Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (New and Expanded Edition)

Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (New and Expanded Edition)

by Fiona Hill, Clifford G. Gaddy

Paperback(New and expanded edition)

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Fiona Hill and other U.S. public servants have been recognized as Guardians of the Year in TIME’s 2019 Person of the Year issue.

From the KGB to the Kremlin: a multidimensional portrait of the man at war with the West.

Where do Vladimir Putin's ideas come from? How does he look at the outside world? What does he want, and how far is he willing to go?

The great lesson of the outbreak of World War I in 1914 was the danger of misreading the statements, actions, and intentions of the adversary. Today, Vladimir Putin has become the greatest challenge to European security and the global world order in decades. Russia's 8,000 nuclear weapons underscore the huge risks of not understanding who Putin is.

Featuring five new chapters, this new edition dispels potentially dangerous misconceptions about Putin and offers a clear-eyed look at his objectives. It presents Putin as a reflection of deeply ingrained Russian ways of thinking as well as his unique personal background and experience.

Praise for the first edition:

“If you want to begin to understand Russia today, read this book.”—Sir John Scarlett, former chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)

“For anyone wishing to understand Russia's evolution since the breakup of the Soviet Union and its trajectory since then, the book you hold in your hand is an essential guide.”—John McLaughlin, former deputy director of U.S. Central Intelligence

“Of the many biographies of Vladimir Putin that have appeared in recent years, this one is the most useful.”—Foreign Affairs

“This is not just another Putin biography. It is a psychological portrait.”—The Financial Times

Q: Do you have time to read books? If so, which ones would you recommend? “My goodness, let's see. There's Mr. Putin, by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy. Insightful.”—Vice President Joseph Biden in Joe Biden: The Rolling Stone Interview.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780815726173
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publication date: 02/02/2015
Series: Geopolitics in the 21st Century
Edition description: New and expanded edition
Pages: 543
Sales rank: 70,210
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Fiona Hill was director of the Center on the United States and Europe and a senior fellow in Foreign Policy at Brookings.

Clifford G. Gaddy was a senior fellow in Foreign Policy at Brookings. Hill and Gaddy are coauthors of The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold (Brookings, 2003).

Read an Excerpt

Mr. Putin

Operative In The Kremlin

By Fiona Hill, Clifford G. Gaddy

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2015 The Brookings Institution
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8157-2618-0



ON MARCH 18, 2014, still bathed in the afterglow of the Winter Olympics that he had hosted in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russian president Vladimir Putin stepped up to a podium in the Kremlin to address the nation. Before an assembly of Russian officials and parliamentarians, Putin signed the documents officially reuniting the Russian Federation and the peninsular republic of Crimea, the home base of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. Crimea had seceded from Ukraine only two days earlier, on March 16. The Russian president gave what was intended to be a historic speech. The events were fresh, but his address was laden with references to several centuries of Russian history.

Putin invoked the origins of Orthodox Christianity in Russia. He referenced military victories on land and sea that had helped forge the Russian Empire. He noted the grievances that had festered in Russia since the 1990s, when the state was unable to protect its interests after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. At the center of his narrative was Crimea. Crimea "has always been an inseparable part of Russia," Putin declared. Moscow's decision to annex Crimea was rooted in the need to right an "outrageous historical injustice." That injustice began with the Bolsheviks, who put lands that Russia had conquered into their new Soviet republic of Ukraine. Then, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made the fateful decision in 1954 to transfer Crimea from the Russian Federation to Ukraine. When the Soviet state fell apart in 1991, Russian-speaking Crimea was left in Ukraine "like a sack of potatoes," Putin said. The Russian nation was divided by borders.

Vladimir Putin's speech and the ceremony reuniting Russia with its "lost province" came after several months of political upheaval in Ukraine. Demonstrations that had begun in late November 2013 as a protest against Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych's decision to back out of the planned signing of an association agreement with the European Union soon turned into a large-scale protest movement against his government. By February 2014, protesters were engaged in clashes with Ukrainian police that left over 100 people dead on both sides. On February 21, 2014, talks between Yanukovych and the opposition were brokered by outside parties, including Russia. A provisional agreement, intended to end the violence and pave the way for new presidential elections at the end of 2014, was upended when Yanukovych abruptly fled the country. After several days of confusion, Yanukovych resurfaced in Russia. Meanwhile, the opposition in Ukraine formed an interim government and set presidential elections for May 25, 2014.

At about the same time that Yanukovych left Ukraine, unidentified armed men began to seize control of strategic infrastructure on the Crimean Peninsula. On March 6, the Crimean parliament voted to hold a snap referendum on independence and the prospect of joining Russia. On March 16, the results of the referendum indicated that 97 percent of those voting had opted to unite with Russia. It was this referendum that Putin used to justify Russia's reincorporation, its annexation, of Crimea. He opened his speech with a reference to the referendum and how more than 82 percent of eligible voters had turned out to make this momentous and overwhelming choice in favor of becoming part of Russia. The people of Crimea had exercised their right—the right of all nations—to self-determination. They had chosen to restore the unity of the Russian world and historical Russia. But by annexing the Crimean Peninsula, immediately after the referendum, Putin had dealt the greatest blow to European security since the end of the Cold War. In the eyes of most external observers, Putin's Russia was now a definitively revisionist power. In a short span of time, between February 21 and March 18, 2014, Russia had moved from brokering peace to taking a piece of Ukraine.

As Western leaders deliberated how to punish Putin for seizing Crimea and deter him from similar actions in the rest of Ukraine and elsewhere, questions arose: Why did Putin do this? What does he want? Many commentators turned back to questions that had been asked nearly 15 years earlier, when Vladimir Putin first emerged from near-obscurity to become the leader of Russia: "Who is Mr. Putin?" For some observers, the answer was easy: Putin was who he had always been—a corrupt, avaricious, and power-hungry authoritarian leader. What Putin did in Ukraine was just a logical next step to what he had been doing in Russia since 2000: trying to tighten his grip on power. Annexing Crimea and the nationalist rhetoric Putin used to justify it were merely ploys to bolster his flagging public support and distract the population from problems at home. Other commentators saw Putin's shift toward nationalist rhetoric and his decision to annex Crimea as evidence of new "imperial" thinking, and as dangerously genuine. Putin's goal, they proposed, was to restore the Soviet Union or the old Russian Empire. But if that was true, where were the patterns and key indicators of neo-imperialist revisionism in Putin's past behavior? Many world leaders and analysts wondered what they had missed. Unable to reconcile their old understanding of Putin with his behavior in Ukraine, some concluded that Putin himself had changed. A "new Putin" must have appeared in the Kremlin.

If, in fact, Putin's behavior in the Ukraine crisis was really different from the past, it could provide an opportunity to understand him better. In his 2014 book, A Sense of the Enemy: The High-Stakes History of Reading Your Rival's Mind, Zachary Shore argues that it is precisely when people break with previous patterns of behavior that we can begin to gain an understanding of their real character. Patterns of past behavior are a poor predictor of how a person will act in the future. Contexts change and alter people's actions. Pattern breaks are key for analyzing individual behavior. They push us to focus on the invariant aspects of the person's self. They help reveal the hidden drivers, the underlying motivations, and what an actor, a leader, values most.

This is the essence of our approach in this book. The book is an effort to figure out who Mr. Putin is in terms of his motivations—what drives him to act as he does? Rather than present a chronicle of events in which Putin played a role, we concentrate on events that shaped him. We look at formative experiences of Putin's past. And where we do examine his actions, we focus on the circumstances in which he acted. Our reasoning is that if Putin's actions and words differed during the crisis in Ukraine in 2014 from what we might have expected in the past, it is likely that the circumstances changed. Indeed, as we will lay out and describe in the two parts of this book, Vladimir Putin's behavior is driven by the imperative to adapt and respond to changing—especially, unpredicted—circumstances.

This book is not intended to be a definitive biography or a comprehensive study of everything about Vladimir Putin. Although personal and even intimate life experiences shape the way an individual thinks and views the world, we do not delve into Putin's family life or close friendships. We also do not critique all the different stories about him, and we try to avoid retreading ground that has been covered extensively in other analyses and biographies. Our purpose is to look for new insights in all the material we have on Vladimir Putin.


It is remarkable—almost hard to believe—that for 15 years there has not been a single substantive biography published in Russian, by a Russian, of President Putin. It is true that a few very incomplete books—limited in their scope—appeared in his first months as president. There is also, of course, Putin's own autobiography, Ot pervogo litsa (First person), which appeared in early 2000. Arguably the only other true biography with wide circulation in Russia is a translation of Alexander Rahr's Wladimir Putin: Der "Deutsche" im Kreml (Vladimir Putin: the "German" in the Kremlin). By contrast, there have been a number of serious biographies of Putin in English. The West, particularly the United States, is used to a steady flow of memoirs, and tell-alls, from former associates of our leaders. There has been nothing like that in Russia. Rather than the flow of information about the man who has led the country for a decade and a half growing stronger, it has actually declined over time. Above all, the information that does emerge has been increasingly controlled and manipulated. Instead of independently verifiable new facts from identified sources, there are only "stories" about Putin from unidentified sources, sources who are—we are invariably assured by those who tell the stories—"close to the Kremlin." There is also the phenomenon of old stories being recycled as astonishing new revelations.

Attempting to write about Vladimir Putin is thus a challenge for many reasons. One that we ourselves never imagined until we were well into this venture is that, like it or not, when you delve into his hidden aspects, whether in the past or present, you are playing a game with Putin. It is a game where he is in charge. He controls the facts and the "stories." For that reason, every apparent fact or story needs to be regarded with suspicion. It has to be traced back to original sources. If that turns out to be impossible, or the source seems unreliable, what does one do with the information? As the reader will soon find out, we too use stories about Putin. But we do so with caution. We have tested the sources. When we were unable to do so to the fullest extent, we make that clear. Most important, we have learned to ask the question, "Why has this story been circulated?"

The most obvious reason we cannot take any story or so-called fact at face value when it comes to Vladimir Putin is that we are dealing with someone who is a master at manipulating information, suppressing information, and creating pseudo-information. In the course of studying Putin, and Putin's Russia, we have learned this the hard way. In today's world of social media, the public has the impression that we know, or easily can know, everything about everybody. Nothing, it seems, is private or secret. And still, after 15 years, we remain ignorant of some of the most basic facts about a man who is arguably the most powerful individual in the world, the leader of an important nation. When there is no certifiably real and solid information, any tidbit becomes precious.


Where then do we start? The basic biographical data, surely, are beyond dispute. Vladimir Putin was born in the Soviet city of Leningrad in October 1952 and was his parents' only surviving child. His childhood was spent in Leningrad, where his youthful pursuits included training first in sambo (a martial art combining judo and wrestling that was developed by the Soviet Red Army) and then in judo. After school, Putin studied law at Leningrad State University (LGU), graduated in 1975, and immediately joined the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB. He was posted to Dresden in East Germany in 1985, after completing a year of study at the KGB's academy in Moscow. He was recalled from Dresden to Leningrad in 1990, just as the USSR was on the verge of collapse.

During his time in the KGB, Putin worked as a case officer (the "operative" of our title) and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1990–91, he moved into the intelligence service's "active reserve" and returned to Leningrad State University as a deputy to the vice rector. He became an adviser to one of his former law professors, Anatoly Sobchak, who left the university to become chairman of Leningrad's city soviet, or council. Putin worked with Sobchak during Sobchak's successful electoral campaign to become the first democratically elected mayor of what was now St. Petersburg. In June 1991, Putin became a deputy mayor of St. Petersburg and was put in charge of the city's Committee for External Relations. He officially resigned from the KGB in August 1991.

In 1996, after Mayor Sobchak lost his bid for reelection, Vladimir Putin moved to Moscow to work in the Kremlin in the department that managed presidential property. In March 1997, Putin was elevated to deputy chief of the presidential staff. He assumed a number of other responsibilities within the Kremlin before being appointed head of the Russian Federal Security Service (the FSB, the successor to the KGB) in July 1998. A year later, in August 1999, Vladimir Putin was named, in rapid succession, one of Russia's first deputy prime ministers and then prime minister by President Boris Yeltsin, who also indicated Putin was his preferred successor as president. Finally, on December 31, 1999, Putin became acting president of Russia after Yeltsin resigned. He was officially elected to the position of president in March 2000. Putin served two terms as Russia's president from 2000 to 2004 and from 2004 to 2008, before stepping aside—in line with Russia's constitutional prohibition against three consecutive presidential terms—to assume the position of prime minister. In March 2012, Putin was reelected to serve another term as Russia's president until 2018, thanks to a constitutional amendment pushed through by then President Dmitry Medvedev in December 2008 extending the presidential term from four to six years.

These basic facts have been covered in books and newspaper articles. Yet there is some uncertainty in the sources about specific dates and the sequencing of Vladimir Putin's professional trajectory. This is especially the case for his KGB service, but also for some of the period when he was in the St. Petersburg mayor's office, including how long he was technically part of the KGB's "active reserve." Personal information, including on key childhood events, his 1983 marriage to his wife, Lyudmila (whom he divorced in 2014), the birth of two daughters in 1985 and 1986 (Maria and Yekaterina), and his friendships with politicians and businessmen from Leningrad/St. Petersburg is remarkably scant for such a prominent public figure. His wife, daughters, and other family members, for example, are conspicuously absent from the public domain. Information about him that was available at the beginning of his presidency has also been suppressed, distorted, or lost in a morass of competing and often contradictory versions swirling with rumor and innuendo. Some materials—related to a notorious 1990s food scandal in St. Petersburg, which almost upended Putin's early political career—have been expunged, along with those with access to them. When it comes to Mr. Putin, very little information is definitive, confirmable, or reliable.

As a result, there are many important and enduring mysteries about Vladimir Putin that we will not address in detail in this book. Take something so fundamental as his initial rise to power as Russian president. In less than two-and-a-half years from 1997 to 99, Vladimir Putin was promoted to increasingly lofty positions, from deputy chief of the presidential staff, to head of the FSB, to prime minister, then to acting president. How could this happen? Who facilitated Putin's rise? Putin does not have a story about that in his official biographical interviews. He leaves it to others to spin their versions. The fact that there are multiple competing answers to such a basic question as who chose Putin to be Boris Yeltsin's successor in 1999 is one of the reasons we decided to write this book and to adopt the specific approach we have. All the versions of who made this important decision are based on retrospective accounts, including from Boris Yeltsin himself in his memoir Midnight Diaries. Almost nothing comes from real-time statements or reliable accounts of actions taken. Even then—if this kind of information were available—we would not know what really happened behind the scenes. It is clear that many of the after-the-fact statements are self-serving. None of them seem completely credible. They are from people trying to claim credit, or avoid blame, for a set of decisions that proved monumental for Russia.

Rather than spending time parsing the course of events in this period and analyzing the various people who may or may not have influenced the decision to install Vladimir Putin as Boris Yeltsin's successor, we parse and analyze Putin himself. We focus on a series of vignettes from his basic biography that form part of a more coherent, larger story. We also emphasize Putin's own role in getting where he did. We stress the one thing we are certain about: Putin shaped his own fate. We do not deny there was an element of accident or chance in his ultimate rise to power. Nor do we deny there were real people who acted on his behalf—people who thought at a particular time that he was "their man" who would promote their interests. But, for us, it was what Mr. Putin did that is the most critical element in his biography.


Excerpted from Mr. Putin by Fiona Hill, Clifford G. Gaddy. Copyright © 2015 The Brookings Institution. Excerpted by permission of Brookings Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Part I. The Operative Emerges

1. Who Is Mr. Putin?

2. Boris Yeltsin and the Time of Troubles

3. The Statist

4. The History Man

5. The Survivalist

6. The Outsider

7. The Free Marketeer

8. The Case Officer

9. The System

Part II. The Operative Engages

10. The Stakeholders' Revolt

11. Putin's World

12. The American Education of Mr. Putin

13. Russia Resurgent

14. The Operative Abroad

Coda: The Operative in Action


Notes on Translations, Transliteration, Nomenclature, Style, and Source

Abbreviations and Acronyms




What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"As experienced students of modern Russia, Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy are exceptionally well qualified to explain the experiences and influences which shaped the mind of Vladimir Putin, the President who came from nowhere to assert control of a vast and complex country. Theirs is a tough analysis. Not everyone will agree with every aspect. But, if you want to begin to understand Russia today, read this book." —Sir John Scarlett, former Chief of the British Secret
Intelligence Service (MI6)

"For anyone wishing to understand Russia's evolution since the breakup of the Soviet Union and its trajectory since then, the book you hold in your hand is an essential guide. Essential because to a very large degree the country's most recent history is a reflection of the influence of one man, Vladimir Putin. By skillfully dissecting his various 'identities,' showing how these have been reflected in Russian policies and how they may be inadequate to emerging challenges, Hill and Gaddy illuminate not only the recent past but offer a tantalizing glimpse of what the future may hold." —John McLaughlin, former Deputy Director of
U.S. Central Intelligence

"A meticulous psychological portrait of Vladimir Putin and of the highly personalized state he has molded. How Vladimir Putin sees himself is key to how his system works, but, after twelve years of Putin Power, the nation and the people he leads have changed while Putin himself has not. Can Putin reinvent himself? Hill and Gaddy say Russia's new urban middle class wants more than a 'political performance artist." —Jill Dougherty, former Moscow Bureau Chief, CNN

"In this well-written and genuinely entertaining volume, Hill and Gaddy take us behind the theatrics and the rumors to give us a clear and intriguing view of the man himself. They have looked into Putin's eyes and seen... a multiplicity of identities, all of which made him what he is today, and all of which tell us something about the Russia he continues to rule. This book is mandatory reading for the president and his advisers." —Robert Kagan, author of The World America Made

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