Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow on Jan. 24, 2024.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow on Jan. 24, 2024. (Mikhail Metzel, pool photo, AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin remains an enigma, an unanswered riddle, to many. Many leaders have attempted to establish contact at a personal level with Putin but to no avail. All that has resulted from their efforts is disappointment.

My first face-to-face public meeting with Putin was as president of Latvia at the NATO-Russia Council meeting during the Bucharest NATO summit in April 2008 while discussing the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). Russia had suspended its participation in the treaty the previous year (its withdrawal was formally completed in 2023), angering NATO. Nevertheless, he went further in Bucharest and fired another barrage of criticism against the Baltic states. I had to respond, and I did so bitterly and clearly. In my address, I focused directly on Putin and reminded him and others in the room of the ever-present Cold War demons that continue haunting and daunting arms reduction efforts in Europe.

The Bucharest Summit was another example of how Putin impacts a game where he has no formal role assigned. This time, the game was the NATO enlargement. The summit was also significant in that the so-called “new Europeans,” i.e. the new member states of NATO from Central and Eastern Europe, achieved an essential detour to the prepared script of the summit. Thanks to our joint effort, we removed the categorical “no” over the potential membership of Georgia and Ukraine from the Bucharest Summit Declaration. This ran contrary to the firm position of Angela Merkel of Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who were mindful of Putin’s wishes.

Usually, NATO leaders merely rubber-stamp a text already prepared during lengthy and exhaustive discussions and drafting at the expert level. Significant changes to such texts are rarely made. In Bucharest, things were different. As leaders tried to agree on the final text, “The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire” painting by Ilya Repin came to my mind. Instead of Cossacks, there were NATO leaders around the table, intensely studying the draft text and ready to improve it to their liking. Leaders of some major European countries wondered what the “new Europeans” intended to change to the “agreed” text. They especially wondered how Putin might perceive any changes. In the end, a new sentence was inserted: “We agreed today that these countries [Ukraine and Georgia] will become members of NATO.”

The subsequent reluctance of NATO’s great powers to stand firm in their support of Georgia and Ukraine gave Putin the green light to humiliate Georgia and Ukraine. Only within a few months, in August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. Unfortunately, the attempts of the “new Europeans” were insufficient to prevent the 2008 war. And the same happened with Ukraine in 2014 and 2022.

When Putin worked for the city of St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, the portrait on his office wall was not that of the then-president of Russia but rather of Peter the Great. Putin was an ardent anti-communist and supporter of the modernization of Russia. Putin’s goal has always been for Russia to reestablish itself as a first-class world power. However, his vision was engineered from a KGB officer’s perspective, meticulously planning Russia’s rise as an undercover operation.

From a strategic perspective, Putin is predictable. He never hides his views — “If I wanted, Russian troops could be not only in Kyiv but also Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest in two days” (2014), “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia” (2021) — and the list of his past revelations goes on. Every time Putin uttered such phrases, no one in the West took them seriously. The West finally took notice only after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The question still stands if it is not too late.

Tactically, Putin is totally unpredictable. This is where the mindset of a KGB officer comes into play. Each plan has several alternate scenarios, with at least five additional scenarios for the alternate ones. To survive in a world of spies, one must be able to react quickly and decisively to any detour. This is what Putin does best.

Putin is always self-assured and is willing to fight until the last breath. A critical tactical turning point for him came when he was elected president of Russia for the third time in 2012. Then, for the first time during his political career, he encountered significant opposition and criticism from ordinary Russians. To maintain authority and power, he had to find a way to quell the voices of the ordinary people. Manipulation of basic human instincts always produces quick results. Xenophobia, radical nationalism and military action fueled the rise of aggressive patriotism.

A frequent question raised is whether Putin is psychologically sound. His rhetoric and actions may lead many to question his mental stability. However, my answer is a clear no. In my view, Putin is among the healthiest of the healthy in his age. In fact, he is not as much a president of his country but rather a KGB virtuoso. Putin sees himself as superhuman, willing to conquer his weaknesses to maintain his power over others ruthlessly. He will never spare an adversary and will not hesitate to exploit their weaknesses and moments of uncertainty.

He respects strong personalities who are not afraid to speak their minds openly and directly. But that certainly does not mean that Putin is averse to playing complex games where he encounters strong opposition. Quite the opposite — the challenges of playing a difficult match satisfy him. The current “game” that Putin began in Ukraine is one that is not only different from previous games but also a game by his own rules. The game’s rules must be mastered quickly and thoroughly for the West to win.

Most of us still do not take Putin’s statements seriously. In June 2022, Putin said, “Peter the First [the Great] waged the Great Northern War for 21 years. … Apparently, it is also our turn to return [what belongs to Russia] and strengthen. And if we proceed from the fact that these basic values form the basis of our existence, we will certainly succeed in solving the tasks that we face.”

We must always listen to what Putin says and be prepared for battles ahead. You can stay home if you cannot climb into the bear cage to tame the beast. But someone must be brave enough to take on the bear.

Valdis Zatlers served as president of Latvia from 2007-2011. He wrote this op-ed in cooperation with the Center for Geopolitical Studies Riga.

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