Putin underestimated by West – Hubert Seipel

As Russia’s relations with the West are put to the test, Vladimir Putin is entering his fourth term as president. What is the Russian leader like? We ask Hubert Seipel, a German journalist who gave his view on the Russian president in a documentary called ‘I, Putin.’

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Hubert Seipel, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us, I haven’t seen you in a while, so we are finally doing this little chat and I am glad we get to do this. So you’ve had unprecedented access to Vladimir Putin. You personally came to an event about your book on him, and you had face-to-face time with him during the shooting of your film about him. He calls you personally on the phone and you answer, Hubert! I wonder why you? I mean you may know more about our president than maybe we do because he is a very private person. Why does he trust you?

Hubert Seipel: You know, look at me and you will understand that perfectly actually. I think it’s a matter of time, because we went quite some months together for the film, so I interviewed him a couple of years more or less within three months distance for the book. So you get to know each other a little bit and you get to know how or whom you can trust to a certain extent. And that’s I think the basis why we have this kind or relation.

SS: So while filming your documentary “I, Putin” back in 2012 you had a chance to see Vladimir Putin in different settings. What was your personal opinion of him, and what kind of vibes did you pick up? Usually public figures of his scale are one person off the screen and then another person on the screen. Do you feel he was genuine? Did you sense like a public persona for the cameras being displayed for you?

HS: You know, politician is a profession and you act like a professional, of course, but you have to a certain extent an identity, and if you want to convince you cannot really cut your identity you normally have from the profession you perform. So I think, to a certain extent he is genuine but he is a tactician too, of course, and he is an actor as well because this business requires acting because you deal with journalists and journalists act as well. So we have both a profession and we act, so to speak, along the profession but the longer you speak to each other the more you understand the way he acts and the way he argues and the way he is. And that is it.

SS:So, I mean, I come from the family of a former president as well and I understand how these things work, like, when you are a leader you have to be tough, there is no room for emotions, like, your personal emotions don’t really matter when you handling global affairs. You said that Putin came across as very alive. What kind of emotions did you get out of him during your conversations?

HS: He is an emotional guy, so it is not very hard to play on the emotion, but, on the other hand, he is a tactician too and he knows exactly what he wants to transform or what he wants to bring over. So journalists and politicians have their role and they play this role and, of course, they have a common currency, the common currency is the public. And so they behave to reach this aim, to get their messages through. And that’s a kind of game, on one side, and then, on the other side, it is quite serious because people rely and they trust what they get, so to speak, what they see and what they hear. So both parties have to develop this kind of art and to stick to their profession. And I think, all in all Putin lives by two things: by his emotion and he plays a very long game, he is, so to speak, a long distance runner in politics and that’s the way they underestimate him. I give you one little example why Putin obviously had been underestimated for such a long time. In the beginning of my research I found a memo forom year 2012 when he took over office. And the analysts tried to inform their board of directors what kind of guy this guy is and what to expect. And they simply said at that time that Vladimir Vladimirovich is someone who got orders for the last 10 years and he is very happy to be in this position and he follows these orders. And this kind of, so to speak, underestimating this guy took place first in Russia and then it took place, of course, in the West.

SS: So you mean the misperception of him as someone who would follow someone else’s orders, is that what you mean?

HS: Yeah, that’s one of the things and the second thing that you always have been warned of is, you know, this guy is a former KGB guy, he knows how to deal with people. Definitely it’s true, he worked once for this agency, and definitely he knows how to treat people. But it’s only one part of it. He is a very direct guy and if you respond to this directness you get results.

SS: But I mean ‘direct’ is one thing. Do you feel like everything he tells you is the truth? Or he can’t allow himself to tell the truth?

HS: Come on, no politician in this world tells you 100% of the truth. It’s a tactical appearance to a certain extent, it’s public and you want to transport something via public. But that’s what the business requires. But at the same time, if you do lie and if you do lie too often, you are not to be trusted. And look at the figures basically from 2000 up to today. I think, he had been elected with the percentage, I think, 53%. And if you go 12 years later when he returned from the prime minister job he got, I think, 64% and now he is somewhere at nearly 77%. So you have a steady growth and you cannot reach this in just lying to the population and lying to Russia.

SS: So when describing his persona you mentioned the fact that he had a KGB background and Western media as well as the establishment often put some special focus on Putin’s past as an intelligence officer. I mean we all come from different backgrounds, what is so special about that? George Bush Sr. was CIA head before he became the U.S. president, nobody saw this as a problem.

HS: No, it is not really a problem, because it is a demonization basically, that’s what it is. Our former foreign minister Klaus Kinkel was head of the BND for 2 years. But you can use it as a kind of picture, as a kind of threat from the past, because we all live with prejudices, and if you develop these prejudices you can demonize somebody. You know, politics is theatre, it’s drama. And the difference between interests and, so to speak, PR is very big occasionally, but it was always the case this way. So as far as Putin was concerned they use this three words and I think there is nothing else, because it’s just a way to say “OK, this guy is lying, he cannot do anything different, you don’t trust him”, but it’s a PR weapon, nothing more.

SS:So I want to go back to your film. I know that there was a scene where Putin took you to a chapel and he talked to you about his faith. Why did you leave this scene out of the film?

HS: I found it at the very moment too personal. And I had more material than I needed so I had to think what to use and what not to use, and I found that at the very moment “ok, it’s very private, it is very, so to speak, vulnerable to a certain extent”, so I left it out at that moment because I found other things more important in that context. That’s a reason to that.

SS:Well, because he rarely opens up to anyone like that, I mean, if he spoke to you about his faith, and he actually, you know, allowed you to be there while speaking about it and he knew it’s going to be filmed, it’s weird that you would leave it out. It’s just a journalist talking in me. And it actually got a lot of other moments where he was very vulnerable, not only the one in a chapel. And that is very rare side of Putin as well. You filmed the Russian president in a lot of situations during short vacations, during hockey practice. How did you get him used to your cameras, I mean, just to be himself? Or did he never really forget about the cameras?

HS: I’m not quite sure about that, but he never gave any kind of direction, we were just there, we were just watching and I didn’t get any kind of direction to do this or to do that. So I think he got accustomed after a certain time that we are present and it worked that way. And I am not a very hostile person, a very hostile journalist. I watch and I try to understand and I have questions. So I am not in a constant fighting position because my philosophy is very simple. I think, people, first of all, have an understanding of what they are seeing and can judge by themselves, so I don’t really have to press for any kind of infight, or to present myself as a very critical guy. I am critical but I just simply ask questions and I leave my viewers to decide whether this was ok, whether this was bad, whether this was a lie or normal. So this is a tendency as far as my work is concerned. And secondly, if you are not all the time saying “behave this way, behave that way, it looks better this way or that way” it works easier, it works much better.

SS: So, I mean, this film really opens up Putin’s personality in the way that you see him in situations and that is nothing extraordinary, but just random situations that a human being would find himself in, we’ve just never seen Putin like that before: hunting, practicing hockey, swimming or hugging his dog… Why do you think your country and the Western audience in general needed to see this side of him?

HS: Because we have stereotypes. You know, we’ve mentioned this KGB thing before. And so it is an incarnation of the evil and the longer PR stresses facts like that the more they become, so to speak, real. So we fictionalize reality to a certain extent by repetition. And I thought “ok, this guy is a human being as you and me, he is a politician, he was at the right time at the right place, and he tries to develop something for his country”. And going away from this kind of trenches, ideological trenches my interest was how does he argue, how does he behave and what is his interest, because it’s all about interests of a country a president normally represents. So it was much more important to build up not sort of a picture of an enemy, which is useless because it is a repetition. And the world is different than that.

SS:So in your movie you highlight the beginning of Putin’s first term, his visit to Bundestag where he talked about Russia not being an equal partner in the West. 18 years later and we are still not partners. Why do you think nothing changes in this regard?

HS: Yeah, it’s a good question. You mean, I can finally answer it? But I will start. You remember, before he spoke in the Bundestag - I think 2-3 months before - the first time he met George Bush and there was this meeting and, I think, George Bush said basically: “I looked in his eyes and I got a sense of his soul”. You remember that?

SS:I remember, and I remember what McCain said too.

HS: Yeah, McCain said: “I looked in his eyes and I saw three letters “KGB””, if I remember this correctly. But Bush at the same time added that at the same time he’s honest, he’s direct and he has great interest for his country. So three months later or two months later, I think, it was in Deutscher Bundestag it was an interesting talk but the main point he said: “Ok, we are talking, we want to get to come together, but at the same time we distrust each other. And we are hiding and we are trying to play games”. And, I think, from the very beginning onward, from 2000 onward up till today there is this distrust about intention and, on the other hand, there is obviously the collision of interests, and interests are the main point in the whole fight here. I think, up till 2008 more or less we were trying to get along. Then we had 2008, Georgian war, then we had Ukraine as well. It was always, on one side, the fight for democracy and freedom and, on the other side, the evil reconstruction of the Soviet Union. But it was at the same time, of course, interest, the history, the politics of the countries basically formed by the history of the country, by geopolitical interest, by economic interest, by current events. But you have to take this into account – Russia had this and the West had that. It was very complicated and was a misunderstanding from the very beginning, I think. There was no agreement after the collapse of the Soviet Union in December of 1991 that Russia would now become another part of the West. It didn’t work out. There are interests and, I think, the West miscalculated this interest and blamed their own increase only. And Russia, of course, they tried to get through with its interest and Putin was the one who was underestimated but he pushed it through.

SS:During this latest scandal around the Scripal poisoning Theresa May, for instance, presented Russia with an ultimatum and that is not the first time the West speaks to Russia like that. Moscow’s reply has always been, like, “don’t talk to us like this, don’t tell us what to do”. This keeps repeating in Russia-West relations, this problem of condescending lecturing in a moralistic tone. Why?

HS: “Why” is a good question. I think, it’s depending on the moment you are in at the very moment. And I think, this is simply political agitation.

SS: But it’s not about the tone, it’s about the methods, I mean, you see the Arab countries or India or China, they are always, you know, a lot more neutral in the way they communicate. Have you noticed that? Always very careful with words... Why Western politicians are so prone to public scolding of others, to teacher-like behavior?

HS: I think we watched Russia to a certain extent as a kind of, you know, handicapped school children, who have to reach, so to speak, the level to become adults. I think that was an early attitude in the 1990s and to a certain extent it is still an attitude and, on the other side, it’s a political weapon. We still forget that Russia is a grown-up, they are not underage anymore, but at the same time as we argued in the 90s: ”You have to do this, you have to do that, and if you do that it will work” – this attitude never changed. Because we consider us as having won the Cold War and that gives us a kind of moral superiority. And, on the other hand, the response of Russia is quite direct too. You have a national pride at the same time, which tells you “go to hell”.

SS: Do you think the West has come to grips with the fact that Russia is not irrelevant anymore, like it was after the Soviet Union collapsed?

HS: They have to, because we have now a multipolar world, and not so much a unipolar world anymore. It doesn’t matter to whom you are talking to. If you talk to Angela Merkel she would tell you with some hesitation, nevertheless, but she will tell: “You have to talk with Russia, because Russia is an important player, without Russia you don’t get an agreement in Syria”. But in the meantime we have so many different players at the same time, that neither America, nor Russia can guarantee a final solution, but the condition is that you have to talk to each other to get a final solution and to convince others around them to help them. You have Iran, you have Turkey, you have Saudi Arabia – you have a number of players in the meantime. And that makes the situation so dangerous, because you never know when the escalation, so to speak, reached its final point, and something is happening and probably it’s an escalation you don’t want but you get. If you look back to Syria at the very moment we had an escalation of words, but at the very end you have in the meantime a number of destroyed buildings, no Russian had been hurt and probably now it’s a chance to talk. I think, it’s a very good chance in the very moment to find the solution together because everybody sees it’s not working that way.

SS: So Germany is a country that is very close to Russia and especially with Putin’s German past. And that relationship is very important, seeing how it’s Germany at the forefront of the European Union. Angela Merkel and Putin also have a relationship that endured through the years. Is this sanction story, the confrontation going to destroy that relationship completely?

HS: I don’t think that that will destroy it completely. I think that both people are rational politicians, and we see at the very moment what I’ve mentioned just before. We have a big chance and the very moment to come to terms because, you know, we have issues like Nord Stream 2, the gas from Russia to Germany, we have Syria at the same time, we have an unreliable American partner at the same time. So within Europe we have difficulties and, I think, we have to solve some problems only together and we have to do that, so this situation is quite good, I would say, even if it doesn’t look like that. Angela Merkel has been going to Washington; Macron has been going to Washington, if it’s true that Putin got an invitation, I don’t know yet... But that gives us the chance to lean back to see what our interests are and to find the solution. And I think it’s better than we think. The funny thing is, between us journalists, by the way - the Russian wants and the German wants. There was an interesting research being done just recently that as far as foreign policy is concerned, all the journalists are trying to stick to their governments and increase the drama, so to speak, on the other side. It’s not so much as far as interior politics is concerned, but obviously in foreign policy you have a dramatization by the journalists on both sides as well.

SS:So in your movie Putin was described as a man whose mind is not easy to change and who doesn’t forget insults or double-crossings. Do you think this personal trait of his will give way to political consideration? Will he forget the confrontation with the West if a chance is offered to end this confrontation?

HS: You know, you don’t have to forget it, and I don’t think that he will forget it. But he is a rational person, on the other side, as well, and he knows exactly how politics work and what is needed if you want to have a long time solution. Now it’s his last term, so he has another 6 years to fix things which went wrong to a certain extent. It’s not only depending on him, definitely not, but he has this chance, and after such a long time of confrontation on both sides, why shouldn’t he use that as a kind of testimony, so to speak? And he is a rational man, so I don’t see why he wouldn’t do that. The interesting thing is you don’t have to take everything that happens in politics personally. If you do that then you are lost. And I think he is not lost.

SS: Alright, Hubert, thank you very much for this interesting insight and for your thoughts. We were talking to Hubert Seipel, German journalist and author of the documentary film “I, Putin”, discussing how the world sees the Russian leader and how it affects Russia’s relations with the rest of the world.