From spy to president: The rise of Vladimir Putin


Vladimir Putin has been ruling Russia since 1999. In that time he’s shaped the country into an authoritarian and militaristic society. He successfully invaded two of Russia’s neighbors and strengthened ties with Syria and Iran. He’s intent on pushing back against the Western world order… and it appears to be working. [Vladimir Putin, 17 years in power. The most powerful man in the world] To understand how one man could have such a powerful influence on his country, you need to go back to the chaos and corruption that gripped Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. When the Berlin walll fell, a 40 year old Putin was working as an undercover spy in East Germany for the Soviet security agency the KGB. The Soviet Union dissolved into 15 new countries, including the new Russian Federation. In Putin’s eyes Russia had just lost two million square miles of territory. He later called this a major geopolitical disaster of the century. Lamenting that tens of millions of his co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. The new government had to sell off nearly 45,000 public businesses like energy, mining, and communication companies that had been run by the communist regime. And it was chaos. The Russian economy was in a freefall and all these companies ended up in the hands of a few extremely wealthy men, known today as Russia’s oligarchs. At the same time the new Russian state was having a hard time establishing itself. Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin was wildly unpopular for cooperating with the west. And to make matters worse he was an alcoholic and many Russians thought he was an embarrassment. In order to stay in power, he leaned on the support of these oligarchs, surrendering an immense amount of political power to them. This graph shows how inequality actually worsened after the fall of the Soviet Union. This is where Vladimir Putin enters politics. He leaves the KGB in 1991 and becomes the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. Putin uses his position to give special treatment to friends and allies in the private sector. He helps them structure monopolies and regulates their competitors, quickly becoming a favorite among the oligarchs. Before long he’s assembled a support network of oligarchs, crime bosses, and security officials, mostly fellow former KGB officers like he was. With their help he rapidly ascends to the upper echelon of the new Russian state. In 1999, president Boris Yeltsin appoints Putin, still relatively unknown in national politics, to be the prime minister. A fierce nationalist, Putin feared Yeltsin was letting the US dominate Russia and that NATO, the alliance that worked for decades to contain Soviet influence, would expand into the new liberated countries and surround Russia. Putin’s goal then became to build a strong Russian state, one that would be both stable at home and capable of exercising more influence over its neighbors. And he quickly got his chance… During the post-Soviet chaos there was escalating violence in Chechnya, a region thatinformally seceded from Russia in the mid-90s. Chechen war lords and terrorists were pushing into Russian territory and attacking the border. In August 1999, a series of deadly bombings killed more than 300 people in several Russian cities, including Moscow. Putin, the new prime minister, immediately blames Chechen separatists for the attack. He regularly appears in Russian television claiming he will avenge Russia. The population quickly rallies around him. Putin’s approval ratings jump from 2% before the bombing to forty-five percent after the bombings. Journalists later uncovered evidence that suggests Russian security services could have been complicit in the Moscow bombings, perhaps knowing they would spark support for a strong man like Putin. But a closed state investigation quickly quashed any dissenting theories. So Russia launches a popular and devastating war in Chechnya. The capital city of Grozny was leveled by Russian bombing and some estimated close to 80 thousand people died. And in less than a year russia successfully brings Chechnya back under its control. In December 1999 Yeltsin resigns making Putin the interim president. In May, during the bloody campaign in Chechnya, Putin wins the presidential election. He begins to shape the Russian state to his vision. Patronage and corruption remain some of his key tools, but he quickly suppresses the oligarchs under his rule. Those that support Putin are rewarded, those that don’t are eliminated. “Well once Russia’s richest man, imprisoned Kremlin critic and former oil magnate, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sentenced to 14 years in jail. This on a new conviction of embezzling oil. This is effectively a vendetta from Vladimir Putin. for getting involved in opposition of politics.” With the oligarchy tamed, Putin was now free to move his vision outside of Russia’s borders. At the time relations with the US are fairly good. Putin even vacationed at George W. Bush’s summer home. “I looked a man in the eye I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy”. But things were about to change… In August 2008, Russia invades Georgia, a former Soviet republic. It’s a display of aggression and strength on behalf of pro-Russian separatists there. Russia quickly annexes two small parts of Georgia, drawing condemnation from all over the world. Interestingly though Putin was not president during the invasion. See, the Russian Constitution says the president can only serve two consecutive terms, but sets no limit on the total number of terms one can serve. So Putin took the Prime Minister role again when his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev served as president. When Obama is elected US president in 2008, he attempts to reset relations with Russia. And they make some progress. Most notably to limit both country’s nuclear arsenals. But Putin remains paranoid about US intentions and remains opposed to these new relations. He’s particularly bothered by US interventions in the Middle East, especially in Libya in 2011. He publicly criticized Medvedev for not vetoing the action in the UN Security Council. Putin announces his candidacy for president and wins the 2012 election by a preposterous margin. “Injustice says Dmitry this outrage can’t continue. I’m here to say no to Putin”. Putin starts his third term once again amid chaos. He doubles down on his authoritarian governance style at home and his militaristic strategy abroad. But in both cases, he showcases a mastery of information. He first took office in 2000, Putin has kept tight leash on Russian television. Essentially all news outlets are state-owned propaganda machines. His regime decides which stories air and how, always depicting him as the strong Russian leader. In 2012, he cracked down on human rights and civil liberties, making clear there was no room for dissent in his Russia. Using state television for example he administered a blistering campaign against a feminist and gay rights music group Pussy Riot. “The latest of the loudest of such performance for the so-called punk prayer the Christ the Savior cathedral where they were yelling things which were rather profane to be yelled in Church. Of course, three members of the punk group Pussy Riot were convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. Putin also bolstered his aggressive foreign strategy. He used traditional military methods like sending weapons and fighter planes to help dictator Bashar al-Assad fight a bloody civil war in Syria. But Putin’s regime has also developed and fostered the most effective cyber army in the world and he’s used it to wreak havoc in the West. These hackers have stolen classified US information hacked politicians email accounts, even shut down Georgia’s internet while Russian troops invaded. And of course, they tried to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. Russian hackers have also launched propaganda campaigns in support of right-wing candidates in Europe. With this, Putin hopes to exploit and deepen the political divide in Western democracies. In 2014, the Putin vision culminated in the targeting of Ukraine; another former Soviet country. Ukraine’s president was opening up to the west and Putin feared he would join NATO. So Russian hackers launched a propaganda campaign against him stoking protests in the pro-Russia eastern part of the country. He then sent in disguised Russian troops and before long violence erupted. In goes the Russian military and in early 2014, Putin annexed Crimea. He continues to support the fighting in Ukraine and as of 2017 over 9,000 people have died. The world erupts in protest but Putin doesn’t give in. See his aggressive foreign policy successfully weakens his neighbors while also rallying Russians around him. But he has done all this at the expense of his own people. His invasions have prompted harsh sanctions from the west, barring Russian businesses from trading in Western markets. Russian currency has plummeted in value and the energy industry that Russia relies on is collapsing. It’s hard to imagine Russia can continue under these circumstances. But the election of Donald Trump brings new hope for the Putin vision. Trump’s rhetoric has been notably soft on Russia. He could lift sanctions and weaken NATO, potentially freeing up space for Putin’s Russia to become a dominant power once again.

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