Some years ago at the bar of the now defunct Colony Room Club a fellow member with a genuine record of HMG skulduggery made a point. In Beirut in the 1980s US government employees were protected like Fabergé eggs from kidnappers, with up to a hundred armed protectors attending the move of a single Consular official. The Russians didn't bother. It wasn't that Soviet diplomats weren't targets of the hostage takers - they were. But when one had been actually been kidnapped, within 48 hours the naked bodies of the kidnappers were found with their testicles and penises stuffed in their dead mouths. Putin of course was stationed in East Germany in the 1980s, seducing frumpy Rhodes scholars, and like bar anecdotes anyway it may not be exactly true, but the story does I think reflect what we would call the 'institutional brutality' of the KGB in those days.
As Mary Anne Sieghart describes in a brief 13 minute Profile on R4 yesterday, Putin became Russian leader almost by accident, by being in the right place at the right time. He was not groomed for leadership as part of a gilded Politburo inner circle, and raced past the privileged scions of the nomenklatura with their western after-shave and New York postings at the UN to arrive from nowhere. Nor was he initially anti-Western - even considering Russian membership of NATO. However, Sieghart suggests, he feels insults, real and imagined, to both himself and more importantly to Russia, very deeply and reacts appropriately. The boycott of Sochi whilst not boycotting Beijing in 2008 was insulting.
Despite Putin's close relationship to an oligarchy that has plundered the Soviet inheritance (and which now helps maintain London's house prices and City salaries) and a number of extra-judicial killings that it is suspected he sanctioned, I can't help but feel a certain respect for him, even a liking. You will all have heard the NASA anecdote - that NASA spent ten years, five million dollars and the research departments of two universities to develop a pen that wrote in space; the Russians used pencils - and that's part of it; Putin's a pragmatist, making the best out of what he has, uniting a Russia still recovering from not seventy but four hundred years of misrule. And for my own peace and security, I prefer a stable and predictable Russia with a stable and predictable leader, even if the human rights of Russians aren't up to Tunbridge Wells standards.