While alluding to the situation in the Middle East at the International Valdai Discussion Club’s 12th Annual Meeting in Sochi back in 2015, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin remarked: “If a fight is inevitable, you have to throw the first punch. I learned it on the streets of St. Petersburg.”
The world seems to be getting a sense of Putin now, as it did when he spoke of his childhood 50 years ago.
There was nothing inevitable about last week, as Ukraine has felt that first punch. A punch 69-year-old Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin justifies is in his country’s interest, but which very much serves his.
He was born in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, on October 7, 1952. The city was still recovering from the German siege during World War II, in which Putin’s older brother died and his mother, Maria Ivanovna Shelomova, nearly starved to death.
Putin was his parents’ third son but was the only one to survive. His birth was preceded by the deaths of two brothers, Viktor and Albert, born in the mid-1930s. Albert died in infancy and Viktor died of diphtheria during the Siege of Leningrad by Nazi Germany forces in World War II.
Putin’s mother was a factory worker and his father, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin, was a conscript in the Soviet Navy, serving in the submarine fleet in the early 1930s. Early in the Second World War, his father served in the destruction battalion of NKVD (the Soviet secret police). Later, he was transferred to the regular army and was severely wounded in 1942.
Post-siege Leningrad was, in the words of Russian journalist Masha Gessen, “a mean, hungry, impoverished place that bred, mean, hungry ferocious children”.
Putin grew up with two other families in a communal apartment, with a shared sink and stove but no hot water. Short and slight, he was always getting into fights with bigger and stronger children – a disadvantage he overcame by studying judo in the Russian martial art sambo.
Education and early career
Vladimir Putin studied law at Leningrad State University, where his tutor was Anatoly Sobchak, who later became one of the leading reform politicians of the perestroika period.
Putin, who still walks in an upright posture, served 15 years as a foreign intelligence officer for the KGB (Committee for State Security), including six years in Dresden, East Germany. From there, he witnessed the fall of Berlin Wall; the fall of communism.
In 1990, he retired from active KGB service with the rank of Leningrad State University. At the time, he was in charge of the institution’s external relations.
Soon afterwards, Putin became an advisor to Sobchak, the first democratically elected Mayor of St. Petersburg. He quickly won Sobchak’s confidence and became known for his ability to get things done. By 1994, he had risen to the post of First Deputy Mayor.
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In 1996, Putin moved to Moscow, where he joined the presidential staff as deputy to Pavel Borodin, the Kremlin’s Chief Administrator. He rose through the administrative ranks, serving as Director of Federal Security Service and secretary of the influential Security Council.
Putin’s public approval ratings soared when he launched a well-organised military operation against secessionist rebels in Chechnya.
First Premiership: 1999
His entry into the helm of Russia was quite eventful. On August 9, 1999, Putin was appointed one of three First Deputy Prime Ministers, and later on that day, was appointed acting Prime Minister of the Government of the Russian Federation by the then-President Boris Yeltsin.
Yeltsin also announced that he wanted to see Putin as his successor, and it is no wonder that later on that same day, Putin agreed to run for presidency.
On August 16, 1999, the State Duma (Lower House of the Federal Assembly of Russia) approved his appointment as Prime Minister with 233 votes. A simple majority of 226 votes was required, making him Russia’s fifth Prime Minister in less than 18 months.
Acting presidency: 1999 – 2000
On December 31, 1999, Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly announced his resignation, and according to the Constitution of Russia, Putin became Acting President of the Russian Federation.
On first day in office, the first Presidential Decree that Putin signed was titled “On guarantees for the former President of the Russian Federation and the members of his family.”
That decree ensured that “corruption charges against the outgoing President and his relatives would not be pursued”. Upon assuming the presidential role, Putin went on a previously scheduled visit to Russian troops in Chechnya.
Putin’s way of operating was clear from the start. He reportedly tightened his grip on freedom of the media while enjoying the lack of genuine opposition.
First presidential term: 2000 – 2004
Yeltsin’s resignation in 1999 resulted in the presidential elections being held within three months; on March 26, 2000. Putin won in the first round with about 53 per cent of the vote. As President, he sought to end corruption and create a strongly regulated market economy.
Second presidential term: 2004 – 2008
On March 14, 2004, Putin was re-elected as President for a second term; a landslide victory that saw him gunner 71.9 per cent of the vote. The near 10-year period prior to the rise of Putin after the dissolution of the Soviet rule was a time of upheaval in Russia. In a 2005 Kremlin speech, Putin characterised the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the Twentieth Century.”
Second Premiership: 2008 – 2012
He was barred from a third consecutive term by the Constitution. Putin’s focus on his own power and wealth has, however, been relentless.
By 2008, when his two terms were up, Dmitry Medvedev replaced him as President. But in a power-switching operation on May 8, 2008, only a day after handing the presidency to Medvedev, Putin was appointed Prime Minister, and everyone knew who was in-charge.
Putin said that overcoming the consequences of the world economic crisis was one of the two main achievements of his second premiership. The other was stabilising the size of Russia’s population between 2008 and 2011 following a long period of demographic collapse that began in the 1990s.
His second premiership was not without scandal. After the parliamentary elections on December 4, 2011, tens of thousands of Russians engaged in protests against alleged electoral fraud, the largest protests in Putin’s time. Protesters criticised Putin and the United Russia and demanded annulment of the election results.
Third presidential term: 2012 – 2018
While speaking at the United Russia Party Congress on September 24, 2011, Medvedev announced that he would recommend the party nominates Putin as its presidential candidate.
He did not shy away from revealing that the two men had long ago cut a deal to allow Putin run for President in 2012. This switch was termed as “Rokirovka” by the media, the Russian term for the chess move “castling”.
But it wouldn’t take long before anti-Putin protests took place during and directly after the presidential campaign.
An estimated 8,000 to 20,000 protesters gathered in Moscow on May 6, when 80 people were injured in confrontations with police. Four hundred and fifty people were arrested while another 120 arrests took place the following day.
Putin’s presidency was inaugurated in the Kremlin on May 7, 2012. On his first day as President, Putin issued 14 presidential decrees, including a lengthy one stating wide-ranging goals for the Russian economy.
Fourth presidential term: 2018 to date
As the March 2018 presidential election approached, it seemed all but certain that Putin would win a fourth presidential term by a wide margin. Alexei Navalny, the face of the opposition, was barred from running, and the Communist candidate, Pavel Grudinin, faced incessant criticism from the state-run media.
Vladimir Putin gained 76 per cent of the votes in the first round of the March 18, 2018 election which attracted eight candidates.
The fourth inauguration of Vladimir Putin as President of Russia took place on May 7, 2018. The inauguration marked the commencement of the new six-year term of Vladimir Putin as President of Russia.
Putin to rule until 2036
In 2021, Vladimir Putin signed legislation that gives him the right to run for two more consecutive terms. Theoretically, this means that he stays in power until 2036.
Amendments approved by Russians in a nationwide vote will allow him to run for two more six-year presidential terms. If re-elected twice, and serves to the end of the second term, he will beat Josef Stalin to become the longest-serving leader of Russia since Peter the Great, who was in power for 42 years.
After Russia invaded Ukraine last week, the US and its European allies announced new sanctions on the Russian President, in a rare move targeting a foreign leader’s personal wealth.
But the impact of those sanctions may be largely symbolic. Although Putin is believed to hold billions of dollars in personal wealth, little is known about the exact amount or where it might be.
However American-British financier William Browder in 2017 testified before the US Senate, estimating that the Russian leader’s wealth hovers around $200 billion (Sh22.8 trillion) in assets, which would make him among the wealthiest people on the planet.
What's Putin’s problem with Ukraine?
Russia is resisting Ukraine's move towards European institutions, both NATO and the European Union.
President Vladimir Putin claims if Ukraine joins the two institutions, it would become a puppet of the West.
Putin demands guarantees from Ukraine that it will not join NATO, which is a defensive alliance of 30 countries. He also wants Ukraine to demilitarise and become a neutral state.
As a former Soviet republic, Ukraine has deep social and cultural ties with Russia, and Russian is widely spoken there, but ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 those relations have frayed.
Russia attacked Ukraine when its pro-Russian president was deposed in early 2014. The war in the east has since claimed more than 14,000 lives.
According to an article by BBC, in President Putin's eyes, the West promised back in 1990 that NATO would expand “not an inch to the east”, but did so anyway.