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Russia’s Vladimir Putin keeps Westerners guessing on his strategies, intentions
Strength quietly lifted former KGB yes-man to leader
Question of the Day
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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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