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.