By General Oleg Kalugin (Retired)

On August 9th when President Yeltsin fired Sergei Stepashin and installed his new prime minister anointing him as his heir, a shock wave swept Russia and raised many eyebrows in world capitals. Who, Vladimir Putin? A lackluster back room spy—Prime Minister and future President? Incredible, absurd!

The reaction everywhere was almost unanimous. The media and the political establishment derided Yeltsin’s choice. Mr. Nobody, zero, nonentity, an errand boy, the family’s Chekist, a yes-man who’d say “it’s nonsense but I believe is it”—these are only a few epithets bestowed on Putin. Russian opposition parties both right and left condemned Yeltsin’s decision as a clear sign of agony of the regime. But Yeltsin, as usual, ignored his carpers. “I have confidence in him,” he solemnly declared. It took awhile for the passions to subside before people started asking questions in earnest about the least known leader in the young history of Russia as a democracy.

Born October 7, 1952 in Leningrad, Putin graduated from the law faculty of the Leningrad State university and was inducted in the KGB in the same year. After training in the intelligence school and working at the First Department of the Leningrad Regional KGB office, he was posted in 1984 to East German city of Dresden under cover of deputy director of the House of Friendship in charge of management and business contracts. There is nothing on the record which would suggest he succeeded as a spy.

With the collapse of the East German regime he was recalled to Leningrad in 1990, put in the KGB reserve and assigned to his Alma Mater as an officer in charge of International Relations. At the university he met his former professor Anatoly Sobchak, who was running for mayor of the city. Putin actively supported Sobchak’s election campaign and was subsequently rewarded by a promotion, this time outside the KGB which he left in 1991 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. His new job of Chairman of the Committee of Foreign Relations in the Mayor’s office made him an influential figure in the City. Soon afterward he was promoted again and be came Sobchak’s deputy.

In this capacity, Putin preferred to remain in the shadow of his boss, but he quickly made himself indispensable in managing municipal affairs. He continued to oversee the city’s relations with foreign countries and promoting commercial ties. He helped Sobchak lay the foundations of a market economy. When Sobchak did not want to deal with the media he sent the dour Putin who would scowl, say nothing and scare the more timid away. Occasionally, he even chaired meetings of the city administration. Sobchak brushed aside liberal critics who would remind him of Putin’s KGB past. “He is not a KGB man He is my pupil,” he would say.

Because he supervised the export import operations, Putin at one point became a target of investigation by St. Petersburg legislators. He was accused of issuing export licenses on raw materials and non-ferrous metals without proper authorization and in violation of existing regulations. Questions were also raised regarding his licensing practices of the city’s casinos. One of Putin’s close associates a police officer by the name Tsepov, was charged with criminal offense for gross irregularities and manipulations with the casinos money. He later escaped from Russia and found refuge in the Czech Republic.

Another, still unresolved issue affecting Putin’s reputation was his alleged involvement in the dubious privatization of The Baltic Shipping Line and a top-class hotel “Astoria.” Several members of the St. Petersburg City Council suggested that he resign, but he refused. He was saved from further troubles thanks to personal intervention of Sobchak who in defiance of the legislators appointed Putin his first deputy. Following this episode, the Committee for the Administration of City Property and several insurance funds formed a joint-stock venture and a bank called The St. Petersburg Bank for Reconstruction and Development associated as a partner with the World Bank. With the support of the Central Bank President Viktor Gerashchenko, Putin was brought in the Bank as a member of the Supervisory Council.

After Sobchak’s defeat in the 1996 gubernatorial election Putin resigned. It soon became clear that he had no future in his native town. It was Anatoly Chubais, Russia’s privatization wizard who helped him move to Moscow and get a position in the Kremlin’s influential business administration department as deputy of Pavel Borodin, the man who three years later will be in the limelight for the biggest corruption scandal involving billions of laundered or looted dollars. In Borodin’s office Putin handled the problems of Russian property abroad. In a few months he was transferred to Yeltsin’s administration as head of the Control Department, and influential watchdog body. With his new assignment Putin was in effect put in charge of the Kremlin’s relations with 89 Russian regions. He proved to be a tough bureaucrat who resisted giving more power to the country’s independent-minded regional leaders. In 1998, he was promoted to Deputy chief of the presidential administration but soon thereafter got a new appointment — this time Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) replacing army general Nikolai Kovalev. Said the KGB Lieutenant-Colonel in reserve with relish and relief, “I returned home.”

To the KGB’s old guard, Putin’s comeback as their boss was a shock. Many resigned, others, who did not keep their mouth’s shut were retired. By the summer of 1999 nearly 40 senior officers, many of them generals in early fifties, including several regional FSB chiefs (e.g. Krasnodar, Vladivostok) were out in the cold. They were replaced by more loyal officers, particularly by Putin’s former comrades from St. Petersburg, like generals Cherkhasov, Grigoriev, and Patrushev. The latter would land eventually in Putin’s seat.

To put down discontent and grumbling Putin took over other measures. He arranged for a regular and timely payment of salaries to the FSB staff. He made vigorous efforts to revive the flagging spirit of his subordinates by constantly reviving memories of their glorious past and the legacy of Yuri Andropov. He also initiated a major overhaul and streamlining of the FSB upper structure with an emphasis on the economic divisions, eliminating duplication and waste.

But perhaps, Putin’s most notable achievement lies in an entirely different area. In contrast to his timid forerunners like Stepashin or Kovalev, Putin did not have qualms breaking the law, if it was politically expedient and served the interests of his sole master—President Yeltsin.

When Yuri Skuratov, Russia’s Prosecutor General, launched an investigation of corrupted Kremlin’s elite he probably did not realize who he might graze inadvertently. As it turned out he hit no less than Yeltsin himself and his family. Enraged Yeltsin struck back. He ordered Putin to frame up Skuratov in a sex scandal – an old KGB method of compromising targeted individuals. In a clear violation of the Constitution and existing order regulating relations between the FSB and the Prosecutor’s office, Putin successfully carried out the presidential directive. The FSB bugged Skuratov’s apartment and country-house and videotaped him cavorting with two prostitutes in an FSB wired apartment. The tape was then released to the state-owned television channel and shown to millions of viewers across the country. When Skuratov refused to resign Putin pressured Skuratov’s deputy Yuri Chaika to organize a lawsuit against Skuratov by the two women allegedly abused by the Prosecutor General. Several months later, Prime Minister Putin rewarded Chaika with the post of Minister of Justice.

But before he started dispensing favors to his minions, he made a bold and extravagant move. During the impeachment  hearings at the Duma against President Yeltsin, Putin sent a letter to the Duma two Speakers and then Prime Minister Primakov, challenging the constitutionality of the legislation and offering the FSB opinion that the impeachment articles contains “significant errors of legal nature.” Undoubtedly this unprecedented act on the part of the security service was prompted by Yeltsin’s court if not by himself. But it firmly established Putin’s credentials as an impeccable executioner of Yeltsin’s will.

Elevated to a new status of the secretary of the Security Council Putin expanded his authority even further. At the meeting of the regional security chiefs in June, Putin emphasized the important role of the security agencies in overseeing the forthcoming parliamentary elections. Though he talked about preventing criminals from penetrating the power structures, he implied that the FSB will keep an eye on the fairness of the political maneuvering in he months preceding the vote.

In his first statements as prime minister he dropped a cryptic remark, “Next year when the Presidential elections take place, no one knows what rules they will be conducted by.”

Putin took over the reins when Russia was once again embroiled in sporadic military skirmishes in Daghestan, a Caucasian republic bordering breakaway Chechnya. He promised to end hostilities in two weeks. Instead, the fighting intensified, spread over other parts of Daghestan, then spilled over into Chechnya and has now dragged Russia even deeper in the war in the region.

The events that accompanied the war—a string of  explosions in Moscow and other cities and mounting casualties among civilian population and the military put the new Prime Minister on the spot. His initial reaction, to the surprise of the skeptics was swift and unequivocal: use all military power—first and foremost the air force—create a quarantine zone around Chechnya; no negotiations with the bandits, including moderate president of Chechnya Maskhadov; crackdown on suspects of Caucasian origin across Russia, even if innocent people may be affected. “Those who will destabilize the situation in the country will land in jail,” he warned. “Destroy never look back and stop” has become his motto.

For the first time in many years since the collapse of the USSR the Russians felt buoyed. The upper house of the Russian Duma in a rare show of unity applauded Putin. In his inauguration speech he pledged more support for the armed forces and the military industrial complex, more discipline and order reminding his audiences of the familiar slogans of Yuri Andropov, former chairman of the KGB and a Soviet leader.

He has been harping on these themes ever since. He vowed to preserve the freedom of the media but warned that he “will not allow chaos on the screen and in print.”

Putin seems to have no discernible ideology. He supported liberal reformer A. Sobchak in the earlier days and chaired the St. Petersburg chapter of the pro-Yeltsin block “Our Home Is Russia.” He admires Andropov and praises Vladimir Zhironovsky and his nationalist Liberal Democratic Party. He is proud of many achievements of the Soviet-era. “Russia’s aircraft are the best in the world,” he says and “will remain such.”

Unlike Sergei Stepashin, his glib, vacillating predecessor, Putin is known as a stubborn brusque, even ruthless man. He demonstrates somber, at times chilling stance in his public appearances. Some of his colleagues from the St. Petersburg KGB assert that he is a very dangerous individual, who will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. With many people outside the security establishment, his humorless, unsmiling, unceremonious and occasionally rude manners, inspire a sense of veiled threat.

At the conference of the Siberian governors, barely a week after his appointment , he did not flinch to interrupt General Lebed’s speech. In his own, five minute closing remarks, he stated bluntly that the funds allocated to the regions form the Federal budget were shamelessly plundered and that the Chechen terrorists will be smashed wherever they are. When someone in the audience tried to ask him about the Chechen militant leader Basayev, Putin nearly shouted, “I do not wish even to discuss aloud his name.”

Most political observers in Russia agree that Putin is unlikely to win over the governors’ hearts by the force of his personality or the way he treats them. In one of his interviews he acknowledged that he encounters difficulties in public relations. “I’m inexperienced as a politician,” he said, “and I do not always know when and what to say. But people who hide their intentions saying one thing, doing another and thinking entirely different do not deserve trust.” Indeed, Putin is a poor, faceless speaker, his vocabulary appears to be limited and often interspersed with vulgarisms and even prison slang.

His friends say that though he looks like a rigid robotron, when he appears on Television, he is “normal” at home, knows how to smile and laugh. They describe him as clever and cunning, liberal in private and hawkish in public. He loves sports, especially wrestling and judo. He had two daughters, of 13 and 14 years old.

In an overall evaluation of his character most of his colleagues agree that he does not generate ideas or inspire his subordinates to do so. He is essentially an operator, a fixer, a docile, disciplined executioner, totally submissive to his superiors guidance and control.

He was considered by many as an irrelevant figure until he showed his teeth. No wonder Yeltsin put just this man to pull the unruly governors back into line, change the political configuration in the country and stage manage the December elections. In a last-gasp attempt to block Luzhkov-Primakov’s victory, a new, Kremlin sponsored alliance has entered the race. Named “Unity” and assembled by some three dozen of regional bosses, it represents a political force behind Putin. In fact it may prove to be a strong fist Putin can use and rely on if things go wrong. The composition of the ruling body speaks for itself: Chairman of the alliance, Minister of Emergency Situations Sergei Shoigu awarded by Yeltsin a week before his political appointment the Star of the Hero of Russia, his next closest associates—an Olympic wrestling champion Alexander Karelin and former KGB and now MVD General Alexander Gurov.

Despite this move and a massive effort by the government controlled media to build up Putin’s reputation as a national leader. (In the last week of September his popularity in public opinion polls jumped from 2 percent in mid August to 17 percent, behind only Primakov and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.) Putin’s chances to stay in power after the parliamentary elections are pretty slim. Once the new Duma convenes in January, and few doubt it will be at least as hostile to Yeltsin as the present one, the deputies will most likely exercise their right to fire the government they detest without fear of retaliations from the President.

Even if Putin proves to be a more effective CEO than his hapless precursors, the very fact that Yeltsin designated him as his heir has crippled his future.

Two major events may keep Putin in the job beyond January: the speedy and victorious conclusion of the war in the Caucasus or the introduction of emergency measures throughout the country which will put off the presidential elections ad infinitum. Putin’s elevation to supreme power in Russia sends the strongest signal yet that his regime may contemplate a dangerous adventure and that policy of force is clearly in the offing. If only Putin and his masters find sufficient resources—political, military, and physical to act in accordance with their wishes.

Oleg D. Kalugin
Washington, D.C.
September 30, 1999

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Daily Report on Russia and the Former Soviet Republics.

Comments are closed.