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'A Can-Do Person': How The West Reacted To Putin 15 Years Ago

Russia President Boris Yeltsin speaks with then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on December 31, 1999, the day that Yeltsin would resign and appoint the former KGB agent as the country's acting leader.

On December 31, 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin abruptly resigned and named his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, as his acting replacement. Putin was a virtual unknown to many in the West, having only been appointed prime minister the previous August.

Fifteen years later, Putin has cultivated an increasingly confrontational stance toward the West, highlighted by Russia’s conflicts with Western-leaning governments in Ukraine and Georgia and a crackdown on political opponents and critical media that has been widely criticized by U.S. and European officials.

At the beginning of Putin's reign, however, Western officials reacted optimistically to his public statements, which lacked much of the aggressive foreign policy rhetoric that has since become a hallmark of his public appearances.

Addressing Russians as their leader for the first time, Putin said on New Year’s Eve 15 years ago that “the state will stand firm to protect freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of mass media, ownership rights -- these fundamental elements of a civilized society."

Two days later, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright assessed Putin’s words positively.

"We were quite encouraged by a which he talked about the importance of freedom of expression, of association, of press, and his dedication to a rule of law. We're going to be watching, obviously, very carefully," Albright said on NBC's "Meet The Press."

Her comments echoed those made by a senior Clinton administration official, who told Reuters that Putin’s vow to protect such basic rights was "not a bad way to start."

"Putin has been very willing to meet with American officials and to engage the West," Reuters quoted the official as saying.

The official added that Putin was "businesslike," "very energetic," and "very focused."

Doing 'Business'

Many Western leaders initially called Putin a leader they could work with.

"You can do business with that kind of person. I don't expect a setback for democracy under Putin," Dutch Foreign Minister Jozias van Aartsen was quoted by the Associated Press as saying after Putin’s appointment.

Albright praised Putin as "a can-do person," while U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering said the former intelligence officer "seems to have expanded his capability rapidly."

U.S. President Bill Clinton (pictured here with Putin in June 2000) said he thought "the United States can do business with" Putin.
U.S. President Bill Clinton (pictured here with Putin in June 2000) said he thought "the United States can do business with" Putin.

A month after Putin’s December 31, 1999, speech, U.S. President Bill Clinton said he thought “the United States can do business with” Putin.

The “business” motif when discussing Putin has continued in Washington, despite soured bilateral ties.

The White House’s current occupant, Barack Obama, has used the phrase "businesslike" to describe his increasingly tense relationship with Putin.

KGB Pedigree

Putin did not mention his erstwhile employer -- the KGB -- in his inaugural address to the nation, though he made elliptical references to the notorious Soviet secret police shortly before his appointment as acting president.

Speaking to the Moscow PEN Writers group in December 1999, Putin defended his tenure as a KGB officer while praising "civil society."

Addressing the purges under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Putin said state security agencies "should not be seen as an institution that works against society and the state" and that "the damage they brought to society" during Soviet times was unique to the era.

"One must keep in mind what sort of society it was. ...That was an entirely different country. That country produced such security bodies," he said, according to “The Washington Post.”

He went on to say that Russia will "treasure elements of civil society that we have got, our only gain over these years, then gradually we will be creating conditions under which those horrifying bodies of security will never be able to revive."

Putin served as a KGB officer in the East German city of Dresden in the 1980s. Initial impressions of the salience of his resume diverged.

Albright said there were "two strands" to Putin: his KGB background and his role as a "prime reformer" in the administration of St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak in the 1990s.

Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks to a Russian soldier wounded in Chechnya at a military hospital outside Moscow on December 28, 1999.
Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks to a Russian soldier wounded in Chechnya at a military hospital outside Moscow on December 28, 1999.

Lilia Shevtsova, a longtime Russian political analyst and now a vocal critic of Putin, argued that this background in the security services was no longer relevant for Russians.

"Nobody's thinking about his KGB background. It's not important for Russia anymore. It's not important for [the] younger generation," Shevtsova, then an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told NPR on December 31, 1999.

"But it is important that Putin represents so-called ‘power structures.’ And people here are fed up with pathetic, inadequate, old, and sometimes absolutely -- you know -- lame-duck power," she added.

'Blatantly Misleading'

It was during Putin’s stint as prime minister in 1999 that Russia launched a second war against separatists in Chechnya in response to terrorist attacks in Moscow and other cities. His popularity in the country surged amid the campaign, which Western officials condemned for its brutality.

Putin did not mention the war in his December 31, 1999, address to the nation. After his appointment by Yeltsin, Clinton and other foreign officials noted their ongoing differences with the Kremlin over its handling of the conflict.

Meanwhile, journalist David Hoffman’s profile of Putin for "The Washington Post" a month after his appointment noted accusations that the Russian leader was engaging in a "blatantly misleading" information campaign about the offensive in Chechnya.

Some of the criticisms recounted by Hoffman echo those made by Western officials this year about the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea in March and its role in the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine.

Putin’s "talent for creating legends has been evident in his explanations about the war," Hoffman wrote in the January 30, 2000, profile. "For example, Putin told the writers' group that the military had been open with the news media, when the military has in fact hidden information about casualties, combat events, attacks on civilians, and its goals and methods."