x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Many observes believe the Russian president Vladimir Putin has stolen the initiative from his US counterpart Barack Obama when it comes to the crisis in Syria. How has this enigmatic man managed to stay at the top of Russian politics for more than 13 years?

Vladimir Putin was pictured on the cover of Time magazine last week across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa (the exception was the US cover of TIME, which went with a story on college football players). Why all the attention? The Russian president has, in the eyes of many observers, stolen the initiative from the US president Barack Obama when it comes to the international response to the Syrian crisis, via a proposal that would see Syria put its chemical weapons beyond use in order to avoid military action.

Putin is influencing the course of world events, and frustrating US intentions, as never before. So how has this enigmatic man stayed at the top of Russian politics for more than 13 years? And has he engineered a crisis of democracy in the country he has governed?

• A 23-year-old Putin joined the KGB in 1975. Few then would have believed that this son of a factory worker and a submarine conscript would rise to be president. Read The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin to learn how Putin navigated his way through the murky world of Soviet and post-Soviet politics, becoming president upon Boris Yeltsen’s resignation in December 1999.

• Next turn to The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia to learn how Putin began an epic power struggle against the billionaire oligarchs who had enriched themselves by buying and selling state assets at vast profit as the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1990s. Putin won. Mikhail Khordokovsky, an oil oligarch and vocal critic of Putin, will remain in prison until at least 2017, on charges most believe to have been trumped up by Putin’s regime in order to silence him.

• So what does the future hold? Some believe that Russia is gradually reverting to a one-party dictatorship. But in Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin, Ben Judah argues that Putin is not as strong as he seems: a growing middle class, frustrated with corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency, may soon hand him his notice.