Even as he plays up the image of George W. Bush's second-best chum after Tony Blair, offering the U.S. what insiders call an astonishing array of intelligence information and Russian airspace since the Sept. 11 attacks, he is keeping his cards close to his chest.
Both the U.S. and Russia insist the fate of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are not cards about to be played. But it's hard for the Baltic states to trust Putin, the latest in a long history of Russian leaders who have consistently mistaken the countries as their own territory to build military bases on.
A recent editorial in the St. Petersburg Times has it that "it is easy to understand the reasoning of both sides" on the issue of the Baltic states being determined to join NATO and Russia being dead against it. "But we can't help but think that Russia's arguments are more forward-looking."
It goes on to demand that both European Union member states and candidate countries in the Baltic region use their influence to insist that a timetable for Russia to join the EU be drawn up immediately.
Say what? From St. Petersburg, one of the most lawless cities in Europe, to its depressed provinces, Russia has plenty of ground to cover before it can even be admitted to the World Trade Organization (which its economically more advanced neighbor China just joined), let alone the EU.
What Russia finally realizes is that it is being left behind. It has started to panic. High oil prices are not enough for the economic leg-up it is looking for.
Now, the United Kingdom, whose prime minister has been behaving like Bush's well-mannered butler, as The Economist recently put it, has suggested that an "entirely different kind" of relationship between Russia and the West is evolving.
The UK, along with Germany, would prefer it if the whole bothersome NATO expansion issue just went away. The countries would rather leave it to the EU to do the expanding. The UK would like to "re-order" the Alliance so Russia can be brought in as an equal partner.
Putin is, famously, Blair's best mate. War can create strange bedfellows, but these seem like solid, long-term relationships. Will the opinions of the little countries ever mean anything at all?
Putin, who insists he is helping so actively in the war against terrorism entirely out of sympathy, would like the West to turn a blind eye to the brutal and appalling war in Chechnya. He will also get substantial financial rewards for his poverty-stricken economy. If the fate of the Baltic states is also in Putin's cards, and they are turned away at the decisive 2002 NATO summit in Prague, will anyone be objecting?