Decorated with the titles Hero of the Soviet Union and Knight of the Order of Glory, Varennikov was the former first deputy chief of the Soviet General Staff (1979-1989), commander of the Ground Forces, and deputy defense minister of the U.S.S.R.
During the war in Afghanistan, Varennikov was the Defense Ministry envoy to Kabul.
In the August 1991 coup attempt, he was among the masterminds of a plot to overthrow former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. When the coup failed, Varennikov was prosecuted along with others accused of involvement, but was eventually acquitted by the Russian Supreme Court.
He was the only member of those accused who refused to accept an amnesty.
In 1995, Varennikov was elected to the State Duma on a Communist Party ticket. He was head of the Duma Veterans' Committee.