There is an almost instant recognition of the face. It’s the kind of face where a smile never quite reaches the eyes. But, perhaps, that is a quality one looks for in a good spy. And that, after all, is where Russian President Vladimir Putin got his start, as an ambitious and dedicated spy craft operative doing any job that he was asked to do. Before it disbanded, Putin had worked his way up to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the KGB.
Thirty years ago, Putin was a KGB operative stationed in Dresden, East Germany. It was by no means a glamour post in the cloak and dagger world he had aspired to since his teenaged years. But by Soviet Union standards, East German was living large. “The streets were clean,” said his then wife, Ludmila. “They would wash their windows once a week,” she said in in a book about Putin during his post-East Germany days.
He has come a long way since the days of punching the clock as a KGB everyman. And so has the world. East Germany, now reunited under the banner of a single Germany, is no longer. The Soviet Union is also history. Once an empire that included, among others, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus and ten other nations, today it is simply Russia. And this former empire is ruled by the one-time spy who somehow knew whose coattails to grab on to. The right coattails belonged to the late Boris Yeltsin who gave Putin his first post-KGB job. The ascent has taken him straight to the top.
He has consolidated power and holds a firm grip on everything from state media to the nation’s vast oil and gas reserves. “You can’t separate Russia from Putin,” said Dr. Richard Moeller, professor of political science at Denver’s Metropolitan State University. “He’s at the center of everything.” American intelligence agencies also point to Putin as the engineer of the tampering of the 2016 election that ultimately elected Donald Trump.
Putin also makes no bones about returning Russia to its Soviet Union glory days. Ordering Russian forces into Syria even with American troops in the region is one sign of his desire to make a statement.
Russia in Syria may look like a bold military step, said University of New Mexico lecturer Irina Meier but it’s just Putin’s way of creating a counterbalance to American military might. “He’s not militaristic. He’s pushing back. If the U.S. would respect Russia more, than Russia would not be in conflict in the world.”
While it is not known just how wealthy Putin is or how he attained his wealth, it has been reported that Putin is now one of the richest men in the world, occupying the same rarified air as Saudi royalty or high tech pioneers whose incomes float with zeroes. But back in the early nineties, he and his wife lived paycheck to paycheck, saving what they could to buy a car. It’s reported that when not spying, he would spend time looking through western catalogues keeping up on the latest fashion trends. But that was then.
Today, Putin is president of the world’s number two military superpower. While Russia may boast that its military is second to none, it’s economy is second to many. The United States and China are at the top of the economic food chain, but Russia is nowhere to be found. It ranks 11th among the world’s strongest economies behind Brazil, France and Italy.
In Russia, Putin is popular if you believe the polls. But he is also trending down. Statista, a company that polls Russians, reports that Putin’s popularity has plunged from a high in the mid-80’s in 2015 to the mid-60’s in 2019. The most recent poll showed him down seventeen points from the previous year.
“I think by making a delineation between young and old is really important,” said Moeller. “Older people and younger people are so divided.” What Putin provides, said Moeller, is stability for older Russians. They like their pensions and health care. For younger Russians Putin falls short. “Younger people want to embrace more transparent borders and that conflicts with Putin who is a cold warrior.”
Putin is anything but timid. “He has changed the Constitution,” said Meier. “He can be president as long as he wants.” There is little reason to doubt this. He was President from 2000-2008. He was succeeded by Dmitry Medvedev during which time he served as Prime Minister. After Medvedev left office, Putin, once again won Russia’s election as President.
Putin will continue to be a troubling presence to American intelligence agencies though perhaps not so much with President Trump who publicly seems to enjoy his friendship with his counterpart. Putin seems to adhere to ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ school of thought. He courts nations like North Korea and enjoys a stable relationship with China. And he not-so-gently pokes the U.S. with election interference while he flouts Russia’s growing footprint in places like Syria.