Vladimir the Inevitable? Understanding the rise of Putin
At each stage of his rise to power, Vladimir Putin demonstrated an understanding of both the Russian psyche and the tactical conditions of the post-Soviet world.
Editor’s note: The following article is the first of a special CWR series on post-Soviet Russia, the rise of Vladimir Putin, the role of religion in Putin’s political project, the rise of right-wing extremism under Putin, and the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
It has been 16 years since Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin rose to the top of political power in post-Soviet Russia. Now, a reawakened, even revanchist Russia has asserted herself in Georgia, Chechnya, Moldova, Armenia, and Ukraine. Ancient Russian fears—of encirclement, of penetration by Western political and social values and practices, and of internal dissent and disunity—have reemerged. Despite hopes generated by the tentative democratic reforms of Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, Russia has returned to a top-down, or “vertical” authoritarianism typical of her past. A “little Cold War” seems to be aborning.
But if he is no democrat, what kind of leader is Putin and what kind will he be? Was he an inevitable choice in 2000 when he unexpectedly and quickly became the president of post-Soviet Russia? And, if so, is he the inevitable man of Russia’s future?
In this article I will examine the first question: how could an obscure Lieutenant Colonel in the KGB reach the top so rapidly? But before we begin, let’s admit that, as Americans, we bring some handicaps to this inquiry. I remember vividly the heady years of 1985-1991, during which I was several times in the Soviet Union, when the turbulence of the Gorbachev/Yeltsin era first cracked, then blew apart the brittle shell of Soviet power. As the final scenes of that history-making period played out, one could understand the exhalations of relief from the West, and from the United States especially, as the tensions of the 40-year test of nerves that we call the Cold War were released.
Americans, always ready to abandon any extended attention to affairs distant from their historically protected shores, promptly declared a new day, free at last, not only from the threat of nuclear war, but beyond that, from the long, bloody 20th-century struggles with imperialism, fascism, National Socialism and communism. Liberal economics and constitutional democracy were declared triumphant,  Russia would abandon her authoritarian past, and that, as we say, was that. Only, it wasn’t.