Russian President Vladimir Putin is no touchy-feely politician. He has waged wars, as in Chechnya. He has destroyed opponents, as in the Yukos affair. He has played global statesman, as during Russia's controversial G8 presidency. But his KGB training seems to have left him ill-equipped to handle more sensitive political events, such as the alleged poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko.
The problem is not new. Twenty-four hours after the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea in 2000, and with the fate of its 118 crew in doubt, Putin was filmed in shirt-sleeves enjoying a barbecue at his Black Sea holiday home. His apparent lack of concern, and his government's initially slow, misleading response, briefly dented the new president's standing.
But Russians reputedly prefer strong leaders. His crude approach to counter-terrorism won particular approval.
"We'll follow terrorists everywhere," he once said. "Should we catch them in a shit-house, we'll kill them in a shit-house."
Putin's hard man image won him record approval ratings and re-election in 2004.
When he first came to public notice, as former Russian president Boris Yeltsin's surprise 1999 prime ministerial pick, Putin was an enigma.
"Who is Vladimir Putin?" asked a semi-hostile editorial in the Wall Street Journal.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, US President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac subsequently went out of their way to "pal up" with the new man.
A more confident Putin has disappointed early hopes born of those calculated acts of bonhomie. As Russia's fortunes have risen on a tide of oil and gas, he has become increasingly assertive, even abrasive, in his international dealings. He recently told startled EU leaders their biggest task was not to lecture Russia on democracy, human rights and energy cooperation but to "safeguard Christianity in Europe."
And defying a storm of international condemnation, he was again slow to respond to the October murder in Moscow of Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist and Kremlin critic.
When he did finally comment, three days later, he said the "disgusting" crime was motivated by a desire to stir up anti-Russian feelings. Politkovskaya's work had had "minimal" influence on Russian political life.
"Who benefits [from her death]?" a senior Russian diplomat said. "It is clear it is not the Russian government but those who are intent on destabilizing the political system in Russia."
Putin's reaction to the Litvinenko affair has been similarly defensive and perfunctory.
"Death is always tragic. I present my condolences to the friends and the family of Litvinenko," he said in Helsinki last month.
He went on to criticize the dead man's associates and the British authorities, and to question the authenticity of a note left by Litvinenko accusing the Russian state of responsibility for his death.
"If the note was really written before the death of Litvinenko, I wonder why they did not make it public while he was still alive," Putin said.
"If the note appeared after the death, what comments can be made? People who did that are not the Lord, while Litvinenko is not Lazarus. It is a pity that such tragic events as death are being used for political provocative acts," he said.
Like it or not, Putin's harsh style looks unlikely to change in the last two years of his second term. His position at home is unchallenged. And on key international issues such as UN sanctions on Iran, a "strategic partnership" with Europe, Georgia's future as an independent conduit for central Asian oil and gas and a final settlement in Kosovo and the Balkans, European diplomats say Russia's positive cooperation is essential.
All these are reasons, for example, why Chirac and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spent Tuesday trying to persuade Poland to drop its opposition to an EU-Russia pact.
The new phenomenon of Putin power also suggests that, wherever the poison trail leads, Britain will do all it can to avoid open confrontation with the Kremlin.
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