Putin was in charge of the FSB between September 1998 and May 1999. His breakneck career progress then saw him become the first deputy Prime Minister, then PM, and finally Russia’s caretaker President on December 31, 1999 – after Boris Yeltsin’s surprise resignation.
But the current president’s life story might have been quite different, claims the former head of Yeltsin’s administration, Valentin Yumashev. The high-level Kremlin official did so in a candid interview with a prominent Russian-American journalist Vladimir Pozner, livestreamed on YouTube on Friday, which focused on the behind-the-scenes cabinet drama of the late 1990s.
Back then, Putin headed the FSB while the influential Soviet and Russian diplomat Yevgeny Primakov was the Prime Minister. Primakov is perhaps best known in the West for canceling a state visit to the US in March 1999 and turning his plane around in the air over the Atlantic, in response to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. In Russia, however, he was also regarded as Yeltsin’s possible successor. At one time, he became Putin’s de-facto arch-rival as he mulled running in the 2000 presidential election.
"He [Primakov] twice tried to sack Putin from the post of the FSB Director. Few people know that.”
However, Yeltsin would not allow Primakov to do so, Yumashev said without revealing any more details. From what he let slip about Yeltsin’s relationship with the strong-willed PM, the late Russian president apparently regarded Primakov as a bit too authoritarian and Soviet-style to become the nation’s new leader.
Another piece of the puzzle seems to be Yumashev's recollection of some of the phone calls with Putin in autumn 1998. He says the then-FSB director asked him to talk urgently about Primakov’s demands to impose his will on the security service - specifically, ordering Putin to spy on Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the opposition party Yabloko.
Putin apparently said he was against such tactics, even vowing to resign if Yeltsin okayed placing a political opponent under surveillance, only for Yumashev to reassure him that the president was against this too.
Ultimately, Primakov withdrew from the presidential race and later even became Putin’s ally and trusted advisor. The veteran politician died in 2015, at the age of 85. A monument to Primakov was unveiled outside the Foreign Ministry in Moscow earlier this month, with Putin calling him a “personality of a massive scale” in a speech he personally delivered at the ceremony.