You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 18: The Rise of Putin

The Rise of Putin

On December 31, 1999, Vladimir Putin became acting president of Russia. Twenty years later, he is still the country’s president and will be for the foreseeable future—at least until 2024. But how exactly did he come to occupy such a prominent global role?

SIS professor and former dean James Goldgeier joins Big World to discuss the rise of Vladimir Putin. He relays the historical context of Russia in the 1990s (2:09) as well as what defines a Russian oligarch and why they hold such power in the country (4:06). Professor Goldgeier explains why Putin was picked to be the successor of Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Russia (6:28), pointing out that free and fair elections were not part of that process (8:37).

What was the international community’s reaction to Putin’s initial rise to power (10:12) and its expectations of his presidency (12:08)? Professor Goldgeier answers these questions and discusses when it became clear that Putin was going to become a more influential figure than he was originally predicted to be (16:41).

He also explains the president’s views of the liberal international order (19:25) and reveals the word that he would use to best describe Putin’s time in power (21:19). Looking to the future, Professor Goldgeier shares his thoughts on if and how Putin might transition out of power in 2024 (23:25) and how his government may impact our 2020 presidential elections (26:40).

During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Goldgeier lists the five big moments in Russia-US relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union and explains why they were important. (13:52).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that really matters. On December 31st, 1999, Americans were anxiously awaiting the dawn of the millennium. And we were all consumed with something called Y2K: the idea that all of our computer systems were going to go offline because of a change to a date that started with a two zero. While we were worrying about this, something of much more long-lasting significance was happening. Also on December 31st, 1999, the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, resigned, and a man named Vladimir Putin became acting president. Well, he's still Russia's president today and will be for the foreseeable future, at least until 2024. The ramifications of this transition of power are enormous and perhaps will only be completely understood by historians decades from now. But how did we get here? How did Vladimir Putin come to occupy such a prominent global role?

1:06      KS: Today, we're talking about the rise of Putin in the 1990s. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Jim Goldgeier. Jim is currently a Robert Bosch senior visiting fellow at the Center on the United States in Europe at the Brookings Institution and a professor here at the School of International Service. His list of accomplishments and appointments is long and extremely impressive. Today, we're leaning on his experience as director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian affairs on the National Security Council staff in the 1990s under the Clinton administration. Jim, thanks for joining Big World.

1:37      Jim Goldgeier: Great to be here.

1:39      KS: Jim, we're going to have to set some context for listeners here. It will be difficult to discuss Putin's rise without first discussing Russia in the late 1990s. During this time period, the country was suffering from inflation and economic collapse. Elections were coming up. Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first president, was unpopular among the public. What is important to know about this time period in Russian history and about Russians' feelings toward Yeltsin?

2:09      JG: Well, he was extremely unpopular. The 1990s had not gone very well in Russia. From a US perspective, the main thing was trying to help push Russia along a more democratic, market-oriented path, but Russia became independent. The Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991. Yeltsin was the president of Russia. He served two terms in office. He had a reelection in 1996. By the time he got to December of 1999, he was older. He was sicker.

2:47      JG: The country had gone through a tremendous economic upheaval during that period, including a financial crash in August of 1998. Russia's standing had gone from being one of the two global superpowers when it was the Soviet Union, to now being a country with very little influence in the world. Yeltsin's popularity was extremely low. Nevertheless, it was a huge surprise that instead of simply ending his term and leaving office when a new president was elected in the year 2000, that he announced on December 31st, 1999, "I'm stepping down from office, and I have put in place Vladimir Putin as acting president." And basically [that] then set him up so that he would win the election in 2000. I don't think anyone would have ever imagined that here we would be in 2019, and Putin would still be in office and has a term that, as you said, doesn't run out until 2024.

4:06      KS: So I want to get to why Yeltsin picked a successor in a second. First, just to set the stage a little more, what was the role of Russia's oligarchs at this time? And first, what is even a Russian oligarch? You hear that all the time. Who are they? Why do they wield such power?

4:22      JG: We encouraged and assisted the Russians to move all of what became companies out of the control of the Russian state and into private hands. And what happened was a few people became very rich very quickly because all of a sudden they owned these highly undervalued companies, and they wielded enormous power because they had so much wealth compared to the rest of society. And they had supported Yeltsin during, for example, his 1996 reelection. In part because essentially you had a deal that they could keep getting rich and do so easily, and he would stay in power and ensure that.

5:15      KS: And you mentioned Yeltsin's ill health at the time. He also had some pretty well-publicized problems with alcoholism. So this was not a well man, right?

5:26      JG: No, he was not well. In fact, he suffered some kind of heart issue, heart attack, heart issue between the two rounds of the election in 1996. I was on the NSC staff at the time. In the first round, nobody won more than 50 percent of the votes. So there was a runoff a couple of weeks later in July of 1996, which he then won. And so he was reelected. But in between the two rounds, he had some kind of heart issue. We was often in the hospital. And his drinking issues were well-known, and certainly there were leaders elsewhere. The most famous that I can remember—in 1993, he got drunk on a visit to Poland. And Polish president Lech Valensa used that to get some things that he wanted from Yeltsin on that visit.

6:19      KS: Jim, why was Putin, someone who was mostly unknown to the public at the time, the pick of both the oligarchs and the Kremlin?

6:28      JG: Yeah, it seems quite odd because he wasn't very well-known. He certainly had a fascinating career during that decade proceeding his becoming acting president. At the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was a KGB officer stationed in Dresden, in East Germany. Important to know just because he was so upset at the fact that the Soviet Union withdrew its support for East Germany, and East Germany then collapsed and became part of the unified Germany.

7:03      KS: He was someone shredding documents, was he?

7:06      JG: And he was there, and there's all these stories of these mobs that are coming to the KGB headquarters. And there he is shredding or burning documents so they wouldn't fall into other hands. He then went to work for a liberal mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, and was sort of surrounded by a group of people that we think of as liberal politicians in Russia.

7:36      JG: Then worked his way up through the central administration in Moscow, head of the FSB, which was the successor to the KGB. Then prime minister, and then acting president. All a very rapid rise and what Yeltsin was looking for, and we may see a repeat of this depending on whether Putin decides to leave the presidency and turn things over to someone else. Yeltsin was looking for somebody to protect him and his family and his cronies, and Putin seemed to be that guy. And certainly he did not do anything untoward towards Yeltsin after he became president.

8:23      KS: So Yeltsin decides to pick him as a successor, some personal reasons going on there, instead of having fair elections. Would you say that ultimately it was his decision or was his hand forced in the decision not to have fair elections, to name a successor?

8:37      JG: Well, when you look, the Clinton Presidential Library declassified the memorandum of conversation, and we're now much more familiar with what that kind of document looks like with the discussion of the document between the phone call between Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Zelensky. There were 55 telephone conversations and 18 in-person meetings that had been declassified by the Clinton Presidential Library.

9:10      JG: And there are a couple of conversations in November and December, including on that last day that Yeltsin was president, in which he talked to Clinton and he told him how much Clinton would enjoy working with Vladimir Putin. And that Putin was tough, but he was a Democrat. And Clinton asked him, "Who do you think is going to win the presidential election coming up?" And Yeltsin said, "Well, of course, Putin." So, it was pretty managed. Yes.

9:41      KS: Wow. And Jim, remind us, what was the reaction internationally when Putin assumed the presidency? My memories of this from definitely bystander were that he was known as a former spy. I remember the part about him working for the mayor of St. Petersburg,

10:00      KS: and there was a lot of—people were uncertain whether or not he was some sort of an actual Democrat or if he was a spy, and it really was unclear. So what was the reaction internationally?

10:12      JG: Well, the KGB background certainly made people nervous, but also, he just wasn't that well known, and he certainly didn't come to power and give people reason to think he would become the kind of president that he has and that he would help ensure that US-Russia relations went into such a downward spiral.

10:38      JG: He did make pretty clear, early on in his presidency, that he saw the 1990s as a decade of humiliation for Russia, that he was determined to strengthen the Russian state, and he was determined to bring Russia back as a great power. He was assisted in that by the boom in oil prices.

10:59      JG: People forget. I mean Yeltsin, in 1998, for example, when Russia had its economic crash, the financial crisis of 1998 as part of the global crisis that was occurring that year. I think oil was like $11 a barrel or something like that. There wasn't the kind of revenue coming in. Putin was very blessed by high oil prices and took advantage of that and really focused on those two things. Strengthen the state. Bring Russia back as a great power that would no longer, in his view, be humiliated and lectured to by the United States.

11:36      KS: And you said he did say those things about trying to recover from this decade. I remember, compared to Yeltsin, who was like this big bear of a man, he kind of had an unassuming look about him when you'd see him on the news, and it sounds like the popular consensus about what his presidency would be was a little bit mixed. How close or off the mark have those predictions proven to be? Did anybody see coming that he would have this longevity and this amount of influence?

12:08      JG: Well, I don't think anyone could have expected the kind of longevity, especially given the hope that there would be constitutional norms. Which I mean, he has, in fact, followed those constitutional norms. He served two terms as president. He didn't stay for a third term, technically. He allowed his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, to become president, and then he became prime minister. And then they changed the constitution to have two six-year terms and so that's why he gets to 2024.

12:40      JG: I don't think anybody expected that in 2000—2001. The other thing that I think people hoped was that the talk that he had about Russia coming back as a great power—it was clear that he was going to change from Yeltsin's dream of joining the West. Yeltsin really hoped that Russia would become part of the West, but the problem for Russia was, given its decline and given the power of the United States in the 1990s, it would only be able to do that as a very junior partner, certainly not as any kind of equal.

13:14      JG: And I think what Putin was hoping for was Russia seen as a great power, seen on equal footing with the United States. Could have good relations with the United States, but as a separate major power, not as part of the West.

13:38      KS: Jim Goldgeier, it's time to Take Five. This is when you, our guests get to organize the world in a neat list format. What are the five big moments in Russia-US relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and why were they so important?

13:52      JG: Well, first one I would start with, October, 1993 Boris Yeltsin, president of Russia, calls out his military to fire on his own parliament, which was blocking the things that he was trying to do. And important in US-Russia relations because President Bill Clinton supported him wholeheartedly in that effort and stood by Yeltsin and gave rise to a lot of cynicism in Russia about, was the United States really serious about democracy or was it really more about supporting this guy who they thought was doing good things for them?

14:26      JG: Second, I would say September '94. Bill Clinton, at that point, told Boris Yeltsin, we're moving forward with NATO enlargement. He tried to explain that it wasn't happening overnight, but NATO's enlargement into Central and Eastern Europe has certainly been a thorny issue in US-Russia relations ever since and remains so.

14:49      JG: March, 1999 the United States led NATO on a 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia to get the Serbian president Slobodan Milošević to stop with his ethnic cleansing campaign against the Kosovar Albanians.

15:06      JG: If you look back at the memoranda of conversation from all the Clinton-Yeltsin meetings and phone calls, the biggest crisis of the Clinton-Yeltsin years was the bombing of Serbia. Russia felt like it had been disrespected, ignored. Its interests were not taken seriously, and it was not sanctioned by the UN security council where Russia has a veto.

15:27      JG: So this was particularly offensive to the Russian government, particularly since it was followed four years later by the Iraq war. Again, not supported by the UN security council.

15:40      JG: Fourth, I would cite the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008. This was when NATO declared—the summit declaration had in it a declaration that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO someday. This was not something that Vladimir Putin was going to tolerate, and in August of that year, he went to war with Georgia. And then of course, in 2014, he invaded Ukraine. This notion of the West saying, "We're bringing these former Soviet countries into NATO someday."

16:12      JG: And Putin saying, "No, you're not going to do that." And made that distinction clear.

16:20      JG: And then fifth, it's last but not least, got to be the Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. This certainly will continue to shape the Trump presidency and will reverberate for many years to come.

16:36      KS: Great. Thank you.

16:41      KS: Jim, looking back now in 2019, is there an inflection point or a tipping point at which it became clear that Putin was going to become a more important figure than perhaps we originally thought?

16:54      JG: Well, I think the moment that really struck those in the West that they were dealing with somebody with whom good relations were going to be challenging and who saw himself as standing up against the United States was a speech he gave in 2007 at the annual Munich security conference.

17:18      JG: He basically stood up and railed against US hegemony, arguing that this one country feels like it can just dictate to the rest of the world. It can do whatever it wants. Nobody likes that. Nobody wants that. Complained about NATO's expansion into Central and Eastern Europe, and argued, "Who's that directed against? It's obviously directed against us."

17:44      JG: And I think that you had had a number of events that sort of fed into that speech. The so-called color revolutions in Ukraine—in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan between 2003 and 2005, and for a guy like Putin, he doesn't look at these kinds of things and think, "Oh, there's civil society and it's bubbling up and you know, they're unhappy with their leaders and they want change."

18:10      JG: He looks at this as CIA-inspired/directed, US desire for regime change, which will ultimately reach him. And so, you just had these events, the United States decision early in the Bush presidency to leave the ABM Treaty that prohibited missile defense.

18:31      JG: All these things led to him saying, "I'm that tough. I'm mad, and I'm not going to take it anymore."

18:38      JG: And that was a moment when people thought, "Wow, what is this guy up to, and what does he foresee for Russia?"

18:45      JG: And I think he was making a statement, "We are coming back, and we aren't going to be dictated to any more by the United States."

18:53      KS: Would you say that there was an event or a series of events at which it became clear that Putin did not plan to fall in line with a liberal democratic world order? Because saying that he said all these things about the United States and thought that we were trying to run the world for everybody else is a little bit different from saying that, "My own country—I don't plan to have them fall in line with this. This is not the way I want Russia to be." Was there anything that tipped his hand about that more than other things? Crackdowns on journalists, anything like that?

19:25      JG: Well, I think the issue with the liberal international order from Putin's perspective, and I would argue, you know, it's also similarly from the Chinese perspective, is that we usually use the term "US-led liberal international order."

19:44      JG: I think a big piece of this was the fact that this was the US vision for the world, that countries should be democratic. They should respect the rule of law. They should respect human rights. They should have market economy. And

20:00      JG: from Putin's standpoint, having an economy that was more integrated into the global economy was okay. And there certainly were plenty of controls on investment in Russia, but he wasn't trying to seal the Russian economy off from the rest of the world. He wanted to trade and he wanted to sell his oil and gas.

20:27      JG: And so there was some integration. But he certainly wasn't interested in having a Western-style democracy in Russia and believed that Russia should be basically respected for having its own type of political system and a political system that he determined was best for Russia and that he certainly shouldn't be lectured over it and that he didn't need to follow what we would think of as standard procedures for rule of law. And as you mentioned, things like respect for an independent press, respect for an independent judiciary, things that the United States certainly used to articulate out of the White House as something that was important to the United States.

21:19      KS: Jim, the leaders of the Soviet Union were sometimes characterized by terms that stem from the directions toward which they steered the state. So Khrushchev was known for his so-called "Thaw," relaxing the Soviet Union's repression. Gorbachev, of course, was known for "Glasnost," opening up the Soviet Union to the rest of the world, and "Perestroika," restructuring the political and economic systems of the USSR. What is a word that you would use to characterize Putin's presidency, and why?

21:47      JG: Well, I think the main feature of the Putin presidency is just the obsession with control. He wants to make sure he has full control as much as he can over the domestic political system. He doesn't like things happening that he's not in charge of, and I think that extends also to his immediate neighborhood. He wants Russia to be recognized as having a privileged sphere of influence in the former Soviet space and that Ukraine and Georgia and Central Asia, these are all part of the Russian sphere of influence, as far as he's concerned, and he should be able to maintain control over that. And again, we should butt out. We should butt out of Russian internal politics and stop talking about human rights and stop trying to promote civil society and do things that are antithetical to his control of the regime and we should butt out of places like Ukraine and Georgia.

22:50      KS: Jim, in the future, we talked about this at the beginning, so Boris Yeltsin appointed him as a successor and then at some point Putin stepped back in line with their constitution and basically handed the reins of power to Dmitry Medvedev for a little bit and then took them back. Do you think Putin is likely to appoint a successor just as Yeltsin appointed him, and regardless of whether or not there are elections or a successor appointed, do you believe Putin will ever truly hand over power voluntarily or will it have to be taken from him?

23:25      JG: Well, it is important to remember that when he did the handoff between 2008 and 2012, when he switched positions with Medvedev, he maintained control over the system, and Medvedev was chosen because Putin knew he could count on Medvedev to do his bidding. Even in that period, in the run up to that decision, there was a lot of uncertainty.

23:53      JG: The problem is that people around Putin who've gotten very rich off of this system, they want to know that their assets are going to be protected. It's not just Putin who has assets to protect. It's often argued that he's the richest or one of the richest men in the world and he has a lot of holdings and all sorts of places and he's going to want to know that those are protected, but it's not just him. Other people also are in similar situations. They want to know they're going to be protected.

24:25      JG: It's only 2019 now, but 2024 will come along before you know it, and they're going to want to know sooner rather than later, "Well, what's the plan here?" The problem he's facing is it's now 19 years later, in 2024 it'll be 24 years later, and people are getting kind of tired of him. It would happen with anybody. But the Russian economy, it's doing okay, but it's not doing great. It's not really growing [crosstalk 00:24:57]

24:56      KS: His approval ratings are great. Are you saying we shouldn't trust that?

24:59      JG: It depends. I mean, different polls show different things. He's run into trouble on—not this summer but the summer before, in order to try to relieve some pressure on the Russian state, articulated some changes that would be coming with respect to retirement age and pensions leading to protests. He had protests in the summer of 2019 over elections in Moscow itself. I think we'll see more and more signs that his control is not as complete as he would like people to think it is. Most people don't think that he will just finish out his term and that there will be free and fair elections and someone will then be elected to take over from him. It would be a new thing for Russia to have that, so that would be quite striking. But I think we should expect him, if not to just try to stay in power, we should certainly expect them to try to manage any succession so that he maintains what he has and that his cronies are taken care of and so on.

26:17      KS: And that his family is safe and everything.

26:19      JG: Yes.

26:20      KS: Interesting. Of course before 2024, we have 2020 with our own presidential elections coming up. I always love it when our guests agree to prognosticate a little bit. How do you think Putin is going to—or his government is going to impact our 2020 presidential elections?

26:40      JG: Well, what we know is that we know they interfered in 2016, and we know that he either didn't want Hillary Clinton to become president or, if she did win, he wanted her to be weakened. He had a big grudge against her from the protests that occurred in Russia in 2011—2012 around the parliamentary elections and then the run up to the presidential elections. She made comments during that period that he took as a sign that she was encouraging these protests. So he had a grudge against her, and he decided that he would—what we know is that he tried to intervene on behalf of Bernie Sanders in the primary against Hillary Clinton and then the interference in the general election. And while we don't know what effect it had, we know that he was happy with the outcome. The other officials in Russia were very happy with the outcome.

27:42      JG: He hasn't really gotten a lot from that. It's pretty hard for Donald Trump to really change the trajectory of the relationship given that Trump's legitimacy has been called into question from the moment that election happened, given the Russian interference.

27:59      JG: So what are Putin's calculations going into 2020? I think if he can continue to disrupt our politics, and our polarized politics are really quite open to disruption. Much of what much of what we are doing, we are doing to ourselves. But to the extent that he can encourage that disruption and keep the United States off balance, I think he'll want to do that.

28:26      JG: But I could easily imagine him sort of mucking around and interfering on behalf—he could muck around on behalf of Trump. He could muck around on behalf of an opponent of Trump. I mean, anything he could do to cast doubt on the legitimacy of whoever wins in 2020 seems to play into his hands as somebody who—after all those years where he felt the West and the US in particular was dictating to Russia and telling Russia, "Here's how you must behave" and basically trying to, from his perspective, impose this world order on everyone else, that to the extent that he can disrupt the US and undermine that order—I think he's pretty happy about that.

29:11      KS: Jim Goldgeier, thank you for joining Big World and helping us understand the rise of Vladimir Putin. It's been a real honor to speak with you.

29:17      JG: It's been great to speak with you.

29:19      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you find podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like a rainbow on a summer day. Our theme music is, "It Was Just Cold," by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Jim Goldgeier,
professor and former dean, SIS

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