After more than 22 years in power, Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin has to watch as his life’s work falls apart in the course of his war against Ukraine. Today he turns 70 years old.
For Vladimir Putin, his milestone birthday should also be a political triumph. The Russian president had long wanted to destroy the well-fortified Ukraine, which is striving to join the EU and NATO, with his brutal war of aggression as a state. But even on his 70th birthday this Friday (October 7), the Kremlin boss will have his hands full as commander-in-chief in view of the repeated defeats during his invasion. Above all, however, Putin, who got Russia back on its feet after the chaotic 1990s full of poverty, is now having to watch how much is falling apart after his 22 years in power.
After more than seven months of bloodshed and thousands of deaths on the Ukrainian and Russian sides, the ex-spy chief, known for his emotional coldness, won’t let his birthday be spoiled entirely. The celebrant, who is compared to a tsar because of his appearances in the magnificent palaces and because of his almost unlimited power, has a soft spot for good food.
He recently annexed four Ukrainian territories in violation of international law in the face of international protests. Despite this, Russia does not completely control the regions. Putin chose the annexation to finally present a result after months of struggle. “Otherwise the war would have lost its meaning,” says political scientist Abbas Galliamov. Not even the Kremlin sees this as a victory.
Putin as “driven” in the self-initiated war
Galliamov, who used to work in the Kremlin himself, doesn’t want to call Putin “insane,” but does attest him to a “loss of control.” The former head of the secret service, who once made a career for himself in the feared Soviet KGB, is no longer in control – as he has been for a long time in his political life. Putin is driven by the situation in Ukraine. He has lost his status as a “holy figure” as a guarantor of stability. He has even threatened to use nuclear weapons.
The proud resource power is also experiencing a massive recession due to the pressure from the West’s sanctions in the wake of the Ukraine war. Thousands of companies have left the country, tens of thousands of Russians are out of work. Galliamov speaks of an unprecedented “de-industrialization” of the country. “He’s turning Russia into a Third World country,” he says of Putin. The country’s elite is in a “depression” because of the lack of a quick victory in Ukraine. In addition to the army’s defeats, there was chaos during partial mobilization.
“Today, Putin is the biggest destabilizing factor, a destabilizer,” says Gallyamov. Russia’s elite is now losing its footing because it has leaned on Putin for 22 years. That’s over. But Galliamov also says that Putin’s resources are still enormous – also because of the devotion of the security apparatus. In addition, many Russians – especially those over 60 – continue to trust him because they see no other strong leader.
For a long time, Putin loved self-portrayal
With a mixture of harshness towards the West and time and again demonstratively humane moments, Putin has always known how to win people over. Even as a teenager he was passionate about martial arts, and to this day he presents himself as a judoka and ice hockey player or shirtless fishing or horseback riding. At the same time, he repeatedly presents himself as an animal lover, as the savior of endangered species, including the Amur tiger.
But he always kept his private life a big secret. After almost 30 years of marriage, Putin announced his separation from his wife Lyudmila in 2013. The marriage produced two daughters, Yekaterina, born in Dresden in 1986, and Maria, who was one year older. Putin is a grandfather, but officially single to this day.
His flight with cranes in the sky is also unforgettable. Because he had to struggle with back problems for a long time after landing, many wondered what it would be like if Putin was no longer there. Since then, illnesses and infirmities in particular have been attributed to him again and again, primarily by Western secret services. But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov regularly asserts that Putin is healthy.
A system of confidants and Putin profiteers
Putin was born on October 7, 1952 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the third child of a working-class family. His father became an invalid from war injuries, his mother survived the Leningrad blockade by the German fascists, lost two sons and was over 40 years old when she gave birth to the third and last son Vladimir.
Putin, who studied law, was an advisor to the mayor of his hometown of St. Petersburg in the 1990s after returning from Dresden. Many of those who worked with him in the city administration at the time now hold high positions: Alexei Miller is head of the gas monopoly Gazprom. Dmitry Medvedev became President and Prime Minister and is Vice-President of the Security Council. Igor Sechin heads the largest Russian oil company, Rosneft, where former chancellor and Putin friend Gerhard Schröder was once the chairman of the supervisory board. From his time in the KGB in Dresden, he also brought people who were close friends, such as the head of the industrial and armaments holding company Rostec, Sergey Chemezov, into influential positions. The list of favorites, including many oligarchs, is long.
Putin’s opponent Alexei Navalny, who was imprisoned in the penal camp, also explained this in his film “A Palace for Putin”. Navalny sees Putin as the country’s most corrupt politician. Russia’s most prominent opposition figure accuses the Kremlin chief of having created a thoroughly mafia-type system. “Formally he represented the interests of the state, but in fact he was just helping bandits,” says Navalny in the film. He barely survived an assassination attempt with the chemical warfare agent Novichok in 2020.
Political opponents were persecuted and even murdered
Putin’s opponents accuse him of numerous crimes. Under his rule, Russia waged wars against Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and Ukraine. Many critics of the Kremlin, including former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, and journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya and Natalia Estemirova were shot. For years, Putin has been criticized for destroying the last remnants of civil liberties and independent media. He has protests violently broken up and those who think differently are brutally persecuted.
When his predecessor Boris Yeltsin announced his resignation on New Year’s Eve 2000, Putin promised a democratic Russia. Critics spoke of an ice-cold takeover of power. In 2020, Putin also had the constitution amended, allowing him to remain in power until 2036 should he run again and win.
To this day, the ideology of aggressive anti-Americanism acquired in the Soviet Union has caught on with a large part of the Russian population. Putin, who was secretly baptized as a Russian Orthodox Christian during the communist era, has remained true to the harsh criticism of the West to this day. At the same time he now had to accept defeats in his fight against a NATO advance to the borders of Russia. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden are now also NATO members.
The old approach is gone
The Kremlin chief now sees himself at war with the “collective West” overall. Initially, there was hope that relations between Russia and the West would flourish under Putin. In September 2001, he became the first Russian president to give a speech in the Bundestag – in German. Trade relations increased. Above all, Germany became even more dependent on Russian gas than before. Today that is all history.
The political scientist Galljamov says that in his war Putin is now primarily counting on the energy crisis in Europe escalating further, thereby breaking solidarity with Ukraine in the West. If Europe is not “frozen” by March, then things will look bad for Putin – a year before the presidential election, which is due in 2024. In view of the falling approval ratings, Galljamov currently does not see that Putin can secure another victory without fraud. But manipulation can lead to a revolution, he says.
Galliamov sees only one peaceful way out: Putin himself could name a successor whom he trusts. He sees Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, as a possible candidate. More and more people understand that Putin’s time is up and that he is clearly responsible for the army’s defeats. “If he hadn’t invaded Ukraine, nobody would have realized that the Russian army is just a paper tiger.”