- Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin
Russian President Vladimir Putin has quickly become one of the most powerful and feared politicians in the world.
But he’s had a long climb to the top – he spent years working in Russian intelligence and local politics before becoming the leader of the country.
And Putin could become even more relevant to the US in the coming years. President Donald Trump has often been criticized for cozying up to the leader of a country that is thought to work to undermine Western democracies.
Here’s a look at how Putin rose to power and why some Americans fear him.
Early life and KGB career
Putin was born to a working-class family in Leningrad in 1952. His father is a decorated war veteran and factory worker. An only child, Putin grew up in a Soviet Union-style communal apartment with two other families, as was typical at the time.
Growing up, Putin loved spy novels and TV shows. When he was still in school, he went to the KGB security and intelligence agency and asked how he could join, according to the journalist Ben Judah’s book “Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin.”
The people at KGB headquarters told him to work hard and study law. So Putin did exactly that, at Leningrad State University, and later spent 17 years as a mid-level agent working in foreign intelligence.
It was during this time that he had an experience that some experts have concluded to be a defining moment in his life.
In Dresden in 1989, an anticommunist mob formed outside KGB offices. Putin recounted that he was told the KGB couldn’t do anything about it without orders from Moscow, and Moscow didn’t say a word.
“The business of ‘Moscow is silent’ – I got the feeling that the country no longer existed,” Putin later said, according to Judah’s book. “That it had disappeared. It was clear that the Union was ailing. And that it had a terminal disease without a cure – a paralysis of power.”
Judah wrote, “For Putin and his generation, those who did not come from intellectual families, who believed what they were told about the USSR’s superpower success, and did not question propaganda, or want what they did not have – that moment was a defining scar.”
As president, Putin is known for his nationalism and patriotism – traits that can be traced back to his youth. A profile of Putin that ran in The Washington Post in 2000 said he once refused to read a book by a Soviet defector because he didn’t “read books by people who have betrayed the Motherland.”
The beginnings of a political career
By 1991, Putin had officially resigned from the KGB’s active reserve. He was back in Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg, and working for the city’s first democratic mayor (and his former law professor) Anatoly Sobchak.
Putin worked mostly behind the scenes and kept a low profile. He reportedly was “the man to see if things needed to get done” and “Sobchak’s indispensable man.”
Judah wrote that Putin got his political technique from Sobchak, who was known to have strong authoritarian tendencies.
Putin was loyal to Sobchak. When Sobchak wasn’t reelected as mayor, the victor offered Putin a job. But Putin turned it down, saying, “It’s better to be hanged for loyalty than be rewarded for betrayal.”
In 1996, Putin and his family relocated to Moscow. There, he quickly climbed up the ladder and became the head of the FSB, the agency that succeeded the KGB, in 1998. Boris Yeltsin, then the president of Russia, named Putin to this position.
Newsweek reported that it was “a job the president would have given only to the most trusted of aides.”
Prime minister appointment and first presidency
In August 1999, Yeltsin appointed Putin prime minister of Russia – the fifth in less than two years. In Russia, the prime minister is the second-highest-ranking official and reports to the president.
And then – seemingly out of nowhere – Yeltsin stepped down and named Putin the acting president on New Year’s Eve 1999. Putin then won the election in March.
Many people believed Yeltsin propelled Putin to the presidency to protect himself. The war in Chechnya, in which Russian forces were fighting secular separatists who wanted the region to be independent, was starting to go south, and his approval ratings were dropping.
One of Putin’s first moves was to pardon Yeltsin, giving him “immunity from criminal or administrative investigations, including protection of his papers, residence and other possessions from search and seizure.”
During his first term, Putin focused primarily on domestic affairs. He had two items on the agenda: the war with Chechnya and the Yeltsin-era oligarchs.
Putin inherited Russia during a particularly complicated time. The country was in the midst of a conflict with Chechnya – a region that’s officially considered a Russian subject.
Additionally, Yeltsin-era oligarchs were increasingly interested in expanding their political influence. Putin recognized that the Yeltsin-era oligarchs had the potential to be more powerful than him, so he struck a deal with them.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “In July , Putin told the oligarchs that he would not interfere with their businesses or renationalize state resources as long as they stayed out of politics – that is, as long as they did not challenge or criticize the president.”
And with the Second Chechen War, Putin established his reputation as a “man of action.”
In 2002, a Moscow theater was seized by 40 Chechen militants, who were led by the warlord Movsar Barayev. During the three-day ordeal, 129 of the 912 hostages died.
This was a critical moment for Putin, and many expected his domestic approval to plummet. But his “ruthless handling of the siege and his refusal to negotiate with the hostage-takers further shored up his reputation as a man of action.” His approval rating was up at 83% after it was all over.
- Business Insider / Skye Gould
In 2004, Putin was reelected for a second term. He continued to focus on domestic affairs but drew major criticism for his crackdown on the media.
Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist, was murdered in her apartment lobby in 2006 after she wrote about corruption in the Russian army with respect to Chechnya. She was killed on Putin’s birthday, but Putin denied any involvement, saying her death would do more harm to Russia than her reporting.
Still, many in the West criticized Putin for failing to protect the media.
Weeks after Politkovskaya’s death, a defector from the FSB was poisoned in London.
Despite all this, Putin seemed, overall, to be well liked.
During his first two terms, Russia’s GDP increased 70%, and investments increased by 125%. Putin’s Russia was lucky in that the country largely relied on oil. (Later drops in oil prices reflect how much of a difference it makes in the country’s economy.)
Second stint as prime minister
In 2008, Dmitry Medvedev was elected president. A day later, he made Putin the new prime minister. And then came the global financial crisis.
The Russian economy was slammed particularly hard because it relied heavily on Western investment.
Additionally, the crisis showed how dependent the Russian economy is on oil and gas and how intertwined the industry was with the country’s political economy, according to the Brookings Institution.
In that same year, Russia was involved in a five-day international conflict, the Russo-Georgian War, with Georgia and the regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The two regions have been trying since the 1990s to formally gain independence – and Russia’s recognition of their independence has been condemned by Western nations. South Ossetia is still considered to be “officially part of Georgia,” and Georgia considers Abkhazia to be a “breakaway” region.
- Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS/File Photo
Current term as president
In 2012, Putin won his third presidential election – a six-year term.
In March 2014, Putin caught the world’s attention when he annexed Crimea in one of the most complicated and controversial geopolitical moves of the year.
The ousted, pro-Russia president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, sent a letter to Putin asking him to use Russia’s military to “restore law and order in Ukraine.”
The Russian Parliament granted Putin “broad authority to use military force in response to the political upheaval in Ukraine that dislodged a Kremlin ally and installed a new, staunchly pro-Western government, the Ukrainian government in Kiev threatened war if Russia sent troops further into Ukraine,” according to The New York Times.
On March 2, Russia took complete control of Crimea.
Most recently, Putin has started exploring a relationship with China – mostly because Russia needs other trading partners after the West imposed sanctions over the actions.
Putin’s threat to the West
The liberal world order
Experts fear that the liberal world order – the idea that countries should intervene in other nations when liberal values are at risk – is under threat. Trump seems to share Putin’s views about the NATO alliance and has gone so far as to call it “obsolete.”
If NATO were to disintegrate, it would be a victory for Putin. He has been expanding Russia’s power around the world, including in the Middle East, and NATO is one obstacle that prevents him from further extending his influence throughout eastern Europe.
And Russia in recent years has not been friendly toward the US.
Retired Russian Lt. Gen. Evgeny Buzhinsky told the BBC last year that Russia sees the West as the belligerent party, citing sanctions against Russia and the barring of the Russian Paralympic team from the Rio Olympics for well-documented and state-sponsored doping as Western aggression against Russia.
“Of course there is a reaction. As far as Russia sees it, as Putin sees it, it is full-scale confrontation on all fronts. If you want a confrontation, you’ll get one,” Buzhinsky told the BBC. “But it won’t be a confrontation that doesn’t harm the interests of the United States. You want a confrontation, you’ll get one everywhere.”
- Reuters/Toby Melville
Many Kremlin critics have died by poisoning in recent years.
One notable case was that of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who died in weeks after drinking a poisoned cup of tea at a London hotel in 2006. A British inquiry blamed FSB agents.
Considering how tightly Putin controls his government, it’s unlikely he would be unaware of government operations to neutralize perceived enemies.
The New York Times noted recently that the Soviet Union used such tactics extensively to silence opponents.
“Political murders are again playing a prominent role in the Kremlin’s foreign policy, the most brutal instrument in an expanding repertoire of intimidation tactics intended to silence or otherwise intimidate critics at home and abroad,” The Times reported.
Such killings are often carried out with a level of skill that suggests they’re unlikely to have been done by rogue hired killers.
“Outside of popular culture, there are no highly skilled hit men for hire,” Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and an authority on the Russian security services, told The Times. “If it’s a skilled job, that means it’s a state asset.”
- The Week
Putin has carefully crafted his strongman image – and there are plenty of photos of him shirtless in the wilderness to prove it.
Anecdotes about him also show this side.
In 2013, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft told a story during a gala at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York about how Putin supposedly stole his 2004 Super Bowl ring while Kraft was visiting Russia in 2005.
“I took out the ring and showed it to [Putin], and he put it on and he goes, ‘I can kill someone with this ring,'” Kraft said. “I put my hand out and he put it in his pocket, and three KGB guys got around him and walked out.”
Putin’s representatives denied the story.
Putin has also not been kind to his opponents. Aside from accusations of sanctioning the murders of journalists and dissidents, Putin has been known to use intimidation tactics to shake people down.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, formerly one of the richest men in Russia, who took over the energy giant Yukos in the 1990s, once gave a presentation about corruption in Russia to Putin and some businessmen. Afterward, the government accused Khodorkovsky and his colleagues of tax evasion. He was later imprisoned and now lives in exile.
Putin and Trump
Both Putin and Trump have nationalistic bents – Putin strongly promotes Russian nationalism, and Trump ran on a platform of making America great again and putting America first.
Trump has also directly praised Putin on several occasions. In September, Trump said Putin “has very strong control” over his country, and that, while he didn’t like the Russian system of government, Putin has been more of a “leader” than Barack Obama was as US president.
The New Republic pondered in September why Trump seemed so attracted to Putin’s politics:
“Putin’s foreign policy is based on a forthright assertion of national interest even in defiance of international norms. As such, Putin is much closer than Obama to the type of foreign policy Trump has outlined. Further, Putin is an autocrat who can ‘get things done’ without worrying about approval from Congress or rejection from a Supreme Court.
“As Trump sees it, Putin has Made Russia Great Again. And given how Trump talks about achieving his own political goals – everyone will do what I say, trust me – it’s clear that Putin is his model of leadership.”
Elena Holodny and Alex Lockie contributed to this report.