Person of the Year 2008
Much of the recent posturing between Putin and the West has been decidedly reminiscent of the Cold War, not least: Moscow’s objections to the US defence shield, and its threat to target missiles at Europe; the ‘gas supply wars’ with Ukraine and Belarus; withdrawal from the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty; oil-related territorial shenanigans under the North Pole; Russia’s resumption of long-range bomber patrols; disruption to Russian language BBC World Service broadcasts; and the Litvinenko affair.
In July 2007, the Economist noted that ‘Russia is no longer exporting a rival ideology … nor fighting proxy wars with America around the globe’.
However, Russia remains armed with the world’s largest known gas reserves, strong political and economic influence over an archipelago of marginalised states, an Armageddonic nuclear arsenal, and a permanent seat (and veto) on the UN Security Council. Thus, whether the issue is terrorism, climate change, energy security, nuclear proliferation, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Kosovo, or Darfur – Putin’s Russia cannot be ignored.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born in 1952 to working-class parents. He studied law at Leningrad University, where he was recruited by the KGB in 1975. After two years as a low-level spook, Putin was sent to Moscow for elite training. In 1985, he was assigned to the KGB office in Dresden, where he reportedly worked with the Stasi to gather Western technology secrets. In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Putin was recalled to assist the rector of Leningrad University – a thinly veiled KGB cover.
Over the next few years, Putin climbed the political ladder in (the renamed) St Petersburg, before he was summoned to Moscow in 1996. In a vertiginous rise, Putin became Boris Yeltsin’s deputy Chief of Staff in 1997, and head of the Federal Security Service in 1998. In 1999, Putin was appointed Secretary of the Security Council (March), PM (August), and Acting President (December). In March 2000, Putin was elected President – despite being as unknown to most Russians as he was to the rest of the world.
The West welcomed Putin’s early advocacy of democratic and economic reforms as much as his stylistic differences from the haphazard Yeltsin. Yet, by 2003, this optimism was overshadowed by Putin’s quasi-Soviet clampdown on media freedoms and opposition protests, and his pursuit of foreign investors and Russia’s newly minted oligarchs. Although he opposed the Iraq invasion, Putin used Bush’s ‘war on terror’ to justify his Chechnya policy, and cited Guantánamo Bay to rebuff criticisms of his record on human rights.
Putin has exploited Russia’s petro-dollars (and US unpopularity) to renegotiate what he sees as the parlous deals Russia made as the Soviet Union collapsed. As he told al-Jazeera, ‘Russia knows its worth. We will work towards creating a multipolar world … but Russia does have enough potential to influence the formation of the new world order’.
Since Russia’s constitution forbids 3 consecutive presidential terms, Putin must step down in 2008. Despite hinting he would like to stay on (and an approval rating of c.80%), few believe Putin will actually rewrite the law to do so. That said, aged just 55, it is implausible that he will simply fade into the background.