Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Before we start can we just take a moment to see how funny it is that his first name and patronym are the same? I’ll never understand how he or Magnus Magnusson managed to inspire so much terror.
Putin was born and raised in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and studied law at university. He then went on to work for the KGB, a vocation which slow news days would have you believe still causes him to walk with a “gunslinger’s gait”.
Already on the first rungs of the political ladder by the time the Soviet Union broke up, it has long been suggested that Putin took the humiliating dismantling of his country very personally and that it has informed his foreign policy since. During the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, Putin saw his chance to annex Russian-majority Crimea and took it, later agitating for something similar in Donetsk and Luhansk. Prior to this he intervened militarily in Georgia in 2008 when the Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, attempted to bring the breakaway region of South Ossetia under control. Putin even opened up a second front in Abkhazia just for good measure. Bizarrely, Saakashvili is now the Governor of Odessa in Ukraine. That someone can hold two such senior political offices in two different countries in such a short space of time probably says a lot about how an “us-versus-them” mentality has set in in the region.
If you are also an aspiring megalomaniac and don’t really think that two provinces in twelve years is a particularly good record of expansion, remember Putin’s ace in the hole. Unlike many of his Western contemporaries he has the luxury of time. Whilst other leaders could be thrown out of office at the ballot box or are subject to term limits, Putin is not. Well, technically he is, but it doesn’t quite work like that. Putin became a full-fledged president in May 2000 after a brief period as acting president caused by the unexpected resignation of Boris Yeltsin on December 31st 1999. (Yeltsin, who was well-known for enjoying his drink, was clearly planning such an epic millennium eve party that he decided to call in sick to work for the rest of his days.) After eight years as president he was required to stand down, and did a job swap with his prime minister and bad-George-Osbourne-look-alike Dmitry Medvedev. Medvedev had the great idea – entirely on his own, and with no input from Putin whatsoever – to increase the length of a presidential term from four years to six. When election time came round in 2012 it was everyone’s favourite Vladimir who won the day, paving the way for his time in power to run till at least 2024, by which time he’ll be 71 and have been president for twenty years, longer than the previous four Russian/Soviet leaders combined.
In Soviet Russia as, they say, elections lose you.
It’s also worth remembering that Putin didn’t begin with conquering new territory straight away; he had to keep the remains of his own country together first. Early in Putin’s presidency Chechnya posed a real threat of secession and certain individuals within the North Caucasus seemed willing to resort to any means necessary to accomplish that. The 2002 Moscow theatre siege ended in the deaths of 130 hostages, although some blame was put on the way security forces handled the operation. In 2004, just months after Chechen President Akhmat Kadyrov was assassinated, over 1200 people were taken hostage at a school in Beslan by a group of 32 terrorists, at least eight of whom had been arrested and released shortly before the attack. The siege ended after three days with the deaths of over three hundred hostages, many of them children, and most of the remaining hostages injured. The way in which the security forces acted again came under scrutiny, with foreign journalists harassed, misinformation spread on Russian state TV and the suggestion that many of the deaths were caused not by terrorist booby-traps but by rockets fired by the Russian forces.
The reason that those extended presidential terms are a dead cert to be beneficial for Putin is because the opposition politicians in Russia are routinely silenced, as are the guns used to silence them. A prominent opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister, Boris Nemtsov, was assassinated in 2015 just one day after called for a march against the war in Ukraine. The war was a major coup (quite literally) for Putin but also a delicate balancing act. He wanted to appear to be bringing some of “old” Russia back into the fold, a popular move back home, but without admitting to the rest of the world that Russia was actually fighting the war on sovereign Ukrainian territory, despite all the evidence to the contrary. After Nemtsov was murdered Putin personally oversaw the investigation into the killing, an investigation which came to the unusual conclusion that the assassination was carried out by Chechens angered by Nemtsov’s anti-Islam remarks, especially his solidarity with the cartoonists killed in the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
And he’s far from the first person die suspiciously under Putin’s watch. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead as she was preparing to file a report heavily critical of the then Prime Minister and now President of Chechnya Ramzam Kadyrov. Ramzan, the son of former President Akhmat Kadyrov, was accused of endorsing the use of torture by his security services. Incidentally, Kadyrov was hand-picked by Putin who signed a decree removing his predecessor from office and nominating Kadyrov for the post shortly after he became constitutionally old enough for the office. In another coincidence, which is beginning to feel a lot less like a coincidence, Politkovaskaya attempted to help negotiate with the hostage-takers during the Beslan school siege but was twice stopped from boarding a plane. When she finally did manage to get on board, she was given a poisoned cup of tea which caused her to lose consciousness.
Then there was the FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko who was poisoned in London by radioactive polonium in his tea, something which is fast seeming like a more dangerous Russian drink than poorly-distilled methanol-containing vodka. Whilst Andrey Lugovoy was considered the main suspect, Moscow rejected a British extradition request, presumably thinking that the traces of polonium-210 found in the hotels he stayed in, restaurants he ate at, planes he flew on and his own admission to a Moscow hospital for suspected radiation poisoning were merely coincidences. Just to bring this all round to a depressing full circle Litvinenko had commented upon the Beslan school siege, saying that it is inconceivable that the terrorists responsible were freed without being useful to the FSB and that they were either coerced or allowed to carry out the attack as a false flag operation. It is a very easy thing to use the internet to claim false flag conspiracies for everything (Pearl Harbour, 9/11) with varying qualities of evidence to back it up. As a former secret agent Litvinenko could have known many things that made him an assassination target, but it’s not implausible that his insight into Beslan was one of them.
Of course all this is denied by the Kremlin, but Putin has presided over a culture of secrecy, confusion and crushing of dissent that at best has allowed these rumours to take hold and allowed many people to find them highly plausible.
And what about those stories that after a marriage to Rupert Murdoch and her brief flirtation with Tony Blair, Wendi Deng’s penchant for evil has finally brought her to a relationship with Vladimir Putin? Maybe not everything you read about him is true.
Bonus: It’s not really got anything to do with the article, but here’s an Epic Rap Battle of History.