Vladimir Putin’s ambition to join the KGB started when he was a young student reading Cold War thrillers and watching Russian spy movies like The Shield and Sword (1968).
“What amazed me most of all is how one man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not,” Putin said in his autobiographical book First Person. “One spy could decide the fate of thousands of people. At least, that’s the way I understood it.”
Russia’s leader craves respect on the world stage
When he was around 15, Putin marched into the KGB Directorate and asked for a job, not realizing the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti didn’t accept walk-ins or applications. Putin discovered he’d need military training or a higher education before the spy agency would even consider tapping him on the shoulder.“From that moment on I began to prepare for the law faculty of Leningrad University,” Putin recalled. “And nobody could stop me.” During his last year of university, Putin was approached by a stranger who asked if they could speak about a ‘career assignment’. It was the fulfillment of Putin’s childhood dream and the five years of spy training that followed would shape his personality for the rest of his life.
Who is Vladimir Putin?
In some respects, Putin has remained a spy in disguise, spinning his public image to bond with his audience. When peat bog fires raged around Moscow in 2010, Putin morphed into a fire-fighting airplane pilot. When Putin met with bikers in Ukraine that same year, he rocked up on a Harley Davidson Lehman Trike.
Putin drove a Harley Davidson to a 2010 meeting with bikers in Ukraine
Beneath the PR showman lies a shrewd operator.
“He’s an absolutely ruthless, powerful, ambitious leader who wants both Russia and himself to be respected – and I think now both feared and respected – on the world stage,” said Kenneth Dekleva, a SPYEX consultant and former senior US Dept of State psychiatrist and diplomat who lived in Moscow for five years.
“He is a calculated and strategic risk-taker, as well as a disruptor,” Dr. Dekleva told SPYSCAPE.
Putin sees himself as the embodiment of modern Russia, with an idealized view of himself as CEO of Russia Inc. “In reality, his leadership style is more like that of the don of a mafia family. The system is personalized, private, and informal; enforcement is not by positive incentives but by threats,” authors Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy wrote in Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.
Vladimir Putin: hockey player, horseback rider, firefighting pilot, and deep sea diver
The young spy
Born in October 1952, Putin was raised by complex, nuanced, war-weary parents in St. Petersburg, previously known as Leningrad. His father was a submariner and assigned to a WWII sabotage squad working for the NKVD, the Soviet secret police.
His mother, Maria, almost starved to death during the 872-day Siege of Leningrad and buried two of her three young sons before she gave birth to Putin at age 41.
Initially, his parents weren’t on board with Putin’s plan to join the KGB – his father had almost died while working for the secret police – but, even as a teenager, Putin was single-minded. Former German teacher Vera Dmitrievna Gurevich noted “he never forgives people who betray him or are mean to him”.
Sergei Roldugin, a cellist and godfather to one of Putin’s daughters, described him as a tenacious bulldog. “He has a terribly intense nature, which manifests itself in literally everything,” Roldugin told journalists. “Don’t forget: He was the Judo champion for Leningrad in 1976.”
Putin has an 8th degree black belt in judo, a sport that teaches the importance of efficiently using leverage and balance against challengers. Winning at judo is about anticipating your opponent’s next moves.
KGB spy school
Putin’s KGB career began with six months of agent training in the late 1970s where he learned basic spy skills like how to recruit sources. He also perfected his German language skills and worked in counterintelligence tracking suspected spies. Along the way, Putin was exposed to a myriad of KGB espionage gadgets including spy cameras used to gather kompromat – compromising information.
Retired KGB Colonel Michael Frolov, a former instructor of the Andropov Red Banner Institute, described Putin as a steady, sharp-witted student prone to wearing a three-piece suit even if it was 85 degrees Fahrenheit outside. He was assigned to the St. Petersburg KGB branch responsible for harassing dissidents and futilely hunting for foreign spies.
“It wasn’t what I imagined,” Putin recalled in First Person.”I had just come from university and all of a sudden I was surrounded by old men.”
Listen to SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast: Putin’s Palace?
The turning point
Putin’s first foreign posting was as a KGB officer in Dresden, East Germany in 1985. The posting was described in SPYSCAPE’s True Spies’ podcast Putin’s Palace? He was apparently a low- to mid-level employee in Dresden – not part of a secret residency but a member of the official representative office of the KGB in East Germany.
After the Berlin Wall came crashing down in 1989, a mob surrounded the Stasi HQ in East Germany and the KGB intelligence HQ across the street. Putin called to request a Red Army tank unit for protection, but the answer was devastating silence. “We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow,” the voice at the other end replied. “And Moscow is silent.”
“I think it’s the key to understanding Putin,” his German biographer, Boris Reitschuster, told the BBC. “We would have another Putin and another Russia without his time in East Germany.”
Putin “went from being a member of the most powerful organization, living the good life in East Germany, to somebody who was completely helpless,” Jack Barsky, a SPYEX consultant and former KGB sleeper agent told CBS. “And it motivated him to rebuild – not necessarily the Soviet Union, but greater Russia. This is what he is after.”
Russian President Putin inspects the Olympics site in 2014
Putin’s art of war
Putin retired from the KGB in 1991 with the breakup of the Soviet Union but his steady rise to power continued with his election as Russian president in 2000. Putin has since engaged in wars in Georgia and Syria, and in 2014 Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.
While some speculate Putin may have ‘lost the plot’ with his 2022 invasion of Ukraine – reportedly anticipating the fighting to be over within 72 hours – the theory doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
“The thinking that he’s ‘lost it’ or become erratic – or is somehow mentally ill, or has ‘gone off the rails’ – just simply doesn’t hold water,” Dr. Dekleva said. “My view of the Ukraine crisis is that Putin knows exactly what he’s doing.”
New York psychiatrist Dr. Ziv Cohen has described Putin as a calculated leader with features of a psychopath. “He’s not crazy,” Cohen said. “He’s charming, calculated and manipulative.”
Fiona Hill, senior director for European and Russian affairs on the US National Security Council from 2017 to 2019, believes Putin looked at the US and the world in disarray and decided he could do whatever he wanted: “Because we were just a bunch of idiots. And he’d exploited and stirred everything up in 2016 and we continued to be oblivious. We were all running around being very high on ourselves, full of it, and we were just gone from the scene.”
Putin’s approach to war has always been to double down rather than accept defeat on the battlefield.
“There are always a lot of mistakes made in war. That’s inevitable. But when you are fighting, if you keep thinking everyone around you is always making mistakes, you’ll never win,” Putin said in First Person. “You have to take a pragmatic attitude. And you have to keep thinking of victory.”