- - Sunday, April 13, 2014

MOSCOW — When ailing Russian President Boris Yeltsin named his little-known prime minister, Vladimir Putin, as his “heir” to the Kremlin in 1999, few understood much — if anything — about the motivations and ambitions of the former KGB officer.

Mr. Putin may be vastly more famous as president almost 15 years later, but the world still struggles to figure out his strategies and intentions. As Russia and the West engage in a Cold War-style crisis over Ukraine, U.S. analysts acknowledge that they often have little idea what Mr. Putin is planning.

“We don’t even know what game he’s playing, much less his strategy. That’s why he’s outplaying us,” said Clifford Gady, a Russia researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

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The answer is simple to many Russians who credit Mr. Putin, 61, with dragging their country from the post-Soviet abyss and restoring some of its international prestige.

Putin has no overall strategy. He has a mission: to save Russia and the Russians,” said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst. “He wants to see Russia become strong again.”

Pro-Russian militia engaged in the first reported gunbattle in eastern Ukraine on Sunday, leaving one Ukrainian security officer dead and five wounded, the interior minister said. (Associated Press)
Pro-Russian militia engaged in the first reported gunbattle in eastern Ukraine on ... more >

An acknowledged “hoodlum” in his youth, Mr. Putin took up martial arts at school to “assert my position in the pack.” His childhood fights instilled in Mr. Putin, now a black belt in judo and taekwondo, a credo that would come to define his long rule as Russia’s “national leader.”

“I realized that in every situation, whether I was right or wrong, I had to be strong. I had to be able to answer back,” he told a biographer.

After earning his university degree, Mr. Putin joined the KGB, an ambition born of Soviet-era films and books that glorified the secret police.

“I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education,” he later said.

But Mr. Putin was no Soviet superspy: He rose no higher than lieutenant colonel during his 16 years in the KGB and performed what he called “ordinary intelligence” work in Dresden, East Germany — his only foreign posting.

Despite his lack of notable success in the Soviet security service, Mr. Putin was a cut above the average KGB employee, said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor who now sympathizes with the opposition.

“Most KGB officers are unimaginative and speak somewhat banally about politics,” Mr. Pavlovsky said. “Putin isn’t like this at all. He doesn’t seem like your typical KGB officer.”

There appears little doubt, though, that Mr. Putin’s time in the KGB has a significant influence on his views and policies.

Putin’s mindset is that of a Russian officer who ended up as the president of Russia,” said Mr. Markov, the analyst with Kremlin links. “And as an officer, he believes that a show of strength is more often than not the solution to problems.”

Protector of the ‘Family’

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