Welcome to a special edition of Axios World. I hinted a while back that I had something up my sleeve. Here it is:
Part 1 of our "20 Years of Putin" special report focuses on his rise, his early years and his escalating antagonism with the West.
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Khodorkovsky meets with Putin in 2002. Photo: Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
There aren’t many people who could have stood between Vladimir Putin and the Russian presidency two decades ago. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was one of them.
The big picture: Once Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovsky and a handful of other powerful oligarchs loomed large in the chaotic decade that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“I could have made it more complicated for him to reach power,” Khodorkovsky acknowledges with a slight shrug, glancing up at the high ceiling of the London townhouse from which he runs his Open Russia foundation. “But this would mean giving up everything else and just doing this job of making obstacles for him.”
Like nearly all of those interviewed for this special report, Khodorkovsky saw something in Putin 20 years ago that was either never there or has long since evaporated.
Between the lines: Khodorkovsky says he hadn't realized what a "talented recruiter" Putin was.
Khodorkovsky ran afoul of Putin when, as CEO of oil giant Yukos, he pushed for greater transparency in Russian business. At first, he saw Putin as a potential ally.
Putin votes in Duma elections in 1999. Photo: Antoine GYORI/Sygma via Getty Images
Putin was a mid-level KGB officer in Dresden, East Germany, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
Weeks later, in the tumult that preceded the collapse of the USSR, crowds stormed the local secret police headquarters and Putin spent a tense night waiting for orders from Moscow that never came.
Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia under Barack Obama, crossed paths with Putin in St. Petersburg in the 1990s.
Behind the scenes: Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter was in several meetings with top Russian officials in the mid-1990s, when he was an assistant secretary of defense.
Putin in a naval cap in 2000, shortly after becoming president. Photo: Laski Diffusion/Liaison/Getty
Even Putin's critics acknowledge that he has accomplished three central objectives: building a strong Russian state, re-establishing Russia as a global power, and maintaining his own grip on power.
Flashback: "I frankly lived the whole decade of the 1990s with the fear of a Russian civil war at the back of my mind," recalls Dmitri Trenin, a former Russian army officer and now director of Carnegie Moscow. "Right up until Putin’s coming to power."
"He immediately energized the entire country," Trenin says.
The bottom line: "Within a couple of months of his appointment as prime minister, he became the figure on whom the last hopes of so many Russian people were pinned.”
Bush looks into Putin's soul in 2001. Photo: Alain BUU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Many in the West were prepared to embrace Putin as well.
Behind the scenes: Daniel Fried, a diplomat with decades of experience on Russia, was on hand for the 2001 meeting in Slovenia after which George W. Bush infamously remarked that he'd looked Putin in the eye and been "able to get a sense of his soul."
"We all assumed at the time that despite his KGB background, he was going to continue on the Westernizing course that Yeltsin had pursued," says Alexander Vershbow, U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2001 to 2005.
Vershbow saw Putin's brutality in Chechnya, callous handling of the Beslan school massacre and crackdown on independent media as signs that "he was clearly not just trying to restore stability, but to recentralize power and remove checks and balances."
Here he comes. Photo: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images
By the time Bill Burns arrived in Moscow as U.S. ambassador in 2005, he says, Putin was feeling both "cockier" and more suspicious of what he saw as U.S. meddling within his sphere of influence.
Behind the scenes: "Clearly we were already heading into an uneasy period in relations," Burns says, noting that the tone was set from the day he presented his credentials at the Kremlin.
The big picture: Putin had reason to feel confident. Prices for Russia’s chief export, oil, had doubled in his first five years in office and were continuing to rise, and his early economic reforms were also bearing fruit.
The bottom line: "In a fairly brutal fashion, he re-established that sense of control in the power of the Russian state."
Putin did not sustain his initial burst of pro-market economic reforms, and Russia did not sustain the growth rates that had burnished his image at home and abroad.
By the numbers: Russia's economy climbed from 12th largest by GDP when Putin took power to 8th by 2009.
Why it matters: "A decade or so ago when he was riding high on high oil prices, that was the moment when he could have started to diversify the economy, to innovate a little bit, because there’s a lot of human capital in Russia," Burns says.
The big picture: That left the Russian economy essentially frozen in time, heavily dependent on oil, gas and other natural resources and falling further behind the West. Highly educated Russians left in droves.
The bottom line: "Putin could be seen as someone who put Russia back on the map as a great power actor," says Alina Polyakova, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution. "But he could also be seen as the person who relegated Russia to global irrelevance."
Photo Illustration: Eniola Odetunde. Photos via Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
"I assure you that there will be no vacuum of power, not for a minute," Putin told the Russian people on New Year's Eve 1999, as he assumed the acting presidency upon Yeltsin's sudden resignation.
Flashback: “What struck people and inspired people to hope was that Putin was never trained as a politician, so he doesn’t speak the language politicians speak all over the world," Trenin says.
The other side: "Putin was an operations officer," says Michael Morell, who joined the CIA not long after Putin joined the KGB and rose to acting director.
The bottom line: Putin's initial democratic pretense cloaked a man still firmly rooted in the Soviet era. He has always regarded Western claims to openness and democracy as a hypocritical facade, Khodorkovsky says.
Go deeper: Read the full Khodorkovsky interview
Part two of our "20 Years of Putin" report arrives next week. If you haven't yet, sign up for World here. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.