Vladimir Putin, whose name is becoming synonymous with Russia itself, was a complete unknown not too many years ago. In fact, he was a most unlikely figure to rise to the leadership of one of the world’s most powerful countries, the largest by territory.
Putin’s life is a disquieting story of someone who fortuitously happened to be in all the right places at the right time to do all the wrong things for his country and the world.
Vladimir Putin was born in 1952 in a poor section of St. Petersburg, Russia (then called Leningrad when Russia headed the communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or USSR). He was the only surviving child of parents who lived in a one-room apartment. World War II ended a few years previously. The forces of Hitler’s Nazi Germany besieged this city, causing 632,000 people to starve to death, including his older brother Viktor, whom he had never known.
Yet today, in his “public service,” he has amassed, by various reports, the equivalent of 40 to 200 billion dollars, more than the gross national product of many nations. He is one of the richest men, if not the richest man, in the world. Putin is head of a kleptocracy, a thieving regime of corrupt leaders who exploit their own country’s citizens and material resources to expand their personal wealth and political power. How did this happen? Much of the story is spelled out in the 2014 book Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? by Karen Dawisha and the 2015 PBS Frontline documentary Putin’s Way.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, much of the world was relieved to enter a new era of a changed, civilly behaving Russia. The world was hoping for integrity, friendship, peace. But that’s not the way it’s turning out.
What is the story behind Vladimir Putin? His story gives us a glimpse into the kind of leadership we can expect to see rising up in the world in the years ahead.
From espionage to corruption in the mayor’s office
At a young age, Vladimir was already ambitious. At 16 he walked into the Leningrad office of the KGB (the Soviet secret police and intelligence agency) and asked to join up. He was told he was too young and to come back later. He did just that seven years after he got a law degree, and he was given a job. One of his law professors happened to be Anatoly Sobchak, later mayor of St. Petersburg from 1991 to 1996, whom he would then work for.
In the KGB, Putin monitored foreigners and consular officials in Leningrad. In 1985 the KGB assigned him to East Germany to work in counterintelligence. But in 1990, as the Soviet Union was coming apart, he moved back to Leningrad and took a job as assistant to the university rector while still, with the rector’s knowledge, working for the KGB in recruiting or spying on students.
Putin quit the KGB to work at Leningrad’s city hall where his former law professor Sobchak was mayor. With his foreign experience, he was appointed an advisor on international affairs. He was also responsible for promoting international relations and foreign investments and registering business ventures as chairman of the Committee for External Relations (or Foreign Liaison).
Russia was going through hard times economically in this period just after the collapse of the USSR. People needed food, but there was little foreign currency to import it for St. Petersburg’s five million inhabitants. A plan was hatched in which Russian suppliers would export raw materials and then buy food with the proceeds. The issuing of licenses and contracts for this came under Putin’s committee, which took in vast commissions.
But most of the promised food never arrived, and further corruption became evident as the scheme went on. The contracts were riddled with problems to the point of being illegitimate and not subject to suing for breach of contract. The raw materials had been exported at discount prices, and the food prices were inflated. Some companies involved were later shown to be tied to Putin. Some were start-up fronts that disappeared after moving many millions of dollars in profits to foreign bank accounts.
Despite the scandal, with investigators stating that there was 100 percent proof that Putin was directly involved in all this and recommending that he be fired, Putin remained head of the Committee for External Relations until 1996. He was made first deputy mayor in 1994, fueling speculation that Mayor Sobchak was involved in Putin’s criminal enterprise—or perhaps the other way around. Sobchak, Putin’s mentor, was himself accused of corruption and misappropriation of funds.
I actually shook hands and spoke with Anatoly Sobchak when he came to Los Angeles to speak at a town hall meeting in Beverly Hills in the early 1990s. Los Angeles and Leningrad were sister cities. At that time, I headed an Ambassador Foundation project in Leningrad for young adults working for Radio and TV Leningrad. Anatoly Sobchak gave an entreating speech to those gathered to invest in St. Petersburg. The climate “was right,” he said. In reality it wasn’t; it was fraught with corruption.
Allegations of Putin’s corruption were brought forward in a lawsuit, but nothing ever came of it. And when he later rose to the Russian presidency, it was considered “unseemly” to bring a lawsuit against a president.
On to Moscow and national prominence
When Sobchak left office, Putin moved on—from St. Petersburg to Moscow, where he continued his political climb in President Boris Yeltsin’s administration, which was filled with allegations of misappropriation of funds. Putin had watched Sobchak’s back, and now he was helping Yeltsin. There is one thing for certain about corrupt public officials: You must stay in power, because once you step down it is unknown what will happen to you. Leaving office in a coffin may be more preferable than going to jail.
Putin continued his rise. Among other appointments, he became the head of the FSB, the agency that replaced the KGB. In August 1999 President Yeltsin appointed Putin as acting prime minister of the Russian Federation. But a few months later at the end of 1999, Yeltsin resigned unexpectedly because of health. Vladimir Putin suddenly became acting president. The world was asking: Who is this man standing at five feet six inches? He looked inauspicious, and most on the outside looked on him as interim at best.
But within Russia, Putin was becoming popular because of his tough and harsh stance against Chechen terrorists in the late 1990s. His bravado resonated with the people.
Putin won his first four-year election in May 2000 with 53 percent of the vote. He was returned to a second term in 2004 by a whopping 71 percent vote. There was hope that this newer, younger ruler would be more like the West—democratic, forward-looking and capitalist. However, Putin was not interested in democracy.
His first act as president was to grant former president Boris Yeltsin and his family immunity from certain prosecution for corruption. Then he dismantled Yukos Oil, owned by the richest man in Russia, and sent him to prison in Siberia for 10 years over tax issues. He took away his multibillion-dollar company and divided it up among his loyalists.
Looking to revive former greatness, tensions build
At first Putin charmed Western leaders. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush were all smiles and hugs in the presence of Vladimir. They naively saw him as an ally and friend.
But that changed. Putin had another agenda. He felt that things that belonged to Russia had been taken away (such as the seceding republics in the USSR breakup), and he wanted them back. Resource-rich and strategically placed Ukraine was number one on the list. Putin staged a takeover of Crimea. He churned up a civil war in eastern Ukraine that for now has settled down, but the Russians are still sniping and killing Ukrainian soldiers every day during this “cease-fire.”
Putin wants Estonia and the rest of the Baltic real estate back. Estonia has a very high Russian population because many Russians settled here when there were open borders among the various Soviet republics. And many military personnel from Russia had been stationed here at that time.
When Estonia became independent, the Russians living here didn’t want to return to Russia because life was better in Estonia. Russia expresses desire to “protect” ethnic brothers left outside its borders. Estonia does not make it easy, though, as it has required that ethnic Russians learn the difficult Estonian language to become Estonian citizens.
Western antipathy against Putin escalated with the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) on July 17, 2014, as it was crossing over Ukrainian airspace. The West was getting fed up with his hostile, rogue behavior and applied sanctions against Russia. In addition, oil prices dropped sharply. The Russian economy heavily relied on oil revenue for operation, and this really hurt. The ruble was devalued 60 percent against the dollar. But this did not deter Putin. He continues on his course of belligerence towards the West.
He has become actively embroiled in the Middle East by establishing a military base in Syria to prop up the evil Bashar al-Assad, another strongman who has killed his own people and allowed his country to virtually explode.
In the March 2018 Russian election for president, Putin is certain to win again by a landslide. The people are behind him and give him high approval ratings for standing up to the world and seeking to return Russia to its former glory. Ironically, one of his opponents was disqualified from the election because of “corruption.”
While Russia has experienced some surface economic improvement, it is still a poor country with the world’s widest gap between the rich and poor. Just 110 people own 35 percent of the nation’s wealth.
A biography released about Putin when he became president tells a story of his early scares—a rat he had cornered in his family’s apartment building had nowhere to go and jumped out at him. Playing off this childhood nightmare, he wants it known that he will not cow to pressure and give up. His message to all: Don’t corner me.
Other national leaders strive for dominion
Strongmen like Putin beget other strongmen who, to stay in power, must both stand up to opposing strongmen and copy their behavior.
We are entering a time of the rise of other Putin-like leaders in countries like Turkey which, similarly to Russia, wants to regain the glory of the Ottoman Empire. Current Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan would like to make Turkey great again. Turkey today has only a fraction of the territory it had before World War I and has memories of the vast ruling caliphate. China has also brought forth a strongman in Xi Jinping.
Will other strongmen appear to counter the current ones? Will someone rise in Europe as well?
There is a move to the right to combat the ineffectiveness of parliamentary democracies that are not nimble enough to react quickly to the actions of others. One person to watch is a young man in Austria, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, who is rising meteorically as a leader. He has single-handedly “solved” the refugee problem in his country and is called the “Danube Messiah.”
Another savior from Austria? Germany turned to a previous Austrian savior in the years leading up to World War II, and it brought disaster to the world. Will provocation from the Middle East and Russia breed another European nightmare?
The world is going to become more dangerous with more Putin-like behavior. Once-powerful nations will be stirred up by nationalist fervor to seek their former imperial glory in Europe, Russia and Asia through economic expansion and military ambitions.
Where the real geopolitical power lies
As we see leaders come to power in the most baffling ways, we can reflect on the story of the prophet Daniel and the strongman Nebuchadnezzar, who acted like similar rulers of our time. Daniel, who worked in Nebuchadnezzar’s court, revealed the following to the king about the politics of his time and God’s involvement: “He changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and raises up kings” (Daniel 2:21).
The developments of geopolitics and the setting up of rulers are only according to what God directs or allows. Daniel then relates what God reveals about the future of mankind through a succession of strongmen through history, leading up to the time of Christ’s return.
Daniel later explains what everyone needs to know: “that the Most High rules over the kingdoms of the world. He gives them to anyone he chooses—even to the lowliest of people” (Daniel 4:17, New Living Translation). All rulers should take warning.
The corruption in the governments of this world will be redressed by a righteous kingdom headed by Jesus Christ: “And in the days of these kings [a final revival of the Roman Empire] the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever” (Daniel 2:44).
Yet there will be dark days before that, as corrupt strongmen vie to revive former national glory. Thankfully, though, their days are numbered!