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Phone taps, power plays and sarcasm: What it’s like to negotiate with Vladimir Putin

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/07/2017 David Nakamura

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Relations between Russia and Georgia were strained in 2011 when Vice President Joe Biden’s motorcade rolled past the Ferrari and Maserati dealerships to Vladi­mir Putin’s private dacha for their first meeting in a ritzy neighborhood outside Moscow.

Biden had laid the groundwork to ease tensions and made the case to Putin, then Russia’s prime minister, that Georgian leader Mikhail Saakashvili was not seeking to provoke the Kremlin.

“I just spoke to him,” Biden declared across a large conference table.

Putin was unmoved. “We know exactly what you’re saying to Saakashvili on the phone,” he shot back. Biden laughed, but Putin did not, according to a former U.S. official who recounted the exchange, which has not been previously revealed publicly. The American delegation took Putin at his word that Russian intelligence agents were listening in on their calls.

As President Trump prepares for his first face-to-face meeting this week with Putin, in Hamburg, those who have negotiated with the Russian leader caution that Trump must be ready for a shrewd, well-prepared and implacable adversary.

Putin — who reclaimed the presidency in 2012 — has outlasted three U.S. presidents, shifting his persona but never his demands in countless phone calls and summit meetings, according to interviews with former aides with firsthand knowledge of the conversations. Bill Clinton shared a dinner of spicy wild boar with him at the presidential palace. George W. Bush looked in his eyes to get “a sense of his soul.” Barack Obama pursued a “reset” of a troubled relationship.

But all three failed to forge a personal bond with Putin as bilateral relations tumbled into an ever-worsening state of affairs.

Enter Trump, who professed admiration for Putin during his campaign for the U.S. presidency, calling Putin a stronger leader than Obama. But their coming meeting has been tainted by an FBI investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives who allegedly meddled in the U.S. election to aid Trump.

Russian President Vladimir Putin enters a hall to attend the presentation ceremony of the top military brass in the Kremlin in Moscow in 2014. © Alexei Druzhinin/AP Russian President Vladimir Putin enters a hall to attend the presentation ceremony of the top military brass in the Kremlin in Moscow in 2014. White House officials have said there is no formal agenda for the meeting, and they were noncommittal about whether the president intends to raise the election issue with Putin.

The meeting will be watched closely for the tone Trump takes with his counterpart. Jon Finer, who served as an aide to Biden in the White House and as chief of staff to John F. Kerry when Kerry was secretary of state, said it is imperative for Trump to draw “clear lines about American interests and then find common ground, if there is any. Part of why going in without an agenda is so dangerous — you could end up having the entire conversation on his topics and his terms.”

With Putin, Finer said, “there’s a sense that personalities matter, but at the end of the day, he’s someone who has a strong sense of what Russian interests should be, and he’s not going to deviate from that.”

Those who have met Putin describe him as a direct and forceful negotiator who wields nearly total power in the Kremlin. Although he and Bush developed an initial rapport, their relations soured amid the Bush administration’s war on terror and Russia’s conflict in neighboring Georgia.

After their first meeting in 2001, Bush proclaimed Putin “very straightforward and trustworthy.” That assessment has since been widely ridiculed, but Thomas E. Graham, who served as Russia director at the National Security Council under Bush, said critics leave out the rest of Bush’s assessment that Putin was “a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.”

“That turned out to be true,” Graham said. Putin “knew what he wanted; he had messages he wanted to convey.”

Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, recalled Obama’s first meeting with Putin in 2009, also at Putin’s private residence. The Americans wanted the three-hour session, over tea, to be more than an icebreaker, viewing it as the opening bid in an “ambitious play” to reset relations.

Although Dmitry Medvedev was president and Obama met separately with him, U.S. officials thought at the time that Putin continued to wield significant influence — and later came to conclude that Putin remained in charge.

This June 17, 2013 file photo shows U.S. President Barack Obama meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. © Evan Vucci/AP This June 17, 2013 file photo shows U.S. President Barack Obama meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. Putin was skeptical of the Americans. He told them he had tried to work with Bush, but then launched into a litany of complaints over how the United States had foiled efforts to cooperate on counterterrorism and on the folly of the Iraq invasion, McFaul recalled.

Putin, a former KGB officer, blamed the setbacks on U.S. intelligence agencies.

“He blamed the ‘deep state’ for thwarting efforts to cooperate,” McFaul said. “He went through a series of vignettes over eight years with Bush: ‘We did this, got close on this, yet it was your side that screwed it all up.’ ”

The Russian leader prefers smaller meetings, with fewer aides, which he thinks will result in fewer leaks, U.S. officials said. On one visit to Moscow by Kerry, there were so few officials permitted that the U.S. delegation asked ambassador John F. Tefft to serve as the official translator.

That’s not Putin’s only power play. While Trump is known to use forceful presidential handshakes to show dominance, Putin’s strategy is more subtle. He was 40 minutes late for a meeting with Obama at the G-20 Summit in Mexico in 2012 and kept Kerry waiting for three hours in Moscow in 2013.

“Our staff was really upset,” one former Obama aide recalled. “The president was like, ‘Who cares?’ It’s only a dis and a power play if you allow it.”

Yet for a macho leader who has been photographed riding a horse shirtless and drilling for oil, Putin’s demeanor in person is remarkably calm and composed, U.S. officials said.

Those who meet Putin are often surprised that his tone is “mild-mannered and soft-spoken,” Finer said. A famous photo of Obama and Putin looking uncomfortable during a 2013 meeting in Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign of their mutual disdain.

But Finer said the Russian leader’s “body language tends to be slouched, looking down as if there are notes in front of him. He will then make eye contact for emphasis. I got the impression of someone who is supremely confident, relaxed, not super-animated. That’s not to say the content of his words is relaxed or soft in any way. He can deliver quite hard messages.”

U.S. President George W. Bush, left, listens to Russian President Vladimir Putinat their joint press conference following the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in 2001 in Shanghai. © Tim Sloan/AFP U.S. President George W. Bush, left, listens to Russian President Vladimir Putinat their joint press conference following the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in 2001 in Shanghai. Putin has developed a long list of grievances over U.S. actions, which he often recites to start meetings, former Obama aides said. Many have to do with visa delays for Russian officials or the treatment of Russian diplomats who are not granted meetings — a grievance U.S. officials found disingenuous, given that American diplomats are routinely harassed and intimidated in Moscow.

Obama aides said they tried to funnel Putin’s complaints into a “separate channel” to be handled by lower-level aides while attempting to steer him back to geostrategic matters such as Ukraine, Syria and the Iran nuclear deal.

Those topics got him even more animated, however. Obama’s relations with Putin took a downward turn in 2014 when the United States and European allies imposed economic sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In meetings, Putin would refer to “Ukrainian fascists,” former Obama aides said.

The Russian leader is typically the only person on his side of the table who speaks, the former aides said. He seldom delegates authority, and he has a solid command of the issues, especially energy, where he recites facts and figures.

Although he only recently learned English, Putin has been known to correct a translator, the officials said. As he speaks, he scans for reactions, looking for signs of division, and he considers it a sign of weakness if another world leader is cut off, or corrected, by a lower-ranking aide.

Putin also has a penchant for trolling his rivals. During a meeting with Kerry in 2016, Putin mocked him for carrying his own luggage off the plane, suggesting that it was a cash bribe to work out disagreements over Syria. In 2007, Putin brought his black Labrador to a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is scared of dogs.

More recently, Putin said with a straight face on Russian television that he would offer asylum to former FBI director James B. Comey, who was fired by Trump and then gave damaging congressional testimony about Trump in the ongoing Russia probe.

Putin’s sarcastic asides can reveal his sharply different view of the world compared with the Americans’. In 2015, after a three-hour negotiating session with Kerry over Syria and Ukraine, Putin invited the U.S. delegation to a cocktail reception.

The American side was made up largely of women, prompting one to joke that Kerry was “not afraid of strong women.” Putin then teased Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about why the Russians had no female aides, which led to an off-color conversation about gender and sexual orientation, according to former U.S. officials familiar with knowledge of the exchange.

Regarding that formal meeting with Putin, Wendy Sherman, former undersecretary of state who was in attendance, said the U.S. delegation “came away thinking there might be some openings. But none of those really materialized.”

She added: “This was a leader who was sure about what he was about and didn’t need to bluster or pretend or try to impress.”

Another major frustration for the Americans was that Putin did not always have a high regard for facts. Antony Blinken, a former high-ranking aide to both Obama and Biden, recalled several Oval Office calls during which Obama tried to find common ground with Putin on Ukraine.

“It got to the point where he would be claiming there were no Russians in Ukraine,” Blinken recalled. “And Obama would say to him, ‘Vladimir, we can see things. We have eyes. We know it’s not true.’ He would just move on.”

Trump, too, has developed a reputation for ignoring facts in favor of bluster and bullying.

“You have two of the most powerful leaders with the most adversarial relationships with the truth,” Blinken said. “Trump does things in a theatrical way. Putin is the antithesis of that. But the objective is the same: Whatever advances the ends you’re trying to achieve, it’s fine.”

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