Putin: The ‘Lonely’ Leader Working to Rebuild Russian Power

28 February, 2015

The Russian economy has faced a crisis in recent months, partly because of the sharp drop in oil prices. Yet, public approval ratings for Russian President Vladimir Putin are near record highs.

Western measures against Russia have failed to reduce its interference in Ukraine. Russia watchers say Mr. Putin is working to return Russia to what he sees as its rightful place in the world, by any means available.

Last Monday, the Russian leader took part in "Defender of the Fatherland Day" observances in Moscow. The event honors his country's military victories and former members of the armed forces. However, it was not a victory but a defeat that defines Mr. Putin's way of thinking. Edward Lucas wrote a book called The New Cold War. He says the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had a major effect on the future Russian president.

"He wants, feels that Russia was cheated in the 1990s, and that the Soviet Union was humiliated and toppled by the West, and it's time to get back what was lost -- both in terms of status, but also in terms of territory."

Western leaders say those ideas are being expressed in Ukraine. They accuse the Russian president of sending troops across the border -- a claim Russia denies. The West has taken steps against several oligarchs -- high-level people close to the president. But those measures have had little effect, says writer Ben Judah.

"What that shows is that there aren't any oligarchs anymore. There is a Putin dictatorship, and there are people who are completely dependent on him for their wealth or their role in Russian politics."

Ben Judah told Vladimir Putin's life story in the book Fragile Empire. He says the president feels he is the only person who can lead and rebuild the Russian nation.

"Whether he needs to do that through war, he'll do that through war. If he needs to do that through economic growth, he'll do that through economic growth. If he's going, the only way to do that is through nationalism and confrontation with the West, he'll do that."

Mr. Putin was an officer in the KGB -- the intelligence service of the Soviet Union. He rose to the position of Lieutenant Colonel. Edward Lucas says his years with the KGB were a major influence.

"He retains the ruthless and paranoid world view which is the hallmark of the KGB. He's also come to love the limelight, and he's gone from the shadows to being an international figure and he enjoys everything that comes with that."

While Mr. Putin may enjoy being president, he admitted last year that he has few friends. He spoke with Russia's state-operated news agency.

He said, "You know, I don't feel lonely, as strange as that may sound. Friendly meetings, contact -- I don't have much, even with people whom I consider my friends."

Such openness is rare. Mr. Putin has sought to present an image of strength. He was famously pictured riding a horse without anything on the upper half of his body. Other pictures have shown him exploring a shipwreck and flying a microlight aircraft.

Ben Judah says Mr. Putin's public image hides his insecurities.

"Putin is a very lonely, very unhappy, deeply isolated man, terrified of physical decay, and a man who feels enormous self-pity that he has to bear this cross of Russia, that he has to confront these forces."

Observers say such complexities are important to understanding the man leading the Russian government. They say he is prepared to re-establish his country's power and honor at almost any cost.

I'm Christopher Jones-Cruise.

Correspondent Henry Ridgwell reported this story from London. George Grow wrote it in VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter edited the story.


Words in This Story

means – n. something useful leading to a desired end

oligarch(s) n. one of a few people who control power in a country

ruthless – adj. uncaring; unfeeling

paranoid – adj. feeling that others want to harm you; having a mental disorder that causes people to falsely believe others want to harm them

limelight – n. the center of attention

isolate(d) adj. separated from others

decay – n. the loss of strength and health; being slowly destroyed by natural processes of aging

pity – n. a feeling of sadness or sympathy

bear this cross – phrase to suffer like the Christian savior Jesus Christ did when he was executed

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