Unraveling The Putin Enigma, From The Inside

They've known him from up close, and their insights help explain the mystery of the Russian president's rise. And, perhaps, what he'll do next.

"Putin is obsessed with television."
"Putin is obsessed with television."
Vincent Jauvert

MOSCOW — The master of the Kremlin had disappeared. For ten days, Vladimir Putin didn’t offer a single sign of life to his people. He was nowhere to be seen on television, nor heard on the radio. Usually omnipresent, he canceled all the appointments on his agenda. He didn’t even attend, like he does every year, the annual meeting of alumni of the KGB, where he began his career. Between March 6 and 16 — a political eternity — the Russians didn’t know what happened to the Russian president. Or if he was even still alive.

In Moscow, political life came to a halt as the whole of Russia held its collective breath. From Saint Petersburg to Vladivostok, the public absence was perhaps the clearest sign that the functioning of this massive country relies on just one man only: a former 62-year-old spy, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, aka “VVP.”

Who is this enigmatic head of state, considered by many to be the most powerful leader in the world? Where does he come from and what does he want? How does he manage his country? To give a clearer portrayal of this disturbing figure, L’Obs asked men and women who knew Putin at different moments of his life — including those who know him now. They talk about the searing career of this small lieutenant colonel who became czar: his psychology, his fascination for television, his techniques for having the upper hand on anyone he is speaking to …

The first witness sees him almost every day. He’s a journalist who has been accredited for a long time at the Kremlin, and who like others wishes to remain anonymous. He says Putin’s disappearance was one of those manipulations of public opinion only he knows how to execute, and which, this time, almost went wrong. He says that when he saw Putin again, on March 16, his right cheekbone was “particularly swollen.”

“He obviously went through a new Botox injection. Don’t forget his almost official mistress, the former gymnast Alina Kabaeva, is a lot younger than him ... In my opinion, after the murder of Boris Nemtsov, he took advantage of this surgical operation to disappear and distract public opinion,” the source says. “But, when rumors of a military coup became insistent, the president’s entourage thought it was best to put an end to the masquerade, that he could lose control of the people.”

After that, Putin decided to be more omnipresent than ever. “Since March 16, we’ve been receiving his updated agenda twice a day on our smartphones!” the journalist says.

TV obsession

Putin is obsessed with the media, especially television. “On his desk, there are no pens, only a remote control,” Boris Nemtsov told L’Obs a few years ago.

Sergey Dorenko is a famous television host who used to be very close to the president, to whom he owes much. In 2000, Dorenko was one of the main contributors to his presidential victory, tarnishing the image of Putin’s opponent on a nightly basis.

“Putin often told me, ‘Sergey, if you don’t talk about this information, it doesn’t exist,’” Dorenko recalls. “For him, the only power is television. He decides the programs, chooses the hosts. He summons the heads of networks in his dachas over any little thing. That’s how he runs the country.”

The czar of Great Russia has always built everything around the small screen. His political career started with a show that he himself ordered. That was 23 years ago. In 1992, Igor Shadkhan was a famous producer in Saint Petersburg: “One day, I got a phone call from city hall,” the 75-year-old man remembers, speaking in his office located next to the Neva, where several photographs signed by the Russian president hang on the walls. “I was offered to make a film on a certain Putin. ‘Who’s that? — a close associate of the mayor,’” he was told. He went to see him.

The 39-year-old deputy mayor mentioned the rumor about him: that he allegedly worked for the KGB.

“He told me, ‘Well, it’s true! And I want to confirm the rumor in my own way, in a documentary you’ll make.’ He chose me because I’d hosted a very popular show. He recruited me to make him seem kind.”

This is how the two men wound up producing, in 1992, the first film on Putin, called Clast (“Power”), in which he reveals he was indeed an intelligence officer in East Germany, but that he had “since then resigned from the KGB.”

“The film was paid for by the former bank of the Communist party of the city, Rossiya, where one of his close friends worked, Yuri Kovaltchuk,” the producer says.

A few years later, Kovaltchuk would become a billionaire and owner of Rossiya, which is now considered as the personal bank for Putin and his oligarch friends. As such, the bank has since been sanctioned by the U.S. following the annexation of Crimea.

A dazzling rise

Putin’s dazzling rise can be explained by his exceptional ability to make himself indispensable and remain secret.

At the end of 1996, friends from Saint Petersburg, impressed by his devotion to his boss, recommend him to President Boris Yeltsin. He arrived at the Kremlin through the back door, but worked so many wonders that, in just a few months, he was in charge of the management of all the transactions of the presidency — a position that requires great trust. “In late 1998, Putin invited me for dinner,” explains the journalist Elena Tregubova. “He had just been appointed as head of the FSB the former KGB. He had been catapulted at this strategic position because the Kremlin couldn’t find any other reliable candidate.”

Yeltsin and Putin in 1999 — Photo: Kremlin

The journalist adds, “I was expecting to spend the evening with a boring man, but he could talk about any topic, he adapted to the person in front of him. I saw him again several times and I understood that this man excelled at public relations — he is a mirror in which the people he speaks to can reflect.”

At the end of Yeltsin’s reign, people close to the old president — who was battling alcoholism — chose the evidently transparent and reliable Putin as successor. Most top officials were delighted, recalled the then Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. “We thought we needed a young, energetic man like him to pursue the democratic and economic reforms,” he recalled. “We didn’t imagine one second he had something else at the back of his mind.”

Just after his election, in 2000, Putin appointed Kasyanov as Prime Minister. “For three years, he kept a low profile,” he says. “He learned to navigate within the administration, to maneuver the tools of the government. He didn’t have his own team yet. He applied the reforms my team had proposed. Thanks to them, we created the basis for the economic stability Putin later boasted about to establish his popularity and his power.”

So much so that in 2004, he felt strong, tough enough to drop the mask.

He appointed a new prime minister, challenged democracy — in which he never believed anyway — and stopped any new economic reform. Then he started redistributing public properties to his friends in Saint Petersburg, starting with Gazprom. The Putin regime was being set up.

Alone and overwhelmed

Now, after 15 years in power, where is he? People who have been close to him since the beginning — and had continued to support him— are worried about the way he is currently governing. Last time he saw Putin, filmmaker Igor Shadkhan was saddened. It was in 2012, a few weeks after the large popular protests denouncing Putin’s third term. Shadkhan says he waited three hours in the antechamber of his office, before he was received at 1 a.m.

“He stays up late, like Stalin. To lighten the mood, I told a joke. He already knew it, so he didn’t laugh. The atmosphere was cold. He seemed alone. Overwhelmed. He doesn’t trust anyone, not even his close relatives,” Shadkhan said. “I think he’s scared. He didn’t move with the times. The time has come for him to hand over power. We need someone new.”

The historian and Russia specialist Hélène Carrère d’Encausse never hid her admiration for Putin, whom she met several times. She’s now very disappointed about his evolution. “At the end of 2000, a few months after his first election, he asked to meet me,” she explains. “I spent two hours in his office at the Kremlin, one-on-one. He seemed unsure of himself, but determined to rebuild Russia. And that’s what he did during his first two terms.”

But since he returned to the Kremlin in 2012, Putin, to Carrère d’Encausse’s eyes, hasn’t been the same. “I saw him again during the autumn of 2013, with experts. His remarks were considerably harder. The months before that, he had flexed his muscles on television. He made homophobic statements. He who had so much difficulty adapting to the bourgeoisie was letting himself go. It was like his real personality deep down was exploding.”

Where will this wind up? The expert’s answer is surprising: “The Russians are grateful for the annexation of Crimea, but they’re not fooled by his way of governing,” she says. “They think it’s enough. Something isn’t right anymore between Putin and the people … This is why I don’t think he’ll run for a fourth term, in 2018.”

Pavel Goussev, the owner of one of the largest Russian dailies, Moskovski Komsomolets, has an even tougher analysis. He’s a powerful editor — not an opponent at all. With his experience in the job and the networks he’s established, he’s the best informed man in the Kremlin. “Since he came to power, I’ve met Putin two or three times per year, in small groups of people,” he says in his office. “Last time, it was in November. Over the years, he’s gained a lot of confidence. Now, he has the highest trust in himself, and he rules alone,” the publisher explained. “He thinks Russia is him, and he is Russia. No one, even at the top, can take important decisions without his approval.”

Goussev notes that so much power concentrated in one man puts pressure on both the man and the state: “The situation is particularly dangerous.”

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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