Putin applied himself to improving his position in the Soviet order and looked, once he graduated in law from Leningrad State University, to a career in the security services (KGB) as the best method of doing so.
Following initial duties dealing with Leningrad dissidents, Putin took up from 1985 to 1989 a KGB posting in East Germany. After the collapse of the East German regime, Putin moved to the international affairs section of his old university and within a short time joined the Leningrad politician Anatoly Sobchak as an aide; following Sobchak’s election in 1991 as mayor, Putin became deputy mayor.
His abilities were noticed in Moscow, and he joined the Kremlin staff in 1996 as an assistant to Pavel Borodin overseeing Russian economic assets. This post soon brought him to the attention of President Boris Yeltsin, who, in 1998, appointed Putin head of the Federal Security Service (the replacement for the KGB), from which post Putin quickly rose to be head of the Security Council in 1999.
These times were unstable ones for Yeltsin and the Russian Federation. Within a period of 18 months several prime ministers came and went. When Yeltsin fired Sergei Stepashin in August 1999, he appointed Putin prime minister. He was now in position for succession to the presidency, which unexpectedly came his way when Yeltsin resigned on December 31, 1999, and Putin became acting president.
A presidential election followed in March 2000, and Putin won convincingly. The backing of the security services and many economic reformers gave him a political base to overcome any threats from the nationalist Fatherland Front.
In his first years in office, Putin faced a number of crises stemming from the unrest and malaise of the Yeltsin years. Chechnya, controlled by Islamic militants, was clearly the most significant. He attempted to resolve the war, but terrorist bombings in Moscow brought a swift and punishing military retaliation.
In addition, he wanted to reverse some of the decentralizing traits of the Yeltsin years, and this meant imposing more Moscow control over the outlying regions through a system of appointed governors.
He moved against the oligarchs who had profited during the Yeltsin years. The crisis following the sinking of the submarine Kursk in August 2000 hurt Putin’s reputation when the government appeared incapable of reacting to the disaster.
In terms of policy, Putin wanted to restore something of the order and pride that had existed during the Soviet era. This meant that some old symbols of state were preserved along with the belief in centralizing control over both the economy and the media. Following Putin’s Unity Party landslide victory in the 2003 parliamentary election, it was suggested that control of the state media produced the favorable results.
On March 14, 2004, Putin won decisively his second term in office. He continued his campaign to strengthen state powers. There were also improvements in the justice system and reform of the difficult tax laws that inhibited investment and development.
Some see recent actions as a reflection of the antidemocratic instincts that lurk behind the scenes in Putin’s administration. Putin’s 2004 support of Viktor Yanukovych in the Ukrainian election was viewed by critics as an exercise in undue influence on the affairs of a neighboring independent state.
In foreign affairs, Putin built positive relationships with much of the West, including the president of the United States, although he opposed the Second Gulf War. However, after the events of September 11, 2001, he was generally supportive of U.S. action in the War on Terror, including the use of bases in former Soviet Central Asian territories.
His country’s own campaign against Islamic terror made him a willing ally. His provision of nuclear technology and advanced weapons to Iran raised doubts as to his sincerity. He also reluctantly accepted the U.S. abrogation of the ABM treaty as part of America’s missile defense program.
Putin cooperated with the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which now includes former Baltic Soviet Republics bordering Russia. Relations with Europe were strengthened by an agreement in 2005 with Germany to construct a major oil pipeline that should bring economic benefits to both Russia and Germany. Putin also attempted to build favorable relationships—economic and political—with his Asian neighbors, China and Japan.
It is too early to determine Putin’s legacy but he maintained his popularity with campaigns against corruption and the oligarchs. Economic improvements and stability were welcomed by a public often left in turmoil following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Although not an open democracy on Western terms, and with features that suggest the possibility of returning to old ways, Russia remains a world force and one that has the unrealized potential for full democratic development.