Russia merited just one mention in President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday night, an offhand remark that his administration will continue to "engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals." Obama's first term did see some thaw with Moscow -- the "reset," a modest relationship with then President Dmitry Medvedev, and the passage of the New START agreement -- but it's clear that things have become frostier since Vladimir Putin returned to power. It's an indication of an impasse in dealing with the Kremlin -- and perhaps one that is fundamentally about personality. No one in Washington really knows what to make of Russia's famously immodest and opaque leader.
Who is the real Vladimir Putin? This question has never been fully answered. Putin has dominated Russian politics for more than 12 years, but in that time almost no new information has surfaced about his background beyond the material in a few early biographies. Even in the biographies, very little information about the Russian president is definitive, confirmable, or reliable. As a result, some observers have said that Putin has no face, no substance, no soul. He is a man from nowhere, who can appear to be anything to anybody.
But Putin is a product of his environment -- a man whose past experiences have clearly informed his present outlook. Indeed, Putin is best understood as a composite of multiple identities that stem from those experiences, and which help explain his improbable rise from KGB operative and deputy mayor of St. Petersburg to the pinnacle of Russian power. Of these multiple identities, six are most prominent: Statist, History Man, Survivalist, Outsider, Free Marketeer, and Case Officer. None of the single-word labels people usually attach to Putin -- KGB thug, kleptocrat, autocrat -- offer a satisfactory explanation for the phenomenon of his rule. It is the combination of all his identities that made Putin an effective behind-the-scenes operator in Russian politics and helped propel him into the Kremlin. Today, however, these identities have become a source of weakness. The country has changed since 1999; Putin has not.
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