Vladimir the Inevitable? Understanding the rise of Putin

At each stage of his rise to power, Vladimir Putin demonstrated an understanding of both the Russian psyche and the tactical conditions of the post-Soviet world.

Editor’s note: The following article is the first of a special CWR series on post-Soviet Russia, the rise of Vladimir Putin, the role of religion in Putin’s political project, the rise of right-wing extremism under Putin, and the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

It has been 16 years since Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin rose to the top of political power in post-Soviet Russia. Now, a reawakened, even revanchist Russia has asserted herself in Georgia, Chechnya, Moldova, Armenia, and Ukraine. Ancient Russian fears—of encirclement, of penetration by Western political and social values and practices, and of internal dissent and disunity—have reemerged. Despite hopes generated by the tentative democratic reforms of Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, Russia has returned to a top-down, or “vertical” authoritarianism typical of her past. A “little Cold War” seems to be aborning.

But if he is no democrat, what kind of leader is Putin and what kind will he be? Was he an inevitable choice in 2000 when he unexpectedly and quickly became the president of post-Soviet Russia? And, if so, is he the inevitable man of Russia’s future?

In this article I will examine the first question: how could an obscure Lieutenant Colonel in the KGB reach the top so rapidly? But before we begin, let’s admit that, as Americans, we bring some handicaps to this inquiry. I remember vividly the heady years of 1985-1991, during which I was several times in the Soviet Union, when the turbulence of the Gorbachev/Yeltsin era first cracked, then blew apart the brittle shell of Soviet power. As the final scenes of that history-making period played out, one could understand the exhalations of relief from the West, and from the United States especially, as the tensions of the 40-year test of nerves that we call the Cold War were released.

Americans, always ready to abandon any extended attention to affairs distant from their historically protected shores, promptly declared a new day, free at last, not only from the threat of nuclear war, but beyond that, from the long, bloody 20th-century struggles with imperialism, fascism, National Socialism and communism. Liberal economics and constitutional democracy were declared triumphant, [1] Russia would abandon her authoritarian past, and that, as we say, was that. Only, it wasn’t.

Inauspicious beginnings

Americans can scarcely imagine the scope and impact of the disintegration of the Soviet state and all that was built within and around it since its founding on December 30, 1922. The loss of the outer periphery of buffer states of Eastern Europe and the Baltics; the sale to, or confiscation by, the “oligarchs”[2] of the heights of the economy; the breaking away of the Soviet Socialist Republics of Russia’s inner ring; the (temporary) outlawing of the Communist Party itself, which had ruled over one-sixth of the Earth’s land mass and nearly 300 million people; the loss, in the psychology of the Soviet peoples, of their pride as citizens of a superpower; these events washed away in a flash a 70-year political experiment that bent the arc of global history.

Political scientists teach that when a system is stressed to an intolerable degree, one group of institutions is called upon to “right the ship.” These are the organs of the “security apparatus”: the military services, the intelligence services (both external and internal), and the police. Of all institutions in any social-economic-political system, the security apparatus has these advantages in times of stress: 1) its members are charged with and monopolize the legitimate use of force; 2) its members are trained, even seen as professionals, thereby carrying some social prestige; 3) its role as defender against external threats and protector of social order give its members a sense of pride and esprit de corps. (It is notable that the KGB was known as the “Sword and the Shield” of the Soviet Union). In times of threat, then, this apparatus is looked to for restoration of order and stability. This most familiar reaction to stressed systems has played out in the history of many states in Africa, Asia, and Latin America [3], indeed, everywhere throughout the history of the modern nation-state.

In Russia, with her authoritarian history, the security apparatus has always played an outsized role. It is not a surprise, then, that in 1999, when Boris Yeltsin’s time had run out as president of the Russian state, he and his team turned to a member of that apparatus, a relatively unknown factor in the post-Soviet world of power seekers.

Putin, in his own words, was a bit of a “hooligan” and a “pretty haphazard student” [4] until sixth grade. In Soviet times, youngsters were normally in the “Young Pioneers” by third grade, and in adolescence they would join the Young Communist League, or “Komsomol.” These organizations were sponsored by the Communist Party and imbued a combination of Boy Scout and communist values in Soviet youth.  Because he was ill-focused and combative, Putin was not accepted into the Young Pioneers until the eighth grade. He did, however, exhibit an interest in sport, especially in sambo (a combination of judo and wrestling); he liked the physical challenges and the contact. He also began to show an interest in languages, particularly German.

Somewhere in high school, inspired by popular books and films about spying, Putin decided that he would become an intelligence professional. He even went to the local KGB office to inquire. Surprised (and probably amused), they told him he was too young, that he needed to serve in the military or get more education before he could even be considered for membership, and that the KGB does not accept volunteers. He was basically told, “We watch, and if we think you are worthy, we will contact you.” He asked which education was preferred and they said law. That did it for him: he set out to complete a law degree.

A dream realized; a dream upended

Putin joined the Communist Party—a requirement to serve in the KGB—in 1972. He attended law school at Leningrad State University and graduated in 1975, and joined the KGB that same year. He spent the next 10 years in the Counterintelligence Department in Leningrad, keeping an eye on foreigners and resident consular officials. In 1985, he was assigned to Dresden, in East Germany. [5] His duties there were routine, and included obtaining information about the leaders of Western political parties and about NATO. He recruited sources, analyzed data, and sent reports on to KGB headquarters in Moscow. Putin and his wife Lyudmila (they married in 1983) had a limited social circle in Dresden. Typically, agents of the KGB were very careful, even when posted to other socialist states, to fraternize only with trusted people, usually other members of the KGB or, in this case, with members of the “Stasi,” the East German security service. Putin apparently hewed closely to this rule. Still, the Putins lived well in East Germany, somewhat above the level possible for them in the USSR, with its endemic food shortages and low-quality consumer goods. And then came 1989 and fall of the Berlin Wall.

Stunned, as were many, by the speed of the collapse of Soviet power, Putin judged that the rapid retreat from the other members of the “fraternal socialist camp” was tragic and unnecessary, a humiliating sign of panic, a loss of nerve. After burning all KGB files, Putin, disillusioned and bitter, packed up his family—his wife and daughters Ekaterina and Maria—and returned to Leningrad. [6]

Thinking that he would try making a career in academia, Putin went to work in administration at Leningrad University, where he’d graduated from law school, and began writing his dissertation as a candidate of economic science from the St. Petersburg Mining Institute. [7] Significantly, it had to do with the place of minerals and other raw materials in the Russian economy. He was soon lured away to work for Anatoly Sobchak, the chair of the Leningrad City Council and a former professor of law at Leningrad University. Bright, open, and ambitious, Sobchak was what was known as a “reformer” in those days, and although Putin did not agree with all of Sobchak’s liberal market policies and political openness, he respected him and they became close friends. Putin was still a member of the KGB, and told Sobchak so. His new boss understood that having an agent in his office might be a source of trouble if Sobchak’s political enemies found out. A somewhat emotional and impulsive man, he decided to risk it; besides, he was impressed with Putin. Sobchak may also have sensed that having a member of the security services at hand might come in handy at some point, since some ex-KGB men could be found in all camps. [8]

Sobchak’s enemies on the Council did indeed find out about the new deputy’s past, and some attempted to blackmail Putin into doing them political favors. Putin soon realized that his KGB membership could be a handicap in the world of politics, so he reluctantly resigned from the agency, went public about his KGB background, and plunged into his new career. If his past was now “out there,” it couldn’t be used to blackmail him. He was an active member of Sobchak’s team when the latter became the first popularly-elected mayor of Leningrad (now renamed St. Petersburg).

Although Sobchak’s rise to power later faltered, and association with him became a liability, Putin would not betray him, although he could have personally benefited by doing so. Many years later, at some political risk to himself, Putin saw to it that Sobchak and his family were spirited out of Russia before his political enemies could see that he went to jail, or worse. This characteristic loyalty would later catch the eye of the powerful men around Boris Yeltsin. [9]

Yeltsin and Sobchak had been political allies, Yeltsin in Moscow, Sobchak in St. Petersburg, in the early days following the demise of the USSR. However, as often happens among elites in vertical authoritarian polities, they began to see each other as rivals. It was this rivalry that caused some of Yeltsin’s entourage to undermine Sobchak’s campaign for reelection as mayor of St. Petersburg. Sobchak’s failure to be reelected was a serious setback for Putin. He had lost his primary sponsor, mentor, and friend, and his career in politics could easily have ended then and there. But it did not.

Mr. Putin goes to Moscow

Although Yeltsin was reelected in 1996 to the presidency of the Russian Federation, it was despite his abysmally low standing in public opinion surveys. Both his political and physical health were in serious decline. A failed war in Chechnya, launched by Yeltsin to arrest the movements in the Caucasus toward independence from the Russian Federation, an economy in near collapse, and, in 1995, the first of a series of heart attacks—all had caused the men of Yeltsin’s actual and political family to fear for his, and so for their, futures in power.

The jockeying for influence and position among Yeltsin’s immediate circle provided the occasion for Putin to be moved from his relative obscurity in St. Petersburg to Moscow (he had been an active but little-recognized backer of Yeltsin’s 1996 campaign). Yeltsin’s chief of staff, Nikolai Yegorov, having noticed Putin’s loyalty to Sobchak and his sense of seriousness and discretion, brought Putin on board as a deputy on Yegorov’s own staff. [10] Once in Moscow, Putin held several positions which brought him closer and closer to Yeltsin himself. These jobs showed Putin the breadth and depth of Russia’s economic and political decline and confirmed, in his mind, that the breakup of Soviet power had unleashed the demons in Russia’s historic nightmare: anarchic individualism, disunity, and disorder—the very hallmarks, for Russians, of the feared and hated West. He saw up close how the power of the central government was increasingly enervated, evaded, and outright flouted. The “vertikal” [11] was in danger of total collapse.

The task at hand, for Yeltsin’s team, was to restore order to a chaotic economy, which was increasingly corrupted by the greed of some of the oligarchs in concert with other power brokers, such as the “siloviki” [12] and the top leadership of Russia’s 89 regional governments. [13] The governors had benefited from Yeltsin’s making their posts elective by the people residing in each region, instead of the Soviet system of appointing governors from Moscow. These governors, anxious to enrich themselves through legal, semi-legal, and outright illegal methods, were using their new, local power-base to cut deals with all manner of other “players,” including the Russian mafia. Putin saw all this unfolding as he worked his new jobs: overseer of the regional governments’ relations with the Kremlin; a kind of national inspector-general looking into corrupt practices; and a brief stay as the director of the FSB, [14] the successor organization to his own KGB. The latter job came to him because the FSB director before Putin had been uncomfortably close to uncovering corrupt practices close to Yeltsin’s own “family.”

Putin’s performance in all these positions showed him to be both decisive and subtle—willing to use the power granted to him to root out corruption, for example, while simultaneously making sure not to implicate those above him, especially Yeltsin. And then, things got even worse for Russia’s first elected president.

Sunset of the Yeltsin Era

In 1997 a large drop in the global price of oil dragged the weakened Russian economy down; Russian weakness was demonstrated as NATO forces, led by the United States, facilitated the breakaway of Kosovo from Serbia, a traditional Russian client state. The insurrections in the Caucasus region threatened to burst forth again, and the whiff of corrupt practices got even closer to Yeltsin himself. He appointed Yevgeny Primakov as prime minister, and though he served loyally and well, he became uncomfortably popular, stoking Yeltsin’s paranoia about rivals. Primakov was replaced by Sergei Stepashin as Yeltsin, who was being impeached for various policy failures, was looking more and more to insulate himself from post-presidency corruption charges. He had lost the support of the public and nearly every faction in the Kremlin; he trusted fewer and fewer of those near him.

Ill and anxious, Yeltsin played a card that he hoped would save his country and himself. [14] He had made Vladimir Putin his prime minister in August 1999 as the Caucasus again exploded in violence. Over the next few months Putin used the full complement of Russian air and ground forces to drive the Chechen rebels out of the neighboring republic of Dagestan, which they had invaded without warning on August 7. He then drove into Chechnya itself and ultimately forced the rebel Chechens to sue for peace. Given the negative public fallout from Yeltsin’s previous attempt to put down the revolts in the Caucasus, it came as a pleasant surprise when Putin’s toughness and decisiveness in this latest conflict won him accolades from nearly every faction in the country. Then came the final move on Yeltsin’s chessboard. He decided that Putin would be his choice for his successor as president of the Russian Federation. Yeltsin had not revealed his intention to run again for the presidency in 2000. By now able to trust virtually no one around him, he waited until very late in 1999 and then called Putin to a private meeting and told him that he intended to resign his office at the end of the year and name Putin as acting president. That would give Putin three months to perform in the office before the election, during which time he could use the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to bolster his chances to succeed Yeltsin. Yeltsin apparently was confident that Putin’s penchant for loyalty would protect Yeltsin from revelations about his involvement in any “embarrassing” connections to shady characters or deals. As it turns out, he calculated correctly.

Putin the Inevitable?

What seems most inevitable about Putin’s rise to ultimate power in post-Soviet Russia is that he was a man of the security apparatus. He clearly was not just a time server or careerist, but a deeply committed believer in the “vertikal,” the “strong state” control system. He accepted the discipline necessary to do the hard tasks of guarding and protecting the state and never doubted that the nation could find its identity only as a top-down, authoritarian polity. Perhaps nowhere else on the planet can we find a state security system so attuned to its country’s psychological mindset, which, in this case, has been so dramatically shaped over centuries by real and perceived geo-strategic vulnerabilities. It was the weakening of central power and of the “vertikal” from 1991 that first startled, then horrified, and ultimately motivated Putin.

But what can be said about the role of Putin’s personality in this account? Elites in top-down, vertical power arrangements are forever insecure, tirelessly on guard lest an ambitious underling is tempted to betrayal. Without stable, effective, and reliable institutions—independent courts, an economy that adequately creates and distributes wealth, well-functioning political parties, the rule of law, and a tradition of civilian rule, for example—such regimes are susceptible to the cult of the leader, culminating in what in Latin America is called “personalismo” (ala Castroism) or the familiar “le etat c’est moi” of Louis XIV.

As he rose through the ranks from 1991-1999, Putin did not seem to be the type to ever rule in the manner of a cult leader, such as Stalin. Beneath the cool, even icy, demeanor seems to lie a pragmatist, not an ideologue. He has expressed the belief that totalitarian communism was unworkable. [15] His loyalty, first to Sobchak and then to Yeltsin, was notable because it is so rare in Russian elite circles in post-Soviet Russia. His calmness under stress stood in contrast to the flamboyant styles of many others, including both Sobchak and Yeltsin.

There is no evidence that anyone along the way imagined that Putin would ever be someone’s puppet. Moreover, there was no mistaking his willingness, without hesitation, to use all the instruments of power—including violent force—in pursuit of his goals. When confirmed as prime minister in the summer of 1999, with the Chechen revolt raging, he used overwhelming military force to, as he said, “bang the hell out of the bandits.” [16]

Finally, on his way up the chain of Russia’s elite system, he clearly benefited from his relatively obscure origins in Leningrad/St. Petersburg. That is, he had accrued no embittered enemies at his level or higher up before coming to Moscow. His entrée into the inner circles of power was made possible by his reputation for loyalty, but once inside, his demonstrated toughness—so respected in Russian political culture—was the key to his ascension to the presidency.

Putin’s climb to power might be explained in this way: a member of the security apparatus and a nationalistic patriot, unencumbered by ideological nostalgia for communist dreams, combined the traits of loyalty, discretion, and decisiveness to win the authority he craved to arrest Russia’s decline and reclaim her place as a globally significant player. In doing so, he showed that he understood both the Russian psyche and the tactical conditions of the immediate post-Soviet world. He achieved much, especially in the earlier years of his rule when high global oil prices helped to rescue the Russian economy. Politically he has taken Russia back to the strict “vertical” system so reminiscent of her long history. Those liberals in Russia that hoped to see her abandon her past and openly pursue a Western-style democratic culture and market-driven economy open to the world are out of power and in disarray. There is among them the sense that a door briefly cracked open has been slammed shut, and perhaps locked.

ENDNOTES:

[1] See Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest, Summer 1989

[2] The term “oligarch,” from the word oligarchy, or rule by the few, has become a shorthand term for those influential persons who, in post-Soviet Russia, acquired control over the oil, gas, mineral, timber and other industries. They are still powerful players in Russian society and some of the richest men on earth.

[3] For the classic treatment of the role of security forces in developing societies, see Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (New York: Yale University Press, 1968), especially pp. 225-6.

[4] Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova, and Andre Kolesnikov, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (New York: Public Affairs, a member of The Perseus Books Group, 2000) pp.15-25

[5] Ibid, pp. 69-70

[6] Ibid, pp. 80-81

[7] There is considerable controversy over Putin’s academic work on his dissertation, including accusations of plagiarism. See the Brookings Institute’s Research Report of March 30, 2006, by Clifford Gaddy and Igor Danchenko, on the subject of Putin’s work entitled “Mineral and Raw Materials Resources and the Development Strategy for the Russian Economy.”

[8] Steven Lee Myers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015) pp. 58-9

[9] Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution (New York: Scribner, 2005) pp. 48-9

[10] Myers, op. cit., pp. 107-8

[11] “Vertikal” is the Russian-to-English transliteration of the term for top-down, vertical authority structures in Russia.

[12] “Siloviki” (see-loh-VEE-kee), from the Russian word for “force.” Refers to those members, or former members, of the security services, including intelligence, military, and police. Considered “hardliners,” especially in matters of foreign policy, many hold high positions in Putin’s regime. See Myers, op. cit., p. 91

[13] Myers, p. 21

[14] Initials standing for “Federal Security Service” in the Russian language.

[15] Garry Kasparov, Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped (New York: Public Affairs, a member of the Perseus Book Group, 2015), p. 82

[16] Myers, pp. 177-8; see also Gevorkyan, et al., op. cit. p. 77

About Joseph Kremers 0 Articles
Joseph Kremers is a political scientist who taught Political Ideologies, International Relations, and Soviet/Russian studies in Oregon for 28 years. He was a "citizen diplomat" that helped form the Sister City partnership between Eugene, Oregon and Irkutsk, USSR. He was co-founder of a private, non-profit corporation that conducted citizen-to-citizen exchanges between American and Soviet athletes, students and professionals, and was an exchange professor teaching American Culture at the Irkutsk State Teachers' Training Institute of Foreign Languages in Irkutsk, the capital city of Eastern Siberia. He made eleven trips to the USSR/Russia between 1988-98. A US Air Force veteran, he guest lectures to AFROTC cadets on international affairs.