The most popular politician in Russia is among the West’s most distrusted: Vladimir Putin. His personal style matches the muscular nationalism he displayed when he annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and embarked on a surprise air campaign in Syria the following year. It resonates in a culture that admires strength. His instinctively conservative social views, reflected in an anti-gay law that he passed in defiance of foreign protests, also go down well in a country where liberal values are scarce. Rising oil income in the first part of his rule boosted living standards and allowed Russia to reassert power following a decade of post-Soviet humiliation. Now Putin’s personal appeal is being tested by economic hardship caused by a fall in oil prices and financial and energy sanctions provoked by the Ukraine intervention. His popularity has hardly been dented. At least so far.
Isolated by the U.S. and Europe over the Crimea annexation and his role in a pro-Russian rebellion in Ukraine, Putin, 65, has sought to build closer ties to China and other powers. The election of American President Donald Trump, a fan, looked set to improve U.S.-Russia ties. However, Trump in August 2017 reluctantly signed into law new sanctions against Russia passed overwhelmingly by Congress after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Putin ordered a hacking and disinformation campaign to influence the outcome of the U.S. election in Trump’s favor. Those findings and investigations into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians are likely to keep any clear warming of bilateral relations on hold. After a two-year Russian military campaign in Syria shored up President Bashar al-Assad against rebels backed by the U.S. and its allies, Putin has been challenging America’s dominant role in the Middle East. As Putin cruises to a fourth term in March 18 elections, state pollsters are predicting a possible landslide. His United Russia party won its biggest-ever majority in parliamentary elections in 2016, though observers and opposition parties complained the vote wasn’t fair.
Putin honed his survival techniques as a deprived child in postwar Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Two older siblings died during the city’s 900-day wartime German siege, according to a 2013 book by a distant relative, Alexander Putin. His mother barely survived. A 2000 autobiographical book, “First Person,” accounts for most of what is known about Putin’s early life and forebears. These include a grandfather, Spiridon Putin, who was a cook for Lenin and Stalin. The book says the Putins lived in a small room in a communal apartment without hot water or a proper bathroom. There he is said to have 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 to the 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, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, at the time the U.S. president, 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 strong approval ratings suggest his constituents take a similar view. Still, despite the popularity of his antagonism to the West, the longest recession in more than two decades has cut into support for the ruling party. Though it won 54 percent of the vote in the 2016 election, it was polling as high as 60 percent 18 months earlier. The question is whether Putin can maintain his image as Russia’s protector.
First published Jan.
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