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What I Learned From Vladimir Putin

LONDON – Is Russian President Vladimir Putin, like most political leaders, predisposed to spinning the truth for his own benefit? Or does he go far beyond that, governing Russia and dealing with his neighbors and the rest of the world with reckless mendacity, abetted by a supine national media? Sometimes, in answering questions like this, we can draw not only on what we have heard and seen, but also on personal experience.

I first met Putin in October 1999 in Helsinki, when I was attending a European Union-Russia summit as the EU’s external affairs commissioner. President Boris Yeltsin canceled his attendance at the last moment; he was “indisposed.” In his place, Yeltsin sent the new acting prime minister, Vladimir Putin, whose behavior confirmed the wisdom of the observation that you can take the man out of the KGB, but you can’t take the KGB out of the man.

Preparing for the meeting in the early morning, the EU team heard that there had been an explosion in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, killing several people. When Putin arrived, we asked him about it. He claimed to know nothing, but promised to find out by lunch what had happened.

At our lunchtime discussion, he reported that the explosion had been caused by Chechen terrorists who were running their own arms bazaar. By this time, we knew that the deaths had been caused by a Russian military assault; it subsequently came to light that a wave of Russian ballistic missiles (probably Scuds) had killed more than a hundred people.

Putin had looked us in the eye and lied, almost certainly aware that we knew he was lying. The communiqué that day made no mention of Chechnya, but enunciated the usual “blah blah” about shared values, belief in democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and the need for strategic cooperation.

I can recall countless instances of – how can I best put it? – Putin and his colleagues economizing with the truth on a spectacular scale. On Chechnya, they regularly reported either that they had received no complaints from the EU about humanitarian relief, or that they were complying with the United Nations code on relief efforts; they were duplicitous on both counts. Similar dissembling characterized negotiations on trade, partnership agreements, the enlargement of the EU to Eastern Europe, and access to Kaliningrad.

Against this background, I find it difficult to believe any of Putin’s account of what has been happening in Ukraine – a view shared by many seasoned observers in Poland and the Baltic states. Putin does not want to preside over a country with a declining population and a footprint that is largely Asian. He wishes, like a modern czar, to re-create the historic Slav state of Russia, incorporating Ukraine, and to rebuild, albeit in a different form, the Kremlin’s lost empire. The Eurasian Union – Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan – is to be its heartland.

To this end, Putin has always resisted Ukraine’s historic turn to the West, about which the EU itself has been standoffish in the past. The EU was prepared to recognize Ukraine’s “European vocation,” but it did as little as it could to encourage this outcome.

When Ukrainians earlier this year ousted their corrupt president, Viktor Yanukovych, after he backed out of an association agreement with the EU, Russia set out to destabilize the country. Crimea was annexed on the spurious grounds that it had once been part of Russia – a justification that, if applied elsewhere, could underwrite the violent redrawing of boundaries in much of Europe.

Then came Russia’s fomenting of, and participation in, armed separatists’ effort to take over parts of eastern Ukraine, which led directly to the downing last month of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 and the death of all 298 people on board. Though likely an accident, it was an accident that happened only because of Russia’s duplicitous and lethal meddling.

So, though I am saddened by the Putin regime’s behavior, I am not surprised by it. I do hope to be surprised by the EU’s recognition that what has happened in Ukraine requires Europe to stand up for international decency and the rule of law. There should be no more happy talk about shared values. This is a time for steely principle.

That will not be welcomed by Europe’s far right, from Hungary’s Jobbik to France’s National Front. They love Putin.

But Ukraine has proved a step too far for some of his erstwhile admirers, like Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party. If Farage had had some first-hand experience dealing with Putin, he might have reached an accurate assessment much sooner.