Ukraine crisis: So, how far will President Putin go to keep his hands on Crimea?

The Russian leader is taking a big gamble in his aggression towards his neighbour

From hunting tigers and polar bears with a tranquilliser rifle to sparring with his judo coach or flying a fighter jet, Vladimir Putin is known for his macho exploits rather than diplomacy. Images of the Russian leader hunting, fishing, swimming and in the saddle – often shirtless – show how the former KGB chief is keen to demonstrate his toughness.

It is an image which has played well with those who see him as a symbol of Russian power and dominance. But to his opponents, he is a dictator – an enemy of democracy. And the 63-year-old’s tough-guy persona has been knocked in recent years, after rumours began to circulate in 2011 that he was having regular botox treatments and cosmetic surgery in an effort to stave off old age.

The Sochi Winter Olympics was supposed to show a new, perhaps softer side of Russian power and its leader. But within days of the closing ceremony, the crisis in the Ukraine has undone all the good work that went before.

Mr Putin is nothing if not controversial, and has taken an increasingly hostile approach against the old enemy – the West. Aggression is a personal trait. His personal website lists his sporting achievements such as being a judo expert and having a black belt in karate. As a boy, he became “deeply interested in martial arts, their special philosophy, culture, relations with the opponent and the rules of combat”.

Mr Putin is keen to portray himself as a man of the people rather than career spy turned Russian leader. “I come from an ordinary family, and this is how I lived for a long time, nearly my whole life. I lived as an average, normal person and I have always maintained that connection.”

The Russian President was a “troublemaker” at school, but a childhood ambition to spy for his country led to him joining the ranks of the KGB, where he would be posted to East Germany during a 16-year career in which he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel by the time he left in 1991. On his return to Russia, he began to get involved in politics, and less than a decade later was in charge of the country – taking over from Boris Yeltsin as President in 1999. And he has, despite protests, been in charge ever since, whether as Prime Minister or President.

On the attack: Pro-Russia supporters in Kharkiv On the attack: Pro-Russia supporters in Kharkiv Mr Putin hankers after the past, and has described the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. The loss of Ukraine is a powerful symbol of what was lost – and what Mr Putin wants to regain.

He reportedly threatened to “dismember” Ukraine and annex Crimea during a Nato summit in 2008, in response to suggestions that it wanted to join the Western military alliance. Mr Putin was said to have told US Presid ent George W Bush: “Ukraine is not even a state! What is Ukraine? Part of its territory is Eastern Europe, but part of it – a considerable part – was gifted by us!”

Read more: Ukraine vows to fight after Russia says yes to invasion
Moscow catches the world off guard
Comment: No wonder Putin says Crimea is Russian
Cameron warns that ‘the world is watching’
Election monitors will be under extreme pressure
Editorial: We don’t want a war with Russia

Later that same year, Mr Putin sent Russian forces, some of which were based in Crimea, into Georgia to ensure that the Russian-friendly provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were free from Georgian control. With the intense steely-eyed glare which has become his trademark, along with a reputation for letting his actions speak louder than his words, Mr Putin radiates determination and menace in equal measure.

Pro-Russian supporters in Sevastopol wave flags Pro-Russian supporters in Sevastopol wave flags He has summed up his approach to life as: “If I do something, I try to see it through to its completion, or at least try to ensure that it brings the maximum result.”

And Russia’s actions, in Georgia and now Ukraine, are in the context of a harder stance being taken against the West. During a television interview in 2011, Mr Putin dismissed suggestions that some nations saw Russia as a second-tier world power, saying: “They are mistaken. Russia is not a country to be pushed around.”

And in December last year, during his annual state of the nation address, he commented: “No one should entertain any illusions about achieving military superiority over Russia; we will never allow it.”

Vladimir Putin at the Sochi Olympics Vladimir Putin at the Sochi Olympics His ambition of creating a Eurasian Union between Russia and surrounding countries is an attempt to regain the power of the former Soviet Union. But it needs Ukraine, the second biggest country in Europe, to work. The closer Ukraine gets to Europe, the less likely this is to happen.

The military move against Ukraine is his biggest gamble yet. And like a man playing for high stakes, Mr Putin has remained quiet. But it remains to be seen whether it will pay off. There is much at stake, with Mr Putin’s popularity slipping at home and growing signs of unrest in Russia.

Yet even as the show of Russian military might continues, expect smiles and handshakes when the Russian leader turns respectable statesman during the opening of the Paralympic Winter Games at Sochi this Friday. But the reception he gets from world leaders when he hosts the G8 summit later this year will depend on how far he is prepared to go in his ambition to bring Crimea back under Russian control.

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London