How Putin Uses His Pet Dogs for the Kremlin’s Dirty Tricks


Russian President Vladimir Putin has a lot to show for his whirlwind trip to Pyongyang this week, including a new mutual defense pact, a gallery of photos with Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, and a pair of dogs personally gifted to him by the North Korean dictator.

Just as Chinese officials have given giant pandas to other countries in “panda diplomacy,” “dog diplomacy” is alive and well in the Koreas—and Kim Jong Un’s gift of two Pungsan dogs—a local breed—might be his way of indicating that North Korea and Russia are closer than ever before.

“It seems to be designed to protect this image of two ‘nice guys’ who love animals and are happy to see each other and build the relationship between their two countries and everything is going very well,” Jan Kubik, chair of the Department of Political Science at Rutgers and author of The Power of Symbols against the Symbols of Power, told The Daily Beast.

“Whereas the reality is… both of them are autocrats and dictators, and one runs the regime that is… by almost anybody’s count, the most oppressive regime on the earth, and the other is engaged in an absolutely unthinkable, devastating war against another country,” Kubik added.

Putin himself is accustomed to foreign leaders giving him animals—and dogs in particular.

Brace for Kim Jong Un’s Dazzling Date Night With Putin

Foreign officials from Japan gave Putin an Akita dog named Yume, or “dream” in Japanese, in 2012 as a thank you for helping in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake. Bulgaria’s president previously gave Putin a Karachakin dog named Buffy. In 2017, Turkmenistan’s then-president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow gave Putin a puppy as a belated birthday gift just days after Putin’s 65th birthday. And in 2019, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic gave Putin a puppy named Pasha, while Kyrgyz leader Sooronbay Jeenbekov gave Putin a puppy and an Orlov trotter, according to TASS.

Russian President Vladimir Putin plays with his dog Yume, a female Akita Inu, before giving an interview to Japanese Nippon Television and Yomiuri newspaper at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, December 7, 2016.

Russian President Vladimir Putin plays with his dog Yume, a female Akita, before giving an interview to Japanese media at the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia, Dec. 7, 2016.

Sputnik/Kremlin/Alexei Druzhinin via Reuters

Kim Jong Un’s canine gifts come after North Korea delivered a flurry of ammunition shipments to Putin, including 40 North Korean missiles that have been used in the war on Ukraine. And now, with their new defense agreement, both countries have agreed that if either one is at war, the other will provide “military and other assistance with all means in its possession without delay”—an agreement which has set the region ablaze with questions about the dangerous alliance.

Russian state media, meanwhile, has played up the fact that the Pungsan dog breed—the breed of the dogs Kim gifted to Putin—can be quite aggressive. The dog breed, which is quite rare, is “loyal to its owner and vicious when attacked,” according to a TASS article. The dog is "very intelligent, agile and persistent,” Cho Il-kyung, the head of the Korean National Heritage Preservation Agency’s department, said.

Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov presents a Turkmen shepherd dog, locally known as Alabai, to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Sochi, Russia October 11, 2017.

Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow presents a Turkmen shepherd dog to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Sochi, Russia. Oct. 11, 2017.

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Putin has long leaned on animals and nature as a way to demonstrate his strength. Moscow regularly rolls out images of him riding horseback without a shirt on, or hunting and fishing shirtless to send not-so-subtle signals that he is a tough, macho leader. The Russian president has relied on his dogs as a PR strategy too, using them for both political intimidation schemes and to bolster his image as a well-meaning leader.

The Russian president has claimed publicly that when he gets in a bad mood, he would lean on his dog, Konni, a black Labrador gifted to him by former Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. “As far as bad moods go, of course I have them like any other person, but in those cases I try to consult with my dog Konni—she gives me good advice,” he said, according to CNN.

But it’s not always sweet: in another statement, Putin reportedly told former president George W. Bush, that his dog, Konni, was “bigger, stronger and faster than Barney,” Bush’s Scottish Terrier. And in 2007, Putin went so far as to bring Konni to a bilateral meeting he held with the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, at his Sochi residence.

Russian President Vladimir Putin strokes a dog, a Kyrgyz greyhound, or Taigan, presented by his Kyrgyz counterpart Sooronbay Jeenbekov, after the talks in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan March 28, 2019.

Russian President Vladimir Putin strokes a Kyrgyz greyhound presented by his Kyrgyz counterpart Sooronbay Jeenbekov, after talks in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan March 28, 2019.

Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters

Speculation swirled at the time that it was possible that Putin was trying to intimidate Merkel, who is notoriously afraid of dogs; she was bitten by a dog in 1995, according to a New Yorker profile. In footage from the incident, Putin can be seen smiling and patting the dog, a black Labrador, who roamed throughout the room during the meeting, sauntering near a visibly uncomfortable Merkel. Konni also sat down near Merkel’s feet and sniffed her.

“The dog does not bother you, does she? She’s a friendly dog and I’m sure she will behave herself,” Putin reportedly said at the time. Merkel lambasted Putin for his scare tactic. “I understand why he has to do this, to prove he’s a man,” Merkel told reporters after the awkward meeting. “He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”

The incident is telling of Putin’s upbringing through the KGB, where he was trained how to identify vulnerabilities in other people and exploit them, according to Fiona Hill, a former U.S. intelligence official and former deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the White House National Security Council. “He wasn't a professional politician. He came out of the KGB. He had learned certain skills there,” Hill said on a CBS 60 Minutes interview in 2020, indicating he was likely trying to exploit Merkel's fears.

Putin himself claims to have not known anything about Merkel’s phobia of dogs and said he wanted to do something nice for her. “I knew nothing about it,” Putin said, according to TASS. “On the contrary, I wanted to do something pleasant when I introduced her to my dog.”

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