Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on a panel in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday. He was joined by the leaders of Austria, Moldova, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The panel moderator? An NBC host named Megyn Kelly.
The most interesting thing Putin said was denying any Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, even though he actually authorized doing it. Allegations to the contrary, Putin told Kelly, remind him of ''anti-Semitism and blaming the Jews. This is disinformation.'' Again, this is vintage spy-talk: if in any doubt, deny, deny, deny. Incidentally however, Putin's reference to disinformation might have been a double entendre. As former NSA officer John Schindler explains, disinformation or dezinformatsiya is a long-standing Russian intelligence tactic designed to confuse adversaries.
But before we get into the other things Putin said (and he said plenty of interesting things), consider the stagecraft of the event itself, because this panel was vintage Putin strategic-showmanship -- heart of the KGB stuff.
Think about it. The panel was convened in Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg. The treasure house of Russian culture and the symbol of Putin's modern Tsarism, St. Petersburg is also just 80 miles from the Estonian border.
Estonia is the NATO member state most vulnerable to Russian attack. Correspondingly, when Putin rails against NATO from St. Petersburg, his words carry special discomfort to the west.
St. Petersburg speeches are Putin's way of saying, "I'm the absolute ruler of Russia, and I have the ability to crush you."
Now consider the panel itself. The Moldovan leader is avowedly pro-Russian. The Austrian chancellor, though more independent, recently pleased Putin by criticizing the western sanctions regime. Their attendance thus represented a Tsarist pat on the head.
Kelly and Modi were the more interesting invitees. In Kelly, Putin was able to guarantee U.S. media attention while needling Trump. Putin knows that Kelly and Trump despise each other from their showdown during the 2016 campaign.
Similarly, with Modi, Putin is teasing career U.S. government officials who regard India as the best possible anchor of U.S. global leadership in the 21st century. By throwing out the red carpet for Modi, Putin is saying "I might take him from you."
As I've explained, Putin finds these kind of antics both useful and amusing. They fulfill his longing for the KGB spy world and make his enemies uncomfortable.
Still, stagecraft aside, Putin also said other interesting things.
Putin offered a familiar, if false, lament over NATO. The alliance is a specific threat to Russian territory, he claimed. ''If you're not intending to attack anybody, why increase your military spending?'' Putin continued, ''The U.S. demand from their allies to raise their spending and simultaneously say that NATO is not going to attack anybody.''
Let's be clear, Putin doesn't actually believe this. The Russians know NATO is an inherently defensive organization. They know this not because of what NATO leaders say, but because of the relative disposition of NATO and Russian forces on the European continent.
The Russians have an Army-size (multiple divisions of over 10,000 soldiers each) formation next to the Baltic states. NATO has a couple of brigades (a few thousand soldiers). The Russians know NATO lacks the deployed strength to either attack Russia or prevent a Russian invasion from seizing the Baltics.
Deployed NATO forces in Eastern Europe are basically just a tripwire designed to persuade Russia that any attack will invite follow-on retaliation. Putin knows that. But by railing against Trump's push for increased NATO-member defense spending, he hopes to build on the frictions between Trump and the U.S.'s European allies. This friction is always the object of Russia's long-term anti-NATO strategy.
Putin also resorted to a mix of technical language and faux-facts when asked about the violence in Ukraine and Assad's use of chemical weapons. Those who blamed Russia and Assad, he said, are simply confused.
Again, Putin knows this isn't true, but by confusing the conversation he muddies the diplomatic waters for those who oppose him. This is especially important in Ukraine, where Putin's forces are slowly stealing territory. Remember, Putin's key skill, often ignored in the west, is his ability to seem earnest, realist and serious when speaking in public. If he seems reasonable in foreign nations, Putin's vulnerability to pressure from foreign governments is lessened.
Ultimately, of course, there's a deadly seriousness to Putin's antics. Literally. As with the murder of Boris Nemtsov under the lights of St. Basil's Cathedral, Putin is the assassin who lurks in the fog. His KGB hand might always be veiled, but its intent is ever sustaining: personal supremacy and the destruction of his adversaries.