Jun 16, 2021 - Politics & Policy

First person: What I learned in the room with Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen listening to Secretary of State John Kerry.
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Secretary of State John Kerry. Photo: Glen Johnson/State Department/Public Domain

I had the rare opportunity to watch Vladimir Putin in action during my four-year stint serving as a senior communications aide to former Secretary of State John Kerry.

Why it matters: From his timing to his baiting techniques and his postgame spin, Russia's president commands an array of tactics aimed at putting U.S. leaders on the defensive and in response mode — and has decades of experience fine-tuning them.

  • President Biden's arrival may be the last thing he fully controls when he and Putin meet Wednesday for their summit in Geneva.

The big picture: The Russian is famous for trying to assert his authority by showing up late and then airing his nation's grievances. Biden has been counseled not to fall for Putin's trap.

  • During my time in government, we made four trips to Moscow and one to Sochi, Russia, meeting with Putin repeatedly. The last was emblematic of the rest: Putin kept Kerry waiting for hours, finally calling him to the Kremlin at 10 p.m.
  • This time around, the protocol has Putin arriving first, then Biden.
  • In my book on diplomacy, "Window Seat on the World," I detailed one of Putin's prime tactics: Icing his guests lets the former KGB officer throw them off their game. Kerry toured St. Peter's Square and sat in his hotel room waiting for Putin to receive him.
  • Another way Putin instantly puts American counterparts on the defensive is to air grievances — including over a perceived lack of respect for 8 million Russian soldiers killed fighting the Nazis in World War II.

What they're saying: Jon Finer, formerly the Department of State's chief of staff, once told NPR that "the advice that we tended to give to Secretary Kerry was to not take the bait" but rather to "focus, absorb and then try to pivot and focus on your own agenda so you can actually get something out of these meetings."

  • Finer now serves as Biden's deputy national security adviser.

Behind the scenes: Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will be inside the room. They'll speak only if the two heads of state call on them.

  • Lavrov is an inscrutable character who disarms his guests with his fluent English — honed while serving at the United Nations for a decade — and expressionless, bespectacled face.
  • Lavrov's longtime press secretary, Maria Zakharova, often tweets out pictures during meetings — a violation of diplomatic protocol.

Be smart: Challenges dealing with Putin don't end when the summit concludes.

  • Afterward, the Russians have no approval process for their public commentary. Putin tells the press what he desires.
  • Lavrov, who must worry only about pleasing Putin, would often scribble a few remarks on a notecard and step right up to the microphone.
  • Biden is more likely to seek feedback from Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and White House press secretary Jen Psaki before addressing the press. Sometimes the Defense Department and CIA also are first consulted about a meeting development.

The bottom line: It was Biden's choice not to reward or amplify Putin with a joint news conference.

  • Instead, Putin will go first — delivering Russia's preferred storyline to international media.
  • Biden could be left playing catch-up unless he can beat Putin at his own game.
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