The Chameleon in the Kremlin: Contemporary Russia under Putin

The Chameleon in the Kremlin: Contemporary Russia under Putin

New Millennium, New President: the Rise of Vladimir Putin, 1999-2004


In the 1990s, economic collapses and defeatist attitudes plagued Russia. Many Russian banks had collapsed due to mismanagement, as well as the rapid transfer of communist to capitalist economic systems. Russia no longer stood as a strong leader in world affairs. Instead, Russian wealth was held in the hands of a few oligarchs, while most of the country suffered from plummeting standards of living. Russia’s president, Boris Yeltsin, had been democratically elected after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But by the late 1990s, Yeltsin was in his upper 60s and ill. He increasingly relied on aides to help him with speeches, public appearances, and decision-making. In August 1999, Yeltsin appointed his Chief of the Russian Security Council as his prime minister. The maneuver surprised many within and outside Russia. At forty-six years old, Vladimir Putin was relatively young, and largely unknown to both Russians and foreigners. Four months later, Boris Yeltsin resigned as president of Russia and named Putin his successor. The following spring, Putin transformed from an obscure security agent to the leader of the largest nation on earth when he was elected the second president of Russia.


Learning Objectives

  • Analyze Vladimir Putin’s presidency in Russia.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Alexei Navalny: opposition leader to Vladimir Putin

Chechnya: republic in southern Russia that has long-sought complete independence

Dmitry Medvedev: president of Russia (2008 – 2012)

Georgia: small, independent nation in the Caucasus region of Europe

oligarchs: Russian billionaire businessmen who gained extreme wealth and political influence during the late 1980s and 1990s

Vladimir Putin: president of Russia (2000 – 2008; 2012 – Present)


Putin's Early Career


“Any cook should be able to run the country.” So said Vladimir Lenin about the egalitarian nature of the communist Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, workers were the backbone of communism: in ideology and daily life. Therefore, any cook, any bricklayer, any shoemaker would represent the interests of and understand the people so well that they could theoretically govern the world’s largest communist state.  Little did Vladmir Lenin know that his personal cook, Spiridon Putin, would one day have a grandson, named Vladimir, who would govern Russia.




Vladimir Putin was born on October 7, 1952, in Saint Petersburg (then called Leningrad). In his autobiography, Putin outlined growing up in a modest, communal apartment with his working-class parents. He described himself, initially, as a poor student who was heavily interested in sports. Despite Soviet policies of the day that curbed religion, Putin also recalled that his mother had secretly baptized him as an Orthodox Christian.

By his teenage years, Putin had transformed into a serious and inquisitive young man interested in Soviet politics. He excelled in the law program at Leningrad State University, and upon graduation, accepted a position as a security officer for the Russian foreign security agency: the KGB. Putin worked as a KGB agent for fifteen years. After retiring from the KGB, Putin returned to Saint Petersburg where he excelled in local politics.


Photo of young Putin's ID card
Putin’s KGB identification card. This card was issued to Putin when he served in the East German city, Dresden, during the 1980s.


In the early 1990s, Putin moved to Moscow with his (then) wife and two young daughters to pursue his political career. Seemingly out of nowhere, quiet and private Vladimir Putin climbed the political ranks, serving as an advisor to Russia’s prime minister at the time: Anatoly Chubais. By 1998, Putin had developed such close connections to Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle, that Yeltsin named him director of the FSB—Russia’s intelligence agency and successor agency to the KGB. Within a year, Putin had again climbed the ranks and was appointed Secretary of the Security Council of Russia. In that capacity, Putin would regularly meet with President Yeltsin, and the heads of Russian defense. Then, in a surprising maneuver, Putin was named prime minister of Russia by Boris Yeltsin. Although Putin was unknown and enigmatic to most of Russia when he stepped into his new role, he would soon make his name known across the country.


1999:The Critical Year for Vladimir Putin


In the fall of 1999, two key events occurred in Russia that launched Putin into the forefront of Russian attention. The first event occurred in August, just after Putin assumed his position as prime minister of Russia. An Islamist militant group invaded Dagestan—a Russian province in the southern Caucasus that is a mountainous region bordering the Caspian Sea. News stories in Russia proclaimed that the invading force committed atrocities against Russian soldiers. At home, Russians feared their country was weak and that it might be carved up as the former Soviet Union had been.

A month later, a series of apartment bombings swept through three cities in Russia, including Moscow. Over 300 Russians were killed, with over 1,000 more injured. No perpetrators were concretely identified, and ever since the events, there has been much speculation about who carried out the bombings. Some analysts even speculate that the bombings were a false-flag operation. They suggest that the Russian FSB had planted the bombs with the intent of placing blame elsewhere and generating support for Yeltsin’s failing presidency.

But despite these rumors and stories, most Russian eyes turned to a longstanding adversary: militants from Chechnya—a small republic in the Caucasus region of southern Russia, and a neighbor to Dagestan. It was the narrative the Russian government and media wanted Russians to buy. And to the average Russian, the story made sense. Russia had just fought a war against Chechnya under Yeltsin and left many people on both sides discontented. For although Chechnya operated independently, it remained a part of Russia. Chechens desperately sought complete independence. Russians, in contrast, sought more control over what they saw as a violent and unstable area. The competing ideas set Chechnya and Russia on a collision course with one another.


One of the apartment building bombings in the Russian city, Volgodonsk, 1999. When the apartment bombings struck in 1999, news circulated that Chechen militants were responsible. For Vladimir Putin, the tragedies were a gateway to unprecedented political opportunity.


Putin understood that Russians felt defeated in 1999. The bombings confirmed Russian fears that the world viewed their country as a place of instability and mass violence. Every stereotype and fear Russians sought to avoid rained down on them in 1999. The people desperately needed a hero. One who would give them hope for a brighter future, restore the glory of Russia, and crush their enemies. In the wake of apartment bombings, Putin stepped into the front of news cameras and overtly blamed the Chechens for the apartment bombings across Russia. Chechnya, he assured them, would pay for its crimes. He assured them that Russia would punish Chechnya and the forces that invaded Dagestan, that Russia would avenge the deaths of their soldiers, and that the country would persevere and reign triumphant. Confident, tough, but calm under pressure, Putin was exactly the leader Russians sought in their hour of crisis.


Map of the Caucasus region. Notice the colored areas are part of the Russian Federation. Chechnya is shown in yellow, while Dagestan is shown to the east of Chechnya in pink.


Following the apartment bombings, Russia launched airstrikes on Chechnya, and then a land invasion of the northern half of Chechnya. Thousands of Chechens were killed, with thousands more displaced in the war that ensued. In December 1999, Yeltsin named Vladimir Putin the “acting president” of Russia as he resigned from the office.

Facing an election that spring, Putin knew he had to demonstrate his strength as a leader. Under his order, the Russian military launched a massive campaign to capture the Chechen capital, Grozny. In February 2000, they succeeded. Although the war against Chechnya would continue for nearly a decade, Putin’s popularity exploded across Russia. Across the country, Russians turned out to vote for the next president. Unsurprisingly, and overwhelmingly, Putin was elected as president of Russia in March 2000.


President Putin's First Term


President Putin entered the Kremlin in March 2000 with resounding popular support because of his strong stance against Chechnya. But his popularity suffered in August because of a military disaster. The Russian nuclear submarine, the Kursk, embarked on a military training exercise with the Russian naval fleet in the Barents Sea off Russia’s northwest coast in the Arctic Circle. Despite its reputation as an invincible submarine, two massive explosions rocketed through the Kursk during the exercise. The explosions sunk the Kursk. Reportedly, nearly 100 of the crew were killed in the initial explosions and subsequent fires that spread throughout the submarine. But a handful of the crew made it to one of the submarine’s compartments that had survived the blasts. There, they waited for help to arrive, and undoubtedly expected it would come. The submarine had been part of a large convoy sent to perform a military exercise. Surely, the naval fleet would notice it was missing. Moreover, the Kursk had sunk in relatively shallow, if icy, water not far from Russia’s port of Murmansk. But no help came. Delays in communication extended from the military to President Putin, who was vacationing at the time. When news reached Putin, he was slow to report it to the media, and delayed help from Western navies, despite the fact Russian military reports claimed that they heard clanging sounds coming from survivors aboard the Kursk. After a week, Putin allowed Western navies to mount a rescue attempt. But it was too late. All 118 sailors had perished when the British rescue team arrived.


photo of Putin shaking hands with a older man
President Putin meets with family members of the sailors lost aboard the Kursk.


Anger toward the new president swept through Russia. Families demanded explanations and called for Putin’s dismissal. Fears that old Soviet practices of secrecy and cover-ups returned. Moreover, the disaster and Putin’s stagnation seemed to signal that Russia was still decades behind the West in its development. The event humiliated Putin and his popularity plummeted. In response to what he deemed excessive and inaccurate media coverage of the event, Putin clamped down on the media, and regulated coverage of the Kursk disaster. He later visited the families of the sailors who had perished and provided them with financial compensation. Since 2000, memorials have been created in honor of the men who perished aboard the Kursk.  


Russsia Engages the World: Putin and Foreign Affairs


Vladimir Putin weathered the shock his presidency received after the Kursk disaster. In part, he survived and rebounded because of his determination to make Russia strong in the eyes of the world. In particular, he concentrated on projecting Russian strength when dealing with foreign heads of state. In the early 2000s, President Putin emphasized the need for a “multipolar” world. By this, he meant a world in which there was more than one clear center of power and influence. One beyond Western Europe and the United States. He sought to connect with the West, while also remaining committed to the idea that Russia would again be a strong world power. Simultaneously, he believed that China and other regions in Asia should be strong world actors on equal footing with the West. And he was determined to develop Russia’s connection with the East, as well as the West.

Putin was initially keen to work with Western nations, including the United States. He even proposed to President Bill Clinton the idea of Russia joining NATO, by presenting a new Russia free from Soviet-era policies. Naturally, the conversation went no further.

Putin also kindled a relationship with President George W. Bush. One in which the younger Bush famously quipped that he had “gotten a sense of Putin’s soul.”  To Americans, it signaled hope that despite their long, adversarial relationship, Russia and the United States might be entering a new era of friendship and cooperation. Hope was further kindled when, on September 11, 2001, Putin was the first head of state to contact President George W. Bush and offer his support. He pledged Russian assistance in helping the United States and the West track down and eliminate terrorists. However, he stopped short of actually aiding the U.S. and vehemently opposed the United States’ war in Iraq.

Putin’s policies toward foreign countries in the first two terms of his presidency projected more than anything, the idea that Russia was a nation willing to work with others, regardless of political divides. However, he was always careful to emphasize that the new Russia, his Russia, was strong and would operate on its own terms. He would not be in the pocket of the West, as his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, was. Nor would he allow foreign governments to intimidate him or threaten Russia in any way.


President Putin shakes hands with United States President George W. Bush.


In 2005, he famously described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th Century.” While that quote has often been used to assess actions later undertaken by him, it is equally important to showcase his message at the time. For Putin, who had grown up in the communist Soviet Union, he saw the collapse of the state as a major blow to Russian strength and international prestige. He also saw it as artificially bolstering the importance of the West over all other regions of the world. At the time of his speech, Putin wanted to alter both of those outcomes by building up Russian military strength and re-establishing Russia as a major global actor in a multipolar world.


For the Good of Russia?: Putin's Domestic Policies


The Russia that Putin inherited from President Yeltsin in 2000 was not one that anyone would particularly relish. Spanning eleven time zones, Russia was enormous. Much of its population was impoverished, unemployed, and frustrated. Russia writhed with violence, drugs, and crime, particularly in Moscow.

The life expectancy for Russian men in the 1990s was remarkably short for an industrialized nation. In 1999, the National Institute for Health reported that the life expectancy for Russian men was 58 years. The political and economic instability of the 1990s had prompted surging alcoholism rates in Russia, primarily among men. As a result, alcohol-related deaths also surged.

Along with the social ills of a massive, unstable country came an explosion in all types of crime. Organized crime, violent crime, and petty crime all exploded throughout Russia during the politically chaotic 1990s and into the early 2000s.

Politically, Russia also was rife with corruption at every level. Indeed, when Putin stepped into the role as president of Russia, his work was cut out for him. And it was far from attractive. The question on everyone’s mind was simple: would Putin hold out a hand for the common, impoverished, working Russian; or, would he align with the wealthy, corrupt oligarchs whose shady business endeavors resulted in their unprecedented wealth? Ever enigmatic, few people could guess Putin’s next move, and many underestimated the political skill of their new president.


Putin Tackles the Russian Economy


First on Putin’s agenda of domestic affairs was stabilizing and improving the Russian economy. The task was as enormous as the country itself. From 1917 – 1991, Russia had been a communist society in which trade and industry were strictly controlled by the government. Wealth was distributed by the government to individuals and families based on need and ability. Then, almost overnight, a dramatic shift in economic policies occurred. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 came the collapse of Russian communism. In its place, a capitalist economic system was installed. The lightspeed transition produced shockwaves across Russia.  Capitalism stood in direct opposition to communism. Instead of strict government regulation, capitalism favored the individual, private property, private wealth, and fierce economic competition. The transition left many ordinary Russians confused, and wondering how, and from where, they would earn enough money to support themselves.
The economic crisis deepened during the rise of a group of Russian oligarchs. Hyper-wealthy, fiercely intelligent and ruthless businessmen, these individuals had obtained their wealth during the mid-1980s and early 1990s under the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who allowed limited privatization of the Russian economy. These businessmen often lived abroad and brought Western products to Russia to be sold on the black market for astronomical prices. The same group of men also created vast oil and natural gas companies. As their wealth soared, so too did their political influence.

Many scholars claim that the oligarchs were the actual government in the 1990s, and Boris Yeltsin a simple figurehead president. In any case, one thing about the Russian economy in the 1990s was true: it floundered. Power and vast wealth remained in the hands of a very few, shady Russian businessmen, most of whom lived abroad and had foreign bank accounts. For the remaining 99% of Russians, life proved exceptionally difficult.


Putin Brings "Improvement" to the Russian Economy


Vladimir Putin had to improve Russia’s economy to remain in power. One of his first acts of business was to nationalize much of Russia’s energy sector. This maneuver allowed for the growth of Russian industries for the first time in over a decade. It created jobs and dramatically reduced unemployment in Russia. Global demand and prices for Russian oil and natural gas skyrocketed, in part due to the West’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, Putin was firm in his deals with the West. If Western nations wanted Russian gas and oil, they must pay Russia fairly. Much of the West complied, and to-date, Russia continues to supply most of Europe with natural gas and oil.


Chart showing growth of the Russian GDP between 1989-2017. Improvement and stability of the Russian economy is one of the primary reasons Putin achieved high popularity.


By 2004, Russia’s economy thrived due to Putin’s regulation of the energy sector, and a massive tax reform he undertook. Unemployment dropped, and the standards of living rose sharply. With these social gains, Russian people began investing in the economy, and consumerism boomed. The middle class expanded, and wealth slowly began to be more evenly distributed. It appeared that after a relatively short time of trials, capitalism seemed destined to triumph in Russia. In 2004, Vladimir Putin also seemed destined to triumph in Russia, as he won re-election and began his second term as president.


Restoration of a Dictator? Putin and the Oligarchs


Much of Putin’s popularity can be boiled down to two things: strengthening Russian prestige abroad and strengthening the Russian economy at home.  But his relationship with the oligarchs was complicated from the earliest days of his presidency. Behind the scenes, they facilitated his political rise and win of the presidency. But they were enormously unpopular with the Russian people. To remain popular, Putin needed to be seen challenging them. A closed-doors deal was struck between him and the billionaire businessmen. He would allow them to keep their personal wealth, assets, and companies in exchange for complete loyalty and nonintervention in government affairs. The agreement seemed, initially, to work. The oligarchs retained their wealth and pledged loyalty, and often millions of international dollars to Putin. It was corruption on a grand scale.  Putin warned that any oligarch who broke away from him would be severely disciplined. Very likely, his threat seemed laughable to the oligarchs at the time who were accustomed to dealing with the malleable Yeltsin.  They, like so many others, underestimated the strength and skill of their new president.

Famously, Russia’s wealthiest oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, broke with Putin. Underestimating Putin as a politician and former KGB agent, Khodorkovsky was arrested at gunpoint on charges of fraud and tax evasion. He was later tried and sentenced to ten-years in prison. After eight years, and much political campaigning on his behalf, Khodorkovsky was released and allowed to live in exile in the United States. He would not be the last of the oligarchs to pay a price for breaking with Vladimir Putin.


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