What Is Vladimir Putin Really Like? Stories from People Who’ve Met Him

Vladimir Putin

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Firsthand accounts of time with the Russian president paint a grim picture.

A complicated mix of geopolitical factors are contributing to the brutal and tragic war between Russia and Ukraine, but at the top of the list is the unflinching determination of Vladimir Putin to assert his dominance.

In fact, several of the six most likely possibilities for how this war will end largely hinge on Putin’s personality and desires, like whether he’d go so far as to initiate a nuclear war, or whether he can maintain enough of an iron grip on his government to avoid being overthrown by an opposition leader.

As the horrific attacks in Ukraine go on, commentators are wondering about Putin’s mental and physical health — and how they could be affecting his decision-making and his plans moving forward. Experienced observers have speculated he could be mentally unbalanced or perhaps physically unwell.

The challenge is that, whether any of those theories may be true or not, Putin has a view of the world that’s fundamentally unlike that of most Americans. He’s an authoritarian leader in a country where state media controls the narrative, and he’s habitually thumbed his nose at the concerns of the rest of the world while plowing ahead with this invasion that’s led many to label him as a war criminal.

To put it another way: “The difficulty that I’m having analytically is that I don’t know how I would be able to distinguish between a Putin who is crazy and a Putin who just understands the world in a very different way than I do,” the director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London told The Los Angeles Times.

So what is Putin like, really? His inner circle is tight, but here’s what we can gather from people who know him or have met him and have spoken out about the experience.

Putin “doesn’t care about lives”

Our own Katie has spoken several times since this war began with Michael McFaul, who was the U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014. He’s also worked for the U.S. National Security Council as the senior director of Russian and Eurasian affairs, and he’s currently a political science professor at Stanford and a columnist for the Washington Post. Having written more than 20 academic articles that directly reference Putin, McFaul is intimately familiar with studying the Russian president, and he even had a personal interaction with him in 1991.

McFaul told Katie he’s experienced years of being called “alarmist” or being told he was “overreacting” in his assessments of Putin, but now he’s even more confident that Putin is “increasingly unhinged.”

“We have been two slow to realize and understand [Putin’s] evilness,” McFaul said. “I wrote a column for the Washington Post a couple of years ago saying that he was evil in response to what he did — to try to kill the opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. And I was flooded with hate mail from America saying, ‘How dare you call this leader evil?’ So I think the first thing we need to do is understand who he is. He doesn’t care about lives, he’s made that clear. This is his fifth war, not his first. And that when he says crazy things, we need to listen to him carefully.”

In a separate conversation, McFaul added that the Russian oligarchs whose wealth is being targeted by sanctions from the U.S. and other countries likely have less sway over Putin than we’d like to believe.

“One important thing people need to understand is that the more exposed you are to sanctions, the less influence you have with Putin back home,” McFaul said. “We’re all cheering the seizing of yachts and things like that, and I’m all for it, too — don’t get me wrong. That’s great. But the people who have business outside of Russia, who we can sanction, are the ones who have the farthest relationship from Putin.”

Rather than Russian figures who made their fortunes in the ’90s, McFaul says Putin is more heavily influenced by former intelligence officers and “KGB types.”

Putin’s inner circle is “like The Godfather

We recently got a fascinating peek into Putin from Alexandra Tolstoy, the former partner of Russian oligarch Sergei Pugachev, who was once known as “Putin’s banker” but left the Kremlin in 2011. For the eight years the couple was together, Tolstoy got an insider’s perspective into Putin, his closest allies, and how they operate — and it’s a grim picture.

“It was sort of like everything you probably imagine, like The Godfather,” Tolstoy told CNN’s Erin Burnett. “This crazy insane wealth, and also a complete lack of normal, human morals. And like any dictator, he rules through divide and rule, so [his advisors] all hate each other. They’re all very competitive. They don’t trust each other, and it’s ruthless.”

Tolstoy added that she thinks Putin “has probably got narcissistic personality disorder,” and she said she’s witnessed from afar a change in the man she once knew.

“I was in the room with him in 2008, and he then was a very different person from what I see now on the news,” Tolstoy said. “He was a very confident person. He had this great, enormous phalanx of bodyguards. You could see he was probably insecure, but he was extremely confident, whereas now I feel he looks very angry and out of control. There’s definitely a difference.”

Putin subscribes to “an ever-deepening, delusional rendering of history”

Alexandra Tolstoy isn’t the only person who’s met Putin and feels he seems different now. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had a similar perspective on the Russian president during an interview last month.

Rice has met Putin many times through her diplomatic work, but she said she always found him to be “calculating and cold,” like a “KGB man,” but these days she’s observing new characteristics within him.

“He seems erratic,” Rice said. “There is an ever-deepening, delusional rendering of history — it was always a kind of victimology of what had happened to them, but now it goes back to blaming Lenin for the foundation of Kyiv in Ukraine. So he’s descending into something that I personally haven’t seen before.”

President Biden once told Putin he didn’t “have a soul”

Putin has met with multiple American presidents, including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden. Biden and Putin spoke over a video call in December, but the White House said last month that an in-person meeting between the two leaders is currently off the table unless Russia de-escalates the conflict with Ukraine.

But Biden also told a particularly insightful story about meeting with Putin during a 2014 interview with The New Yorker. In that conversation, he recounted visiting Putin at the Kremlin in 2011, when he was vice president under Obama and Putin’s official title was prime minister.

“I had an interpreter, and when he was showing me his office I said, ‘It’s amazing what capitalism will do, won’t it? A magnificent office!'” Biden recalled. “And he laughed. As I turned, I was this close to him. I said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.'”

Putin’s response: “We understand one another.” Biden said in the interview that in the moment, he immediately thought, “This is who this guy is!”

Putin is a manspreader

This is far from being as diabolical as the other charges levied against Putin, but it’s certainly unappealing all the same.

In a 2017 interview with Stephen Colbert, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described her own relationship with Putin, who she said views democracy as “an inconvenient, messy process.”

In discussing Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election, Colbert asked Clinton about speculation that Putin has a personal distaste for her that could have partly motivated that interference. “I don’t take it personally,” Clinton said. “I think it’s part of his worldview, which is all tied up with his anger, his disappointment in the collapse of the Soviet Union, and his feelings that we’re his number one rival.”

But she felt there was something else at play, too. “It’s partly because I’m a woman, which does seem to get him a bit agitated,” she added.

Asked by Colbert if Putin had ever demonstrated that agitation in her presence, she had a particularly relatable example.

“He demonstrated it, as I write in the book [What Happened?], there’s an expression — we certainly know it in New York — called ‘manspreading.’ And every time I met with him, it would be…” — here Clinton illustrated the legs-open pose we all recognize — “the whole deal.”