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"The Power of Vladimir Putin"

Aired February 9, 2014 - 14:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: The following is a CNN report.


JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRSPONDENT (voice-over): From harsh beginnings to the heights of power, Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia for over a decade.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They want a strong guy in charge. They've got a strong guy in charge.

DOUGHERTY: From the KGB to Sochi, a very public leader who remains a mystery to many, "The Power of Vladimir Putin."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The International Olympic Committee has the honor --

DOUGHERTY: Since this announcement in 2007.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The XXII Olympic Winter Games in 2014 are awarded to the city of Sochi.


DOUGHERTY: Vladimir Putin has eagerly anticipated this moment. The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, a chance he told George Stephanopoulos.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): I want it to be a success for this nation. We are hosting these Olympics so that millions of sports fans the world over will feel the celebration. It won't be my personal success. That success will belong to this country, and I hope the success will come true.

DOUGHERTY: His Russia, his vision.

And yet, the biggest showdown in Russia may not come on the slopes or on the ice. It may just be a war of wills between terrorists bent on violence and Vladimir Putin's complete commitment to safe and successful games.

PUTIN: We will fiercely and consistently fight against terrorists until their complete annihilation.

DOUGHERTY: It is Vladimir Putin's biggest moment yet on the world stage, one he vows will end in triumph not tragedy. The most recent chapter in a life's journey that started here -- St. Petersburg, Russia, Czar Peter the Great's window to the West. A city he created to pull Russia out of its medieval darkness.

Putin lived in a one-room communal apartment with no hot water where he beat off rats with a stick. Now it's a tourist attraction.

For Russians like this woman, it provides surprising insight into their president.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was a very ordinary person, very ordinary. He wants to go up very much, very much.

DOUGHERTY: The city of Putin's youth was called Leningrad.

In World War II, the Nazi's tried to starve the city into submission, a blockade that lasted 900 days. Thousands of dead were hauled off to this memorial cemetery and buried anonymously in mass graves.

(on camera): Amidst nearly half a million buried could be the brother of Vladimir Putin. The president has revealed his brother, who was just a little boy at the time, died during the war. But he has no idea where that grave may lie.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This was the first one.

DOUGHERTY (voice-over): Strobe Talbott is an expert on Russia, and has met with Putin several times.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He learned as a child the brutality of life. And also because of the city of Leningrad and the citizens of Leningrad went through during the war, what the enemies of Russia could do at their worst. And I think that has never left him.

DOUGHERTY: Putin was born in 1952. For him, it was a scrappy life, a thin boy not very tall, who was constantly getting into trouble and always late for class. But this was his salvation.

Mikhail Rochman (ph) is a judo master, his father Anatoly taught young Putin the sport.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Judo has its own philosophy. It has power, technique, and tactical elements.

DOUGHERTY: Judo gave Putin focus, strength, and says Strobe Talbott, the characteristic that most defines him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Discipline that he imposes on the people who work for him and on the country he rules.

DOUGHERTY: Putin, a self-described hooligan said the sport changed his life and taught him strategy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You wait the other guy out until it's hard for them. He steps back. You move forward, then you win.

DOUGHERTY: As much as he loved judo, Putin loved spy movies like this one. At 16, Putin went to KGB headquarters intended to join, but officials told him he wasn't ready.

(on camera): They said, well, kid, go away. You need some education. He goes to law school, comes back and becomes an agent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think he was very much a product of that quintessential Soviet institution. I remember meeting him and having him lock his gaze on my eyes and let me know he knew a lot about my past.

What he was basically saying was I have studied your file. I know about you. I've studied you. That was just classic KGB behavior.

DOUGHERTY (voice-over): Putin was in his 20s and a KGB agent when he met Sergei Roldugin, an accomplished cellist, in the summer of 1977.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We had a guitar and we were singing songs. We rode around town. He didn't look like a police officer. But he was just a good guy, nothing else but a nice, charming guy.

DOUGHERTY: A nice charming guy, lacking polish and driving a car like a tin can.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That Zaporozhets car had no muffler. You know what a muffler is? So, it made this sound, you know?

DOUGHERTY: Putin's Zaporozhets wasn't sleek like this one from "Golden Eye", and Putin was no James Bond. But he was plenty tough. One evening a drunk student with a cigarette stopped Putin and asked for a light.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Putin said, I won't give it to you. The student grabbed him. The next moment I saw the guy's socks in the air. I don't know what technique he used, I just saw the guy's legs in the air.

DOUGHERTY: Somewhere under the brusk exterior was the discipline, the drive that would one day pluck him from obscurity and land him here.

Coming up, the Iron Curtain collapses, and with it, all of Putin's plans.




DOUGHERTY: In this unremarkable building, one of the Cold War's most feared agencies, the KGB -- secretive, powerful, aAnd by the late '80s, Vladimir Putin's employers, although he wouldn't admit he was a spy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He said he was in the special police.

DOUGHERTY: Sergei Roldugin is a friend. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Putin at that time never talked about his work. I was interested in the KGB, their intelligence officers, it was very romantic. And he immediately told me that in intelligence, the less they know about you, the better.

RONALD REAGAN, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.


DOUGHERTY: It was the late '80s, the height of the Cold War.

REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

DOUGHERTY: Vladimir Putin was a mid-level KGB agent posted to East Germany with two young daughters and an attractive young wife, Lyudmila, a former airline stewardess.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Soviet Union defined him. Not just the Soviet Union, but the security services, the KGB.

DOUGHERTY: Strobe Talbott is president of the Brookings Institution.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was part of not just the machinery but in some ways the characteristic of the machinery and the most powerful machinery in the Soviet Union.

DOUGHERTY: The KGB was a powerful part of what some called the "Ministry of Fear". And Putin was unflinchingly loyal both to the KGB and to the Soviet Union. So, when the Berlin Wall was suddenly torn down, a desperate Putin phoned Moscow for instructions, but Moscow was silent.

(on camera): The story goes, he was shocked. It was as if Moscow wasn't there. What was going on?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Remember how surprised all of us were watching this structure we thought was going to be with us for another generation at least turned out to be so fragile, so vulnerable to internal pressures. That came as a great surprise to people like Putin who are heavily invested in it.

DOUGHERTY: The Soviet Union and with it Putin's plans were wobbling. In East Germany, Putin burned classified documents until the furnace exploded, then returned to the Soviet Union to chart a new course.

I got the feeling the country no longer existed, he said. It had a disease without a cure, the paralysis of power.

Putin returned to the Soviet Union, resigned from the KGB and became right-hand man to Leningrad's reformist mayor, Anatoly Sobchak.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: For me, he was just one of the men coming to the house to steal my father. That's it.

DOUGHERTY: Ksenya Sobchak is Anatoly's daughter and a Russian celebrity. She's known Putin since she was a little girl. Putin, she says, reads people like a book.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is his big secret. He knows how to speak with different kind of people, especially when he's alone with them.

DOUGHERTY: Perceptive and powerful, Putin used his skills to his advantage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His boss, the Mayor Sobchak, was essentially a reformer and needed somebody who was sort of tough guy behind the scenes to keep things under control.

DOUGHERTY: Keeping things under control and maintaining the Soviet system were important to Putin.

But on Christmas day 1991, when Vladimir Putin was 39, the world changed forever.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I terminate my activities as president of the USSR.

DOUGHERTY: The Soviet Union ceased to exist.

STROBE TALBOTT, PRESIDENT, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: That system came crashing down because it depended on two things, the big lie and the iron fist. The iron fist turned out to be not enough to keep it together.

DOUGHERTY: Leningrad became St. Petersburg again and the reborn Russia emerged under this man, Boris Yeltsin. All Putin could do was keep his head down and work hard. Then, one day, the Kremlin noticed Putin skills and called him to Moscow.

(on camera): He had a rapid rise to power through the bureaucracy. What explains that?

TALBOTT: I think it's a combination of genuine talent. He is not stupid by a long shot. He has clearly got a considerable intelligence, a lot of self-discipline, and he just knows how to play the system and to play personalities.

DOUGHERTY (voice-over): Putin's meteoric rise through the ranks gave him increasing power and influence.

DMITRI TRENIN, DIRECTOR, MOSCOW CENTER: He is also been someone whose goal was to keep Russia in one piece and to elevate Russia to the proper position in the world, which to him is bring Russia back into the top league of global players.

DOUGHERTY: In December 1999, Putin had his chance to take charge.

BORIS YELTSIN, FORMER RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): I resign. I did everything I could. I do it not because of my health but for many other reasons.

DOUGHERTY: Boris Yeltsin shocked the world by stepping down and naming the unknown Vladimir Putin as his political heir. YELTSIN: Dear Russians, dear countrymen, today I've been given the responsibility as head of state.

DOUGHERTY: Vladimir Putin was in control and would lead Russia for the next 14 years. Next, the Sochi Olympics.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's prestige. He's a big believer in prestige.

DOUGHERTY: And the shadow of terror.



DOUGHERTY: Fishing, tracking tigers, horse back riding, even hang gliding, Vladimir Putin presents himself as a symbol of Russian power and machismo.

Strobe Talbott remembers a tour Putin gave him to the Kremlin's private quarters.

TALBOTT: He showed off two things. One, the gym, where there's weights. And then we passed another room and he said, that's where the clinic was.

In other words, that's where my predecessor spent a lot of time. The gym is where I'm spending a lot of time.

DOUGHERTY: It's more than just a viral image, he's long been rumored to be in a relationship with a woman half his age. The Kremlin denies any affair. Nonetheless in 2014, Putin divorced his wife Lyudmila. Newly single, he hit the slopes in January 2014. But this time, it was not about his image.

(on camera): What is he trying to do with the Sochi Olympics? What's the message to the world?

TALBOTT: Russia is a great country. Russia is a modern country. Russia can hold the Olympics. You all come. But some of you aren't going to be as welcomed as others. The security is going to have to be tight. I mean, it's prestige.

DOUGHERTY (voice-over): Prestige but not without controversy. At a cost of over $50 billion, it's the most expensive games in history. On ABC's "This Week", Putin denied allegations of massive corruption.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, not true. Our law enforcement agencies have been working in this area. So far, we are not seeing any major large scale manifestations of corruption as part of the implementation of the Sochi project.

DOUGHERTY: But Putin can't deny the specter of terrorist violence, though he has vowed to prevent it.

PUTIN: The job of the Olympics host is to ensure the security of the participants in the Olympics and the visitors. We will do whatever it takes.

DOUGHERTY: Putin's heavy hand has made him enemies worldwide, sparking controversy recently with a strong anti-gay stance.

TALBOTT: Yes, there have been protests against him. Yes, there's been a high degree of repression. But it's also interesting that there hasn't been a widespread sustained support for the protest either.

DOUGHERTY: That's because Russians, Talbott says, are used to an authoritarian leader. Ksenya Sobchak is not so sure.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We should fight with him not because he's a monster. He's not. Just his values are not my values and not values, I think, of the whole new generation in Russia. His mind is very -- so to say Sovietic.

DOUGHERTY (on camera): Soviet.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: His mind is very Soviet.

DOUGHERTY: Talbott calls Putin a throw-back. But Putin would call himself traditional, as he told me in this December press conference.

PUTIN: We need to find the most traditional values. Without these values, society becomes degraded. And quite clearly, we need to return to these values to understand the reason for this, the evaluations, appraisals of them and to move forward.

TALBOTT: He tends to pick on values that I think we could call sort of traditional conservative values, his anti-gay policies being a pretty good example of that. What he's really saying is that we in Russia are a pure civilization.

DOUGHERTY: Putin sees himself as protector and savior of modern Russia. Over the last decade, Putin has paid off Russia's debt, improved the quality of life for many, and made Russia a major player in international affairs.

TALBOTT: He's also shown just in the pass six months or so some dexterity and diplomacy, making a virtue out of the crisis in Syria, sort of getting Russia back into the game of diplomacy in the Middle East and that kind of thing. I think there is a certain accomplishment there.

DOUGHERTY: Yet he has plenty of detractors.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't want to compare but Putin has his own truth, which is just different from ours. He's quite truthful in saying, look, I'm the ruler. It's my rules. I believe in these things. I'm the president. So I would decide how you would lead.

DOUGHERTY: Only time will tell whether today's Russians are willing to live by Putin's rules. But one thing seems clear, Putin doesn't plan to relinquish control any time soon. TRENIN: Two presidential terms are not enough. Even four presidential terms are not enough. We're talking about a lifetime job. Even then, it will not be complete. So, he wants to see it through.