SPARTANBURG, SC (WSPA) – When a University of South Carolina professor met Vladimir Putin in 1976, he remembers the discussion clearly . . . because of how strange it was.

The professor had just given a lecture in St. Petersburg, Russia on civil complaint procedures in the Soviet Union.  A colleague walked up to the front of the school’s lecture hall with a man who wanted to meet the professor.  It was Putin.

“I’m glad to meet you,” said the professor.

Putin had no expression, according to the professor. In response to the greeting, Putin just said, “Yes” in Russian.

“So, I understand you graduated from here a year ago,” the professor recalled saying.  

Putin answered with a word. “Yes” in Russian, the professor said.

“So, where are you working now,” the professor then asked.

“I can’t tell you,” Putin replied.

For the professor, the answer was clear enough. Putin worked for the secret service. He worked for the KGB.

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The professor was Gordon Smith, who decades later became a distinguished professor at the University of South Carolina.

There was no twinkle in his eye. No subtle acknowledgement of the obvious deceit or his real intentions.

“He was like talking to a machine,” Smith said.

With Russia’s conflict with Ukraine frequently in the headlines, the retired political science professor finds his thoughts drifting back to that encounter with the future Russian president “not unfrequently.” The Cold War goes on, but its changed, he said.

The Chessboard

The conflict escalated this week after Russia formally recognized several parts of Ukraine as its own territory, essentially dividing the country in half while surrounding the other half with mobilized troops.

Russian territorial advances into Ukraine mean that any attempt to intervene in the conflict directly would bring the United States into a potential war it doesn’t want.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham addressed the public’s fears this week at a press conference.

“The idea to sit down and talk rationally with Putin is folly,” he said. “The only thing Putin will understand is a strong response.”

For Sen. Graham, that strong response should focus on economic sanctions, not military intervention.

“We could crush their economy. We don’t need soldiers in the Ukraine,” he said.

But if there is a war, you can expect gas and food prices to go up, he said. The cost for a barrel of oil could exceed $100.

“I would like to make life miserable for Putin and those who support him.” Because if we don’t, other bad actors are going to move quickly in other areas.”

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For Sen. Graham, this conflict is also an opportunity for the United States. He called for legislators to increase the production of natural gas to fill the potential void left by severe Russian sanctions. He also recommended opening the controversial Keystone Pipeline while pursing clean energy initiatives that would lower the demand for gas and oil, the backbone of the Russian economy.

“If Putin does pay a price and we stand up to his thuggery, and we take the yachts and homes and bank accounts of the oligarchs. If we crush the Ruble. Maybe China and Iran would think differently. This is the most important moment in world history since the end of World War 2,” he said in a televised speech.

So, what does Putin hope to achieve?

Sen. Graham said Putin not only doesn’t want a democracy on his border, but he is also making territorial claims on sovereign countries as if the Soviet Union were alive and well.

“He’s testing us. He will get away with as much as he can,” Sen. Graham said.

Putin gave a televised speech this week that explained his side of the conflict.   

Every country has their right to choose their own alliances, but in international law there is a principle of indivisible security, which basically says that one country shouldn’t be allowed to enhance its security at the expense of another country, Putin said in the televised statement.

Ukraine joining NATO would be a direct threat to Russia being encircled, but for what purpose is the encirclement? For Putin this is the key point. He thinks the United States has been acting in bad faith since the fall of the Soviet Union.

He has an argument.

NATO first officially stated its interest in adding Ukraine to the alliance at the 2008 Bucharest Summit. Putin sees this move as part of the alliance’s long-term plan, which is to reduce Russian power by surrounding it with a hostile forces, Putin said.

He also wants the United States to withdraw its military infrastructure from the countries on its borders, which he said could be used to attack Russia with missiles within minutes.

“It’s like having a knife against our throat,” he said.

The Cold War (Continued)

In some respects, the cold war is still going on, but the number of participants on the Western side has grown while the Eastern side is diminishing, said Professor Smith.

“[Putin’s] been saying for 20 years that he does not want to have NATO countries on his borders,” he said. “He wants a series of countries as a buffer zone.”

From Putin’s perspective, NATO expanded because it could, not because the Cold War necessitated it.  The cold war was over. Or was it? In the three decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO expanded eastward toward Russia, adding Poland, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Romania, North Macedonia, Albania, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Slovakia to the alliance.

The eastward advancement of the NATO alliance may have been a strategic mistake in some cases, particularly with the potential addition of Georgia and Russia, Smith said.

Putin himself makes little effort to conceal his Cold War-style operations, many of which have become famous or routine, and are often easily traced back to his government.

Quite simply, he blames the United States for exploiting the fall of the Soviet Union as an opportunity to encircle Russia with NATO.  

In his recent televised speech, Putin claimed the United States struggled to deal with Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed, and tried to contain the fledgling democracy rather than support it.

“Ok, you don’t want to see a friend in us, an ally in us, but why do you want to make an enemy out of us,” he said.

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Putin said the goal of the United States was to ultimately divide Russia into smaller, less powerful states.

For Professor Smith, the attention on Putin’s next move in this conflict brings his thoughts back to 1976, when he met a young, unemotional KGB agent so many years ago during the Cold War.

“I would imagine he would remember me because it was pretty odd to have an American who spoke Russian in St. Petersburg at that time,” he said.

Smith said he believes he was followed by the KGB several times back then and wouldn’t be surprised if they had sent Putin to check up on him.

“Maybe he was there out of interest to see this weird guy that showed up from the United States that was giving a talk about citizens pursuing their grievances through our system or maybe the KGB said there is this guy Gordon smith that’s been at the law school for a year, and we think he’s probably working for the CIA, but we don’t know, and we want you to go meet him.”

Professor Smith believes sanctions can work, but he believes some things for Russia are non-negotiable, especially for Putin. He is very much a nationalist. His leadership portfolio shows he has attempted to make foreign powers “respect” Russia, which is really a synonymous for “fear,” Smith said.

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“He’s an animal of the KGB,” Smith said.