Putin: A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing?

Although it would seem that Vladimir Putin has placed Russia on a collision course with the West over a bloody war in Chechnya and a very nuclear National Security Concept, foreign critics of the new acting president are surprisingly hard to find.

The former KGB agent now primed for the Russian presidency has had little to say about his political agenda, but his recent resume - standing tough on the grisly Chechen campaign and signing off on an aggressively isolationist security doctrine - should have the West on high alert.

Instead, public response in the West to Putin's ascendancy has ranged from warily accepting to flatly optimistic. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright set the tone Tuesday, calling him a "model" Russian president and forecasting an era of positive economic and political change under his rule.

"He, from what we can tell, seems determined to move reform forward," Reuters quoted Albright as saying. Even as she acknowledged his KGB career and iron-fisted stance on Chechnya, Albright, due to travel to Russia at the end of the month, praised him as a "leading reformer."

Even State Department spokesman James Rubin, addressing the uncompromising terms of the new 21-page National Security Concept, which challenges NATO's eastern expansion and now allows Russia the option of nuclear response to even conventional armed aggression, was surprisingly low-key.

"We ... do not believe that it represents a significant, major departure from Russia's concept issued in 1997" - which provided for a nuclear offensive only in the instance that national sovereignty was threatened - "or that it makes the use of nuclear weapons more likely," Rubin said at a news briefing Wednesday.

According to analysts, however, such decorum is nothing more than a cautious response to a virtually unknown political entity. Comments like Albright's "are the polite statements you make about somebody in power, hoping they will get off to a good start," Mark Smith, a specialist in conflict analysis, said while speaking from England's Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.

Oksana Antonyenko, a research fellow with the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, agreed. "Putin is young, dynamic and healthy - unlike [former President Boris] Yeltsin - and people realize that it is entirely possible that he may rule Russia for up to 10 years," she said. By playing nice, the West may simply be taking a pragmatic approach to a situation they have little control over, she said.

Still, analysts said, it's more than Putin's power that has the West cautiously singing his praises. After years of wrangling with a blustery and often elusive Yeltsin, Western diplomats and politicians have found much to appreciate in Putin's polished demeanor and trim single-breasted suits.

"Putin is a relief because you needed an interpreter, even in Russian, for Yeltsin," said Dmitry Trenin, a military analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center. "[Putin] speaks clearly and understandably, dresses nicely and could very well be the first real post-Soviet leader."

"Certainly I've noticed the turtleneck sweaters that give the impression of a cool, sophisticated person," Smith said. "He's tough and smooth at the same time. And most likely his image-makers are aiming this at the West. By dressing like a Westerner, he's creating the impression that he is like us."

To the West, Putin, 47, is an intelligent and educated alternative to fist-pounding Soviet-era politicians of Yeltsin's ilk. Fluent in German and conversant in English, Russia's acting president has seemingly few vices - he doesn't smoke or drink vodka - and is accomplished at judo.

Beyond a healthy lifestyle, however, relatively few insights into Putin's personality are available. The leader himself offers only vague, albeit self-assured, references to his character: "Frankly speaking, I do not experience any internal conflict, vacillation or torment," a Jan. 13 article in the Russian daily Obshchaya Gazeta quoted Putin as saying on national television several years ago.

Much has been made of Putin's ability to adapt to changing situations - a talent that gained him considerable advances during his years as a KGB agent in Germany, where he enjoyed a successful history "recruiting the enemy," Obshchaya Gazeta reported.

"Germans are hard to recruit. Neither money nor compromising material has any great effect on them. It is only possible to build something on personal contact: If a person believes in you ... then he will work with you. Putin's results were simply fantastic. He knew how to establish the closest contacts with ideological opponents."

A recent article in The Washington Post admitted the wariness of some Western onlookers. "Putin is a cool character," the article quoted a White House official involved in Russia policy as saying. "He's smart, he's hard to read ... he's more opaque."

Still, actions like Tuesday's signing of the security doctrine make clear Putin's intention of becoming a significant world player. Although analysts say the concept is unlikely to completely resurrect Cold War tensions, the doctrine says much about Putin's view of his country's future.

"The new tone is that [Russia] stands alone in this world. We're not a part of anything but us - we have no alliances," Trenin said, describing the doctrine as a realistic and pessimistic reaction to Russia's internal and external threats, both real and perceived.

"It's a response to NATO, especially to Kosovo and to Chechnya, but most of all, it's a realization of Russia's extreme weakness."

Smith, describing the doctrine as largely symbolic, said it was nonetheless "a way of telling the outside world that Russia will not be trifled with."

Others took the National Security Concept as a more serious indication of the new tone Russia will take with the West in the years to come.

"Putin is an unknown and so far he hasn't given the West anything consistent," Antonyenko said. "The national security doctrine diverges from his usual rhetoric of 'Russia never going back' and establishing better relations with the West, in that it gives a clear sign that the tone is now anti-Western."

"They even scratched the word 'partnership' out of the doctrine and replaced it with 'cooperation,' which raised a few eyebrows in London," she added.