Normally when assessing major figures both contemporary and historical, one takes the long view—you look all the way back in a figure’s biography. Putin’s arc is familiar enough: the plucky Leningrad boy who grew up in a tenement teeming with rats and fist fights to be won and lost, who went on to master judo, earn a law degree and become a KGB case officer in Dresden. After the Soviet Union came his inadvertent, meteoric elevation from St. Petersburg mayoral office fixer to president of his nation in 2000. He served two four-year terms, then in 2008 swapped positions with protégé Dmitry Medvedev, becoming prime minister for four years. In 2012, he returned to the Kremlin as president, this time for a six-year term.
A question not being asked is whether Putin came back to power a very different leader from the one elected president in 2000 and again in 2004; whether, while the Washington lunch group along with Russia hands around the world were microscopically scrutinizing the words and body language of that Putin, a mutation with a very different cognitive and ethical core assaulted Crimea. A figure less pragmatic, higher-risk, and much more likely than his progenitor to act out Russian glory in its imperial prime…
On the other hand, Russian experts who have witnessed Putin face-to-face over the years at the annual Valdai Discussion Club and elsewhere, resist the thesis that he is a different person. Anatol Lieven, a professor at King’s College London, told Quartz that Putin’s “tactics may have changed,” but that he is essentially the same guy. Brookings’ Fiona Hill, author of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, said, “It only seems we are seeing a different Putin.” In fact, he is simply operating from “a different frame of reference to us. He is operating in a different political setting.”
The central peculiarities identified by students of Putin are indisputably still there. In her book, Hill writes that he is best understood in six character traits, including as protector of the state steeped in his own interpretation of Russian history, and intelligence officer prone to conduct black ops. Remnick calls Putin simply “the sum of his resentments,” a state of mind reached after Russia’s disarray in the 1990s and his own perceived humiliation at the hands of the West.