When Vladimir Putin became prime minister in 1999, few thought he would last long. In those days in Russia, premiers were in and out of office like people coming through a revolving door. But Mr Putin went on to the presidency, prevailing with apparent ease over those who sought to discard him, to use him, or to challenge him. Ten years later he is still effectively in power, now as prime minister again. He had luck, in that Russia's rising oil revenues gave him lots of room for manoeuvre. He was also tenacious, ruthless, and shrewd. And he had a simple, straightforward ideology.
Russia was a great power, and would remain great. What it had it would hold, including a special interest in the states and territories which had once belonged to the Soviet Union or had been part of its sphere of influence. It would oppose and criticise a high-handed America as long as that country continued, as Mr Putin once observed, to "behave like a Roman emperor". Mr Putin insisted that Russia should be a power to be reckoned with. For him the greatest sin is to be weak. "We showed weakness," he told Russians after the Beslan school massacre, "and weak people are beaten."
It was never likely that a man with this sense of mission would bow out of politics, and it is therefore no surprise that he was ready yesterday to speak of taking a joint decision with President Dmitry Medvedev over which of them would stand for the presidency in 2012. There are no prizes for guessing whose is likely to be the more decisive voice. Under Russia's amended constitution, the next president could serve two six-year terms, and so Mr Putin – but who had ever doubted it ? – could be with us for a very long time to come. At the annual conference of the Valdai Club, a gathering of academics, journalists and experts on Russia from around the world, Mr Putin was in typical form. He knows how to deal with western questioners in particular, and – as you might expect of a judo enthusiast – he has his counter-move going almost before an opponent has started. Thus, anticipating a critical attitude to a second transfer of posts between himself and Mr Medvedev, he snappily noted that Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair without any intervention by the British electorate.
How much of a team he and Mr Medvedev really are is still not easy to read. The day before Mr Putin offered his upbeat assessments, Mr Medvedev put out a mournful blog post bemoaning the country's economic deficiencies, its weak democratic institutions, its serious social and health problems, and its failure to contain a spreading insurgency in the Caucasus region. Indeed, the two men could almost have been speaking of two different countries.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017