On Wednesday in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin sat down with his counterpart from Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. An unresolved issue stands between the two nations: Russia was once the main buyer of the former Soviet state’s ample natural gas reserves. Last year, however, a pricing dispute killed the business. Berdymukhammedov now hopes to mend the relationship.
With cameras flashing, the Turkmen president turned to the Russian leader. “We have a common friend,” Berdymukhammedov told Putin, according to the New York Times. “This is the world’s unique alabai dog. And today I brought this little alabai with me.” The president then hoisted up a mottled puppy of the rare breed also known as the central Asian shepherd.
Putin embraced the docile dog, smiling and even planting a kiss on the puppy’s head. The alabai was a belated birthday gift for Putin, Berdymukhammedov explained. The dog was named “Verny.” It means “faithful” in Russian.
Putin is a well-known dog lover, and Berdymukhammedov’s gesture is actually the fourth time a foreign diplomat or a head of state has tried slipping onto the former-KGB official’s good side with a four-legged gift. And for the Russian leader, every image — from shirtless hunting photos to his supposed judo skills — is carefully calibrated for political effect. Putin’s affection for animals often has a strategic undertone.
It’s not only dogs. Over the years, the Russian leader had been photographed with a zoo-load of critters, from a polar bear to Siberian tigers to dolphins.
“Putin is very much at home with these animals,” Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas, told The Washington Post in 2014. “He knows that they are great for photo opportunities.”
In the same article, Jan Kubik, then-chair at the department of political science at Rutgers University, told The Post the Russian leader could “be saying: ‘I love animals. So, I am not such a heartless dictator, as the Westerners tend to think,’ ” while also distinguishing ” ‘I have a heart, but my love is tough, manly.’ ”
In terms of policy, Putin’s government has not always been pet-friendly. Memorably, in 2014, during the lead-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, government officials ordered exterminators to round up and kill hundreds of stay dogs running loose in the resort town.
Yet Putin’s pet dogs are the most visible animals associated with the leader. The best-known of the pack, Koni, was a black Labrador retriever given to Putin by Sergey Shoigu, a Russian general and minister of defense, in 2000.
“As far as bad moods go,” Putin said once, according to CNN, “of course I have them like any other person, but in those cases I try to consult with my dog Koni — she gives me good advice.”
The dog’s pedigree actually had symbolic weight in relation to Russian history: Koni was bred at a government center where search and rescue animals were trained, and the dog’s lineage also traced back to animals owned by Leonid Brezhnev, the former head of the Soviet Union, Psychology Today reported.
In 2010, when Russia signed natural gas accords with Bulgaria, then-prime minister Putin received a Karakachan puppy as a gift from Bulgaria’s government, Reuters reported. A national contest was held across Russia to pick the name. The winner was a 5-year-old boy who proposed “Buffy.”
Putin’s third gift dog arrived in 2012 from the Japanese government. A 3-month-old Akita breed named Yume, the gesture was meant as an official thank-you for Russia’s help after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The Japanese government was actually planning to present a second Akita to Putin in 2016 when he made a state visit to Japan. Russian officials, however, rejected the idea.
The dogs make good photo opportunities, but they also have been deployed by Putin to broadcast subtle messages. When German chancellor and frequent Putin critic Angela Merkel met with him in Sochi in 2007, the Russian leader called his dog Koni into the room, Vanity Fair reported. Merkel was afraid of dogs after being bit in 1995. She froze, clearly uncomfortable.
Later, Putin claimed he had not known about Merkel’s fear. The German chancellor, however, didn’t see it as unintentional. “I understand why he has to do this — to prove he’s a man,” she told reporters.
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