When Boris Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin prime minister on 9 August 1999, few Russians knew much about him. In early television appearances he came across as mousy, shy and awkward, a man unaccustomed to the limelight from which his previous career in the KGB had shielded him.
But within weeks he revealed a character trait that would become the defining feature of his rule – ruthlessness. His first memorable phrase was his threat to wipe out terrorists “even if they’re in the shithouse”, and within weeks he had launched a terrifying war against separatists in Chechnya that would leave tens of thousands of civilians dead.
Twenty years on, as Russia and the west teeter towards confrontation, it is hard to remember that Putin started out as an avowedly pro-western leader. George W Bush and Tony Blair rushed to glad-hand him, and Putin himself stood in the Bundestag proclaiming at length and in fluent German that Russia’s destiny was in Europe. But western leaders were appalled by his brutality in Chechnya, and by the first signs of his antidemocratic tendencies, which included his muzzling of critical television stations.
Putin’s fatal flaw, it seemed to me, was his utter inability to see that there was a contradiction between being a ruthless autocrat at home, and the values of the western civilisation to which he (at least at that time) paid lip service.
Some argue that he was never seriously pro-western, that the overtures masked ulterior motives and KGB-inspired schemes to dominate the world. But I think that is mistaken. When I worked as a consultant to the Kremlin in the earlier part of Putin’s rule, I had many meetings with senior officials and have no doubt that they regarded themselves as “western” and even as democrats.
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