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Experts generally believe that Putin won Yeltsin's endorsement because he was competent, because he wasn't part of any of the major Moscow factions competing for power and because his KGB past gave him a source of authority. But they also widely assume that he made a deal with Yeltsin and his family: in return for Yeltsin's endorsement, Putin would not pursue corruption charges against the outgoing President and his relatives, despite the rumors that surrounded the family's dealings. It's impossible to verify, but neither Yeltsin, who died this year, nor his well-connected daughter Tatyana Dyachenko was ever a subject of public investigation (though Putin quickly fired her from her position as a Kremlin image consultant). Indeed, Putin's first decree guaranteed Yeltsin and his family immunity from such probes. Putin explains things to us this way: "Mr. Yeltsin realized that I would be totally sincere and would spare no effort to fulfill my duties and would be honest and see that the interest of the country could be secured." Eight years on, one can't help seeing a parallel with the latest maneuverings in the Kremlin: just as Yeltsin rewarded Putin for his loyalty, now Putin is doing the same for his anointed successor, Medvedev. There is already a new Putin joke: Putin goes to a restaurant with Medvedev and orders a steak. The waiter asks, "And what about the vegetable?" Putin answers, "The vegetable will have steak too."
Putin is no vegetable. In 1999, when he assumed the role of acting President, he was a relative unknown. It was his response to a Chechen rebel incursion in the Russian republic of Dagestan in the North Caucasus that quickly set him on a path toward national glory. Alexei Gromov, who has served with Putin as press secretary since he came to power, remembers being in the room when Putin told his wife Lyudmila that he was preparing to go on a New Year's Eve trip to the war zone to meet with the troops. She was worried about his safety and went along with him. In the end, the trip may have been no more than a calculated, if risky, photo op, but it was effective. Russians met their new leader and admired his courage and energy.
The following year Putin stepped up Russia's invasion of the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Rambo-style, he promised a quick and decisive victory, reiterating his earlier pledge to defeat enemy fighters "even in the toilet." Grozny, Chechnya's capital, was all but obliterated; Russia reassumed power and installed a puppet leader. Despite heartbreaking subsequent Chechen terrorist attacksincluding a 2004 assault on a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, where 339 civilians, most of them children, were killedRussians by and large admire Putin for drawing the line in the south. Having watched Eastern Europe and the Soviet republics slip from Moscow's grip, Russians were happy to keep Chechnyaeven a bombed-out Chechnyain the fold.
To the West, meanwhile, Putin was a mystery. Russia watchers debated endlessly: Was he a pro-Western reformer? (He had worked for Sobchak.) Or a hard-liner? (He was a career KGB man.) Yet just as 9/11 helped define President Bush, so did external challenges allow Putin to grow into a leader. His first steps on the world stage were tentative. His global coming-out had occurred in Auckland at a 1999 meeting of heads of APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) nations. Sestanovich, who was traveling with President Clinton, remembers meeting Putin at Clinton's hotel suite. "He was new on the job then," says Sestanovich, "not at all sure of himself." But Clinton was willing to work with him. Putin tells us how, at an APEC dinner at which he was feeling somewhat lost, Clinton crossed the room past other world leaders and leaned down to talk to him. "Volodya," Clinton said, using the familiar form of the name Vladimir, "I suggest we walk out together from this room." Putin rose to his feet, and the two men strolled out together. "Everyone applauded," Putin recalls. "I will remember that forever." It was Putin's only sign of softness during the 3 ½ hours we spoke.
Clinton was not the only American who found something to like about Putin. Two years later, in a line that has haunted him ever since, President Bush declared that he had looked inside Putin's soul. It was their first meeting, at a summit in Slovenia, and Bush said, "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy...I was able to get a sense of his soul." We ask Putin to return the favor, to describe what he has sensed of the U.S. President's soul. He declines to get personal. "I have a very good personal relationship with Mr. Bush," he says. "He is a very reliable partner, a man of honor."
The terrorist attacks on 9/11 provided Putin with another defining moment. He was one of the first world leaders to offer condolences and help to President Bush. That probably led the U.S. to back off from stridently criticizing the Chechnya adventure. But the initial shared objectives between Putin and the Bush Administration did not last. Putin strongly opposed America's invasion of Iraq and established Russia as a steady voice of opposition to Bush's adventure, demanding that decisions on Iraq be made at the U.N. (where Russia, of course, has Security Council veto power). America's occupation of Iraq has affirmed Putin's sense that he was right. "If one looks at the map of the world, it's difficult to find Iraq, and one would think it rather easy to subdue such a small country," Putin tell us. "But this undertaking is enormous. Iraq is a small but very proud nation." The debacle in Iraq plays into what is perhaps Putin's most cherished foreign-policy dictum: that nations shouldn't interfere in one another's affairs. And what that really means, of course, is that no one should interfere in Russia's affairs.
Another Putin joke: Putin and Bush are fishing on the Volga River. After half an hour Bush complains, "Vladimir, I'm getting bitten like crazy by mosquitoes, but I haven't seen a single one bothering you." Putin: "They know better than that."
A Ruthless Streak
Now that Putin has solidified his grip on power, he no longer seems overly concerned with courting Western approval. Despite a chorus of disapproving clucks from the West, Putin has shackled the press, muted the opposition, jailed tycoons who don't pledge fealty. In Russia this has been a terrible time to be a democrat, a journalist, an independent businessman. Just ask Garry Kasparov. The chess grandmasterthe highest-rated player of all timeis a far cry from stereotypically dysfunctional champions like Bobby Fischer. Kasparov has a keen political mind and a lively sense of humor. For years he has fought an increasingly lonely struggle as a democratic activist facing an uncompromising state. On Nov. 24, while holding a political rally in Moscow, he was arrested on a technicality and spent five days at Moscow's Petrovka 38 jail.