West still asking: who is mr. putin

It would be very difficult to name another international leader who has had more trash – potato peels and all – dumped on his doorstep than Vladimir Putin, the former two-term Russian president and present prime minister that “the West” loves to loathe. But perhaps in no other business than politics does one’s accumulated amount of garbage speak volumes about the natural abilities of the politician in question. Indeed, it is only the retired, resigned or impeached who sit dejected on the porch of power, waiting for the postman to deliver the next batch of steaming hate mail. But like the judo expert he is, Putin is at his most effective when on the defensive, twisting the black press to his general advantage.

The work of analysts, pundits and politicians, laboring to unravel the mystery of the Putin puzzle after almost a decade, has become an entire cottage industry unto itself. The unemployment rate in American academia alone would jump a full percentage point should Vladimir Putin ever opt out of the political game. And of course, the Russian leader’s stint with the KGB back in the Soviet era only enhances the intrigue.

The perennial question, ‘Who is Mr. Putin?’ has not taken a pause since that magnetic moment in 2001 when US President George W. Bush dared to gaze into Vladimir’s steely poker blues, whereupon the Texas oilman – no easy pushover for partners, we must assume – declared to the world: “I looked him in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy… I was able to get a sense of his soul.” You could almost hear the collective shriek from the US intelligence community from Washington. So American experts had basically two uncomfortable choices: declare their commander-in-chief incompetent, dim-witted or the unwitting subject of some new Manhattan Project, or Vladimir Putin as he is now portrayed in the western world: cold, cunning and calculating.

The subject of Putin’s soul – despite so many other matters of urgency – continues to haunt the US political scene. In an effort to show her strong feminine side, apparently, Hillary Clinton, while campaigning for the Democratic nomination, said, “He was a KGB agent… By definition he doesn’t have a soul,” to which Putin cooly replied, “I think that a head of state must have a head as a minimum. And in order to build interstate relationships, one must be governed by the fundamental interests of one’s own country rather than by emotions.”

Incidentally, Putin was nominated Time Magazine’s Man of the Year for 2007, for his “extraordinary feat of leadership.”

Nobody ever said politics was easy. John Kenneth Galbraith described it as forever making a choice between “the disastrous and unpalatable.” Putin, like every leader, has made his share of arguably ‘unpalatable’ choices, but he could never be accused of not serving the interests of his nation. Perhaps this is the source of the contempt he regularly attracts from abroad: Putin contradicts by 180-degrees the stereotypical image of the ‘Russian leader’ – an oxymoron in the west in its own right. Images of Putin performing judo, fishing bare-chested along the Volga, or bringing down a tiger in Siberia are actions that speak far more accurately about the man – and the country at large – than do the contemptible words of jaded critics.

Putin’s phenomenal political success is underscored by Russia’s rapid resurgence since he first stepped onto the political stage.

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West still asking: who is mr. putin