Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 1

Yeltsin’s unexpected December 31 resignation also turned an otherwise quiet diplomatic calendar over the winter holidays into a time of tumult, one that stunned world leaders and left them scrambling to react to the changes in Moscow. As suggested above, most chose publicly to hail Yeltsin for his historic contribution to the destruction of the Soviet Union and to the building of Russian democracy. They also welcomed the elevation of Putin and expressed hopes that it marked the beginning both of a peaceful handover of executive power in Moscow and of a period of increased stability throughout Russia as a whole.

This positive public rhetoric, however, did little to conceal the real ambivalence–and concern–that events in Moscow had generated in many quarters throughout the West and elsewhere around on the world. On the one hand, there was undoubtedly a collective sigh of relief that the perpetually ailing and increasingly erratic Yeltsin had departed from the scene in what, by contemporary Russian standards at least, seemed to be a reasonably orderly handover of power.

But events in Moscow clearly had a downside as well. For all his shortcomings, Yeltsin was at least a known quantity, a man who had met nineteen times with U.S. President Bill Clinton and who had built strong personal relationships with a number of world leaders in Europe and elsewhere. Putin, by contrast, remains the most mysterious of wild cards. A career KGB officer, he had been best known in the West prior to his appointment as prime minister in August as the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service–the country’s chief domestic intelligence agency and the main successor organization to the KGB.

Putin did garner some modest credentials as a reformer in the early 1990s. But Western leaders could only be disheartened by the ascent to power in Russia of a career intelligence officer whose current political appeal is based solely on his conduct of Moscow’s bloody war in the North Caucasus. Putin’s ascent has been tarnished also by the obvious subversion of democratic principles that seems likely to win him election in March, and by the fact that he has made himself the front man in a virulently anti-Western campaign that is being driven by military hardliners. That campaign is being used as justification for increased military spending and a buildup of the country’s armed forces. It has also unleashed a belligerent brand of nationalism in Russia that could ultimately complicate any possible future effort by Putin to engage in more pragmatic cooperation with the West.