It is the most highly anticipated meeting of the year. Sometime this year, in a location to be named, the hulking, 6-foot-3-inch frame of President-elect Donald Trump will encounter the diminutive Russian president, Vladimir Putin, a reported 5-foot-7, bringing the real estate mogul who coined the Art of the Deal up against the former KGB agent claimed to have aided his election victory.
It’s been called a bromance. But Putin and Trump, two men who view international issues through a prism of self-interest, each with his own peculiar personality, have never met in person.
It will be a fateful tete-a-tete for Trump, and the Russian leader brings “a diverse bag of tricks” to the table, his European counterparts say.
“He can put on a mask in a second,” said Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the former president of Latvia, who recalled how Putin first attacked, and then sought to charm her during their first meeting in 2001.
“One moment, he can stare at you with the eyes of a dead fish and try to intimidate you. The next, he’s looking at you with warm and friendly eyes and ready to be your pal forever,” she said.
“He really has a good sense of throwing people off balance.”
Some of those feats of intimidation are famous. There are the hours of time he has forced world leaders to wait for him: 14 minutes for Queen Elizabeth II, 50 minutes for Pope Francis, four hours for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Then there was the time in 2007 he brought his pet Labrador, Koni, into a meeting with the extremely canine-averse German Chancellor Angela Merkel (maximum waiting time: four hours and 15 minutes).
So plenty can go wrong, a bad first impression spiraling perhaps into a fiery, pre-dawn tweetstorm dispelling the dream of detente once again. Some Russian officials have voiced concerns about Trump’s unpredictability, and U.S. officials are vocal about Putin’s duplicity.
But Putin has also been known for his ability to form chummy, odd-couple relationships with world leaders, and, as Mikhail Zygar, a journalist and the author of the Russian bestseller, “All the Kremlin’s Men,” wrote of Putin and Trump earlier this year: “Two cynics can always find a common tongue.”
Vike-Freiberga said she could guess at Putin’s strategy in that first meeting with Trump: “Flattery, flattery, flattery. It works on most people. And in this particular case I think it will work like a charm, sorry to say.”
In the past, Putin has gotten on well with larger-than-life characters: men like Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media magnate and former prime minister, who, like Trump, is known for his populist style and outsized personality, and was regularly mired in scandal.
Putin has been known to charm an American president as well.
In her 2011 memoir, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice recalled how Putin shared a “rather syrupy story” about a cross that his mother had given him with President George W. Bush as the two sought to establish a rapport at a 2001 summit in Slovenia.
It paid off when Bush told reporters later that day: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy – I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
“I visibly stiffened,” Rice wrote later. “We were never able to escape the perception that the president had naively trusted Putin and then been betrayed.”
Trump has gone much further, calling Putin “far more of a leader” than President Barack Obama, bucking the U.S. foreign policy establishment orthodoxy on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and questioning the intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s role in the presidential elections he won.
Both Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov and Trump have called last week’s intelligence report into Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee the same thing: a “witch hunt.”
Peskov on Monday said planning for any meeting between the two leaders would begin only after next week’s inauguration. Both leaders would be expected to attend the G-20 summit in Hamburg in July.
Vike-Freiberga said that Putin thoroughly researched the leaders he met in advance and was good at interpreting body language and “pushing buttons.”
“I myself have a reasonably good sense” of what motivates people, she said. “But Mr. Putin to my mind is someone who has been trained at it.”
One moment she recalled: Putin trying to “lure away” French President Jacques Chirac for a birthday dinner in Riga at the conclusion of a 2006 NATO summit in the former Soviet republic. Putin crashing the summit would have highlighted the divisions in NATO, just as President Bush was delivering a speech urging support for countries such as Ukraine and Georgia seeking to escape Moscow’s orbit.
Vike-Freiberga raised the stakes, demanded a bilateral meeting with Putin, the first in Riga since Latvia declared independence. The Kremlin balked and Putin canceled his trip. The dinner was off.
“That’s one way I got him in the eye for sure,” she laughed.