Like most people who live in the West, one's personal perception of Vladimir Putin tends to be framed by the international media's portrayal of him, as a rough, tough, outdoors type, a man's man, who truly believes that his public persona of the former KGB officer, who is skilled in unarmed combat, able to ride horses and motorbikes, who is happy to cuddle endangered tiger cubs and generally play everyday hero in front of the world's media, actually makes him some sort of international statesman, which it obviously doesn't.
Rather than being a marked improvement on the Soviet leaders who have preceded him, men who for the most part were recognisably pragmatic about modern Russia's place in the world, the likes of Boris Yeltsin and Mikhael Gorbachev, Vladimir Putin, for some reason, is thought to have modelled himself on even earlier Russian leader, one that 20th century history has since deemed to be a despot and a tyrant, Joseph Stalin, a man who was responsible for killing millions of his fellow countrymen.
Of course, Vladimir Putin's actions are almost always designed to play to a highly selective domestic audience within Russia itself, those small numbers of oligarchs who have benefited personally from the Russian President's stranglehold over the country's extensive oil and gas industries, those many who have suffered as a result of the new expansive capitalism and consumerism introduced by the likes of Yeltsin and Gorbachev and who happily reminisce about the days of the old Soviet system. And then there are the nationalist youth groups, such as "Nashi", a purportedly democratic, nationalistic youth movement, which claims itself to be a democratic, anti-fascist, anti-oligarchic, anti-capitalist movement, but which is reported to be funded and encouraged by Putin and his political allies, to the tune of many millions of roubles every year.
"Nashi" was said to have been founded by a close political associate of Vladimir Putin, having originally sprung from a pro-Putin youth group called "Walking Together". According to some informed sources the group is intended to be a street level paramilitary organisation charged with attacking and harassing political opponents of Mr Putin's regime, a task that has reportedly seen them travel throughout Eastern Europe to attend various staged rallies and protests, in an attempt to undermine and silence critics of the Moscow regime.
According to some reporters who have investigated the organisation, Nashi bears striking similarities to the Hitler Youth of the 1920's and 1930's, with their annual camps dedicated to offering military style fitness training, indoctrination with the group's core beliefs, strategies on healthy living and planned procreation to ensure future citizens for the "fatherland", all bearing echoes of an earlier fascistic enterprise that brought nothing but sorrow and evil to continental Europe during the early 1940's. Some reports have even suggested that Kremlin insiders have criticised Nashi for not being brutal enough towards their political opponents, even though one renowned journalist was thought to have been left in a life-threatening coma, following a brutal attack that was blamed on supporters of the youth organisation.
At the same time, intolerance towards minorities is reportedly on the rise in Putin's Russia, with Chechens, Georgians, Armenians, Azeris, Circassians, Uzbeks, Poles, Jews and of course Gays all being targeted and victimised by the regime and its supporters, actions that are reminiscent of the various pogroms that afflicted virtually all of Europe, East and West, over the course of the last century, with the loss of millions of innocent lives. Despite Nashi's stated aim of confronting and fighting fascism in their own country, what they clearly forget to mention is that they intend to do it through implementing their own form of fascism, but fascism all the same.
Of course, recent events in the Crimea have to be seen in the round; and it would be a mistake to believe that Russia's decision to annexe the Crimean peninsula was purely designed to promote Mr Putin's personal political and economic agenda at home. Most well informed western commentators agree that the Western Powers, in the form of both NATO and the EU have now pushed eastward to such a degree that they have deliberately and purposefully eaten into the breathing space that Russia once used to enjoy. Even though much of this advance has been as the result of invitations from those emerging nation states, such as Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, who were keen to join the western alliances like NATO and the EU, obviously very little thought had been given to how such changes might impact of the much diminished Russian Federation and its plans for its own mutual Customs Union and defensive alliances. With the USA now busily eyeing the Pacific for future trade and engagement, much of the decision making in mainland Europe seems to have fallen to NATO and the European, both of which have chosen to ignore the warning signs put out by Russia in 2008, when they annexed Abkhasia and South Ossetia, in much the same way; and on the same pretence as they have just used in the Crimea. With the local Russian Consulate issuing hundreds of Russian passports to Crimean citizens, Mr Putin was repeating the trick that his administration had used in South Ossetia in 2008, allowing his forces to enter the region, ostensibly as part of a humanitarian/peacekeeping mission, but that was little more than a land grab by the Russian President and his political associates.
From the West's point of view, the Russian actions in the Crimea should be treated as a wake up call, especially for those nations such as Britain and France, who would be expected to supply the cutting edge to any European military force, whether as part of NATO, or even as part of a EU sponsored rapid reaction force. With the American's redirecting their strategic assets towards the East Coast of the United States, offering easy access to the Pacific, rather than cutting our own armed forces to the bone, so that we're unable to cope with unforeseen military emergencies, common sense would seem to dictate that we should be reinforcing our strategic assets, not diminishing them. At the same time, the scrambling about by Europe and NATO in order to formulate a common response to the Russian's illegal actions in the Crimea, has proved once and for all that the European Union as an effective geo-political entity does not work, cannot work, simply because there are way too many national interests to consider and to satisfy.
In all likelihood, Germany will take a far more pragmatic view of Russia's actions simply because she has to, as her home industry, national employment and therefore her economy relies so extensively on Russian oil and gas supplies. Other EU states, those that have more to fear from a militarily belligerent Russia will no doubt take the hardest line, with the Polish Premier already being particularly scathing about Russia's actions, which begs the question, how on earth can they find a common approach, when each European nation has its own view on the current situation? By the time they do agree a common strategy, no doubt the Russian troops will all be back in their bases, any regional plebiscite will have taken place and the Crimea will have been formerly annexed to the Russian Federation. That's not progress, or unity, but rather a shambles, a shambles that will almost certainly convince Russia that it has little to fear, if and when it chooses to gamble again in the future.
But therein lies the heart of the problem. Most experts agree that a wealthy Russia will be an emboldened Russia; and with the United States and its allies wearied by constants wars; and preparing to withdraw their forces from the International scene, there is the danger of leaving a power vacuum that a wealthy and expansive Russia will be more than happy to fill. In common with China, Russia wants to create new markets for its products and resources, to keep its factories and its workers busy, to further enrich its own economy. Creating its own Russian Customs Union is thought to be the first step towards achieving that goal; and part of Mr Putin's strategy is to ensure that he maintains the core of that Customs Union, whether the individual countries want to be members of it or not.
Having effectively neutralised all internal opposition to his regime in Russia, through the use of trumped-up charges, political show trials, or through the use of groups like Nashi, Mr Putin is now generally free to pursue a much more aggressive and vigorous foreign policy than ever before, especially as the USA has had its attention drawn by the Pacific. Although he may lack the political finesse of some of his global counterparts when it comes to international relations, ultimately with his home treasury bulging with cash; and with no serious adversary to limit his more outrageous actions, one is left to wonder what the West can really do to temper the actions of a Russian President like Vladimir Putin, before he does us all some real harm? But then, there's the nub of the original question "Can you actually negotiate anything with a brute in a suit"?