Vladimir Putin has been ruling Russia since 1999. In that time, he’s shaped the country into an authoritarian and militaristic society. Today, as president of Russia, he’s challenging the US-led Western world order by propping up dictators, tampering with elections, and invading his neighbors. It’s all part of his worldview, which has been taking shape since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. To understand Vladimir Putin, you need to understand how he saw the end of the Cold War.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, a 40-year-old Putin was in East Germany working as a spy for the KGB. By 1991, the Soviet Union had collapsed into a loose constellation of 15 countries, including what became known as the Russian Federation. Putin later described the collapse as the “major geopolitical disaster of the century,” lamenting that millions of his “co-patriots found themselves outside of Russian territory.”
The new Russia didn’t get off to a good start. It first had to sell off almost 45,000 businesses that had been owned and run by the communist government. The firms fell into the hands of a few opportunistic men, making many of them billionaires overnight. These men came to be known as the Russian oligarchy — and would later become crucial allies that helped Putin maintain, and expand, his hold on power.
At the same time, Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, was wildly unpopular, with many ordinary Russians seeing him as a weak-willed leader incapable of standing up to the US or protecting his country from terror attacks launched by militants from the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Russia’s economy went into a nosedive, and corruption was rampant.
Enter Vladimir Putin.
The former spy became the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in 1991. He quickly gained favor with the oligarchy by helping them structure monopolies and restricting licenses to their competitors. Criminal organizations also became very powerful during the post-Soviet chaos, and Putin helped them launder money and set up front companies.
This network of cronies helps Putin rapidly ascend to the upper echelons of Russian politics. In 1999, Yeltsin appointed Putin as his prime minister. With Yeltsin’s popularity in free fall, Putin became the face of a new Russian nationalism. He crushed the Chechen rebellion, flattening the capital city of Grozny and killing an estimated 80,000 people, and appeared on television nightly preaching his vision of a strong, internationally respected Russia. His popularity jumped from 2 percent to 45 percent in a matter of weeks.
On December 31, 1999, Yeltsin resigned and made Putin the interim president. A successful war in Chechnya had made Putin extremely popular, and in 2000 Putin was elected president.
He quickly began to remake the Russian state, enriching the oligarchs who supported him and crushing those who didn’t. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, was an outspoken critic of Putin, until he was swiftly arrested for corruption and sent to a labor camp in east Russia.
Putin also began to push his worldview outside of Russia’s borders. As a former Soviet spy, Putin was deeply skeptical and paranoid about the West. He was particularly concerned about the possibility of former Soviet republics like Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic states joining the NATO military alliance, since that would bring them out of Russia’s sphere of interest and place them squarely in that of the US and its allies.
In 2008, Putin invaded Georgia. Although the world erupted in protest, little was done to punish Russia, paving the way for Putin to annex two small parts of Georgia. His strategy was simple. First, Russian hackers stoked pro-Russian support in Georgia using propaganda and misinformation campaigns. When those demonstrations became violent, Putin sent in the Russian military. Six years later, he did the same thing in Ukraine, quickly conquering and annexing the Crimean Peninsula.
Putin continues to project power by propping up autocratic regimes to counter Western influence. He intervened in a bloody civil war in Syria by sending fighter planes and weapons to dictator Bashar al-Assad. Assad appeared to be losing to US-backed rebel groups until Russian help arrived, and he is now quickly regaining control of Syria.
Putin has also tightened his grip on his own country. With the continued support of criminal organizations, oligarchs, and the Russian security services, Putin has been able to stifle Russia’s free press while gutting its civil institutions and eliminating any semblance of political opposition. Critics such as journalist Anna Politkovskaya and political dissident Denis N. Voronenkov are murdered, their killers never found.
Here in the US, meanwhile, the American political system is riven by partisan warfare over Putin’s interference in the 2016 elections — interference designed to help Donald Trump win the White House.
Putin’s power has come at enormous cost — Russia’s population is shrinking, its life expectancy is falling, and its economy is in the midst of a prolonged recession — but ordinary Russians don’t seem to care. Seventeen years after Putin became Russia’s president, there’s no sign of if, or when, the Putin era will come to a close.