In 2000, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, then a relative unknown outside of Russia, visited Japan. Part of his trip included a visit to the Kodokan, the historic Judo school founded by Jigoro Kano. Putin participated in a demonstration, showing off his martial arts skills with a young Japanese student, who threw him using a classic hip throw. Afterwards, Putin bowed formally to her with grace and good cheer, and the crowd gave him a proper ovation.
Several years later, after the tragic terrorist attack in Beslan, where over 300 schoolchildren lost their lives in its carnage, an emotionally-distraught Putin spoke to a sorrowing nation, reminding Russia that it had been beaten because of its weakness.
These vignettes reveal different sides of Russia’s leader, who grew up in the shadows of Leningrad’s World War II siege– where dinner-table conversations with his traumatized, war-weary parents were few and far between –and whose rise to power paralleled Russia’s rise back to previous glories. While Putin is no stranger to U.S. policy-makers, he remains – even after 16 years in power – an enigmatic and somewhat poorly-understood leader. In part due to such misunderstanding, tensions between Russia and the West – especially the U.S. – have heightened, increasing the risk of further conflict. Recent events involving allegations of Russian cyberwarfare, hacking with respect to the 2016 U.S. election, and military action in support of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad have highlighted a key dictum: understanding Russia’s political actions, especially in the foreign policy sphere, requires a keen and sober analysis of President Putin’s political psychology. This presupposes a deeper sense of President Putin’s many faces, sensibility, and humanity – and of what makes him tick.
Many profiles of Putin have missed the mark, labeling him as a “thug” or seeing him as a mere tool of larger, more intricate power structures or groupings, such as the siloviki, Russia’s military, law-enforcement, and intelligence communities. Such analyses of Putin’s political behavior have at times led to a lack of predictive power regarding Russia’s actions or to heightened emotional predictions of a new Cold War or military conflict between Russia and the West. A careful reading of Putin’s writings, interviews, and speeches offers analysts a treasure-trove of material, which can – if soberly assessed –reveal the many faces of Vladimir Putin, including those of a politician, intelligence officer, martial artist, and diplomat.
As a leader, Putin has made great strides in bringing Russia out of its political and economic morass of the 90s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he has referred to as “one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.” While rising oil and natural gas prices during the 2000s positively impacted Russia’s economy, allowing for a rise in standards of living, Putin’s sense of organization, discipline, and deft management of domestic policy also played a significant role in Russia’s political and economic restoration.
What many analysts have tended to miss is Putin’s revanchist, powerful sense of renewal of Russia’s pride and place in the world, and the strong social, emotional, and psychological appeal that this has for Russians. This accounts for Putin’s pervasively-high political popularity ratings –above 70-80 percent for most of his tenure—which no other politician in Russia can match. While his style of management smacks of a strong, decisive, authoritarian streak – he can be perceived as Russia’s [French President Charles] De Gaulle – Putin has shown an ability to amass many of Russia’s politicians, economists, diplomats, military, and intelligence personnel into Russia’s power structure.
As a leader, Putin respects strength, discipline, and control, and he exudes it, best showcased during his annual Valdai retreats and news conferences. In 2003, when asked by a journalist which foreign country he respected the most, he tellingly replied, “Israel, because they built a country out of nothing, out of the desert, and resurrected a dead language.” Lastly, while Putin has often been seen by western media as an overly-disciplined, unemotional politician, he has on occasion shown otherwise. For instance, following his 2013 return to the presidency, TV revealed a different side of Putin, showing him tearing up during his victory speech given to his core supporters.
Putin’s background as a KGB intelligence officer has colored his entire professional life. The KGB shaped his ethos and his sense of identity—the embodiment of a boyhood dream. Less useful commentary – either vilifying his KGB service or downplaying it – misses a more important question, having to do with how Putin’s skills (“I am a specialist in human relations”) manifest themselves. Many have tended to see Putin as merely tactical, rather than strategic, but such a view is mistaken. Seeing such labels as dichotomous, rather than as two sides of the same coin, loses sight of Putin’s adaptability regarding foreign-policy challenges, such as the Ukraine, Georgia, Syria, China, India, the U.S., and Europe. At times, Putin has shown masterful flexibility, often reversing course and shifting priorities, while not deviating from key strategic concerns and his sense of Russia’s national interest. A different concern has to do with Putin’s inner circle of advisors – many of whom he has known and worked with for decades – and the question of whom does he trust and listen to? How do strategic decisions get made? The recent changes in personnel within the Kremlin and key ministries bear careful study in this regard.
Martial arts and the study of Judo has likely shaped Putin’s personality as much as any other activity. A student of Judo since age 10, Putin eloquently spoke (in a video made by him in 2008) of its virtues of discipline, respect for one’s teachers and fellow students, and humility. Holder of an 8th-dan rank, Putin is the highest-ranking non-Japanese judoka in the world and a true ambassador of the art. Videos of Putin demonstrating Judo showcase not only his immense talent, but also a flexible, playful, and competitive style, which for Putin – for whom Judo is a way of life – colors his political behavior as well.
And lastly, Putin’s lifelong friendships with not only his long-time Sensei (his martial arts teacher who passed away a few years ago) but his fellow martial artists have impacted his political, personal, and business life, as several of his close judo associates are not only billionaires, but also on the current sanctions list following the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Putin has cleverly utilized ‘martial arts diplomacy’ to further informal, highly-publicized, personal relationships with well-known martial artists, such as the U.S. actor and martial artist Steven Seagal (who holds a 7th-dan rank in aikido and whom Putin granted honorary Russian citizenship in 2016) to further his own political and strategic goals. This was highlighted most saliently during Congressman Dana Rohrabacher’s 2013 official trip to Moscow, in which he traveled with Seagal and praised the actor for “going out of his way” to set up meetings (including with Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin) for the congressional delegation in Russia.
Putin’s diplomatic panache gets overlooked in many published analyses. But throughout his tenure, he has shown nimble diplomatic skills and the ability to form close, valued, personal relationships with other world leaders. One of the major disappointments during President Obama’s tenure had to do with the inability of both Presidents Obama and Putin to establish any sort of a personal relationship, which could thereby result in fewer diplomatic mishaps. By conceptualizing the “reset” as being independent of its distinct, key personalities, the Obama administration missed a beat. For a deeply reflective student of Russian history such as Putin, such an approach possibly came across as lacking.
While Putin’s foreign language abilities may be “old school,” they highlight the importance of relationships and of a human approach to political relationships. A student of German – the language of the enemy – since his childhood, his fluency in the language and his ability to capture its power, emotion, and beauty showed in his marvelous 2001 Bundestag speech, in which he spoke of his desire to address his audience in “the language of Goethe, and Schiller, and Kant.” He has also studied English and made efforts to use it to impress, as he did during his presentation to the IOC (International Olympic Committee) with respect to Russia’s Sochi Olympic proposal. In summary, Putin’s blend of language skills and personal relationships in diplomacy is part of a lengthy tradition within Russian diplomatic and intelligence circles.
The new administration of President Donald Trump has hinted at a desire to establish improved relations with Russia. Such an approach has obvious strategic value, although Mr. Trump would not be the first U.S. President to pursue such an approach. Russia – for all of its economic, political, and demographic weaknesses – has far too much strategic import for America to ignore it. During a 2011 official visit to Moscow, Vice President Joseph Biden eloquently stated that a strong, prosperous Russia is in America’s national interest. Such a proclamation is no less true today. Traditional political science approaches to understanding Putin, via the workings of the Kremlin, are less likely to bear fruit. A better way to comprehend Putin is to engage in a highly-personal, old-fashioned style of diplomacy, with its emphasis on mutual respect, strength, an appreciation of Russia’s deep sense of history, and shared understanding based upon mutual national interest. Such an approach may well suit President Trump, who – based upon his statements, writings (in The Art of the Deal), and recent political actions – also values personal, transactional, business-like relationships, and who highlights his own intuition regarding such relationships. And both leaders keenly value the symbolism, pomp, and splendor of high-level summit meetings. For President Trump, a keen understanding of Putin’s leadership style, psyche, and political psychology seems a good place to start as he seeks to improve relations with Russia. Students of Putin’s leadership style might rather begin by watching Hubert Seipel’s 2012 documentary film, “Ich, Putin,”and consider viewing Putin through the prism of Russian history and cuture. Perhaps they may thereby arrive at a deeper truth—that to truly understand Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is to accept his quintessential Russian qualities, and to engage with him on a more diplomatic, and personal level as “the Russian in the Kremlin.”