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As a KGB agent, Vladimir Putin was no James Bond.

Instead of special operations, Putin was assigned "mind-numbing, low-level jobs," according to Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Yet while the Soviet spy didn't shine at "special ops," the Russian president excels at photo ops, posing as a bold leader on horseback (sometimes shirtless, sometimes in Siberian winter), or piloting a submersible or motorized hang glider, flying alongside cranes, just one of many animals he's been pictured with (tigers, elk, polar bears, among others). Other images include him winning at judo, hockey, skiing and more.

"Putin's larger-than-life, cartoonish image dominates much of our collective consciousness and political discourse today," Weiss writes in his recent book "Accidental Czar: The Life and Lies of Vladimir Putin."

Weiss, a noted Kremlinologist who's worked at the National Security Council, Pentagon and State Department for Republican and Democratic administrations, could have written an extensive academic treatise on Putin. But instead he chose the genre of a graphic novel — perhaps fitting for that cartoonish image, but equally, sneakily wonky about Russia's president and the present and past dynamics that led to his "accidental" rule.

Other seminal graphic novels inspired Weiss, including "Maus," Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust tale. Crediting illustrator Brian "Box" Brown, Weiss said in an interview that "Graphic novels reach a totally different swath of people: Younger people, people who would never read an 800-page biography of Putin."

Accessible pop culture "seduced" Putin too, said Weiss, especially "17 Moments of Spring," a 1973 series about Soviet spies in Nazi Germany. In particular, Stierlitz and Belov, two fictional undercover agents who became real-life aspirations for a young Putin, who Weiss writes was a "horrible student and a street hooligan."

Russians remembered, and revered, Stierlitz too. Toward the end of the chaotic Yeltsin era, political consultants conducted focus groups on actors who most fit the preferred presidential prototype. It wasn't those who played Lenin, Stalin, or Peter the Great, but Stierlitz. "We realized that we need a young, strong, powerful intelligence officer," Weiss quotes a Kremlin "spin doctor" as saying.

As Weiss highlights in "Accidental Czar," Putin, belying his lackluster KGB days, tries to embody that image. "We had a person who acts and relished being a cartoon character on the world stage, and then peeling that back and then trying to explain to people how many times that image wasn't what you thought it was, that at times it was deliberately campy or silly or it was a deliberate mis-portrayal" was part of the process, Weiss said. "The most basic example of this is the way that Putin has draped himself in the glory of the Soviet KGB and has puffed up his own record."

His record in Dresden, for example, where the KGB outpost came under pressure in the waning days of the Cold War. Moscow's inaction then echoes today, Weiss said, referencing the recent rebellion by Yevgeny Prigozhin. "If you were to draw the connection to the events in Dresden, when he's trying to get help from the Soviet military garrison to help him secure this KGB dacha, it's similar to what happened, where hours go by and Putin said, 'we must stop this traitorous uprising,' but nobody did anything."

Things, Weiss added, "haven't changed that much between 1989 and 2023."

Including Putin's persona. Or paranoia, as it pertains to so-called "color revolutions" that swept several post-Soviet states — especially Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" that displaced a Kremlin-friendly candidate with a Western-leaning president in 2004. Over the ensuing generation Putin generated the annexation of Crimea, the destabilization of Eastern Ukraine and the full-scale invasion of the sovereign country. Coupled with his suspicions of U.S. involvement in Arab Spring uprisings, Putin "mistakenly thinks there is a 'Color Revolution' button on the desk of the U.S. president," Weiss writes, adding: "Russian leaders simply can't accept that brave people sometime shape history all their own."

Russians who protested Putin after 2011 legislative elections created unrest that's seemingly seared in his mind. "That really scared Putin and made him believe that there were significant elements inside Russian society that wanted him gone," said Weiss. "And it was very convenient for him to blame foreign interference as the chief engine behind those demands instead of looking in the mirror and realizing that the way he ruled Russia was going to be unsustainable."

The "calls for dignity and a voice over the country's future direction, I think was sincere in the street protests," continued Weiss. "But Putin decided that the best way to clobber those people was to pretend that they were all agents of the United States. And from that point on, going after the United States and damaging us was job one, and cutting us down to size, both within Russia and on the global stage."

Putin "has been governing by fear," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said in an interview last week. And yet, she added, "at some point, evil gets defeated. And I'm not saying it's going to be tomorrow or this week or next month, but at some point, when your motives are that rawly revealed, that has consequences."

Whether "Putin's reign ends a couple of years or a couple of decades from now, it will end," Weiss concludes in "Accidental Czar." "In the meantime, we must reckon with an increasingly dangerous situation. He will continue using intimidation tactics and the threat of uncontrolled escalation to force us to back off.

"Challenging Putin head-on is not as easy as it sounds. Yet exaggerating Putin's strength allows the West to ignore its own vulnerabilities — while also losing sight of Russia's. Putin preys on our weakness precisely because his country can't really compete with ours militarily, economically, or technologically.

"Make no mistake, the world definitely has a big Russia problem to confront.

"But seeing Putin as he wants us to see him, rather than as he is, only makes that problem worse."