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Last Updated: Friday, 7 July 2006, 13:10 GMT 14:10 UK
When the BBC met Mr Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin took questions from around the world in a webcast on the BBC and Russian website Yandex.

BBC diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall, who co-hosted the session, reflects on how his spymaster background equipped him for his leadership - and how much his media skills have improved since he came to power.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with the BBC's Bridget Kendall

The very last question the BBC had time to ask President Putin in this Kremlin webcast concerned his KGB past.

Gregg in London wanted to know if the skills he had learnt then came in useful now he was president.

Yes, they were helpful, conceded Mr Putin: "Working in intelligence...you have to be able to work with people."

"Ah yes," I thought as he spoke. "That's what was going on here earlier."

Trying to manipulate conversations or turning meetings to your advantage is surely a basic prerequisite if you are a spy.

On behalf of our BBC audience, I had raised energy security - top of Mr Putin's G8 agenda, after all - and Moscow's row with the new pro-Western government in Kiev.

That had led to Russia cutting off gas supplies to Ukraine. So what did it say about Russia's reliability as a future supplier for Europe?

Taking control

The Russian president's response was unexpected. He pointed to my neck and abruptly asked how much the pearls I was wearing were worth, and whether I would sell them to him at a cut down price.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in the studio
He could throw in both directions, from left and right. So he could catch his opponents unawares
Vladimir Putin's ex-judo trainer

When I had got over my surprise, I jested that for the president of Russia I might perhaps make an exception.

But Mr Putin has an intense, naturally solemn demeanour. It is hard to tell when he is joking.

And he was determined to extract from this bizarre exchange a serious point: assuming the answer on the pearls had been no, he persisted, why should Russia sell gas for peanuts?

But this was not really about gas prices. It was a typical manoeuvre: when you don't like the question, try turning the tables on your interlocutor, to give the impression that you are in control.

I was reminded of an interview I once did with the judo trainer who taught Putin when he was at school.

"He had an unusual ability," mused the teacher. "He could throw in both directions, from left and right. So he could catch his opponents unawares."

Perhaps this is what Mr Putin had in mind. Either way, the incident was telling.

Image polished

The Russian president had agreed to this long internet interview - with more than half the questions coming from the BBC's worldwide audience - to polish up his image ahead of the G8 summit in St Petersburg next week.

He knew there would be tough questions.

He almost seemed to relish the chance to argue his case.

Vladimir Putin with Bridget Kendall
Mr Putin refused to shy away from any tricky questions
He was even glad, he said, that the row with Ukraine had come to a head.

And he thanked BBC internet users for complaining how hard it was to get Russian visas, so he could lash out at European countries for problems Russians encountered in their turn.

It was so different from the Vladimir Putin of the first BBC webcast we did with him five years ago, when he had not yet been a full year in office.

Then he seemed at times hesitant, and visibly bridled when asked pointed questions.

Not so President Putin of 2006. By now Mr Putin has had plenty of practice fielding criticism of Russian policy in the Chechnya, or about Russia's faltering democracy.

So did he succeed in his mission to enhance his image? The Kremlin seemed to think so.

If he was annoyed, he tried not to show it.

Time and again, as he elaborated his point of view, he delivered a simple message: Russia is no longer a beggar, struggling to pay off its foreign debts.

It is a powerful country that will only ever give ground on its own terms. It is a macho message, one that no doubt goes down well with the Russian electorate at home.

Mr Macho

Half way through the webcast Mr Putin was handed a piece of paper. He nodded in reply.

Russian enters a question for Vladimir Putin online
The webcast generated a huge response from around the world
In the TV gallery where his press secretary was monitoring proceedings, it was announced the webcast would be extended by another half hour.

As the event wound up and the cameras were switched off, members of the Kremlin press corps, who had been watching on a monitor in another room, crowded into the studio.

Mr Putin, apparently enjoying himself, invited further questions.

"What about the one that so many voted for on the Russian website,'" asked one journalist. "About when you first had sex?" Even that was something he was prepared to field.

"I can't remember the first time," he said. "But I remember exactly when I last did it."

Macho man indeed.


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