OPINION — Russian President Vladimir Putin has managed to wage a global charm offensive, even while supporting a number of actions that have drawn world criticism, including the GRU-sponsored attempted assassination (using a nerve agent, Novichok) of former GRU officer Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, the GRU-sponsored hacking of web sites in western Europe, and election interference in the U.S. Throughout all of it, much attention has been focused on Putin’s KGB background, aggressive tactics, and highly-disruptive style of political behavior.
The West’s response, with its stringent, vigorous sanctions, has tended to portray Putin as a supreme tactician, particularly in light of his experience as a KGB officer, as well as judoka (who holds a Hachidan (8th-dan) in Judo from Japan’s famed Kodokan School). What is often missed in portraying Putin as a mere tactician and expert at playing a weak hand, are the Russian President’s superb diplomatic abilities, which allow him to move beyond crises – even those of his own making or with his explicit support – to achieve strategic results, which he sees in Russia’s best long-term interests.
Putin served as a KGB officer from 1985-1990, and polished his skills in the 1990s, while working as the Deputy Mayor in St. Petersburg, where he was in charge of relations with international investors. As many of the investors were from Germany, the position allowed Putin to use his exquisite German language skills to charm, wine & dine, and woo investors, politicians, bankers, diplomats, and civic leaders, alike. Putin’s German language skills are no mere accident. He had long studied the language since childhood – the language of the enemy – an enemy which caused such immense damage to the USSR, and which caused much human tragedy, even within Putin’s own family, during the horrific 900-day siege of Leningrad, which claimed a million lives during World War Two. But Putin saw a value in mastering the German language and has spoken of his joy at making the language truly his own. In a 2001 speech to the German Bundestag (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9jyLQmyg9hs), Putin spoke of the richness of German culture and language, and of how he saw Russia as being part of that broader European tradition, and of being humbled to address them in the language of Goethe, Schiller, and Kant. Putin’s stirring words brought the entire Bundestag to its feet in a roaring ovation.
One could be faulted for dismissing such skills, and merely seeing them in light of the Foreign Ministry and KGB’s rich traditions of developing diplomats and intelligence officers with superb language skills. In this sense, Putin’s remarks echo, and are a paean to the late legendary KGB General, Yuri Drozdov, (immortalized in the movie ‘Bridge of Spies,’ and who had directed the famed KGB Illegals Directorate), who like Putin, not only mastered German to a high level of fluency during a 6-year stint in Germany in the late 1950s, but who even took acting classes under Berthold Brecht, so as to deepen his awareness of the body language and unconscious, cultural behaviors of Germans, allowing him to serve successfully as a deep-cover, KGB illegal.
Putin began his latest diplomatic initiative by visiting Vienna (his 6th official visit therein) in June 2018, where Austria’s new Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz (whom Putin called “a friend”), hosted him in a state visit with full honors. Of note, Austria was the only EU country not to expel any Russian diplomats or intelligence officers following earlier revelations of the GRU’s assassination attempt upon Skripal in 2018. Austria’s closeness to Russia is not new, though relations have gotten even better since Chancellor Kurz’ election. Putin has always spoken of his love of Austria and Vienna, with its rich combination of tradition and modernity. Russia and Austria possess deep economic ties, especially given their $40 billion OMV-Gazprom gas deal, which has extended through 2040. Regarding Putin’s closeness to Austria’s current leadership, he also has a deep bench of diplomatic and intelligence expertise to fall back on. Vienna has historically hosted one of the largest KGB/SVR stations in the world, and its senior diplomats posted therein, tend to possess vast knowledge of the language and culture of both Austria and Germany.
But Putin didn’t stop in Vienna. A mere two months later, he attended the wedding of Austria’s Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl in Gamlitz, Austria, where he waltzed with the bride, presenting her with the gift of a lovely Russian choir, which proceeded to sing traditional Cossack folksongs. Putin subsequently followed this wedding with a 4-hour meeting with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Putin had earlier (in July 2018) had a successful summit meeting with President Donald Trump in Helsinki, which has led to the hope of improved relations, and more recently, an invitation to visit the U.S. in early 2019. He topped that off with a friendly cook-off with China’s President Xi Jinping in September 2018 in Vladivostok, Russia, where they cooked blini together, cementing their friendship with shots of vodka, where Xi commented, “we have similar or identical positions on international matters.” Putin also plans to host North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong Un in a Moscow summit later this year.
Putin’s diplomatic forays, often misunderstood, are hardly new, and he has shown such abilities since 2000, throughout his career as Russia’s President and Prime Minister. It’s worth recalling that as the Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg, he met with hundreds of foreign dignitaries during 1991-1996. Putin’s diplomatic experience is likely unmatched by most world leaders on the stage today. And when combined with his KGB training, personal charm, and linguistic abilities, Putin is a diplomatic force to be reckoned with.
In doing so, Putin has returned to an earlier diplomatic score, that of Finlandization, just like Russia has also done with its recent, high-tech, cyber embrace of active measures (following the trajectory of another legendary KGB General, Ivan Agayants, who spearheaded the development of the KGB’s Division D/Active Measures in the 1950s). Russia’s successful diplomacy of Finlandization during the Cold War was carried out with nuance, tact, cultural sensitivity, and long-term strategic patience. The KGB sent its top officers (including former FSB Director, First Deputy Prime Minister, and Defense Minister – former KGB General Sergei Ivanov) to Finland, where many served for decades with distinction, befriending generations of Finnish politicians, businessmen, journalists, and civic leaders. The most notable such officer was the late KGB General Viktor Vladimirov, who cultivated Finnish leaders over twenty years, serving multiple tours in Helsinki, speaking their language, fly-fishing with them, taking saunas, drinking vodka, and embracing their culture. Such Russian diplomats and KGB officers became known as ‘Home Russians,’ and in this sense, Putin is bringing back an old playbook, doing his best to achieve Russia’s strategic goals in central, eastern, and northern Europe, of both obtaining sanctions relief and of weakening NATO. Western observers and politicians ought to take heed, and wisely not bet against Putin quite yet.
President Trump and west European leaders might best counter Putin’s diplomatic efforts with their own charm offensive. They might consider dusting off their German grammar books, and appreciating that lovely German word “fingerspitzengefühl,” meaning intuitive flair or instinct, which describes exquisite situational awareness, and the ability to respond most appropriately to a given situation. This is the essence of Putin’s diplomacy, one which he continues to showcase, even as Russia is beset by international sanctions, a weakened economy, and its fatigue with respect to Putinisim.
Putin’s charm, and subsequent effectiveness, offer a stark reminder that ‘old school’ skills that include soft power, diplomacy, linguistic ability, and cultural sensitivity still matter, offering him the perfect opportunity to distract from the destructive issues at hand.
Dr. Kenneth Dekleva served as a Regional Medical Officer/Psychiatrist (including 5 years at the U.S. Embassy Moscow, Russian Federation) with the U.S. Dept. of State during 2002-2016, and is currently Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Director, Psychiatry-Medicine Integration, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX. He has recently published political psychology/leadership profiles of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un, and Kim Jong Il. The views expressed in this paper are entirely his own and do not represent the official views of the U.S. Government, the U.S. Dept. of State, or UT Southwestern Medical Center.