Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, b. Oct. 7, 1952, became president of Russia in December 1999. After earning a law degree from Leningrad State University in 1975, Putin went to work for the Soviet KGB in East Germany. He remained there until 1990. Returning to his native Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) in that year, he became a top aide to the city's mayor, Anatoly A. Sobchak. Sobchak was a leading supporter of Russian president Boris Yeltsin in the new post-Soviet era. In 1998, Yeltsin made Putin head of Russia's Federal Security Service, the successor of the KGB.
In August 1999 the ailing president turned to Putin as someone on whom he could rely to deal with a rebellion in the province of Daghestan. He appointed him prime minister and endorsed him as his successor in the presidency. The fighting in Daghestan soon spread to the restless neighboring republic of Chechnya. There Putin committed the Russian army to a full-scale war against the insurgents. The war was criticized by Western leaders, who blamed Putin for widespread civilian casualties caused by Russian bombing. To the voting public, however, angered by terrorist incidents in Russian cities for which the Chechens were held responsible, he became a hero. In parliamentary elections on Dec. 19, 1999, parties loyal to Putin won the largest share of the votes, greatly strengthening his position. On December 31, Yeltsin resigned, naming Putin acting president. During the next three months, Russian forces continued to make progress against the rebels in Chechnya; they reduced the dissident republic to ruins in the process. On Mar. 26, 2000, Putin was elected president of Russia, winning 52.5% of the vote.
Putin’s rise to power had been helped by the "new oligarchs," Russian entrepreneurs who had bought up energy, media, and other companies in critical sectors of the economy during the chaotic privatization of the Yeltsin years. Once in power, however, Putin moved to curb their huge influence. He shut down the television outlets of the media moguls, sensitive to their criticism of his slow reaction to the Kursk submarine disaster in August 2000 and, more important, of his conduct of the Chechen war. He also had corruption charges brought against such energy magnates of Mikhail Khodorovsky. The effect was two-fold. First, media criticism was essentially suppressed. The last two independent television stations were taken over in April 2001 and January 2002. (The print media was left largely alone because of its small audience.) Second, the energy assets of the oligarchs, most of whom went into vocal exile (Khodorovsky was imprisoned), were taken over again by state-owned companies. These companies, most notably Gazprom and Rosneft, and their enormous energy reserves fueled Russia’s economic recovery; they also allowed Putin to reassert his country’s political influence on the international scene.
Putin’s political dominance seemed complete by the time of his March 2004 reelection campaign. With the media firmly in his corner, Putin's supporters won a majority of seats in the December 2003 legislative elections. The liberal Yabloko party did not field a candidate in the presidential elections, in which Putin ran as an independent. In the elections on Mar. 14, 2004, Putin won an overwhelming 71.2% of the vote. Accusations by his opponents of antidemocratic practices had no effect on the outcome.
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Putin had pledged joint action with the United States, NATO, and the European Union (EU) in the war on terrorism. This helped bring about (May 2002) a new arms-reduction agreement between Putin and U.S. president George W. Bush and a simultaneous decision by NATO to give Russia an increased role in its decision-making process. Putin believed that he was already fighting the war on terror in Chechnya. And this war continued to reach deep into Russia. In October 2002, Chechen rebels seized a theater in Moscow and held about 800 people hostage; some 120 hostages died from an anesthetic gas used in retaking the theater, a mishap for which the government was held responsible. Even worse, in September 2004, Chechen terrorists seized a school in Beslan, North Ossetia; more than 330 people, including many children, died as a result of explosions and gunfire as Russian troops stormed the institution. Once again the government was blamed. In the aftermath of this and yet other terrorist attacks within Russia, Putin announced plans to have the previously elected regional governors appointed by the Kremlin. He further called for the lower house of the Duma (federal parliament) to be elected entirely from national party slates of candidates; this would eliminate the local constituencies from which most of the independent and opposition members of the legislature had come.
Putin described the changes as a necessary part of the fight against terrorism. Critics, however, cited them as continuing proof of the president's growing authoritarianism. Allegations even circulated, though unproved, that Putin was responsible for the murder of some of his critics. These included, mostly notably, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot in Moscow in October 2006; and the former KGB agent Aleksandr Litvinenko, who was poisoned by a radioactive substance in London in November 2006. All these matters provoked expressions of concern in the West.
Putin’s relationship with the West had its ups and downs. At their first summit in June 2001, Putin and U.S. president Bush had major issues to discuss. Putin was angry about the U.S. abandonment of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 and plans to deploy a space missile defense system. Bush, for his part, criticized human rights abuses in Chechnya and the Russian clamp-down on the media. These differences appeared to vanish after the events of September 11, when the two leaders made common cause in the war on terrorism. Putin, however, questioned the legality of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq . He also began to give Western leaders other headaches. He pursued a deal to help Iran build nuclear reactors even as the United States and Western Europe became convinced that Iran intended to develop nuclear weapons. Finally recognizing a problem in Iran’s determination to pursue enrichment of uranium, Putin suggested in 2006 that Russia enrich uranium for Iran in order to ensure that it was peacefully used. When this was rejected by Iran, Russia signed on to limited United Nations sanctions against Iran but resisted tougher measures. In fact, in January 2007 it announced completion of a deal to sell air missile defenses to Iran. That same month the U.S. space missile defense system returned as a point of contention when the United States announced plans to deploy missile interceptors in Europe. In February Putin lashed out in a speech in which he accused the United States of attempting to establish a unipolar world. In a more conciliatory mood in early June, he proposed Azerbaijan as the site for a joint missile shield. When the United States persisted with the plan to place interceptors in Europe, Putin announced (July 2007) that Russia would suspend participation in the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty; the lower house of the Duma followed through on this threat in November. Putin continued to make somewhat bellicose statements. In February 2008 he condemned NATO expansion and the U.S. missile defense plan and claimed that a new arms race was under way.
As the end (March 2008) of Putin's second term approached, the Russian leader's future plans were the subject of intense speculation. The Russian constitution did not permit him a third consecutive term as president, but no one thought that he would surrender power. As expected, his United Russia party won the Duma elections on Dec. 2, 2007, with a substantial majority. Shortly after the parliamentary elections, Putin named a young technocrat, Dmitry Medvedev, as his candidate to succeed him as president. Medvedev immediately announced that he would make Putin prime minister.
Putin's autobiography, First Person, was published in 2000.
Baker, Peter, and Glasser, Susan, Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution (2005).
Herspring, Dale, Putin's Russia: Past Imperfect, Future Uncertain (2006).
Jack, Andrew, Inside Putin's Russia (2004).