Vladimir Putin has been the president of the Russian Federation since 1999. He was one of three first deputy prime ministers of the Yeltsin government starting on 9 August 1999. The unexpected resignation of Boris Yeltsin on 31 December 1999 made him the acting president during the interim period lasting from December 1999 to March 2000.
He participated in the 2000 presidential election and won his first presidential term and pursued a re-election bid for his second term and won on 14 March 2004. The constitution barred him from running a third consecutive term during the 2008 election.
Putin was able to maintain his political dominance when the administration of newly elected President Dmitry Medvedev appointed him as Prime Minister on 8 May 2008. He successfully won re-election bids for his third and presidential spanning from 2012 to 2018 and for a fourth term beginning in 2018 and lasting until 2024.
Nevertheless, as the occupant of the highest office in the Russian government, Putin is also the most powerful figure in Russia. Of course, because Russia is a superpower, he is also one of the most powerful figures in the international community.
But how exactly did Putin come to power? Where did he come from and what did he do before entering the Russian political scene? How was he able to win several presidential terms? Why did former President Dmitry Medvedev appoint him as prime minister and agree to a shared and power-switching leadership with him?
From Spy to President: Understanding How Vladimir Putin Came to Power and Become the Most Influential Figure in Russian Society
Prior to Entering Russian Politics
It is interesting to note that Putin was virtually unknown in the upper echelons of Russian society and politics before the late 1990s. He started his government career in 1975 when he joined KGB as a trainee before working under the Second Chief Directorate.
He transferred to the First Chief Directorate as an officer responsible for monitoring the activities of foreigners and consular officers in Leningrad—now known as Saint Petersburg. He was sent to Moscow in 1984 for further training. He was later assigned in East Germany from 1985 to 1990 using a cover identity as a translator.
Not much is known about his exact roles and responsibilities as a KGB officer. There are even conflicting accounts. A biography authored by Masha Gessen claimed that Putin and his colleagues were only responsible for collecting and collating press clippings.
These clippings essentially formed a mountain of useless information. Markus Wolf, the spy chief of the Ministry for State Security of the now-defunct German Democratic Republic, and Vladimir Usoltev, another officer of the KGB, also downplayed the roles and responsibilities of Putin during his time with the Soviet Union main security agency.
However, journalist Catherine Belton explained that the downplaying of the exact nature of his work was a cover for his involvement in the coordination between KGB and the West German far-left terrorist group called the Red Army Faction.
Belton described Putin as a young KGB agent who supported the anti-western terrorist movements. But even he repeatedly mentioned that his time as a KGB officer in Dresden was uneventful. His autobiography provided details on how he saved files and destroyed pertinent documents of the Soviet Cultural Center in Germany.
The collapse of communism
in Eastern Germany in 1989 compelled him to resign as an active-service KGB officer out of suspicions regarding his loyalty. He later became part of the active reserves personnel and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.
He eventually resigned from government service after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991
and the attempted removal of then-Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev. He also explained that the rise of Boris Yeltsin to the Russian presidency was a factor in his decision because he did not want to be part of the intelligence services of the new government.
Start of His Political Career
Vladimir Putin started his foray into the Russian political scene in 1990 when he became the adviser on international affairs to Leningrad mayor Anatoly Sobchak. He later became the head of the Committee for External Relations of the city from 1991 until 1996.
He was also appointed as the First Deputy Chairperson of Saint Petersburg in 1994 and became the leader of the local branch of the political party Our Home-Russia. He managed the legislative election campaign of the party and the re-election bid of then-Mayor Sobchak. However, when Sobchak lost, he resigned from all of his posts in the city administration.
Putin moved from Saint Petersburg to Moscow where he was appointed as Deputy Chief of the Presidential Property Management Department until 1997. He managed the foreign property of the state and the transfer of former Soviet assets to the Russian government.
Boris Yeltsin eventually took notice of him beginning in 1997 and gave him several administrative positions. He was later appointed as the Deputy Chief of the Presidential Executive Office of Russia or the Presidential Staff and the Main Control Directorate of the Presidential Property Management Department in 1997. He held these two positions until 1998.
He landed several administrative positions under the Yeltsin administration. He was appointed the First Deputy Chief of the Presidential Staff in May 1998 and also became the head of the commission tasked to delimit the powers of the regions in June 1998.
The various administrative ranks he held during the late 1990s made Putin a considerably influential government official both in Moscow and the rest of Russia. Yeltsin also recognized his experience as a former KGB officer when he was appointed the Director of the Federal Security Service—the primary intelligence organization of Russia.
From Premiership To Presidency
Understanding how Vladimir Putin came to power and become an influential figure in Russian politics requires understanding the political conditions under then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Note that this has something to do with the Russian oligarchy.
Russian oligarchs controlled
Russian politics and society after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These individuals amassed wealth and power through their close association with Russian politicians such as Yeltsin and the exploitation of the transition of Russia from an economic system
based on socialism and communism
to a market-based economy.
These oligarchs called the shots. They were responsible for financing the re-election bid of Yeltsin in 1996 through dubious government transactions. The former Russian president fundamentally owed these individuals a debt of gratitude.
Yeltsin allowed these business oligarchs to gain a considerable level of authority over him and his decisions. These individuals were controlling not only several critical industries and sectors
in the Russian economy but also the flow of information and the political decisions and policymaking agenda of the Russian government.
The popularity of the Russian president was dwindling as a result of these oligarchs. Furthermore, the humiliating defeat of the Russian Armed Forces
in the First Chechen War that lasted in 1996 affected further the confidence of the public.
Yeltsin appointed Putin as one of the three first deputy prime ministers of his government in August 1999. Some oligarchs claimed that they were responsible for the entire selection process and for influencing the final decision. As the second-highest ranking official and with Yeltsin losing his grip, he revived the military campaign in Chechnya.
His predecessors refused to condone the reinvasion of Chechnya. But Putin was different. He asked for the military to give him their full support in exchange for allowing them to avenge their fallen brothers and granting them a free reign.
The move proved to be beneficial to the political career of Vladimir Putin. He gained the full support of the military by raising their spirits while earning admiration from the public. In December 1991, Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned as a president via a televised public appearance. Putin was selected to become the acting president.
Note that Yeltsin also announced that he wanted Putin to become his successor. Putin agreed to run for the presidency in the coming election. Some Russian oligarchs claimed that they played a central role in making him the acting president.
Vladimir Putin and the Oligarchs
Putin won the election held on 26 March 2000 with 53 percent of the total votes. He was starting to become popular in Russia. Part of this newfound fame stemmed from his law-and-order image and his unmoved resolve to the Second Chechen War. These two were also the reason the ministers voted him to become the acting president before the election.
However, when he became the elected president, he had to deal with Russian oligarchs who held a seeming unchallenged authority over the different aspects of Russian politics and society. He wanted to control these individuals and change the status quo.
A power struggle ensued between him and the oligarchs. But Putin played his cards right. He used several strategies to keep the first-generation oligarchs under control by exerting political control while enriching a second generation of business oligarchs. One strategy was the use of all available legal tools to go after unrelenting oligarchs.
Some oligarchs were either driven out of business or forced to leave Russia under political pressure from the Russian government. Putin ordered his officials to find legal liabilities in the business activities of these individuals.
He also used a grand bargaining agreement. This strategy involves allowing first-generation oligarchs to keep their business in exchange for staying out of Russian political affairs and for supporting the Russian government. Again, similar to the previous strategy, those who refused were threatened political persecution using available legal tools.
Another strategy was the creation of second-generation oligarchs. Putin issued state contracts that allowed individuals or businesses to enter into government contracts and charge excessive fees in exchange for channeling kickbacks to involved government officials.
The state contracts effectively made a new breed of Russian entrepreneurs rich. Several individuals close to the Russian president were able to amass wealth through these smart contracts and by virtue of their close association. The Putin administration marked a change in the dynamics between the politicians and the oligarchs.
Putin has succeeded in reforming the Russian sociopolitical culture while also gaining more power or authority through the machinations of the different aspects of Russian politics. This was evident when he won in 2004 for his second presidential term.
Remember that the constitution barred Putin from running for a third consecutive presidential term. The workaround was to push his First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as his successor. Medvedev won the 2008 election and the new Russian president appointed Putin as the new Prime Minister the day after he assumed office.
The overall dynamic between Putin and Medvedev has been regarded as a tandemocracy. Note that a prime minister is the second-highest official in the Russian government but this was not entirely the case under the Medvedev administration.
Both men seemed to share a similar level of powers. However, other political analysts and commentators explained that Putin was fundamentally the de facto paramount leader of Russia who still called the shots and direct the trajectory of Russia while Medvedev was simply a figurehead or the notional president of the country.
Some have also mentioned that the response of Russia in the gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine evidently showed how Putin remained the real of state while others added that his official position made Medvedev as the sacrificial lamb-in-waiting.
There are also those who believe that the power dynamics between the two men had been stable because both shared the same values and mutual respect toward each other. Both are essentially like-minded leaders in general. Their similarities allowed them to approach certain issues and arrive at almost similar decisions. There was little room for conflict.
It is also important to highlight the fact that Putin was the most experience leader compared with Medvedev. He is also more popular with the public and has a stronger influence over other political actors. Medvedev was learning from him.
Autocratic and a Man of Action: A Further Look on How Vladimir Putin Became the Most Powerful Person in Russia
Putin was elected for a third presidential term in the 2012 election and a fourth term in the 2018 election. His continuous re-election to the highest office in the Russian government remains a testament to his popularity and the amount of trust placed on him by his people. But he was not an entirely charismatic and level-headed leader.
Part of the reason why Vladimir Putin came to power and became the most influential figure in Russian society is his image. Most of the people both in his country and elsewhere perceive him as a man of action. This started during the Second Chechen War.
He also took credit for allowing Russia to emerge from a global economic crisis that started from the 2008 Financial Crisis
and the Eurozone Debt Crisis
. He also mentioned that the stabilization of the Russian population from 2008 to 2011 following a period of demographic collapse was also one of his major accomplishments as a prime minister.
Autocratic leadership is also a defining reason behind the power of Putin. Romanian geopolitical analyst and philosopher Pierre Hassner mentioned that the policies of Russia under the Putin administration have transitioned to autocracy with some features of fascism.
The policies during the Yeltsin administration were also instrumental in empowering the future leaders of Russia. American academic and diplomat Michael McFaul explained that Yeltsin dissolved the Russian Congress in September 1993 and this decree prevented the country either from adopting a new constitution or establishing parliamentary democracy.
McFaul mentioned further that the absence of checks and balances due to the decisions made by the previous Russian president effectively gave Putin free reign. One of the first testaments to his autocratic tendencies was his seizure of national television networks.
He believed that the media assets would play an important role in controlling the 1999 parliamentary election and the 2000 presidential election. He later used these state-controlled media institutions to censor free speech and spread propaganda and other information campaigns aimed at promoting his image and projecting his political authority.
Pushing the Russian oligarchs into a corner has also been another demonstration of his autocratic tendencies. Putin succeeded in stripping these individuals off of power and influence to remove possible political opponents while further consolidating his powers.
The upcoming presidential election in 2012 saw the growth of individuals opposing Putin and exposing alleged corruption practices. There was also an allegation of electoral fraud during and immediately after the election proper. Putin dealt with criticisms by framing the situation as a divide between Russian patriots and Western-funded traitors.
After winning the 2012 election and becoming the president for a third term, he went after his staunch critics through new legislation that increased control over Russians with dual citizenship and non-government organizations receiving foreign aid.
The Putin administration also passed laws that banned numerous civil rights to include curtailment of peaceful public demonstration, criminalizing of unsanctioned rallies, and banning the demonstrations and symbols associated with the LGBTQ movement. These decisions created more opposition and affected the public image of Putin.
However, to divert the attention of his constituents, he directed the attention of the country
toward the internal conflicts in Ukraine, which resulted in the Russia-Ukraine
conflict beginning in 2014. He also ordered the annexation of Crimea
in the same year. The Russian intervention and subsequent military campaign helped Putin regain popular support.
Winning the 2018 presidential election was a testament to his success in regaining control over the Russian political scene. It is also interesting to note that the presidential terms have been extended from four to six years under the Putin administration.
Putin also signed a constitutional amendment in April 2021 that included new provisions that would allow him to run for re-election twice more, thereby potentially extending his presidency for fifth and sixth terms until 2036. The amendment also includes provisions that strengthened the power and authority of the executive.
The Russian government headed by Putin has grown more repressive. The crackdown on political dissidents has intensified. Independent media outlets have been silenced and several institutions have been designated as anti-Russian factions.
Vladimir Putin has been in power for three decades. The reason behind his unchallenged political authority can be explained best by different factors that include the decisions made by former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the favorable economic environment, and an intentional attempt to deter possible political opponents and silence existing critics.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Belton, C. 2020. “Did Vladimir Putin Support Anti-Western Terrorist as a Young KGB Officer?” Available online
- Braquinsky, S. 2009. “Postcommunist Oligarchs in Russia: Quantitative Analysis.” The Journal of Economic & Law. 52(2): 307-349. DOI: 1086/589656
- Gessen, M. 2012. The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. 1st ed. Riverhead. ISBN: 978-1-59448-842-9
- Hassner, P. 2008. “Russia’s Transition to Autocracy.” Journal of Democracy. 19(2): 5-15
- McFaul, M. 2021. “Russia’s Road to Autocracy.” Journal of Democracy. 32(4): 11-26