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.
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.
As a city official, also in St. Petersburg, he was the mayor's point man for foreign investment, and he helped open banks and hotels.
Since he became prime minister Aug. 9, the Russian economy has improved. While soaring fuel revenues are largely behind the boost, US officials say that, unlike some of his predecessors, Putin "has not done anything to stifle the economy."
Mr. Putin, a 47-year-old judo expert, is said to be a man of his word, something the Russian public desperately wants. Since he took over as prime minister he punctually followed through on two of his promises: to hold Duma elections on time and to crack down on alleged Chechen terrorists.
While strong words may be good for Russian voters, they do not sit well with officials and analysts here, who worry that Putin could usher in a new wave of Russian nationalism. Already, anti-Western sentiment fueled by NATO expansion and the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, is on the rise.
So far Putin has pushed all the right domestic buttons - which is what any presidential candidate would want to do with elections no more than three months away.
According to Ariel Cohen, a Russia expert at the Heritage Foundation here, his first "brilliant" move was to visit Russian troops fighting in Chechnya on New Year's Day, when the rest of Russia was in a deep slumber. Rather than give them customary watches, he chose a stronger symbol - signed hunting knives. After that, he fired Yeltsin adviser and daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, who has been accused of corruption.
"He's a natural for power politics," says Mr. Cohen.
But internationally, Putin's policy has not gone over so well. He is credited with being the architect of the Russian invasion into Chechnya - which was first justified as a crackdown on terrorists but is now called a mission to preserve Russian territorial integrity.
US officials predict he will tone down the operation as elections near - in an effort to prevent casualties that could turn public opinion against a popular war. They also hope that his pragmatism will prevent the conflict from spreading throughout the Caucasus, an already unstable region that is rich in oil.
Finally, officials here are looking closely to see how Putin will respond to the US desire to revise the 1972 anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty. The treaty would have to be changed or discarded for the US to build a national missile-defense system - something the Russians have vehemently opposed.
In previous statements, Putin has said he wants to ratify the START II nonproliferation agreement.
If he does that, US officials say, it would be a goodwill gesture that could make the US look bad if they were to break the much more important ABM treaty.
But, US officials say, it is impossible to read too much into the future with Putin.
"He will defend the [Russian] national interest," says a US official. "That means sometimes he will cooperate with the US, sometimes he won't."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society