an ever-rising tsar
From Salisbury to Syria and back via St Petersburg there’s no denying that Russia has re-entered the world stage with a considerable bang. And embarking on yet another six-year residency, once lowly ex-KGB enforcer, Vladimir Putin is now their longest-serving ruler since the days of Stalin. As befits his shadowy past, President Putin has managed to keep much of his early life, beliefs and personal doctrines largely under wraps, so who is this man, where does he come from and what are his ultimate ambitions?
Born in what was then Leningrad, eight years after the German WW2 siege which killed his brother, badly wounded his father and starved his family almost to death, young Vladimir grew up in a harsh communal environment where anything & everything was shared. Understandably keen to escape his lot, after studying law he joined the KGB’s spy school and was eventually dispatched to Dresden to recruit foreign students to the cause. With the demise of the ‘iron curtain’ we finally see something of the man when he single-handedly faced down a hostile crowd warning that his soldiers, though unarmed, would open fire if the protesters attempted to enter the Russian embassy. It is said that his one caveat wrt a fight is that you must get the first punch in.
Returning home he resigned from the KGB but was wise enough to proactively cultivate personal links with both emerging oligarchs and many ‘siloviki’ – politicians from the former security services – and it was via these connections that, in 1996, he was appointed chief administrator (and leader of the KGB’s successor, the FSB) to the somewhat erratic, Boris Yeltsin. The political classes underestimated this apparently shy, sly and manipulative individual and only a few short years later he was appointed first, Prime Minister and then, following a brutal yet decisive armed campaign against Chechen separatists, acting-President.
Due in no small part to Yeltsin’s drunken, shambolic economic reforms, Russia was in deep recession and Putin was able to ride a wave of nationalism promises to reintroduce domestic stability and ensure national security. Buoyed by the return of worldwide high oil prices he was successful in achieving much of this together with a new concept for the USSR, a high level of personal economic growth. It was however gained at a cost where all internal opposition was removed and dissent was effectively outlawed. In reality the office of President had been replaced by that of Dictator.
Somewhat surprisingly, the West, for many years, regarded Putin as an ally but with the expansion of NATO, the growth of the EU and the rise of China, he himself felt increasingly isolated and decided to take both explicit and covert action to undermine the emerging world order. Georgia and Ukraine felt the full force of these ambitions and Iran & Syria have been supported in their struggles, in what many are coming to regard as essentially proxy-world wars.
However, beyond his own Russian nationalism (for which we can read ‘ant-Western’) it’s difficult to know what he actually believes in and stands for. He’s far less of a narcissist than Trump, less haphazard and more predictable also, less of an internationalist than Xi Jinping, less of a pragmatist than Angela Merkel and less of a megalomaniac than North Korea’s Little Rocket-Man. According to his ex-wife of thirty years, President Putin’s a vain, absent workaholic who fills his time with working-out in the gym and watching ice-hockey on the tele. The one thing we know for certain is that he’s here to stay and removing, or even limiting, his influence on the world’s theatres is nigh-on impossible.