What I Learned From Vladimir Putin

Is Russian President Vladimir Putin, like most political leaders, predisposed to spinning the truth for his own benefit, or does he go beyond that, governing Russia and dealing with his neighbors and the rest of the world with reckless mendacity? Sometimes, in answering questions like this, we can draw on personal experience.

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.

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