Most people made up their mind about Vladimir Putin soon after he became Russian President in April 2000. To do this they did not need to exercise the arcane skills of Kremlinologists. They simply switched on their televisions and took a look at him. There he was, a pugnacious little fellow with an impassive face, ever ready to take offence. His fists were habitually clenched and he exuded a barely contained fury, visibly conveying his restlessness to get things done fast and precisely in accordance with his commands. It is an impression that has lasted.
Which is why we should be in little doubt as to who has orchestrated the recent and audacious acts of Russian belligerence. Putin has pulled off the gloves in the past few months. His submariners have planted Russia's flag on the Arctic ocean bed, signalling a determination to secure national rights to oil and gas exploitation there. Russian war planes recently infringed British airspace; they had to be escorted out of it by RAF fighters.
Putin has demanded the scrapping of American plans to set up anti-ballistic missile bases in the Czech Republic and Poland. He has threatened the permanent suspension of his country's observance of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty if the US refuses to back down. When Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in London last November, Putin took umbrage at foreign suspicions that his security agencies were behind the crime, and the condolences he extended to the family of the victim were perfunctory, his face an iceberg of formality. Soon afterwards Putin, 54, raised hackles in Washington by suggesting that a Kazakh rather than an American should be the next head of the IMF. And as for the recent pictures of him, bare-chested and fishing in Siberia...
This is a Russian President bursting with confidence. Putin aims to protect and enhance Russia's position in the world on the foundation stone of his own values. But, now that the real Vladimir Putin is revealed for all to hear and see, should we be worried?
Seven years ago it was a different story. Then, Putin was careful to pay lip service to "democracy" and "the rule of law". This was how every ruler in Russia had talked since Mikhail Gorbachev in the last years of the Soviet Union. Russian liberals were never fooled, but, alas, statesmen from North America and Europe rushed to pay their respects.
Putin was welcomed into the fraternity of good ol' boys on President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. He was fêted by the Queen, breakfasted by Tony Blair and lionised by Jacques Chirac. He was courted by the then Chancellor of Germany Gerhard ' Schröder, who was rewarded on his retirement with a directorship in the Russian energy company Gazprom. Everybody, it seemed, wanted to be friends with Vladimir.
Putin went along with this charade for as long as it suited him. The Russian economy, at the time he became President, was still recovering from the financial collapse of August 1998. The war he had re-started in Chechnya 12 months later, when he was still only Prime Minister, was not going well. The billionaires who had paid out vast sums to prop up Russia's post-Communist system continued to exercise an uncomfortable amount of public influence.
Putin, furthermore, was still feeling his way in global politics. Even so, it did not take long for him to exhibit what he truly thought of his peers.
His scorn for Tony Blair's attempt to justify the invasion of Iraq was advertised at a Moscow press conference in April 2003: "Where are the arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, if they ever existed?" Blair stood by his side, unable for once to summon up a smile.
Putin was equally sharp-tongued with President Bush in St Petersburg in July 2006. Speaking in his native city, Putin turned to the American President and said: "I'll be honest with you: of course we would not want to have a democracy as in Iraq." Bush tried to interject: "Just wait -" But Putin was unstoppable: "Nobody knows better than us how we can strengthen our nation!"
This righteousness has gone down well with most Russians. They feel that Gorbachev and Yeltsin yielded too much and too often to foreign powers - and Yeltsin's buffoonish antics embarrassed the whole country. Putin, by contrast, lectured Blair, Bush and Chirac whenever they tried to impress on him the need to foster democracy, civil society and peaceful resolution of conflict. Like the veteran judo champion that he is, Putin gets his retaliation in first.
In his latest annual address to the Federal Assembly, this April, he stopped pretending that he aimed to place political elections or judicial trials on a fairer footing. This was Putin the authoritarian at his most rampant, as he seeks to consolidate the existing system of power that so suits him and those he rules with, a group drawn predominantly from the old KGB. (It's calculated that about three quarters of the highest public post-holders in Russia today have either previously worked for the security agencies or been closely associated with them.)
Putin is a KGB man through and through. He toiled as an official for the notorious security agency in East Germany, before returning to Leningrad in 1990. As such, he never experienced the liberating process of Gorbachev's perestroika at first hand. Putin has referred to the dismantling of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 as "the greatest political catastrophe" of the 20th century. The Communist Party was banned by Yeltsin for a couple of years, but the KGB's successor organisation, the FSB, retained its morale, personnel and procedures intact through the 1990s. And while working in the St Petersburg civil administration during that decade, Putin ensured that he maintained contact with his old comrades.
At the same time, Yeltsin was taking note of this dapper young man's attentiveness to detail. He was impressed by his courtesy and admired Putin's willingness to take the initiative. Perhaps Yeltsin in his dotage saw Putin as a more restrained incarnation of his own younger self, and when he stepped down at the end of 1999, Yeltsin spoke of him as if anointing a beloved son.
By then, Yeltsin had already drawn Putin from the shadows by making him Director of the FSB in July 1998; barely a year later, Putin was promoted to Prime Minister. As he rose, Putin came to be trusted by the circle of ultra-wealthy businessmen whose influence over Yeltsin's Kremlin was at its height. These so-called oligarchs had amassed Midas-like fortunes by scooping up the rights to Russian natural resources in the privatisation campaign of the mid-1990s.
Among them was Boris Berezovsky, who came to regard the polite Petersburger as his protege (Berezovsky even bragged about having put him forward to Yeltsin for the premiership). But Berezovsky and his ilk badly misjudged Putin, who has gone on to bully every oligarch who dared to interfere with his presidential prerogatives. Those businessmen who don't toe the line in Putin's Russian end up in a penal labour colony like Mikhail Khodorkovsky or exiled like Boris Berezovsky in London and Vladimir Gusinsky in Spain.
Putin's battle with the oligarchs is the obvious manifestation of the drastic changes he has brought about in Russian economic policy. The state has wrestled back control in the most profitable companies, especially in the energy sector, often by the the assignment of security-agency personnel to the boards of enterprises. Ostensibly these appointees are no longer FSB employees, but, as the Russian saying goes, "There is no such thing as a former Chekist" (the Cheka under Lenin was the forerunner of the KGB and the FSB). The effects have been remarkable. State enterprises as recently as 2003 controlled only 20 per cent of Russian business interests. Today, the proportion is 35 per cent and rising.
Putin has pulled this off with cunning. Official publicity has been focused on the humiliation of greedy oligarchs, and popular opinion has responded positively. Yet, the "securitocrats" have turned out to be as rapacious as the oligarchs once were. They love money and hate those who prevent them from getting their hands on it. But few Russians know the truth of this as they get their news overwhelmingly from TV stations, ' and all of these are either state-owned or operate in fear of upsetting Putin. Only the most courageous try to break free from this cage of news management, and there has been a sequence of murders of journalists, culminating, infamously, in the shooting of Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006.
So relentlessly has Putin imposed his iron will both at home and abroad that it's easy to forget that, at the time he took power, there were cracks apparent in the edifice of his official image. Journalists interviewed his acquaintances in St Petersburg, digging up some revealing stories. Female school friends remembered him as having been remarkably uncomfortable with girls. There was also the tale, never denied on his behalf, that he applied in adolescence for employment by the KGB. Even for a teenager fervently dedicated to the Soviet cause, this was exceptional. As the Leningrad office explained to him, it was the KGB who invited individuals to join and not the other way round. But invite him the feared security agency eventually did. Checks on his background and behaviour proved him to be a sound patriot. His grandfather had cooked for Lenin. His father had fought meritoriously at Leningrad in the Second World War. Putin spent as much time mugging up on Leninism and training for judo as he did studying for his law degree. Competent, resourceful and never hogging the limelight, he was recognised as well-fitted to become a security policeman - indeed, he was the perfect Chekist.
Which was fine until the era of open politics beckoned in Russia, and at that moment it was no longer enough to be talented in behind-the-scenes conspiracies. Suddenly, first as Prime Minister and then as President, he had to cope with the media: there was no more testing period in his entire career.
In the summer of 2000, he was widely criticised when he declined to visit the families of victims in the Kursk submarine disaster. He appeared lacking in compassion. Nor did he improve his image when it became known that his favourite pet was a poodle called Tosya. Russian males are not taught to explore their "feminine side" and his fondness for Tosya made him seem a bit of a wimp.
Today, the Presidential website is exceptionally well attuned to popular sensibilities. Ownership of Tosya is ascribed to his wife Lyudmila (they married in 1983, and have two daughters now in their early twenties). Putin's own dog Koni is a black labrador, plainly a canine companion more appropriate to a man's man. Indeed, the President recently rebuked an entire press conference for pampering Koni: "Sometimes Koni leaves a room full of journalists with a very pleasant expression on her face and biscuit crumbs around her mouth." His ascetic traits of character are relentlessly emphasised. Lyudmila Putin, in an uncommon display of frustration, blurted out: "One need not only to work but also to live!" She and the family get to speak to him only at the end of a long day when he takes his regular nightcap, a cup of yoghurt. (No alcohol-based indulgence for the man of steel.) Mrs Putin, though, dismisses speculation that she offers him advice on policy: "That has never happened."
Recently his website has made him appear less dour than such comments might imply. Last month, he went on a trip to the Tuva republic in Siberia. Prince Albert of Monaco accompanied him, and 60 photos were taken of the President at play; he was even photographed bare to the waist while angling in the local rivers, looking as fit as a flea. The photos were made available on the Presidential website and many women wrote in to express their appreciation. (Perhaps men did too - if so, this remains a guarded secret.)
Putin is by far and away the favourite contemporary figure for Russian citizens, scoring a 75 per cent rating as "good" or "excellent" in a opinion survey conducted in July. This is an impressive result for a politician now in his eighth year of power in a country where over a fifth of the population exists below the UN poverty level. Putin's popularity is all the more astonishing when account is taken of the ongoing scandals of political corruption and judicial abuse - and this is not even to mention the trauma caused by his disastrous war in Chechnya.
Above all, it is his success in striding out on to the world's stage that appeals to his fellow Russians. His countrymen love his touch of menace, as when he stated: "A few years ago we succumbed to the illusion that we don't have enemies, and we have paid dearly for that." His perfunctory expression of condolence for the gruesome assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London was interpreted in the same way. Yet again the President was refusing to kneel down before global opinion. The point for most Russians is that Putin is not merely a patriot but a brutally effective patriot. In the early 1990s Russia, once an industrial power mightier than any rival except the USA, was aghast to see its gross domestic product slump beneath that of Belgium. Today, however, it has the eighth largest economy in the world and a renewed self-confidence. Ever the optimist, Putin promises that there is more improvement to come. In his Federal Assembly address he indicated several immediate priorities. Transport by road, rail and river will be upgraded. Oil-refining facilities will be updated. A Russian Nanotechnological Corporation will be founded.
He said a little about the armed forces, calling for their continuing modernisation. Everyone knows that they are in a shoddy condition. Russia is years from introducing the volunteer army that Putin has often talked about. What is more, commanders on operation in Chechnya have been caught selling weapons to Chechen insurgents. There have been worries, in Russia and abroad, that nuclear facilities are not being looked after with due care. Putin has instead taken pride in getting his warplanes aloft again, complete with their nuclear-bomb payloads. He stresses that Russia has only pacific intentions, but the days are gone when the country meekly submitted to calls for it to renounce its global ambitions.
There is a limit to Putin's power: the Russian constitution forbids him from standing for a third presidential term, and he has ruled out calling for a repeal. If Putin was able to stand again for the presidency, he would definitely win. No Kremlin leader since the 1960s - Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin - was much missed when he left office. Putin is likely to be the exception. The frontrunners to succeed him as President in April 2008 are Dmitri Medvedev and Sergei Lavrov. Both are First Deputy Prime Ministers. Medvedev has only an 18-per-cent rating from the public. Lavrov manages only 14 per cent. No one doubts anyway that it is Putin who will choose his successor. Putin will surely find some way to go on influencing affairs from behind the scenes.
Neither Medvedev nor Lavrov would dare spurn his legacy. Future generations of Russians may well judge him more harshly. He has not solved the dilemmas of national security by turning Chechnya into a slaughterhouse. He has not found a path for comprehensive economic development. If it had not been for the surge in oil and gas prices at the beginning of his first term, Russia would still languish deep in financial trouble - and the economy under his rule is acutely dependent on world market conditions outside the Kremlin's control. Russia has at best only a managed democracy. The clamps on civil society are severe. There are, as yet, few signs of discontent. The Russian poor, millions of them, are too sunken in morale to rebel. But the West should be in no doubt that it is going to find Russia a handful in the years ahead. Russian energy sources will be used as an instrument of political pressure on the European Union and countries of the old Soviet Bloc.
This does not mean, though, that the Cold War will be renewed. Putin and the securitocrats know Russia's future lies with the market economy, and that peace, rather than military conflict, is essential for the country's future prosperity. That much is a blessing for the rest of us. But the outgoing president leaves a worrying legacy. His terms in office have returned Russia fully to the global political and economic fold at the price of aggravating tensions with foreign countries.
Putin has enjoyed catching the world off guard - and he appreciates the advantage of remaining an enigma as a person and a leader. One thing is for certain. When he comes to write his memoirs, the ex-KGB man will not disclose the many secrets he harbours. Once a Chekist, always a Chekist.