ST. PETERSBURG (FOX 13) - Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has been at the center of controversy -- from the invasion of Crimea, to civilian attacks in Syria, to interference in the 2016 U.S. election. While pundits debate his motivations in the war on terror and U.S. intelligence officials asses his next moves, they could draw some insight from Carl Kuttler, a retired educator from Pinellas County.
Kuttler was Putin's partner, travel companion and longtime friend who has known Russia's leader longer than just about anyone in America.
When we visited Kuttler in his Pinellas County home, he showed us the small decorative plates Putin gave him as a gift when they were young men -- long before Putin surfaced on the national stage.
"Back then [the plates] would have been a dollar, and back then pennies were all he could afford," said Kuttler.
As a college administrator, Kuttler travelled to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and Putin greeted him at the airport to pick up and carry his luggage. Kuttler believes that Putin's first assignment as a KGB agent was to monitor Kuttler, but they became friends from that trip and expanded their relationship through the years.
Putin worked at St. Petersburg University in Russia. Kuttler led St. Petersburg College in Tampa Bay. As fellow educators and friends, they built an exchange program together. In a speech, Putin said his relationship with Kuttler and the trips they took together helped to fuel his rise to power.
"At that point, he said he kind of embellished that trip a little bit…and as a result got a promotion from university to vice mayor. And that put (him) on the path to the president of Russia"
So when Putin took over Russia, U.S. officials showed up at Kuttler's door to try to get some scoop. Kuttler said Putin leaves nothing to chance, and always thinks ahead. He added that Putin also places a high value on friendship.
"He was a master of detail. If he did something, he did it yesterday. It was well-planned. It was researched," he said. "I believe Trump would be wise giving that friendship a serious try and I believe Putin will do likewise"
Of course, Kuttler also knows a lot of people in America don't trust Putin for good reason. Putin's critics say he's a bully and war criminal with a knack for making his rivals disappear.
Kuttler said while Putin has given his people a sense of pride, he has also given them a sense of fear. To that end, Kuttler said we don't have to trust him or like him, because if we could work with Stalin to beat common enemies in the past, Kuttler noted, we can also work with Putin to beat them now.
"My dream and my prayers are that we can put aside that which has separated us and build on it for the sake of peace for the world," he said. "When you have a friend, you go further than without friendship."