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I know very little about judo. Actually, I know nothing about it at all. Yet I like the image of two people wearing cool outfits accentuated by stylish belts, circling the mat with stony faces, waiting for the right moment to jump at each other like two splendid bobcats. It is undoubtedly the sport of the bold. And of the smart. And, in my opinion, of the noble.

This is why I rejoiced when I learned that the new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, holds black belt in judo. A black belt — wow! In the late 1970s, when we were youngsters, that was a real mark of distinction in the Russian underground culture. Fat, floppy, slow-moving Soviet leaders were giving each other silly awards like the Order of Lenin or the Order of the Red Banner Order or the Order of the Friendship of Peoples. Real men were getting black belts.

At that time, martial arts originating in East Asia were barely tolerated by authorities. Soviet watchdogs correctly presumed that alien martial arts were almost as dangerous as books by George Orwell or American chewing gum. After all, the Soviet Union did have its own version of judo — a thing called sambo; it sounded foreign, but it wasn’t. “Sambo” was an abbreviation, typical of the official slang of patriotic posters and Pravda editorials. It stood for something like “self-defense without weapons.”

I know very little about sambo, too, but I suspect it was composed of various elements of older arts — such as judo — that had been stolen from abroad and then given a Russian name. In any case, any one who wanted to practice anything but this domestic martial art was challenging the system, siding with cosmopolitanism and even, perhaps, imperialist subversion. So presumably, by choosing judo 20 years ago the future Russian president was enrolling in the liberal camp.

When Putin arrived in Japan this week to negotiate with Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, I thought it might be almost like a homecoming for him. If you like the Venetian school of painting, you will like going to Venice. Obviously, if you are into judo, you should like visiting Japan.

It looks as if Putin enjoyed his visit very much indeed. The judo theme was a leading one throughout the summit, almost equaling the appeal of the robot dog that barks the Russian national anthem. However, by the time the visit ended, I was beginning to have doubts about the role of judo in Putin’s psyche.

Forgive me if I am wrong, but I don’t think a judo match can take 44 years. Yet this is precisely the time span between now and 1956, when Tokyo and Moscow re-established diplomatic relations. I think judo is normally associated with something more dynamic.

Since 1956, the Northern Territories issue has assumed grotesque proportions. Former Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev, who started the talks, was fired, wrote his memoirs, smuggled them to the West and died. Leonid Brezhnev, who succeeded him, spent 18 indolent years in the Kremlin, collected a dozen Mercedes and died too. The Soviet Union itself collapsed, President Mikhail Gorbachev was replaced by Boris Yeltsin, then Yeltsin was replaced by Putin — but the Northern Territories issue remains precisely where it has been all along. Nowhere.

Gorbachev used to say that he had no mandate to transfer the Northern Territories. Yeltsin repeated this mantra. Now Putin seems to be humming the same simple tune. Yet this is his second visit to Japan in two months, so he must be getting somewhere. Still, this is not judo.

I think Putin is practicing some other type of sport — something along the lines of what they teach at spy academies. I don’t know what it is called. What do you call it when you have to crawl on your belly through mud, scrub and barbed wire and then spends days in a swamp camouflaged as a frog, surviving mosquito bites and stubbornly waiting for something? Reconnaissance? Ambush drill? Zen Buddhism?

Our problem is that we do not yet know what Putin is waiting for. He has invited Mori to Moscow, and there is still a slim chance that the long-overdue peace treaty will be signed before the end of the year. So is Putin just taking his time until a domestic consensus in Russia lets him turn the Northern Territories over to Japan? At exactly the same time that Putin was in Tokyo, the Russian media mogul Boris Berezovsky was accusing him back in Moscow of intimidating the free press and leaning toward the establishment of Soviet-style propaganda media. It is true that Putin dislikes the free press. So does he want to silence criticisms at home first — in order to pursue an enlightened foreign policy later?

However, this does not make much sense. The liberal mass media, which are endangered in Russia right now, never opposed transferring the Northern Territories to Japan in the first place. People who opposed such a transfer were traditionally the same people who are responsible for the recent submarine disaster in the Barents Sea: the military-industrial-complex gang.

It is virtually impossible to say what Putin’s Japanese agenda is. With his predecessors, it was much clearer. For Gorbachev, it used to be: “Don’t be scared of us any longer, and please give us money.” For Yeltsin, it was: “Don’t be too sure you shouldn’t be scared of us any longer, but please give us money anyway.” Putin’s stance is shrouded in camouflage and concealed beneath his icy smiles. He badly wants his country to recover its great-power status. He wants his share of control over international affairs — whether it be in peacemaking between the two Koreas or in opposing the United States’ plans for a new antimissile defense. He is definitely unhappy about the last 15 years, during which time Russia has been successively an object of pity (under Gorbachev) and ridicule (under Yeltsin).

Actually, I don’t think he liked the dog that barked the Russian national anthem at all.

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