national treason” in World War I. At the July 2012 ‘Seliger’ Youth Forum, Putin accused Lenin and the Bolsheviks of “a unique, major example of national treason” for having “wished the defeat of their own country in the First World War,” making “their own contribution to the extent they could in Russia’s defeat,” and for the “amazing situation” of having “capitulated” so that “Russia lost to the losing side, Germany.”[14] At a June 2012 session of the Russian legislature’s upper house, Putin repeated the accusation of “national treason” and capitulation in war to the losing side, which, he exclaimed, was “a unique situation in all of mankind’s history.”[15] А year later, Putin again castigated Marxism-Leninism and by implication Lenin himself, telling a meeting at the Jewish Museum and Center for Tolerance that the Soviet regime was “guided by false ideological thinking, they moved to arrests and repression of both Jews and Orthodox, representatives of other faiths, Muslims. They raked them all in together. Now these ideological blinders and false ideological constructions, thank God, have collapsed.”[16]

Putin’s views on Lenin and the Bolsheviks provide context for understanding Putin’s infamous lament that the collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century for which he has been accused of lamenting the fall of the Soviet regime. Putin had no problem with the end of the communist form of rule (regime) and credits both Gorbachev and Yeltsin for “giving the country its freedom”, which he calls “a historical breakthrough.” Putin regretted and regrets the collapse of the state and only so far as it left 25 million ethnic Russians outside of their historic homeland, Russia: “(A)fter the disintegration of the Soviet Union, 25 million Russians—in a blink of an eye—found themselves abroad. In another country. That’s one of the greatest catastrophes of the 21st century. People used to live in one country; they had relatives, work, apartments, and they had equal rights. And yet in an instant they found themselves abroad. And there were certain signs and then full-fledged civil wars.”[17] To be sure, this also meant that non-Russians, many of whom sought independence from the USSR and any prospective Russia should the former collapse, received their independence. For them, the Soviet breakup was no catastrophe, but Putin is a Russian, president of Russia, speaking from the Russian point of view.  

Although Putin’s views on Lenin have remained constant, Putin’s life in the corridors of power would change this still uncommitted democratizer, market reformer, and rather typical ‘revolutionary from above.’

St. Petersburg, 1991-1997

As a consequence of the brutal and raucous political and economic turmoil of the 1990s, Putin, like many Russians, would become a reluctant, doubting democrat, more cynical, and ‘practical’ in building and pursuing power. As Sobchak’s deputy mayor for international relations, Putin would manage such operations such as the US-Russian Goodwill Games and food supply for the city as the economic crisis deepened through the early 1990s. Almost everyone in the former USSR at that time was involved in some form of corruption, and Putin was no exception. The average citizen paid bribes to officials, police and traffic cops and stole supplies from his place of work, if he had one. Those inside the state had broader opportunities. Putin was accused by some in the Leningrad Soviet of engaging in corruption while bartering oil for food supplies for the city but no charges were ever brought. The investigation found no evidence that Putin benefited personally from the scandal, and Putin denied signing the documents, though his signature appeared on them. Moreover, those making the charges against Putin personally had issues with veracity and an axe to grind against any former KGB man.[18]

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the illegal barter deal occurred and under Putin’s watch. A later investigation found that the scandal also saw a bankrupt company doing other international business repeatedly getting loans form the Petersburg government and building a dacha on Ozero (Lake) Komsomolskoe outside the city for Putin and his closest associates, later called the ‘Ozero’ group, suggesting that Putin did benefit personally from the deal.[19] Again, during the great post-Soviet Russian depression, the collapsing state, and theft of its massive property holdings corruption was ubiquitous. For many what began as a means of survival or providing comfort for one’s family and friends would become a way of life justified for the ‘sacrifice’ made in serving the state. Putin was also accused of having ‘ties’ to the Tambov Gang organized crime group, but ‘ties’ seemed to amount little more than the likelihood that Putin took bribes from front companies tied to the Tambov group. Putin may or may not have known who stood behind these companies, and bribe-taking was almost incumbent for many officials, either because to refuse to engage in such led to ostracization from other officials or because of the possible threat to one’s life refusing bribes made by organized crime entailed.

Some Americans who had contact with Putin at the time he served in the St. Petersburg government attest to him being a conscientious and honest official. Indeed, by Russian standards at this crisis time, he may indeed have been, relatively speaking. Former US consul to Russia in St. Petersburg John Evans has written that the Petersburg deputy mayor Putin he and others he encountered was not motivated “primarily” by money also “had not failed to take advantage of opportunities that have come his way.” At the same time, he “had the reputation as the only bureaucrat in the city who did not take bribes (this is an exaggeration; there were others).” He was “well regarded on the whole” and “devoted” to the democratic Sobchak.[20] Putin was indeed close to him and he and his wife Lyudmilla spent a good deal of leisure time with Sobchak family. Putin’s political program, according to Evans, at the time was focused entirely on domestic concerns and had three tracks: economic reconstruction, fighting crime, and court reform. Putin was not anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-gay, or a communist.[21]

According to Evans (and others), the mayor was more of an intellectual than an organizer or manager and it fell to Putin run the city’s daily operations. Putin “was credited with bringing some order into the chaotic crime-ridden business world.” On one occasion, according to Evans, when a group of Californian investor, who had established a Subway fast-sandwich restaurant in the city sought from the consulate because they were being squeezed out by a criminal mob, Evans called Putin who first asked for a copy of the contract and “assured” him that he “would order the mob to back off” so the Americans, fearing for their safety, could depart for Helsinki, adding that the issue would have to go to court. Evans reports that the case did go to court but does not reveal (and perhaps does not know the results). Presumably, the Americans made it to Finland with Putin’s assistance. Evans concludes reasonably enough that Putin’s request for the contract and expectation that a court would need to decide the issue was one of a trained lawyer “intent on seeing that the matter was resolved in accordance with the law.”[22]

It is noteworthy from Evans’ account that Putin tried to settle the Subway case by using the law to contain the conflict but not to punish the criminals who instigated it. This might remind some of Putin’s laxity in pushing his law enforcement organs to solve the many high-profile murders of politicians and journalists that have occurred under his rule. As I have noted elsewhere Putin is a soft authoritarian balancer and manager not a democrat. Evans is quite correct that this episode was characteristic for the “Wild East” that Russia was in the 1990s, but it should be noted also that Putin was obviously being drawn into its criminalized culture. Putin was able to ‘assure’ the American consul that he would call off the crime group, suggesting that he knew how to contact them and halt their action without, perhaps, fear of retribution. At the same time, from Evans’ account there is no evidence that Putin promised or attempted to bring the criminal gang to justice for their actions. As I discuss below, Putin’s biography and personality are no more static than they are simple. Putin has changed over time, and power has been the main driver of that change.

Some claim that Putin was close to the infamous Tambov organized crime group. However, acccording to Andrei Konstantinov – the leading journalistic expert on organized crime in St. Petersurg, author of Banditskii Peterburg, and editor-in-chief of a newspaper on organized crime published in St. Petersburg in the 1990s and early 2000s, Kriminal’nyi vestnik Peterburga  – though he tried he could never find any evidence whatsoever that Putin had ties to the so-called Tambov organized crime book. Konstantinov called the idea in a 13 March 2019 Ekho Moskvy interview “complete stupidity” and “malarkey.”[23] What is more likely is that Putin had little choice but to cooperate with the powerful Tambov Group while deputy mayor in wild St. Petersburg of the 1990s. Necessity became the mother of adaptation and compromise, and Putin may have very well taken bribes from the group rather than become a potential target for assassination. The slippery slope could be exited from only when Putin became president when Putin ordered a nighttime military-style raid to Petersburg to arrest Tambov’s founder and godfather Vladimir Barsukov (born Kumarin) and have him brought back to Moscow, where he was soon tried and sentenced to 23 years in prison. Any ‘ties to organize crime’ may have had were mostly a consequence of his becoming “Sobchak’s fixer” or less malignantly his troubleshooter, responsible for getting corrupt enterprises to play by informal and formal rules and “deliver,” as noted by Hill and Gaddy put it.[24] But given the ubiquity of crime in Russia, Putin could never have escaped from, and likely grew accustomed to ‘dealing’ with organized crime groups, subordinating them to the state once he had the power of presidency and risking attacks on the most powerful criminals only when necessary for his political or personal security.

Putin’s hardening would begin in greater earnest after his mentor Sobchak’s fall from grace among the populace and thus from power. In 1996, as Sobchak’s mayoral term neared its end and elections were over the horizon, some in his inner circle began to discuss the possibility of promoting from an alternative to Sobchak as candidate. Among the many they approached to make a run at Sobchak, was Putin, who declined, saying: “Better to be hanged for loyalty, than awarded for betrayal.” All who were approached declined, save one, Vladimir Yakovlev.[25] Sobchak lost at the ballot box to the far more corrupt Yakovlev. This turn of events may have jaundiced his view of democracy and reinforced the idea that at least ‘corruption pays’ in more way than one. Putin was out of a job, bringing the St. Petersburg period of Putin’s early political career to an end.

Belokamennaya (Moscow), 1997-1999

At this stage, in his political career Putin had experienced three character-forming trials. The first came when the Berlin Wall collapsed, and Putin was forced to go out confront an angry crowd of Germans hoping to enter the Soviet consulate in Dresden. In the second, the fall of the Soviet regime, Putin had equipped himself well and with some modicum of courage, supporting Sobchak and the democrats in a potentially treasonous act should the August putsch had succeeded. The third was the defeat of Sobchak and his own fall from the corridors of power back to the streets of St. Petersburg. However, he had been given few opportunities to show any outstanding political leadership, which these experiences may have been helping him develop.

Now Putin got a lucky break that kept his political career alive. А series of colleagues from Petersburg, some from Sobchak’s government, had received positions in Moscow. Anatolii Chubais, the lead Petersburger in Moscow was deputy prime minister, and Aleksei Kudrin, former Petersburg deputy mayor for economic reform, appear to have played a key role in securing Putin a job.[26] Kudrin, deputy head of Boris Yeltsin’s Presidential Administration (PA) and head of its Trade, Economic, and Scientific-Technological Cooperation Department since August 1996, supposedly put Putin up in his apartment when he first arrived in ‘Belokamennyi.’ Putin’s first Moscow job was deputy head of the Kremlin’s Property Management Department under the corrupt Pavel Borodin (June 1996 – March 1997). His second was to succeed Kudrin as head of the PA’s Main Control Administration and simultaneously held to post of deputy head of the PA (March 1997). It was at this time that Chubais and Kudrin began to promote Putin in his career, according to then PA head Valentin Yumashev.[27] Moreover, Chubais had been promoted to deputy prime minister and Kudrin to deputy finance minister at this time.

In November 1997, Putin helped his mentor Sobchak to flee to France as he was under threat of arrest by the Yakovlev administration in Petersburg for supposed abuse of office. This clearly demonstrated Putin’s loyalty to those who at one time or another supported him in his career. Putin had now grown ties to the Yeltsin extended political family, in particular Yumashev. At the same time, Putin was getting a close up look at ‘wild Moscow’ of the 1990s and the massive corruption and penetration of the state by Russia’s oligarchs, which made Petersburg look tame. In a later interview, he described his impression of the situation: “I remember when I moved to Moscow from St. Petersburg, I was astounded and shocked by how many of them (oligarschs) had gathered here in Moscow. And their behavior was so astounding I couldn’t get used to it for a very long time. Those people didn’t have any scruples at all.”[28]

But Putin would have been less able to keep himself clean in participating in Kremlin politics, than he could in St. Petersburg. The family was searching for prospective successors for Yeltsin in the presidency, who might guarantee the family with immunity after Yeltsin’s last term. Yumashev seems to have seconded the Petersburgers’ recommendation of Putin to the post of PA first deputy head and oversaw the Main Legal Department. In this post from May 1998 Putin got a close up look at the wild asymmetrical hyper-federative, near confederative system that Yeltsin had allowed to take shape in Russia after the Soviet collapse, with tens of regions having constitutions and laws that violated the federal constitution and laws. Putin would move strongly to reduce asymmetry and regional autonomy upon becoming president, a position he could now reasonably be in contention for.

Putin’s potential in this regard was upgraded in July 1998 when Yeltsin appointed him director of the FSB, returning Putin to his old haunt, which he undertook a reform of. In July 1999, came the first of three controversial and perhaps curious events at the time of the Yeltsin succession struggle occurring in a period of seven months, from July 1999 to February 2000. With Putin as FSB Director and the ChRI militants about to cross into Dagestan, there was a biological weapons event in the village of Oblivskaya in Rostov region in which an agent with some characteristics similar to the Congo-Crimean Haemorrhagic and West Nile fevers was released. According to official data, at least some 769 people were hospitalized and 42 people died during July 1999 peak of the outbreak in Oblivskaya and across the regional border in the Volgograd province. There were 700 people hospitalized and 36 people died. The outbreak also affected Stavropol and Astrakhan regions.[29] It is unclear whether this was part of the whirlwind being stirred up by the succession struggle, but the confluence of events is striking as we shall see.

Also as FSB Director, he underwent a test of loyalty to President Yeltsin, when he took the co-chairmanship of a commission to investigate the activities of Prosecutor General, the communist Yurii Skuratov. Putin famously publicized a video of ‘someone looking like” Skuratov cavorting with prostitutes. In April 1999, Skuratov, who had been investigating graft in the Yeltsin family, was duly fired based on the commission’s findings and presumably the FSB’s ‘data collection.’ Putin’s stock also rose in the Skuratov affair as a result of what was assessed by Yeltsin’s PA chief Aleksandr Voloshin to be Putin’s impressive self-command compared to MVD chief Sergei Stepashin, who co-chaired the investigative commission with Putin. When they reported to Yeltsin on their findings, Stepashin was supposedly nervous and embarrassed, while Putin displayed calm and even quietly smirked in discussing Shuratov’s activities.[30] Whether he knew it or not, Putin was now in contention to succeed Yeltsin. Although he had joined in the rather dirty nature of the Moscow political scene, Putin remains in denial about the path he was on. In an interview two decades later, he pontificated on the issue of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the U.S. NSA’s massive global surveillance: “So we are witnessing that all across the world. We know about surveillance of private lives and the private lives of political leaders, which I believe is a very bad practice.”[31]

The Clinton Administration and NATO in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and bombing in Yugoslavia helped to clear the path for siloviki to the presidency. As the Yugoslavia war intensified and the West increasingly sided against Russia’s traditional Orthodox Slavic Serbian ally, top level discussions in winter 1998-1999 led to the notion that was needed was an “intelligent silovik.”[32] As Pavlovskii relates: “According to research commissioned by the Kremlin, sociologists conducted an amusing, but very revealing study, asking: “What kind of movie hero would you like to see as the next president?” First place was shared by two characters. One was expected – Peter the Great played by Nikolai Simonov. The second was the unexpected one: Stirlitz (a Soviet film spy) played by (Vyacheslav) Tikhonov. The coup in the minds was produced by the NATO operation against Yugoslavia. Today it is hard to imagine. … But then the war in Yugoslavia was perceived by society as the image of our future, a model of what might happen to Russia. The public atmosphere changed dramatically, a political consensus developed: communists, liberals, and patriots united around the unacceptability of the Yugoslav precedent. The rating of (Foreign Minister) Primakov, who deployed his plane over the Atlantic (Evgenii Primakov was on an official visit to Washington on March 24, 1999 but canceled it after receiving information about NATO’s decision to launch a military operation in Yugoslavia.), began to grow like a snowball. I will permit myself a hypothesis: if the NATO bombing had begun a month earlier, then Primakov would most likely have become Russia’s president.”[33]

Yeltsin soon appointed Primakov as PM. However, Primakov began allying with Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev, and others in order to promote himself as a candidate for president. Posing a threat to the Yeltsin clan, he was replaced by deputy PM and former FSB and MVD chief Sergei Stepashin. Primakov had been appointed PM on the back of his rising popularity in response to his ‘turn about over the Atlantic’ in response to NATO’s bombing of Belgrade. MVD chief Sergei Stepashin, who had led the MVD and FSB in different periods, succeeded Primakov as PM. There were now two leading candidates to succeed Yeltsin: Stepashin and FSB Director Putin. Among the oligarchs at the time, in addition to the notorious Boris Berezovskii’s backing of Putin, the more traditionalist oligarch Sergei Pugachev also proposed Putin to Tatyana Dyachenko, Yeltsin’s daughter who was functioning de facto as acting president on her ailing father’s behalf.[34]

Putin had equipped himself in Moscow as in St. Petersburg as an effective administrator, whom his colleagues came to respect. Upon Putin’s replacing him as PM, Stepashin himself seemed to recommend Putin in announcing he had resigned: “I believe him to be a decent and worthy man. I would like to wish him good luck, specifically good luck because he has the rest.”[35] Many others attested to his Putin’s leadership and administrative competence by this time. Gleb Pavlovskii, a Kremlin advisor in the 1990s recalls Putin as a “centrist” — like many revolutionaries from above inevitably were given their limited commitment and understanding of democracy and market economics — in 1997 and how Putin effectively shot down his proposal to institute an emergency situation in the wake of the 1998 default. Putin had argued this could be done in only two circumstances: “if the authorities are one with the people or if they terrify the people.” Since, in Putin’s view, neither of these conditions held, he opposed Pavlovskii’s idea of instituting a state of emergency. Putin’s clear, decisive argumentation left Pavlovskii “impressed.”[36] Pavlovskii notes Putin was “a very good manager” and that Yeltsin was enthusiastic about his abilities.[37]  Yeltsin’s PA head Yumashev notes that after a few months of his working in the PA, Putin had proven himself a “very powerful figure” “absolutely precisely formulating everything” and exhibiting “superb analysis and healthy ideas.”[38]

This competence bolstered his reputation and thus his candidacy to be Yeltsin’s successor and added to Putin’s own sense that he possessed leadership qualities. This in turn raised his self-confidence, which in his early public appearances was far from apparent.

Putin’s potential as presidential successor rose when Chechen, Dagestani, and foreign fighters and jihadists led by the notorious Chechen terrorist Shamil Basaev and the Al Qai`da-tied jihadist Ibn al-Khattab, crossed the border between the de facto independent ‘Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya’ (as Chechnya came to be called in the interwar years after the Khasavyurt Peace of 1997) into Dagestan in July 1999.[39] Then PM Sergei Stepashin had promised to resolve the issue in weeks, but no quick resolution came, effectively leading to his resignation and replacement by Putin on 5 August 1999. Putin now further recommended himself by demonstrating strong leadership skills that had been developing gradually during the various political challenges he had faced form Dresden to St. Petersburg and recently during his early years in Moscow.

Russia: Putin Takes Charge, August 1999

Flying to Botlikh, Dagestan two days after his August 9th appointment as acting PM, Putin held a series of meetings with Dagestani civilian and Russian military and security officials. He sent a forceful message regarding the seriousness of the task now before the military and the end of business as usual under the ailing Yeltsin and the factionalized ‘corruptionaires’ (Boris Berezovskii, among others) running the Kremlin under the family. In a field tent, he convened the top military commanders who would run the war on the ground in Chechnya for a dinner. He stood appearing to prepare to give a toast with a shot of vodka in his hand and said: “I would very much like, according to the Russian tradition and the traditions of the sacred land of Dagestan, where we are gathered today, to raise this glass and drink to the memory of those who were killed [some at the table began to rise from their seats with their shot-glasses in hand] Hold on a second. I would very much like to drink to the health of those wounded and to wish happiness to all the people present here. But we have many problems and big tasks ahead of us, as you know full well. You know what the enemy is planning. We know it too, what acts of provocation are expected in the near future, in which districts and so on. We do not have the right to a second of weakness, not a second. Because if we allow it, those who were killed would have been killed for nothing. That is why I suggest we put down these glasses. We shall drink to them, by all means. But we shall drink later, later, when the tasks which are a matter of principle and which you are all aware of have been resolved. That is why I suggest we now have a quick snack and get down to work.”[40]

Weeks later a series of three apartment block buildings exploded killing hundreds in several cities across Russia, and a fourth was either narrowly averted or was a training exercise misinterpreted as an attempted attack. Some have accused Putin of ordering these attacks in order to raise his popularity ratings and authority among the Russian people. As I have written earlier, there was no need to risk killing hundreds of innocent compatriots in order to ‘justify’ the new ‘Chechen war’ already justifiable by the ChRI militants’ invasion of Dagestan. It is more likely that the notorious criminal oligarch Boris Berezovskii organized the attacks, which were perpetrated by FSB rogue operators and/or Chechen mafia or militants, in order to entrap now full PM Putin and thereby control the crown prince. If Putin sought to arrest him and FSB officers for the crime, Berezovskii would claim, as he did years later, that Putin had ordered the FSB to carry it out. Putin could not investigate without acknowledging that the Russian state was in such a dysfunctional, failed state that FSB agents dispatched by a former deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council and close associate of President Yeltsin and his family could act so brazenly and criminally. Putin likely suspected, knew or, or uncovered Berezovskii’s involvement; hence the latter’s eventual banishment abroad.

Neither the war nor the apartment bombings were necessary or even effective for boosting the still relatively unknown Putin’s popularity ratings, as Pavlovskii and sociologist Aleksei Levinson’s search for correlation suggest. Levinson has said that he “didn’t find any correlations between Putin’s ranking and the 1999 bombings. Likewise, the Chechen war didn’t contribute to Putin ascending to power, as indicated by our investigation. In general, such speculations are weak in their nature. They are based on the belief that a terrorist attack can’t help but fuel fears among the population and mobilize people around the president and law enforcement agencies. The support for Putin, who scored over 60 percent in public approval ratings from the very moment he was ‘appointed’ by first Russian President Boris Yeltsin, was based on the hope Russia placed on this alternative. The ‘President of Hopes’ was the name Yuri Levada, the leading sociologist of the time, gave to this phenomenon.”[41] Pavlovskii, who played a key role in the Yeltsin family’s project ‘Successor’ begun in autumn 1996 to find and promote a candidate to replace Yeltsin, says Putin would have won the 2000 election in any case based on his confidence in the plan he delivered to PM Putin in August 1999 outlining a strategy of Putin performing as if “vice president, broadly applying presidential authority” and avoiding “angering grandpa” (Yeltsin).[42] On 31 December 1999, Yeltsin resigned the presidency and thereby making PM Putin Russia’s acting president and requiring a presidential election in no less than three months.

During the presidential campaign, acting president Putin’s mentor, Anatolii Sobchak, was preparing to return to Russia with rumors swirling that he would be appointed to a top position if Putin won the presidential elections scheduled for March. In a 10 February 2000 interview Sobchak characterized Putin as “a person devoid of thirst for power” or “love of power” and a “strong person” with a “complicated character,” who would continue Russia’s democratization. He also described Putin as a person who values and practices loyalty.[43] Ten days later, Sobchak was dead. A version of his death favored in the West and among some Russian liberal and intelligentsia circles is that Putin was behind it.[44]

The Sobchak family – in the persons of his wife Lyudmilla (Narusova) and daughter Kseniya – believes the late mayor was murdered likely by hardliners in the Yeltsin administration. Sobchak died of a heart attack, according to Russian coroners. In the days around the funeral, Sobchak’s daughter Kseniya was eyewitness to Putin, who had served as Sobchak’s deputy mayor from 1991-1996 and at the time was acting president of Russia. By helping Sobchak escape to Paris, Putin had saved him from arrest by hardliners in the Yeltsin administration, who feared Sobchak would succeed him as president, initiated corruption charges and sought to arrest him. At the well-publicized funeral, acting president Putin wept profusely. According to Kseniya in this latest interview, Putin also wept in their apartment and on the air discussing the issue and was extremely “crushed” by her father’s passing. Moreover, Putin was the only person, other than then first deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, who helped Sobchak and his family. She strongly rejected even the possibility that Putin would have ordered her father’s killing.[45]

Journalist and writer, Arkadii Vaksberg, who befriended Sobchak during his self-imposed exile in Paris, agrees. He concludes that the version of Sobchak’s death by heart attack is not viable and that he was more likely murdered perhaps by the use of a poisonous substance that vaporizes with heat and was placed on Sobchak’s light bulb to kill him in his hotel on 20 February 2000. Vaksberg reports that Sobchak regarded Putin to be a “progressive” and that those who supposedly killed Sobchak did so because of his democratic influence over Putin. In February 2010, Vaksberg told Radio Svoboda: “I heard several times from Anatolii Aleksandrovich very kind words about Putin; and you can’t get away from the words of a song – as he said it I reproduce for you. He considered him a progressive, loyal person. And was probably right in his own way, because only thanks to Putin did he manage to be saved from his pursuers and in this there can be no doubt.” By pursuers, Vaksberg is referring to people, perhaps from former President Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle who may have wanted Sobchak out of the way. Vaksberg says of them: “I think he (Sobchak) must have been in the way of those who did not want a good political influence on the country’s new leadership (Putin), and this influence undoubtedly existed because he enjoyed great authority with Putin. And people who, probably, did not want this influence in some way wanted to do this (get rid of Sobchak).” Thus, with the failure of the attempt to arrest Sobchak, which Putin foiled by helping him escape to Paris, Sobchak’s ‘pursuers’ replaced Plan A with Plan B a plot to kill him, according to Vaksberg.[46]

Is it likely that Putin would kill his mentor and close friend, a person he was preparing to appoint perhaps head his administration? In sum, it seems highly unlikely that Putin would have had anything to do with Sobchak’s passing, which all evidence points to having come from natural causes. If Sobchak was murdered than it very likely means something quite different from the conclusion that Putin was and remains a ruthless killer, with mafia ties, and an unquenchable thirst for power, who eliminates his enemies and even close friends. Sobchak’s murder at the hands of Putin’s competitors or those who sought to control him (Berezovskii) would demonstrate that murders of high-ranking officials, including those close to Putin can occur in Russia. This would confirm my view that Putin sits and from the beginning sat atop a tinder box of competing clans based in often overlapping criminal and mostly siloviki groups. Putin was not so much a part of this system as he was forced to cut deals with its elements along the way. Thus, he is not so much the master of these clans, as he is their balancer and container. An assault on any one group could have and perhaps still can mean his own political even physical demise. Putin claims he has been the target of five assassination attempts.[47] The post-Soviet system, riven by such elements, transformed Putin as did his access to power, which always corrupts absolutely, especially over greater lengths of time.

Indeed, Sobchak’s February 2000 demise on the eve of the election and the August 1999 apartment building bombings were the last of three curious events surrounding the Yeltsin succession struggle; the other two being Oblivskaya and the apartment block bombings. Putin’s confidence and authority grew as a result of his successful performance near the apex of power, but that experience had to have made Putin more cynical and ruthless, having come into direct contact with the decay and degradation in and outside the Kremlin ever more intimately. Now, power and the even greater trials and temptations that came with it seemed to change Putin.

The Kremlin: Putin’s First Presidential Years, 1999-2004

Putin had carved out a niche as a centrist, allied with if not tilting towards a moderate ‘liberal’ position in Russian terminology, but what Americans would be more likely to call conservatism. In their chapter ‘The Statist’, Hill and Gaddy conclude but fail to demonstrate that Putin has been static in his political career. Putin was not a static statist. Although he was certainly one until 1990 and became one again in the 2000s, Putin like many Russians in 1990s – the early to mid-1990s at the very least – was disoriented politically and ideologically and moved along with the new if weak and brief consensus that Russian needed democracy and the market. It is an overstatement to claim, as Hill and Gaddy do, that Putin’s ‘millennium message’ of 29 December 1999 is key to understanding Putin’s policies ever since.[48] Putin changed.

This is how Hill and Gaddy describe the essence of Putin’s speech (without offering much in the way of direct quotes from the speech):

“The first key to Vladimir Putin’s personality is his view of himself as a man of the state, his identity as a statist (gosudarstvennik in Russian). Putin sees himself as someone who belongs to a large cohort of people demanding the restoration of the state. Vladimir Putin publicly presented himself as a statist and offered his vision for the restoration of the Russian state in one of his first major political statements and presentations just before he became acting Russian president. This statement sets the scene for Putin’s time as both president and prime minister.”…

“A gosudarstvennik is not a politician driven by a set of distinct beliefs who represents a certain group or constituency and jumps into the fray to run for political office. Instead, the term refers to someone who is selected or self-selects to serve the country on a permanent basis and who believes only in the state itself. Similarly, the state, or gosudarstvo, has a very specific meaning. In Russia, the relationship between the state—Mother Russia, the motherland, Mat’ Rossiya or Rodina—and the individual is different from that in most Western countries. In the United States, the state exists to protect the rights of the individual. The twist in Russia is that while Mother Russia must be protected, she does not necessarily protect her own citizens. In Russia, the state is primary. The state is a stand-alone entity—sometimes rendered in a capitalized form as the ‘State.’ The individual and society are, and must be, subordinate to the state and its interests. This is the essence of gosudarstvennichestvo as Putin conceived of it in the Millennium Message.

Given his KGB background, Putin’s designation of himself as a gosudarstvennik seems rather obvious. The KGB and other agencies focused on the security of the Russian state and the projection of the state’s power abroad, including the interior and defense ministries, are viewed as the central elements in the Russian state apparatus or bureaucracy.”[49]

Of course nowhere in this speech or anywhere as far as I am aware has Putin referred to himself as a gosudarstvennik, let alone defined the term in the sometimes overwrought fashion that Hill and Gaddy do.

In fact, upon taking charge, Putin’s centrist-moderate liberal ideological position – less than convinced, albeit – remained intact. In his ‘millennium message’ article that introduced his political program to the Russian people on the very eve of Yeltsin’s resignation and Putin’s rise to the post of acting president, Putin reiterated his rejection of communism and dictatorship: “For almost three-fourths of the outgoing century Russia lived under the sign of the implementation of the communist doctrine. It would be a mistake not to see and, even more so, to deny the unquestionable achievements of those times. But it would be an even bigger mistake not to realize the outrageous price our country and its people had to pay for that Bolshevist experiment. What is more, [it would be a mistake] not to understand its historic futility. Communism and the power of Soviets did not make Russia a prosperous country with a dynamically developing society and free people. Communism vividly demonstrated its inaptitude for sound self-development, dooming our country to a steady lag behind economically advanced countries. It was a road to a blind alley, which is far away from the mainstream of civilization.”[50]

In his millennium article, Putin outlined a moderate liberal-conservative position informed by a measured statism in the context of post-Soviet Russia’s nearly stateless reality. This would become the policy called ‘sovereign democracy’ of his first term and devolve into stealth authoritarianism in his second:

Russia has used up its limit for political and socio-economic upheavals, cataclysms and radical reforms. Only fanatics or political forces which are absolutely apathetic and indifferent to Russia and its people can make calls for a new revolution. Be it under communist, national-patriotic or radical-liberal slogans, our country, our people will not withstand a new radical break-up. The nation’s tolerance and ability both to survive and to continue creative endeavor has reached the limit: society will simply collapse economically, politically, psychologically and morally.

Responsible socio-political forces ought to offer the nation a strategy of Russia’s revival and prosperity based on all the positive that has been accumulated over the period of market and democratic reforms and to be implemented only by evolutionary, gradual and prudent methods. This strategy should be carried out in a situation of political stability and should not lead to a deterioration of the life of the Russian people, of any of its sections and groups. This indisputable condition stems from the present situation of our country.

The experience of the 90s vividly shows that our country’s genuine renewal without any excessive costs cannot be assured by a mere experimentation in Russian conditions with abstract models and schemes taken from foreign textbooks. The mechanical copying of other nations’ experience will not guarantee success, either.

Every country, Russia included, has to search for its own way of renewal. We have not been very successful in this respect thus far. Only in the past year or the past two years we have started groping for our road and our model of transformation. We can pin hopes for a worthy future only if we prove capable of combining the universal principles of a market economy and democracy with Russian realities.[51]

He added under a heading “the Russian Idea” a philosophical orientation that could unite the country, arguing the traditionalist vein of Russian political culture: “The absence of civil accord and unity is one of the reasons why our reforms are so slow and painful. Most of the strength is spent on political squabbling, instead of the handling of the concrete tasks of Russia’s renewal.” In order to achieve unity he proposed combining the values of “freedom of expression, freedom to travel abroad and other fundamental political rights and human liberties,” private property, and “free enterprise” with “the traditional Russian values” of “patriotism,” aspiring to Great Power status (Derzhavnost’), “statism” (Gosudarstvennost’), and social solidarity.[52]

Like Gorbachev, Putin stated after becoming president in 2000 that among former Russian leaders he preferred the ‘Tsar Liberator’ Alexander II as a model.[53] However, Alexander II never envisaged a liberal state and social order for Russia, and Putin made clear in his 1999 article where there were limits regarding the proper degree of liberalism in Russia given its traditionalist political culture: “It will not happen soon, if it ever happens at all, that Russia will become the second edition of, say, the US or Britain in which liberal values have deep historic traditions. Our state and its institutes and structures have always played an exceptionally important role in the life of the country and its people. For Russians a strong state is not an anomaly against which should be struggled. Quite the contrary, they see it as a source and guarantor of order and the initiator and main driving force of any change… We have come to value the benefits of democracy, a law-based state, and personal and political freedom. At the same time, people are alarmed by the obvious weakening of state power. The public looks forward to the restoration of the guiding and regulating role of the state to a degree which is necessary, proceeding from the traditions and present state of the country.”[54] Part of this previous quote is included in the study by Hill and Gaddy.[55]

In sum we can say that there were several Putins when he came to power. I do not refer to functional Putins of the kind Hill and Gaddy present, excluding the “Statist.” I mean ideological Putins. There was the liberal-conservative Putin who dominated from 1992-2004 approximately, there was Hill’s and Gaddy’s latent gosudarstvennik (statist), who would come out on top in the mid-2000s, and there was and remains the moderate ethnic Russian nationalist and traditionalist supporting ‘civil accord and unity’, a kind of Slavophile sobornost’ so traditional for Russian nativist conservatives suspicious or scornful of Western values of individualism rationalism, and the functionality of pluralism, democracy, and markets. The power and whirlwind Putin encountered inside the Kremlin would mitigate against this hesitant conservative liberalism of the man.

Just as Putin’s confidence, authority, experience and power grew with the acquisition of power, his better qualities inevitably began to recede and the traditionalism in his worldview began to overshadow his weakly imbibed liberalism. Democratically inclined Russians, who knew him during the years that Putin served in the Yeltsin administration, his run for the presidency, and early years in the Kremlin, say Putin has changed significantly from that time. At the time he won the 2000 presidential election Pavlovskii described Putin as “very talkative and convincing.” Putin “introduced a new communicativeness” and “was not afraid of any question.” Putin possessed sufficient charisma that Pavlovskii “fell in love with him.” At the same time, Pavlovskii claims he also saw in Putin a certain “hedonism.” A person who “did not like to work,” thinking “things will take care of themselves,” Putin also introduced into Russian political culture the attribute of “personal indifference” (lichnyi pofagizm).[56] Now Pavlovski notes: “Putin is simply not that person (I knew) anymore—that person died long ago. It is as if in this living person, in this living body that personality is no longer. I do not see one manifestation of that person, vital, dynamic, let us say, sometimes moral, joking, with a sense of humor, intelligent, whom I knew.”[57]

Pavlovskii does not think that Putin feigned his liberal centrism to gain power. Rather, Putin and his team were simply overwhelmed, Pavlovskii argues. They simply “underestimated the strength it would take. He (Putin) was not prepared for the fact that it would be necessary to build a management system so very quickly. … He fell into a most turbulent whirlwind. And there were already conflicting processes underway. It was necessary simultaneously to make very different kinds of decisions, including strategic ones, and build an administrative machine. And he did not know how to do the second at all. It was not his area of expertise. And here it all broke down. As a result, he was surrounded by his own, his best friends, as Ukrainians say, as Yushchenko said. Those favorite friends surrounded him, and then this ring only tightened. Sometimes as a kind of freshening of the air he cleaned someone from there. But, in principle, he lives there, he lives in this spacesuit. But the oxygen is running out. Therefore, irreversible changes are already taking place here with the man. And you know, actually, all this has been described by Shakespeare.”[58]

The atmosphere in Russian-Western relations as Putin was rising to power was hardly conducive to a rapprochement and without that there could be no future for a democratic Putin or a democratic Russia. Opinion polls confirm Pavlovskii’s ‘coup in the minds’ of Russians. In April 1996, a VTsIOM poll found that 55 percent of survey respondents opposed NATO membership for the Baltic states, Ukraine and “other” former Soviet republics now independent states, while 19 percent approved and 26 percent were indifferent.[59] As the Yugloslav crisis deepened, the West began discussing NATO intervention in the war, and NATO prepared to accept the Visegrad three into the alliance at its April 1997 summit, now 61 percent of Russians were opposed, 17 percent were for, and 21 percent were indifferent.[60] One month later, as NATO bombs fell on Yugoslavia, a VTsIOM survey showed 64 percent were now opposed, 19 percent were for, and 17 percent were indifferent.[61] By the time Putin had come to power, a 2001 survey showed a strong majority of Russians, 75 percent of Russians survey respondents were increasingly convinced that NATO was subordinated to the American national interest rather than those of all its members (25 percent).[62] In this atmosphere, not surprisingly, that Yeltsin appointed Primakov as PM.

Yet, as acting president Putin expressed openness to Russia joining NATO in a March 2000 interview with the BBC: “Why not? Why not? I do not rule out such a possibility . . . in the case that Russia’s interests will be reckoned with, if it will be an equal partner.…Russia is a part of European culture, and I do not consider my own country in isolation from Europe and from . . . what we often talk about as the civilized world.” “Therefore, it is with difficulty that I imagine NATO as an enemy.”[63] As president in meetings with outgoing US President Bill Clinton in June 2000, Putin also broached the idea. As Putin recalls it, “half seriously/half as a joke,” he told Clinton: “(P)robably Russia should think about joining NATO.” According to Putin, Clinton responded: “Why not? I think that’s possible.” “But,” Putin adds, “when we saw the reaction of his (Clinton’s) team, we understood that they were somewhat bewildered or even frightened by this idea.”[64]

In broaching Russia’s possible entry into the Atlantic alliance, Putin was going against the grain of Russian public opinion. In a November 2001, VTsIOM poll, respondents were asked to choose among Russian policy options in relation to NATO; 16 percent supported an effort to join the alliance; 36 percent chose trying to improve relations with it; and 16 percent supported formation of an alternative alliance.[65] In November 2011, VTsIOM poll, 4 percent supported an effort to join the alliance; 43 percent chose trying to improve relations with it; 29 percent supported formation of an alternative alliance.[66]

Throughout his tenure as Russian president, NATO (and the EU) continued to expand without Russia, despite these feelers and Russia’s and personally Putin’s strong opposition. In between these feelers and in the month of his first inauguration on 7 May 2000, the nine countries that had been issued MAPs at the 1999 NATO summit along with Croatia founded the ‘Vilnius Group’ to coordinate their accession. Putin’s trial balloons were ignored, and NATO continued to be expanded without Russia and in defiance of her protests and interests. The geopolitical costs would hasten the unipolar hegemony of the West in the decades to come and ensure that a powerful Sino-Russian coalition against Western influence and power consolidated—a development the result in significant part of Putin’s decisions.

Putin attempted to reach out to Washington in order to gain a halt or postponement of NATO expansion or an opening to possible Russian membership. Putin thought he had found an opening on the ninth day of his ninth month since becoming acting president. Russian intelligence had gotten wind of a terrorist campaign planned from Afghanistan — “something long in the preparation.”[67] Putin telephoned U. S. President George Bush to warn him. Two days later, on September 11th, he made another call to the American president, being the first foreign leader to extend condolences to a shocked nation after Al Qaida’s attacks on New York and Washington. He expressed Russia’s readiness to cooperate with Washington in the war against jihadism. Clearly, Putin was looking for a way to court the United States on the background of the deterioration of the security situation in Europe and Russian-Western relations resulting from Western expansion east and the rise of jihadi terrorism now hitting both Russia and the U.S.

The next month, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in what became the first so-called ‘color revolution.’ DOS was led and largely created by the pro-democracy ‘Otpor’ organization. The latter received substantial financial and practical assistance from American democracy-promotion programs run by the U.S. government’s Agency for International Development (USAID) and ‘private’ institutions funded by USAID and other U.S. government agencies such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the U.S. Democratic Party’s National Democratic Institute (NDI), and the U.S. Republican Party’s International Republican Institute (IRI).[68] American officials made no secret of helping democratic forces to overthrow Milosevic.[69] Little more than a year afterwards, the three Baltic states, Bulgaria, Rumania, Slovakia and Slovenia were invited into NATO at its 2002 Prague summit. They would accede to the alliance on the eve of Putin’s second term at the March 2004 Istanbul summit. Russia was particularly upset by the planned, then actual accession of the Baltic states. Not only was NATO arriving at Russia’s very border in the Baltic, but the Baltics’ antagonism towards Russia would increase anti-Russian sentiment within the bloc. Baltic domestic policies often discriminated against ethnic Russians. Lithuania’s accession was particularly troublesome; NATO territory now cut off Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast’ (formerly Konigsberg and ceded to the USSR after World War II) from the ‘mainland.’ The U.S. announced its unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002 as well, planning a series of anti-missile installations in Alaska, Poland, and Rumania, curiously encircling Russia.

The Baltic states’ accession to NATO was followed months later by the first color revolutions within the former USSR. In November 2003, the ‘Rose’ revolution in Georgia brought nationalist and anti-Russian Mikheil Saakashvili to power. In November 2004 – January 2005, the ‘Orange’ revolution in Ukraine brought another nationalist and anti-Russian politician to power, Viktor Yushchenko, who championed a rewriting of Ukrainian to history that transformed the fascist Ukrainian organizations in World War II into fighters for freedom from ‘Russian’ imperialism rather then Soviet communism. The same Western government assistance that helped bring Serbia’s color revolution had backed revolutionary forces in Georgia and Ukraine.[70]

Most “disappointing,” in Putin’s words, was the CIA’s apparent active support for the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya militants, who had partnered with Al Qa`ida through its associate Khattab. In interviews, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that in the early 2000s Russian intelligence intercepted calls between U.S. intelligence operatives in Azerbaijan and the Chechen separatists of the so-called Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya (ChRI), against whom Moscow fought two wars, proving that Washington was aiding the insurgents. He gave no specific details on the times or the nature of the assistance, except to say that the intercepts occurred in the early 2000s and that US intelligence was helping the insurgents with “technical support” and transportation of fighters.[71] “(W)hen we demonstrated that Al Qaeda fighters were fighting in the Caucasus, we still saw the intelligence services of the United States continue to support these fighters,” Putin complained.[72] Putin’s frustration if not anger over such American actions could only have intensified in the wake of successful jihadi-style mass terrorism attacks in the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow in 23 October 2002 and the Beslan school massacre of 1 September 2004. Putin said he appealed to then-U.S. President George W. Bush and apparently not for the first time in 2004 or 2005 on the issue. Bush promised to “kick the ass” of the intelligence officers involved. In the end, however, Putin said the FSB received a letter from their “American counterparts,” the CIA, that claimed their right to “support all opposition forces in Russia,” including the Islamic separatists in the Caucasus.[73]

As I have demonstrated elsewhere, the indications are strong for concluding that US intelligence supported, albeit probably on the margins, the ChRI and even its successor organization, the Caucasus Emirate, given the open political backing displayed by organizations close to the US government and intelligence community.[74] Former President Bush has not denied Putin’s claim that he asked Bush to address the problem or that during his administration, the CIA was actively supporting the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya militants.[75] Putin seemed to indicate said in a 2017 interview that the CIA’s support for the ChRI was main spoiler in US-Russian relations rather than Bush’s 2002 withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, the war in Iraq, or even, presumably, NATO expansion.[76] In sum, the West helped make Putin.

It is no accident that a line can be drawn between ‘early Putin’ (more accurately, its second, post-Soviet phase, the first phase of ‘early Putin’ ending with the August coup or the Soviet collapse) and ‘mature Putin’ just after this period. Sometime in 2003, likely summer, when Putin tends to think and plan for the next political season beginning at summer’s end, Putin appears to have decided to begin what for lack of another term might be called his ‘turn to traditionalism.’ Specifically, Putin began to hedge his tentative bets on democratization and Westernization having gotten suspicious of Western intentions vis-à-vis Russia and his own presidency. He also began to search for ideological orientations or at least geopolitical and domestic strategic goals as alternatives to liberal democracy and the market and Russia’s quest to return to Europe that might be needed should the trends he experienced in the late 1990s and early 2000s continue. A new approach for Russia might necessitate more authoritarian methods of strengthening Russia’s weak state and a pivot to a less Euro-centric foreign relations model.

In autumn 2003, we see the arrest of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovskii and the nationalization of Yukos, rebranded into RosNeft. The attack on Khodorkovskii was motivated by his growing political influence and ambitions and deepening political and commercial ties with the West. Khodorkovskii’s position struck the traditionalist security nerve or norm in Russian political culture which throughout most of Russian history over the last certainly three centuries has been a dominant cultural strand. Russia’s security culture in particular consists of a vigilance norm against Western military threats, domestic dissent and opposition driven by Western ideas, and collusion between domestic opposition elements and Western states. The most recent episode – 1988-1999 – of this security norm’s decline into ‘recessiveness’ in Russian political culture was now coming to an end as a result of NATO expansion, Yugoslavia, hypocritical anti-jihadism, and the ABM withdrawal. Thus, in autumn 2003 we also see an attempt to manipulate the democratic electoral process, beginning with the December 2003 elections to the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly and continuing through the federal election cycle in 2004 using mostly legal methods and veneer. I called this careful introduction of authoritarian elements into Russian government’s electoral, media, economic policies ‘stealth authoritarianism.’[77] Also at this time, Putin began to put an end to Yeltsin’s hyper-federative system of ‘unofficial asymmetrical’ federalism in a re-centralization process that he later would take too far.[78]

In foreign policy, Putin began to turn towards Eurasia and China, pursuing economic integration in Eurasia – economic Eurasianism (distinct from the radical philosophical ideology that began to gain some influence at the time) – and a political and strategic partnership with Beijing.[79] This new geopolitical strategy is evident in Putin’s efforts to develop the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and even BRICS. These were the first steps on the road to the present soft authoritarian ‘sistema’ and sovereign (non-Western) foreign policy that Putin would spend the next decade and a half building.


When the time the Soviet regime fell in August 1991, Putin had decided the Soviet ideology and system were not viable if not morally unjustifiable. This is a separate issue from the Soviet state and its territorial integrity, which he and many reasonable people could accept remaining unchanged as long as a new, democratic regime gained authority over the country. Thus, when he arrived in the Kremlin to take up an office in the presidential administration and rose to the presidency, he was a typical post-Soviet Russian, who realized that the Soviet system did not work and some form of democratization and market economy were needed. In terms of the elite, he was a typical revolutionary from above, who jumped the sinking Soviet ship of state and found a lifeboat in the Mariinskii Palace in St. Petersburg as deputy mayor to an even more revolutionary from above. However, given his Soviet and KGB background, like almost all other Soviet bureaucrats (and citizens, including the most pro-democratic of them), Putin had a fuzzy understanding of, and therefore commitment to democracy.

Clearly, Putin’s experience in power has led him away from the tentative pro-democratic stance he had begun to accept in the 1990s. Once he gained ultimate power in the presidency, whether by necessity to protect himself or because of some other ‘practical’ conclusion, he very gradually moved away from democratic ideals. The Kremlin could not but change Putin. The great poetess Anna Akhmatova was perhaps right, figuratively speaking: “Do not live in the Kremlin – the Transformer (Peter the Great) was right/Microbes of ancient bestiality there are still teeming” (“Stansy”, 1940). The ornate surroundings alone grow a person in his/her own eyes. An example of the kind of change in thinking caused by power and such accoutrements is one’s concern and ambition for one’s ‘historical legacy’—how he or she will be viewed in the history books. This evidence of the inflation, the semi-deification of one’s role, the value of one’s life on Earth. In September 2008 Putin displayed concern for his historical legacy. In 2014 he demonstrated already ambition. In 2008 asked pro-democracy Ekho Moskvy Radio’s Director Aleksei Venediktov the question of how he will be viewed in history books. Venediktov, admitting he was a little drunk, coyly gave no direct answer. Six years leader, after the annexation of the Crimea, they passed in a hallway, and Putin asked quickly: “What will the textbooks say now.”[80] Putin had evolved from someone on the verge of becoming a taxi driver to an official who could still never dream of becoming president to a president obsessed with his fame and image in history.

At the same time, neither Putin’s ego nor the corrupting nature of power wholly explains Putin’s choice in favor of Russian traditionalism and soft authoritarianism. The domestic situation – runaway oligarchs and regional governments – prompted a strengthening of the state. The life and death struggle for power in 1990s Russia also prompted Putin to err on the side of control and a ‘strong state.’ Western policies and statements compounded matters. They played no small role in Putin’s disenchantment with Western democracy, as they did in the disenchantment of many other Russians. This process both for Putin and for Russia as a whole was a multi-year, and for some even a two decade-long process. His KGB background, the realities and challenges of transforming the Russia Yeltsin bequeathed to him, and hubristic Western policies (NATO expansion, color revolutions, support for anti-Russian nationalists in Georgia and Ukraine, and support for jihadists in the North Caucasus, Libya and Syria) have jaded an lukewarm revolutionary from above, reviving some Soviet KGB values rendered recessive by the Soviet collapse and opening a path to pre-Soviet traditional Russian values. The vicissitudes Putin traversed in his return to traditional Russian values is one many of Russians experienced over the last three decades. In this sense, Putin has followed perhaps as much as he has led from his perch inside the Kremlin’s walls.


[1] Kenneth Dekleva, “The Many Faces of Vladimir Putin: A Political Psychology Profile,” The Cipher Brief, January 22, 2017, www.thecipherbrief.com/column/agenda-setter/the-many-faces-of-vladimir-putin-a-political-psychology-profile.

[2] See the 4:56 and 5:40 marks in the 2018 documentary film ‘Delo Sobchaka’, https://yandex.ru/video/preview/?filmId=13837034493090773447&text=%D0%B4%D0%B5%D0%BB%D0%BE%20%D1%81%D0%BE%D0%B1%D1%87%D0%B0%D0%BA%D0%B0%20%D1%81%D0%BC%D0%BE%D1%82%D1%80%D0%B5%D1%82%D1%8C%20%D0%BE%D0%BD%D0%BB%D0%B0%D0%B9%D0%BD&noreask=1&path=wizard&parent-reqid=1580767672966489-585595106262015606500114-vla1-2723&redircnt=1580767720.1 or  https://yandex.ru/images/search?pos=7&from=tabbar&img_url=https%3A%2F%2Fupload.wikimedia.org%2Fwikipedia%2Fcommons%2F7%2F7c%2FVladimir_Putin_24_February_2000-2.jpg&text=%D0%BF%D0%BE%D1%85%D0%BE%D1%80%D0%BE%D0%BD%D1%8B+%D1%81%D0%BE%D0%B1%D1%87%D0%B0%D0%BA%D0%B0+%D0%B2%D0%B8%D0%B4%D0%B5%D0%BE&rpt=simage.

[3] John Evans, “The Key to Understanding Vladimir Putin,” The National Interest, 21 September 2019, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/key-understanding-vladimir-putin-82391.

[4] www.nytimes.com/2003/10/19/international/europe/a-complete-conformist.html?searchResultPosition=2.

[5] N. Gevorkyan, N. Timakova, A. Kolesnikov, Ot pervogo litsa: Razgovory s Vladimirom Putinym (Moscow: Vagrius, 2000), www.lib.ru/MEMUARY/PUTIN/razgowor.txt.

[6] By ‘revolution from above,’ I mean the illegal seizure of power by one group of state officials using one or more state bodies in order to institute the new political and social order. For more on my model of revolution from above and its role in the collapse of the Soviet state and its communist regime, see Gordon M. Hahn, Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime (Transaction, 2002 and Routledge 2018).

[7] See, for example, https://topspb.tv/programs/stories/480435/ and the documentary film ‘Sobytie,’ https://yandex.ru/video/preview/?filmId=12714080265208821719&text=%D1%84%D0%B8%D0%BB%D1%8C%D0%BC%20%C2%AB%D0%A1%D0%BE%D0%B1%D1%8B%D1%82%D0%B8%D0%B5%C2%BB%20%D0%A1%D0%B5%D1%80%D0%B3%D0%B5%D1%8F%20%D0%9B%D0%BE%D0%B7%D0%BD%D0%B8%D1%86%D1%8B&noreask=1&path=wizard&parent-reqid=1580603080775213-355990655463223518400169-vla1-0385&redircnt=1580603159.1.


[9] Richard Sakwa, Putin: Russia’s Choice (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2007), pp. 10-11.

[10] www.kommersant.ru/doc/3636152?tw.

[11] http://www.rbc.ru/politics/22/05/2018/5afd61619a79475ef7d65892?from=main and https://yandex.ru/video/preview/?filmId=13837034493090773447&text=%D0%B4%D0%B5%D0%BB%D0%BE%20%D1%81%D0%BE%D0%B1%D1%87%D0%B0%D0%BA%D0%B0%20%D1%81%D0%BC%D0%BE%D1%82%D1%80%D0%B5%D1%82%D1%8C%20%D0%BE%D0%BD%D0%BB%D0%B0%D0%B9%D0%BD&noreask=1&path=wizard&parent-reqid=1580767672966489-585595106262015606500114-vla1-2723&redircnt=1580767720.1.

[12] http://sobchak.org/site/medvedev.html.

[13] In 2002, he stated to the same interviewer that his views had not changed and he was ready to repeat what he had said “word for word.” See excerpts from both interviews at “EXCLUSIVE: Young Putin denounces communism and Lenin in 1991,” You Tube, 2016, https://video.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?hsimp=yhs-att_001&hspart=att&p=Putin+on+Lenin#id=6&vid=ceb78447964994fe4ecd979eb450edb9&action=view, last accessed 11 October 2019.

[14] “Vstrecha s uchastnikami foruma ‘Seliger-2012’,” Kremlin.ru, July 2012, http://kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/16106, last accessed 11 October 2019.

[15] “Otvety na voprosy chlenov Soveta Federatsii,” Kremlin.ru, 27 June 2012, http://kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/15781#sel=39:1:yBw,49:3:XfF, last accessed on 10 October 2019.

[16] “Poseshanie Yevreiskogo muzeya i Tsentr tolerantnosti,” Kremlin.ru, 13 June 2013, www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/18336, last accessed on 10 October 2019. In January 2016 Putin ridiculed Lenin’s aspirations for “world revolution” and having “planted an atomic bomb under the building called Russia,” that “later blew up,” by creating national-territorial autonomies in the USSR. “Zasedanie Soveta nauki i obrazovaniya,” Kremlin.ru, 21 January 2016, www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/51190, last accessed on 11 October 2019.

[17] The Putin Interviews: Oliver Stone Interviews Vladimir Putin (New York: Hot Books, 2017), pp. 13-14.

[18] Gordon M. Hahn, “ Putin’s First ‘Killing’,” Russia and Eurasia Studies – Gordonhahn.com, 2 May 2018, https://gordonhahn.com/2018/05/02/putins-first-killing/.

[19] See, for example, in English, www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2012-04-19/putin-and-the-100-million-deal-that-disappeared.

[20] Evans, “The Key to Understanding Vladimir Putin.”

[21] Evans, “The Key to Understanding Vladimir Putin.”

[22] Evans, “The Key to Understanding Vladimir Putin.”

[23] https://echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/2387867-echo/ and https://echo.msk.ru/sounds/2387867.html.

[24] Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (Washington, D.C, Brookings Institute, 2013), p. 15.

[25] http://sobchak.org/site/111.html.

[26] www.mk.ru/politics/2017/11/23/proekt-putin-glazami-ego-razrabotchika-v-vozdukhe-zapakhlo-pogonami.html.

[27] https://tvrain.ru/teleshow/dw_na_dozhde/nemtsova-499644/?utm_source=yxnews&utm_medium=desktop&utm_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fyandex.ru%2Fnews and www.rbc.ru/politics/18/12/2019/5dfa654e9a794739cbc4b0e9.

[28] The Putin Interviews: Oliver Stone Interviews Vladimir Putin, p. 199.


[30] Valerii Panyushkin and Mikhail Zygar’, Gazprom: novoe russkoe oruzhie (Moscow: Zakharov, 2008), pp. 71-2.

[31] The Putin Interviews: Oliver Stone Interviews Vladimir Putin, p. 220.

[32] www.mk.ru/politics/2017/11/23/proekt-putin-glazami-ego-razrabotchika-v-vozdukhe-zapakhlo-pogonami.html.

[33] www.mk.ru/politics/2017/11/23/proekt-putin-glazami-ego-razrabotchika-v-vozdukhe-zapakhlo-pogonami.html.

[34] Pugachev also claims that Chubais did not Putin working in the PA. Interview with Sergei Pugachev at “Byvshii drug Putina vpervyie rasskazal, kak to stal prezidentom. Interv’yu Sobchak, Part 1” Program ‘Sobchak’, TV ‘Dozhd’, 25 June 2015, http://tvrain.ru/teleshow/sobchak_zhivem/intervju_sobchak_s_pugachevym-389601/.

[35] See Documentary Film ‘President,’ Rossiya 1 TV, 26 April 2015, http://russia.tv/video/show/brand_id/59329/episode_id/1193264/video_id/1165983/viewtype/picture and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyNcbVuDJyA&feature=share (from here forward cited as Rossiya 1 TV Documentary ‘President’).

[36] www.mk.ru/politics/2017/11/23/proekt-putin-glazami-ego-razrabotchika-v-vozdukhe-zapakhlo-pogonami.html.

[37] https://echo.msk.ru/sounds/2548011.html.

[38] https://tvrain.ru/teleshow/dw_na_dozhde/nemtsova-499644/?utm_source=yxnews&utm_medium=desktop&utm_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fyandex.ru%2Fnews and www.rbc.ru/politics/18/12/2019/5dfa654e9a794739cbc4b0e9.

[39] On the rise and development of jihadism in Russia, see Gordon M. Hahn, Russia’s Islamic Threat (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007) and Gordon M. Hahn, The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2014).

[40] www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVaQtWFXjHc.

[41] www.russia-direct.org/archive/russia-direct-report-terrorism-inside-russias-syria-campaign-and-global-fight-against.

[42] www.mk.ru/politics/2017/11/23/proekt-putin-glazami-ego-razrabotchika-v-vozdukhe-zapakhlo-pogonami.html.

[43] https://echo.msk.ru/blog/v_soloviev/657101-echo/.

[44] Masha Gessen, The Man Without a Face : The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (Riverhead Books, 2013), pp. 142-4.

[45] https://echo.msk.ru/sounds/2159498.html.

[46] www.svoboda.org/a/1963503.html.

[47] The Putin Interviews: Oliver Stone Interviews Vladimir Putin, p. 21.

[48] Hill and Gaddy, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, p. 15.

[49] Hill and Gaddy, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, pp. 35-7.

[50] Vladimir Putin, “Rossiya na rubezhe tysyacheletii,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, 30 December 1999, www.ng.ru/politics/1999-12-30/4_millenium.html.

[51] Putin, “Rossiya na rubezhe tysyacheletii.”

[52] Putin, “Rossiya na rubezhe tysyacheletii.”

[53] James H. Billington, Rossiya v poiskakh sebya, (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2005), p. 164, translated from the English James H. Billington, Russia in Search of Itself (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2004).

[54] Putin, “Rossiya na rubezhe tysyacheletii.”

[55] Hill and Gaddy, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, p. 36.

[56] Interview with Pavlovskii, “Peredacha vlasti preemniku nevozmozhna,” Republic.ru, 10 April 2019,

https://republic.ru/posts/93481?utm_source=republic.ru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=morning). Others indicate Putin works quite hard, see https://echo.msk.ru/blog/pressa_echo/2485335-echo/.

[57] https://echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/2480853-echo/; see also the interview with Pavlovskii, “Peredacha vlasti preemniku nevozmozhna,” Republic.ru, 10 April 2019,

[58] https://echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/2480853-echo/.

[59] “Kak by vy otneslis’ k vstupleniyu v NATO byvshikh respublik SSSR – stran Baltii, Ukrainy i drugikh,” VTsIOM, 15 April 1996, http://wciom.ru/zh/print_q.php?s_id=453&q_id=35325&date=15.04.1996.

[60] “Kak by vy otneslis’ k vstupleniyu v NATO byvshikh respublik SSSR – stran Baltii, Ukrainy i drugikh,” VTsIOM, 10 February 1997, http://wciom.ru/zh/print_q.php?s_id=437&q_id=35005&date=10.02.1997).

[61] “Kak by vy otneslis’ k vstupleniyu v NATO byvshikh respublik SSSR – stran Baltii, Ukrainy i drugikh,” VTsIOM, 20 March 1997, http://wciom.ru/zh/print_q.php?s_id=440&q_id=35061&date=20.03.1997.

[62] “50. Odni schitayut, chto NATO vedet samstoyatel’nuyu politiku v interesakh vsekh stran al’yansa; drugie – chto ono yavlyaetsya v osnovnom provodnikom interesov SShA. Kakaya iz etikh dvukh tochek zreniya kazhetsya vam bolee vernoi?,” VTsIOM, 15 March 2001,  http://wciom.ru/zh/print_q.php?s_id=321&q_id=25835&date=15.03.2001.

[63] www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2000/03/06/putin-says-why-not-to-russia-joining-nato/c1973032-c10f-4bff-9174-8cae673790cd/; .

[64] The Putin Interviews: Oliver Stone Interviews Vladimir Putin, p. 40.

[65] In the 2001 survey the fourth option of a policy of neutrality, which 32 percent chose. “46. Chto iz perechislennogo, po vashemu mneniyu, bol’she otvechaet interesam Rossii: Vstuplenie Rossii v NATO,” VTsIOM, 15 November 2001, http://wciom.ru/zh/print_q.php?s_id=328&q_id=26453&date=15.11.2001.

[66] In the 2011 version, the fourth option was “too difficult too answer,” which 23 percent chose. Rossiya i NATO: Realnost’ i perspektivy vzaimodeistviya (Moscow: VTsIOM, 2011), http://wciom.ru/fileadmin/file/reports_conferences/2011/2011-11-11-nato.pdf, p. 12.

[67] George Beebe, The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War with Russia Could Spiral Into Nuclear War – Nuclear Catastrophe and How to Stop It (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019), p. 33.

[68] Roger Cohen, “Just Who Brought Down Milosevic?,” New York Times Magazine, 26 November 2000, http://www.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/20001126mag-serbia.html.

[69] For example, the prospects for acheiving, and $100 million devoted to this goal were discussed openly by Clinton administration officials and U.S. senators, including Senator Joseph Biden, at a 29 July 1999 U.S. Senate hearing. “Prospects for Democracy in Yugoslavia,” Hearing of the European Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, United States Senate, 29 July 1999, http://emperors-clothes.com/analysis/hearin.htm, last accessed on 30 September 2015.

[70] See Gordon M. Hahn, Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the Making of the ‘New Cold War’ (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2018).

[71] https://news.yahoo.com/putin-accuses-us-supporting-separatists-russia-121101345.html and The Putin Interviews: Oliver Stone Interviews Vladimir Putin, pp. 33-4).

[72] The Putin Interviews: Oliver Stone Interviews Vladimir Putin, pp. 33-34 and 51.

[73] The Putin Interviews: Oliver Stone Interviews Vladimir Putin, pp 33-4 and https://news.yahoo.com/putin-accuses-us-supporting-separatists-russia-121101345.html.

[74] Gordon M. Hahn, “Caucasus Jihadism Through Western Eyes: The Failure of American Rusology to Understand the North Caucasus Mujahedin,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 18 February 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/02/18/caucasus-jihadism-through-western-eyes-the-failure-of-american-rusology-to-understand-the-north-caucasus-mujahedin/).

[75] Gordon M. Hahn, “Putin: US Intel Assisted Chechnya’s ChRI in the Early 2000s,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 6 May 2015, http://gordonhahn.com/2015/05/06/putin-u-s-intell-assisted-chechnyas-chri-in-the-early-2000s/.

[76] The Putin Interviews: Oliver Stone Interviews Vladimir Putin, p. 51.

[77] On stealth authoritarianism, see Gordon M. Hahn, “Stealth Authoritarianism: Setting the Stage for the Federal Election Cycle in St. Petersburg,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Moscow Center, 2003 Duma Elections – St. Petersburg, 5 November 2003, http://www.carnegie.ru/en/pubs/media/68588.html; Gordon M. Hahn, “Managed Democracy?: The Establishment of Stealth Authoritarianism in St. Petersburg,” Demokratizatsiya, 12, 2 (Spring 2004): 185-232, http://www.demokratizatsiya.org/bin/pdf/DEM%2012-2%20Hahn.pdf; Gordon M. Hahn, “Putin’s ‘Stealth Authoritarianism’ and Russia’s Second Revolutionary Wave,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Regional Analysis, Vol. 4, Nos. 14-16, 16, 23, and 28 April 2004,www.rferl.org/content/article/1344300.html; and Gordon M. Hahn, “Putin’s ‘Stealth Authoritarianism,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Russian Political Weekly, 21 April 2004, http://www.regionalanalysis.org/publications/regionalvoices/en/2004/04/616B350A-D9CD-49F5-9416ECAD7F5F1EAE.ASP.

[78] Gordon M. Hahn, “The Impact of Putin’s Federative Reforms on Democratization in Russia,” Post-Soviet Affairs, Vol. 19, No. 2 (April-June 2003), pp. 114-53; Gordon M. Hahn, “The Past, Present, and Future of the Russian Federal State,” Demokratizatsiya, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Summer 2003), pp. 343-62; and Gordon M. Hahn, “Putin’s Federal Reforms: Integrating Russia’s Legal Space or Destabilizing Russian Federalism,” Demokratizatsiya, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Fall 2001), pp. 498-530.

[79] Gordon M. Hahn, “The Rebirth of Eurasianism,” The Russia Journal, 12-18 July 2002.

[80] https://echo.msk.ru/blog/pressa_echo/2485335-echo/.


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Aspiration, Trepidation, and the West in the Making of Russia’s Security Culture (McFarland, 2021). Previously, he has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.


  1. The difference is marked in some regard; where the West is unforgiving of any mistakes made along the learning curve, no matter its role in creating a wiser man. I suppose this is the Puritan value that drives the Western corruption into deep concealment and mistakes are not able to become learning tools. It was Vladimir Posner from whom I’d first heard the expression “How the USA [West] made Putin.” I don’t easily accept events ‘corrupted’ Putin away from a democratic path as much as Putin took it upon himself to implement a Russian version of a somewhat utilitarian ‘what works versus what doesn’t work’ philosophy. What he had to sort was the duplicity & shallowness of the recent decades’ Western politicians, essentially owned by their own class of oligarchs in a system where bribery of politicians has become institutionally legalized (SCOTUS ‘Citizens United’) The nature of the USA’s political system is become such there is no one to do a deal with today that you can depend on being upheld tomorrow. It surely must also be entertained (by the Russians) that in a circumstance where the oligarchs own the state’s politicians as opposed to a state keeping the oligarchs on a leash, should leave little room for a future national good. Small wonder a turn to the conservatism of the Russian past were in the cards, one in Russian shoes might take such a decision as a conscious & rational move in the direction of competence (and be proven right over time.)

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