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Vladimir Putin, from the KGB to the Kremlin

The president of the Russian Federation for almost two decades, Vladimir Putin, and his mysterious and murky rise to power from the KGB, have come under the spotlight in the wake of the outbreak of the Ukrainian conflict
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REUTERS/DENIS SINYAKOV  -   A participant carries a sticker with the word "Obey!" during an opposition protest on Revolution Square in central Moscow, 26 February 2012

Yumashev: "Putin wants to avenge 'the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century': the fall of the Soviet Union"

The president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, has been, since the dawn of his first term in office in 2000, an enigmatic and opaque figure. Inscrutable in the eyes of the press, Putin came to power in a very different way than his predecessors. While some encouraged bloody revolutions, and others waited patiently for his ascension in the communist politburo, just before the turn of the century, Vladimir Putin was handed the Kremlin on a golden platter held by none other than Boris Yeltsin

Since then, the current Russian president has only stepped away from the leadership of the Federation between 2008 and 2012 to serve as president of the Russian Federal Government - equivalent to the office of prime minister - due to constitutional restrictions on presidential terms. In these more than two decades, Russia has seen its economic and military sectors grow and an intense nationalist sentiment reappear among a large part of the country's citizens, mainly motivated by the speeches of the ecliptic leader.  

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AFP/ALEXEY PANOV - File photo taken on 14 September 2005. Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during an opening ceremony at the Guggenheim Museum in New York

Today, the Russian military's offensive against Ukraine has once again turned the spotlight on the unassuming president, and many of the Russian people may be beginning to question whether Putin's measures - which put Mother Russia's 'national security' above all other issues - are still legitimate. 

Humble beginnings 

As hard as it may be to imagine a Putin, who now rubs shoulders with the world's great oligarchs, as a humble young boy, the president's early life was profoundly marked by scarcity and poverty. Born on 7 October 1952, Vladimir never knew his older brothers, who died years earlier during World War II, and spent much of his childhood and adolescence in a communal flat in the city of Leningrad - now St. Petersburg - where he lived with his father, Vladimir Spirdonovich Putin, his mother, Maria Ivanovna Putina, and three other families. 

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PHOTO/AFP - File photo taken on 6 April 2000. Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) wears a naval officer's uniform while observing tactical exercises of the Northern Fleet in the Barentsevo Sea from the nuclear submarine "Karelia"

The young Putin was characterised by an innate rebelliousness until, in his own words in a CNN interview, the film "The Shield and the Sword", which was made in Leningrad in the late 1960s, awakened in him a strong desire to become a Soviet spy. "It seemed so unattainable, like flying to Mars," the president told the US media. In addition, the fact that his father was a former Soviet naval officer decorated for his service in the defence of Leningrad may also have influenced the young man's ambitions. 

From then on, Vladimir trained thoroughly in judo (a sport in which he holds a black belt) and sambo (a mixture of wrestling and judo), while completing his primary schooling at School No. 193, opposite his home, and later a law degree at Leningrad State University. In fact, his law degree allowed him to meet Anatoli Sobchak, the then professor who would later become his political mentor.

In 1975, Putin graduated in law with honours thanks to a thesis on US policy on the African continent.  

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MIKHAIL VOSKRESENSKIY/SPUTNIK/KREMLIN POOL - Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation
A translator in Dresden, Democratic Republic of Germany (GDR)

It is said that it was at the end of his university years that the young Putin came to the attention of the State Security Committee, more popularly known as the KGB. It was not until he graduated, however, that Vladimir entered the 401 School in the Ojita district of St. Petersburg, where he completed his operative agent's courses and became a lieutenant of Justice that same year. 

Between 1975 and 1984, Putin focused entirely on his work as a KGB counter-espionage agent in his hometown of Leningrad, except for six months in 1979 when he went to Moscow for a new training course. 

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AFP/VASILY MAXIMOV - Headquarters of the FSB security service, the successor to the KGB, in central Moscow on December 30, 2016

Then, in 1984, with the title of 'Major of Justice', Vladimir returned to the Russian capital to join the KGB's Andropov Institute (the Soviet Union's intelligence academy, now called the "Spy Academy"), to learn English and German. After spending a year at the Moscow school of the Security Committee, Putin was stationed in Dresden in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). There, the now president remained until the fall of the Berlin Wall (in 1989) under the identity of a translator, and carried out counterintelligence tasks by monitoring the loyalty of Soviet diplomats in the country. In addition, he worked to find and analyse information about an early North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which was already emerging as a major enemy of the USSR. 

However, some voices, such as Putin's ex-spy and ex-partner Sergei Kirnov, have claimed that Vladimir's efficiency as a KGB agent was not as formidable as one might think. In an interview with France24, Khirnov argued that the president "was not a good spy, he failed. He was supposed to stay in Moscow at the KGB's top headquarters, but he was sent to Leningrad and then to the GDR". 

However, in 1989 Putin returned to Leningrad again, where he became foreign affairs advisor to Rector Stanislav Merkuriev at his alma mater, Leningrad State University, and where he resumed contact with Anatoli Sobchak, who was to launch his career in Russian politics.

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ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/SPUTNIK/KREMLIN via AP - Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, poses for a photo as he congratulates former head of the KGB intelligence group in Dresden, Germany, Lazar Matveyev on his 90th birthday on the eve of Victory Day, in Zhulebino in Moscow, Russia, Monday, May 8, 2017
From spy to politician 

Although Vladimir Putin continued to serve the KGB on Soviet soil for the first two years after his return from the GDR, in August 1991 - after submitting his resignation request twice - he retired from the organisation with the rank of colonel. He had spent 16 years as a Russian spy. 

At the same time, in 1990, at the age of 38, Putin became an advisor to Anatoly Sobchak, chairman of the Leningrad City Council, and when Sobchak became mayor of what was then St. Petersburg, he became first deputy mayor and head of the City Council's Foreign Relations Committee. During these years, the man who would end up being the longest-serving president of the Russian Federation since the collapse of the USSR began a political journey that would lead him to become the Putin we know today. 

"Many former KGB agents, like Putin, had left the organisation, aware of its discredit. The fact that they had worked for the KGB meant nothing. Putin had shown himself to be a liberal and a democrat who wanted to continue with market reforms," said one of Boris Yeltsin's closest advisors, Valentin Yumashev, an expert journalist and Kremlin official, in an interview with BBC News. 

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AP/DMITRY LOVETSKY - Archive photograph taken in 1994. Anatoly Sobchak, then mayor of the city of St. Petersburg, left, gestures as Vladimir Putin, right, then deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, stands next to him during a city event in St. Petersburg, Russia

In 1996, Sobchak lost the election for the Petersburg mayoralty, and Vladimir resigned from his post and moved to Moscow - quickly jumping from local politics to the country's central politics - where he was appointed deputy head of Administration Property Management by President Boris Yeltsin. There he emerged as one of the Soviet leader's most trusted men, and from then on Putin's career in the civil service and Russian politics soared inexorably. 

Putin was appointed head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) - heir to the former KGB - in 1998, and in August 1999 he became prime minister in Yeltsin's government. However, since in just 17 months the president of the Russian Federation had removed five prime ministers from the Russian government, the arrival of Vladimir Putin did not arouse much interest among Russian citizens. 

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PHOTO/REUTERS - Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with former Russian President Boris Yeltsin at the Kremlin in Moscow December 31, 2000

This situation changed dramatically after a series of explosions in the cities of Buynaksk, Volgodonsk and Moscow in September 1999, which resulted in the deaths of almost 300 people and triggered the second Chechen war - ending with the independence of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and the restoration of Russian federal control over the territory. At the time, Putin's popularity soared from 2% to an impressive 50%. 

However, the discovery of bombs similar to those detonated in the other cities in the town of Ryazan, as well as the latter's links to the FSB, raised suspicions that the attacks could have been part of a false flag operation to motivate the Chechen war and bring Vladimir Putin to power. 

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AFP/ALEXEY NIKOLSKY - Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov (R) speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the state residence in Novo-Ogaryovo, outside Moscow, on August 31, 2019

Moreover, the rapid leap from a planned communist economy to a free market economy was being led by a new circle of young reformers - oligarchs - including the current president, but for the long-serving Boris Yeltsin it meant the loss of much of his support and a weakening of his political position. Partly motivated by these issues, on New Year's Eve 1999, during the then president's televised address, Yeltsin announced his resignation from the political sphere and appointed Vladimir Putin as interim president. 

"Yeltsin had several candidates in mind, such as Boris Nemtsov, Sergei Stepashin and Nikolai Aksenenko. Yeltsin and I talked a lot about his possible successors. And eventually we talked about Putin," Valentin Yumashev recalled. 

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AFP/DIMITAR DILKOFF - General view of the Kremlin, Red Square and St Basil's Cathedral in central Moscow on 22 February 2022
The economic momentum of the first two presidential terms (2000 - 2008) 

Following the elections of 26 March 2000, Putin became the elected president of the Russian Federation with more than 52% of the vote. In his first term (2000-2004), the new leader would make clear his intentions to push for a stronger central power under the premise that national interests and security should take precedence over all other issues. Thus, Putin unified laws across the country, limited the influence of the oligarchs in a way that he had not even remotely considered before, and consolidated Russia's "verticality of power". 

Moreover, in this first term, Putin made his first visits to Western capitals - such as Rome, Madrid, London, and even Berlin - and held the first summit of heads of state of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Moscow. 

In the March 2004 elections, more than 70 percent of Russian voters returned Vladimir Putin to the presidency, a period in which he was forced to deal with the Beslan school hostage crisis, an incident that left more than 330 people dead. During his term in office, Putin also launched the 2005 National Priority Projects, which were intended to boost the country's health, education, agriculture and housing sectors. 

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PHOTO/REUTERS - A man looks out his window surrounded by newly created graffiti depicting the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian flag, on the wall of a residential building in the Crimean port of Sevastopol file photo May 13, 2014

During these eight years, Russia's economic growth rates were remarkably high, with the country's GDP rising by more than 70 percent and the poverty rate falling by about half. Another cause of this development was also the end of a poorly planned system. But all this progress could not prevent Putin from running for president again for constitutional reasons. 

Article 81

1. The President of the Russian Federation shall be elected for a term of four years by the citizens of the Russian Federation on the basis of the right of universal, equal and direct suffrage by secret ballot.

2. Any citizen of the Russian Federation who is not younger than 35 years of age and has been a permanent resident of the Russian Federation for at least ten years shall be eligible for election as President of the Russian Federation.

3. The same person may not serve as President of the Russian Federation for more than two consecutive terms.

According to the Russian constitution, a federal president cannot be re-elected for a third consecutive term, so Putin pushed for the candidacy of Dmitry Medvedev in the 2008 elections, who would win the elections and appoint Vladimir as head of government between 2008 and 2012. 

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AFP/AFP - A chronology of Vladimir Putin's 20 years as Russia's leader
Back in the Kremlin (2012 - 2022)

In 2012, Putin once again ran for the Russian presidency for the United Russia party, beating Russian Communist Party leader Guennadi Ziuganov, ultra-nationalist Vladimir Yirinovsky and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov to win with 63.6 per cent of the vote. These results prompted accusations of electoral fraud by the opposition.

In his third term in office, Putin took up the annexation of the geopolitically strategic Crimean peninsula. A territory that had hitherto belonged to Ukrainian territory, and whose invasion in 2014 resulted in more than 9,000 deaths. This military operation dealt a severe blow to Putin's image in the international community, which imposed heavy economic sanctions against Moscow, but did not lead to a loss of support within its own borders. On the contrary. In the 2018 elections, the president was re-elected by more than 76 per cent of the vote, although these elections registered the lowest turnout to date. 

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PHOTO/KREMLIN - Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during the parade commemorating the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II, in Red Square, Moscow, Russia
Putin's expansionism

One of the reasons that could explain Vladimir Putin's popularity among Russian citizens rests on the president's discourse on confrontation with the West. According to Putin, the expansionist and imperialist policy that determines the Kremlin's roadmap is nothing more than a response to external border threats that endanger the country's security. 

Moreover, as Putin himself said at a mass rally after the annexation of Crimea, Moscow is trying to restore "a part of Russia's historical empire". Based on strong nationalism, Putin maintains the existence of a "russkii mir" (Russian world) that, united, could restore Mother Russia to the lost greatness of the tsars. In this sense, territories such as the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria - with its capital in Grozny -, or Crimea and the Ukrainian Donbas would be nothing more than territories "wrested" from Moscow. This is a twist on the expansionism devised by the Kremlin and narratively adapted to the 21st century. 

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AFP/AFP - Evolution of Russian influence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991
Hailed or disowned?

Despite the many accusations made by leading personalities, international organisations and the media about Vladimir Putin's violations of human rights and freedoms - mainly religious - the truth is that the Russian president's perception is highly controversial. Especially when it comes to his country's population. 

Throughout his four terms in office, which have seen him head the Russian Federation for almost two decades - making him the second longest-serving Russian leader after Josef Stalin - Russian society has strongly supported his position through the ballot box. In addition, his influence as leader of the country that controls Europe's main oil and natural gas reserves has led to Vladimir Putin being named the most powerful person in the world four times between 2013 and 2016. 

In 2007 he was named Time magazine's Person of the Year, in 2011 he was awarded the Confucius Peace Prize by the China Center for International Peace Studies, and in 2014 he was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

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REUTERS/SHAMIL ZHUMATO - A woman holds a portrait of Russia's President Vladimir Putin during celebrations in the main square of the Crimean city of Simferopol, file photo March 21, 2014

However, the implementation of anti-democratic measures, his statements in events such as the Beslan school massacre, the murder of journalist Ana Politkovskaya - who died in strange circumstances - and the sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2000, as well as his partisan use of justice and control of the media, have earned him strong criticism and opposition. Especially outside the country, where several experts have described some of his policies as a step backwards in terms of democracy. 

The new Tsar's private life

Meanwhile, the president's private life has been a mystery in almost every sense. A mysterious haze of half-baked anecdotes hides a three-decade marriage to Liudmila Pútina, the paternity of Maria Vorontsova and Yekaterina Tikhonova - with whom he has never been seen in public -, and thousands of rumours about his possible affairs and an incalculable fortune. 

Thus, in addition to the list of women with whom the president may have had affairs - including Olympic medallist Alina Kabayeva, who between 2007 and 2014 was a member of the Russian Parliament -, there are theories that claim that Vladimir may have a net worth of more than 35 billion euros, as explained by author Karen Dawisha in her book 'Putin's Kleptocracy'. A figure that does not match that declared by the president, who claims to receive around 118,000 euros a year for his position as president of the Federation. 

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ALEXEI DRUZHININ, SPUTNIK, KREMLIN via AP - Russian President Vladimir Putin, foreground right, and Lyudmila Narusova, widow of former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, foreground left, lay flowers at the memorial to Anatoly Sobchak to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his death in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020

Other voices, such as the investor in Russia, Bill Browder, stated before the US Senate in 2017 that Vladimir Putin's fortune is around 200 billion dollars (around 180 billion euros).

However, no one has dared to make public deeper enquiries into his private life since the Russian media outlet Moskovski Korrespondent revealed the president's divorce and possible relationship with ex-gymnast Kabayeva, and soon after the paper officially closed down due to "financial problems". 

He is "extremely distrustful", Sergueï Jirnov described him to France24. "There are two categories of people Putin leans towards: childhood friends, like the Rotenberg brothers, and former members of the KGB. But he does not overestimate their loyalty. Yeltsin trusted his family members. Putin trusts no one," agreed expert journalist and Kremlin official Valentin Yumashev for the BBC. 

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AFP/YURI KADOBNOV - File photo taken on February 22, 2018 Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech before a gala at the Grand Kremlin Palace on the occasion of Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow
A mandate with no sunset

Now, ahead of the signing of a law that will allow Putin to remain in power until 2036 - when he will reach the age of 84 - the Centre for Public Opinion Studies has conducted a poll on public approval of his re-election. Three out of four respondents said they would be in favour of this appointment. Despite the fact that under his leadership Russia has progressively become a more authoritarian regime, "it is clear that Russians still trust Putin", said Valentin Yumashev. 

Now, however, "Putin's mission is to return to the past. He wants to avenge what he has called 'the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century': the fall of the Soviet Union", the Russian journalist added.