The Spy Who Came In From The Crowd

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Putin does not promise to be an easy proposition for the West. He noted President Clinton's "charm" to an aide and regretted he did not possess any. But, he added, foreign relations must be state to state, not personal. He will pursue a hard-nosed Russia-first foreign policy, though he operates from a position of weakness. Russians advise the West to wait and see what he does before putting too much credence in his words. Western leaders have apparently decided, though, to take Putin at face value--his best face. Albright called him "a leading reformer" even before she met him. British Prime Minister Tony Blair went to the opera with Putin in St. Petersburg earlier this month and, in order to strike a friendly note, soft-pedaled Western concerns over Chechnya. Even though nothing substantive was accomplished, London declared that Putin was "a man we can do business with," an echo of what Margaret Thatcher famously said about Mikhail Gorbachev after she met the then rising Soviet star in 1984.

That seems a premature judgment about Putin, who is still very much a secret self. "He's a blank sheet of paper," says Duma Deputy Yuri Shchekochikhin. Deliberately maintaining the mystery gives him maximum maneuvering room. Putin knows he wants to be powerful; he wants Russia to be strong, and he wants to preside over its comeback. But he does not know how to do that. Maybe he is too small a man for the job. Maybe even his galvanic will cannot deliver in the face of Russia's enormous failures: his paper powers are vast, but the necessary institutions to implement reform barely exist. The West probably has little to be afraid of. But what Russians fear is that as long as he pursues just enough economic reforms to keep the West moderately happy, the West will not really care what he does to them.

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