Eminentoes

Profiling Putin

There's a reason why he never smiles.

By 4.23.08

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As Vladimir V. Putin slides seamlessly into the role of head of government from head of state -- and reinvents Russian governance thereby -- there remains the puzzle of exactly what makes Vladimir Vladimirovich run.

One can imagine that Putin in moments of reflection recalls his far simpler days as a KGB intelligence officer stationed safely, indeed imperially, in Dresden, East Germany. There at least one of his two daughters was born, and his wife, the former stewardess Lyudmila, honed her not inconsiderable linguistic skills. Solid job, solid social position, solid political status. He might even yearn from time to time for a return to those wonderful, uncomplicated old days.

Veneered over this remembered world of an earlier professional time of institutional privilege are his later years of politics and position. In recent times Putin has observed what he has considered a decline in American power and prestige. This perception of a changed world encourages a rather arrogant entrancement with risk-taking. Energizing these innate qualities of his is the growing economic leverage now enjoyed by the reborn Russia.

It's a time of success, and Vladimir Putin has just arranged that time will not run out on his direction of it. At 55 Putin is at an intellectual and political prime. According to Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess master and political dissident, he has been encouraged to believe that his cognitive ability far exceeds his fellow world leaders'. Surrounded by the siloviki, a praetorian guard of his former intelligence and security comrades, little occurs to challenge that view.

WHAT IS OFTEN OVERLOOKED in assessing Putin is he began as a civil servant and has effectively continued in that role till today. In spite of the great fortunes made by the many who have benefited from his patronage, Putin insists he has amassed no conspicuous wealth. If he has, which some claim, it is certainly well hidden.

The top politicians of the land, Putin and his former professional colleagues, proud of their background in service to Russia, ultimately still think of themselves in the national security capacity they once held. It's a bit like, "Once a Marine, always a Marine."

The exception, of course, is the young "civilian," Dmitry Medvedev. For Putin's inner circle, the 42-year-old former aide de camp to the boss is both a valuable yet discontinuous factor. Putin's manipulative capabilities rose to the fore when he named Medvedev as his choice to succeed him as president.

The choice of the mild mannered Medvedev over the far more aggressive ex-KGB officer, Sergei Ivanov, made it possible to defuse the rivalries that had developed over the succession. Putin showed he could accept a lesser title even as he retained true control over the country's mechanisms. Cover accommodation was a basic part of Soviet intelligence tradecraft, and Putin has shown his deftness in assuming his new overt character.

The rivalries will continue, however, and, to a degree, that is Putin's objective. He uses the relationships of those who are closest to him to create a subtle leverage on their interaction. In turn he instinctively reacts negatively to any perceived attempt to restrict his -- or Russia's -- alternatives.

Added altogether, these various factors make up Putin's modus operandi. Most importantly, though, is the oft-reported fact that Putin exudes confidence in his dealings with other world leaders. Truly believing he is at no intellectual disadvantage, he uses his less than ebullient personality to place other politicians -- no matter their nationality -- on the defensive. This was something Tony Blair commented on to friends.

THE PHOTOS OF PUTIN meeting with other major political personalities rarely show him smiling, and if he does, it is usually quite grimly. Friends from his Leningrad days -- and there are many who claim this status -- uniformly refer to the young "Putka' as intensely serious.

There is no doubt that Putin continues to seek to be viewed that same way today, even if the characteristic is rather self-serving. Public informality has been limited to those carefully set up photos last year of him standing bare-chested fishing in a stream.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Putin's personality is his continued commitment to judo and its Russian version, sambo. He obviously enjoys the physical contact as well as the quick reflex aspect of the sport. As leverage is also one of the principal elements in judo, this seems to parallel his own method of persuasion.

Despite his oft grim visage, Putin is a person quite secure in his own existence. He has no trouble being himself, nor has he ever. His new jobs of prime minister and chairman of the dominant party, United Russia, however, will test his personal political skills.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was and is a top grade intelligence officer. He will always have that advantage over his fellow world leaders. He will be very conscious of John McCain's background as a professional warrior and his prisoner of war experience. These are matters of considerable importance for that tough, smart kid from Leningrad. The Democrat candidates are judged by him not even to be in his political judo weight class.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.