He’s among the West’s most distrusted politicians, but at home in Russia, Vladimir Putin’s popularity is unrivaled. In a culture that admires strength, the president’s muscular style of nationalism resonates, as he flaunts his country’s “invincible” new nuclear weapons and defies the West over military interventions in Syria and Ukraine. In power longer than any Soviet leader other than dictator Joseph Stalin, he’s come to symbolize a concept of managed democracy and conservatism that values political strength over individual freedoms. His personal appeal has been tested by economic hardship caused by a fall in oil prices and sanctions provoked by his government’s assertive behavior. But his standing with Russians has hardly been dented.
Putin cruised to a fourth term in March elections with a landslide victory, though Russian and international observers complained the vote wasn’t fair. His victory came amid an escalation of tensions with the West after the U.K. accused Russia of staging a nerve-agent attack on a former Russian double agent and his visiting daughter, the first use of chemical weapons in Europe since World War II. Relations were already strained by allegations of Russian cyberattacks and efforts to influence elections in the U.S. and Europe. Before that, Putin had been isolated over his annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and his role in a pro-Russian rebellion in Ukraine. U.S. President Donald Trump expressed interest in improving relations with Russia. But an investigations into whether his election campaign colluded with the Russians deferred that impulse, and ties actually worsened. With a three-year Russian military campaign in Syria that shored up President Bashar al-Assad against rebels backed by the U.S. and its allies, Putin challenged America’s dominant role in the Middle East. In his 2018 state-of-the-union address, he played videos showing off new Russian weapons — at one point targeting what appeared to be the U.S. — and said the arms proved the West had failed to contain Russia.
Putin, 65, honed his survival techniques as a deprived child in postwar Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Two older siblings died during the 900-day German siege against the city in World War II, according to a 2013 book by a distant relative. His mother barely survived. In a 2000 autobiography, Putin wrote that the family lived in a small room in a communal apartment without hot water or a proper bathroom. There he said he chased rats, learned martial arts and dreamed of working in intelligence. In 1989, as a spy in East Germany, he was forced to destroy documents when crowds tried to break into the office of the KGB, the Soviet spy agency and secret police force. He said the discovery of the powerlessness of his Soviet bosses traumatized him. When Communism collapsed, Putin switched his public allegiance from the atheistic ideology to the Russian Orthodox Church, to which two-thirds of the population profess to belong. As president, Putin presents a carefully constructed public personality through TV. He appears daily as an iron man of action, rebuking government officials, hosting foreign leaders, even taming wild animals and hang gliding. Cultivating his aura of power, Putin is legendary for showing up late — he’s kept the Pope, Queen Elizabeth II and German Chancellor Angela Merkel waiting. Sports is a passion — he’s a black belt in judo, a swimmer, skier and a keen ice hockey player. Occasionally, the Putin stone face softens: After winning a third presidential term in 2012 following a tumultuous challenge from street protesters, he shed tears at a televised victory rally. More typical: In 2007, he met Merkel at his Sochi residence and let his pet Labrador retriever sniff his unnerved guest. She’s known to be afraid of dogs.
Putin once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. He sees himself as a guardian of Russia’s unique place in the world, under assault from a decadent West. His constituents appear to take a similar view, given that his approval ratings remain strong despite adversities caused by a two-year recession that ended in 2016, the longest in more than two decades. Barring a change in the constitution, which limits presidents to two consecutive terms, Putin can’t run again for the office when his term expires in 2024. He’s been grooming a new generation of technocrats, one of whom could emerge as his chosen successor. Alternatively, he could repeat the maneuver he used in 2008 after serving two presidential terms: becoming prime minister to keep the reins of power. Or he could create some new role for himself to maintain his dominance.
• QuickTakes on the Russia hacking investigation and the Cool War.
• Reporter Julia Ioffe examines “What Putin Really Wants” in an article in The Atlantic.
• A report by Chatham House looks at the legacy of Putin’s rule.
• The Kremlin maintains a personal Putin website in Russian and English.
• In her book “The Man Without a Face,” the journalist Masha Gessen says Putin never understood Russia’s leap toward political freedom after Communism because he wasn’t part of it, a Washington Post review says.
• Putin discussed his ties with Trump, Syria and his political future in an NBC interview in March.
To contact the author of this QuickTake: Henry Meyer in Moscow at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake: Lisa Beyer at email@example.com
First published April 16, 2015
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