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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Shows Many Sides Over a Meal

Itar-TassPutin speaking with six foreign media executives, including AP's Thomas Kent, second from right, on Friday night.
NOVO-OGARYOVO, Mosow Region -- Sometimes he made jokes. Sometimes he was dead serious. Sometimes he made fun of himself.

He spoke in bureaucratic formulas that could have come from an old-time Soviet leader. He used salty turns of phrase that would make most statesmen blush. He was uncompromising. He was flexible.

In a meeting with foreign newsmen on Friday, Vladimir Putin switched easily among the many personalities he can muster, something foreign leaders are likely to see when he hosts the Group of Eight summit in July. Putin will need all his diplomatic skill for that meeting.

As part of Russia's run-up to the G8, Putin invited executives of six international news agencies to dinner Friday night at Novo-Ogaryovo, his official residence on a heavily wooded estate west of Moscow. Built in the style of an old palace but bristling with computers and flat-screen televisions, it was a fitting place to see the different sides of Putin: a former KGB agent formed by the old communist system who now studies English, surfs the Internet and masters the details of world energy markets.

Putin's initial welcome to his guests could have come from an old Soviet leader: a formulaic recitation of the importance of mass media.

But within minutes, he switched personalities -- with television cameras rolling -- to an earthiness not seen in a Kremlin leader since Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s. Asked whether Russia would favor sanctions against Iran if it failed to stop enriching uranium, Putin mocked the "what-if" nature of the question. "What if my grandmother had certain sexual attributes?" he snapped. "Then she would be my grandfather."

Apparently recognizing that this did not fully explain the Russian position on Iran, he added the world was still a long way from deciding if sanctions would be needed.

The dinner -- with the television cameras gone -- had none of the long, vodka-soaked toasting for which official Russian occasions have long been famous. Putin, 53, showed yet another side of his personality: an all-business Russian leader, thoroughly briefed on the issues and not shy about reacting sharply to comments he didn't like.

He took one newsman to task for supposedly suggesting that Russian Muslims might be easy for terrorists to recruit. Muslims in Russia are "not some alien part of society -- they're not immigrants," he said indignantly. He said they were law-abiding Russians because "they are full citizens. This is their native land."

But he could also show extreme politeness, apologizing profusely to a Japanese guest for forgetting to mention Japan in his state-of-the-nation address on May 10, where he cited Russian partnership with countries from the United States to the nations of Africa.

He made a vociferous warning to the United States not to try extending NATO membership to more of the former Soviet bloc. He added, for an American audience, that "before you go with missiles and more weapons" to the Middle East, the West needs to work on its own credibility there.

But he stressed there were more ups than downs in Russian-U.S. relations. While Russian leaders once violently objected to any foreign "interference" in Russia's internal affairs, Putin said "we are ready for discussions" with Washington on Russian internal policy, including human rights.

A man tightly in control of himself, Putin paused at each question, apparently deciding whether to reply directly, with a joke or by skirting the issue. Asked whether the press carried enough debate to support a democracy, he answered simply that it did, and that his job was to be the guardian of press freedom. He offered no reply to the second part of the question: whether he supported a law -- sometimes used against journalists -- that makes insulting the president a criminal offense.

His only comment about his plans after he leaves office in 2008 was to joke that he might form an opposition party.

Putin, president since the last hours of 1999, was asked what he liked most about his job. He at first answered only with gestures, as if acknowledging his feelings out loud might make it sound like he wasn't a serious leader. He grinned and pointed to the food: He had dined on artichoke salad with avocado and Parmesan cheese, sorrel soup with quail egg and Far Eastern scallops. He waggled his hand under his chin to suggest he liked giving speeches. With a thumbs-up, he confirmed all this was the good part of being president.

Then, in a second, the official Putin was back.

"The most complex and difficult part about being president is the responsibility for the decisions we have taken," he said. "When a person cannot do that, he'd better find another job."