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To US, Putin is a riddle wrapped in a mystery

New Russian leader's posture toward US will affect everything from

By Justin BrownStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 6, 2000


Russia's Acting President Vladimir Putin is likely to be among the most important world leaders the US will have to negotiate with in the coming years.

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As master of the world's second-largest nuclear arsenal, his actions will help determine the course of the American military - as well as US plans to build a national missile defense. And a driving force behind the war in Chechnya, he will determine whether there will be chaos or stability in a region that has become the front line between Christianity and Islam.

But to the dismay of some US officials, Mr. Putin is also a surprisingly unknown element - his true identity veiled by campaign rhetoric, silence on crucial issues, and years of work as an intelligence officer in the former East Germany.

Since Putin became, in succession, prime minister, the leading presidential candidate, and, with the New Year's Eve resignation of Boris Yeltsin, acting president, US officials have been struggling to get a handle on the stern-faced upstart, who is almost universally described as "pragmatic."

"The good news is that [Russia] will have a president of good health who will work hard," says a US official, contrasting the active first days of Putin's rule to the lethargic last leg of the Yeltsin era. "The bad news is that there are some things we don't know - we don't know who this man is entirely."

At the center of efforts to read Putin is the time he spent with the Soviet KGB and its Russian successor, the Federal Security Services, which he directed.

KGB image misleading

Putin worked as an intelligence officer for at least four years in Germany, ending in 1989. But as an example of how little has been confirmed about him, US officials say it is unclear when he began that post - and exactly what he did while he was there.

On the flip side of concerns about a mysterious KGB past is the assumption that Putin benefited from working at one of the most successful and modern agencies in the former Soviet Union.

"The KGB conjures images of men in leather jackets beating up dissidents," says Keith Bush, an analyst at the Center of Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But the reality is that the KGB was prestigious and attracted the best and the brightest in the Soviet Union."

US officials, who agree that KGB experience may have made Putin more open-minded about reform, are careful to point out that the acting president is not a one-dimensional, law-enforcement type. Rather, they say, he is well-grounded in economics, which should allow him to move Russia's economy forward and make the country more stable than it is now.

Economic stability is considered crucial to protecting Russia's vast nuclear stockpile - which some in the US fear could be sold off to rogue states in the event of a financial meltdown.

While a university-level student in St. Petersburg in the 1970s, Putin wrote his dissertation on the national economic policy concerning minerals.