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Putin: 20 years later

It is 20 years since Vladimir Putin came to power. On August 9, 1999, an ailing President Boris Yeltsin anointed his successor by appointing the little-known former KGB agent to Russia's fourth prime minister in 17 months. Yeltsin declared that Mr. Putin would guarantee reform in Russia if he won the 2000 presidential election.

In his two decades as either president or prime minister, Mr. Putin has seen four US presidents and countless other world leaders come and go. After his first years in office, he stopped pursuing reforms and became increasingly authoritarian. But he has also effectively managed to assert Russia's role on the world stage despite its country's shrinking economic power ̵

1; a gross domestic product less than Italy's, a declining population, antiquated infrastructure, dependence on fossil fuel exports for 60% of the country's budget, and widespread corruption . Despite these inhibitors, Russia has regained a seat at the table of global governance and has resurfaced as a disruption of Western interests, both foreign and domestic. How did Mr. Putin do it?

Americans think of Russians as skilled chess players. Yet Mr. Putin's sport is not chess, but judo. The Russian president has admitted that he was a "hooligan" as a kid, but that martial arts got him off the streets: "It was a tool to assert me in the pack." He credits judo with teaching him discipline and a specific view of life. In 1976, Leningrad's evening newspaper paid tribute to the 23-year-old "Jew Vladimir Putin", who had won a prestigious competition and been elevated to the master rankings. Although he was little known then, the article predicted that it would soon change.

In judo, a seemingly weaker practitioner can rely on inner strength and willpower to defeat a larger, stronger enemy. A basic technique involves balancing an opponent and taking advantage of their temporary disorientation to strike a winning blow. Mr. Putin has proven successful in seizing the opportunities afforded by the disorder of the West and the indecision of the leaders. He had a plan to restore Russia as a great power when he took over from Yeltsin; The United States has had no comparable strategy in the post-Cold War era, and Russia has made use of its much stronger competitor.

Mr. Putin's skills are displayed in the Middle East, where Russia has returned as a key player for the first time in three decades, involving all sides of the region's multiple conflicts. The most important moment came in Syria in 2013. President Obama had warned President Bashar Assad not to cross a "red line" using chemical weapons, but government forces used Sarin gas to attack a rebel stronghold. Russia claimed the rebels had launched the attack, and in the following weeks Mr. Putin planted international doubts about what had happened that Obama, also facing strong domestic opposition, abandoned all plans to launch air strikes to punish the Assad regime. The red line was deleted. Mr. Putin then acted as peacemaker, proposing that the United States and Russia jointly oversee the withdrawal of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile.

Mr. Putin has aggravated tensions in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by befriending Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is angry at the U.S.A. because she refused to disclose clerical Fethullah Gulen and the criticism of Turkish domestic degradation. Last month, Mr. Putin achieved a major victory when Turkey received the delivery of its first Russian-produced air defense system S-400, despite NATO's explicit ban on doing so, which prompted the US to abolish the delivery of F-35 jets. The episode also raised the bigger question – as Mr. Putins liked – about whether strategically situated Turkey will remain in the alliance.

Russia also took advantage of the alienation between the Obama administration and Saudi Arabia to build a strong relationship with the Saudis for the first time. Their cooperation extends beyond oil for investment and diplomatic coordination, and was anchored by an elaborate state visit by King Salman to Moscow in 2017.

More recently, Putin has taken up the occasion of the Trump administration's escalating trade war with China to expand the burgeoning Chinese Russian partnership and make Moscow more indispensable to Beijing by strengthening military cooperation. Last September, Chinese troops participated in joint maneuvers in the Russian Far East. In July, the first consecutive Russian-Chinese nuclear nuclear bomber patrol ever hit the Japanese sea, triggering an angry South Korean response. Undoubtedly, Russia is a junior partner in this relationship, given the asymmetry between their respective economies. But Putin has built a partnership with Xi Jinping, a like-minded authoritarian who never criticizes him or challenges his domestic politics, since China is also increasingly at odds with the United States

Finally, Mr. Putin has squeezed the pressure points in the EU. The more Brussels criticizes Hungary for its rising illiberalism, the closer Prime Minister Viktor Orbán moves to Moscow, which praises him and provides economic and political incentives. Similarly, Italy's populist and Euroskeptic government becomes an outspoken Putin supporter and critic of the EU's sanctions on Russia. Mr. Putin knows how to play the power game; he even holds the pope waiting for him, as in one meeting of the Vatican last month.

While marking two decades in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin has emerged as the master judoist, serving on divisions in the West, awake for the next opening to bolster Russia's international struggle, and quick to act. He knows the features.

Angela Stent