Vladimir Putin is a man. He has budding friendships with famous actors Gérard Depardieu and Mickey Rourke—and a deep bond with action hero Steven Seagal. Seagal took to the stage at a pro-Russian concert in Crimea, not long ago. Rest assured, when sanctions fail, the West will hit Putin here, where it hurts most.

That is, of course, presuming that these friendships were not already spy games from moment one. As the president of Russia, and a former KGB man, Putin should have known better than to bare his soul to glamorous foreigners, perfect HUMINT dangles, who appeal so assiduously to his masculine vanity.

Just speculating, but what if these famous, or once famous, actors don't even know that they're part of a black ops program to fatally wound Vladimir Putin's pride? They could be MK-ULTRA Manchurian Friends, mind-controlled under the same covert project (Project Monarch) as Shia LaBeouf.

How did it come to this?

Item: Steven Seagal and Vladimir Putin Share a Taste for Martial Arts, Physical Fitness, and Rocking Blues

First, to cite some primary source documents, here is Steven Seagal rocking out with his blues band a little over a week ago in the Crimean seaport of Sevastopol, for the glory of Russia and because, Seagal says, his "greatest desire is to bring Russia and America together; It always has been."


Courtesy of the Washington Post and a thing that I cannot believe Russia Today calls Ruptly.

(Ruptly is the Russian state-funded network's live video-news arm. Your guess is as good as mine, but it certainly sounds like their neologism is meant to evoke something like this: "Whereas 'free market' Libertarians in American Silicon Valley wish to disrupt world system, sowing chaos and misery, [vodka swig] we at Russia Today wish to innovate ruptly." There is no word like it in Russian—but rupt is Romanian for "broke.")

That above is a rock opera depicting Russia's version of the Ukrainian conflict; the concert finale to the three-day event, which was ostensibly an international bike festival organized by the Russian biker gang the Night Wolves. You will note that the suspected perfidious influence of the United States in Ukraine's February coup is here depicted onstage with a giant "Eye of Providence/Illuminati dollar-bill-pyramid." A touring company could really clean up putting a version of this show on in America's fearful, self-loathing heartland.

In the past, Steven Seagal, an action film star, 7th-dan Aikido black belt, musician, reserve deputy sheriff, alleged sex slave owner, and entrepreneur, has praised Putin as "one of the greatest world leaders, if not the greatest world leader alive" adding that he "would like to consider him as a brother."

Together the duo have grabbed lunch before catching Judo competitions at the Sambo-70 Sports Center, congratulated Russia's Olympic Judo team after their impressive showing in London, and collaborated on a reboot of the Soviet-era fitness workout "Ready for Labor and Defense." Their shared interest in martial arts was the initial spark that lead to this, according to the Moscow Times. Over a decade ago, Putin co-authored the book Judo: History, Theory, Practice, in which he outlines just how its techniques have influenced his political style and personal philosophy.

"Putin and Seagal have long been friends," according to Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov, "and they regularly meet each other."

Seagal has even lobbied American legislators on Russia's behalf, asking them to remove barriers preventing Russian-made weapons from being sold in the United States, according to the state-owned RIA Novosti news service. That's what friends do, right?

Now, try to imagine how devastating it would be, if Seagal—around whom Putin has relaunched an entire national fitness regime—were to suddenly decide that Putin wasn't so cool, or that the Russian leader was actually a weak poser who isn't even half as strong as he claims to be.

Seagal has publicly supported Russia's annexation of Crimea, calling the U.S. policy in Ukraine "idiotic," but think of how crushed Putin would feel, if his cool friend changed his mind, lobbing such harsh language in a new direction.

Item: Mickey Rourke has a Russian Girlfriend

"I have a Russian girlfriend, that's all I care about."

"Her father is a good person, her mother's great, her babushka's wonderful. To me it's all about family. I don't give a fuck about the politics. That's not my department."

That's Mickey Rourke for you. Rourke is new to Putin's international Wild Hogs entourage. So he wasn't quite prepared for the flak he caught from press recently, when he showed up at the GUM department store in Red Square to pick up souvenir gifts from the new Vsyo Putyom line—which includes t-shirts of Putin guaranteed to appear at Urban Outfitters soon.

"If I didn't like him," Rourke said of Putin defensively, "I wouldn't buy the T-shirt believe me."

"I met him a couple of times and he was a real gentleman, a very cool regular guy, looked me right in the eye. I think he is a good guy. If I didn't, believe I wouldn't wear the T-shirt."

It is easy to believe. Irony and self-awareness are clearly just not Mickey Rourke's thing.

He fared much better on Russian state-owned TV.

"It's a very strong picture of him, of 'the boss'" Rourke told the host of Russia's L!FE news, describing his new Putin shirt, a mercurial smile creeping up his face.

Rourke also told the show that he admired Putin's "directness and frankness" in his foreign policy. Huh. Suddenly politics is his department.

This kind of inconsistency should be a red flag for Putin. Rourke could very well be an American agent provocateur.

Item: Gérard Depardieu Hated Paying French Taxes

Can you believe the nerve of François Hollande, raising taxes on France's million-euro earners to 75 percent, in accordance with his campaign promises?

Gérard Depardieu cannot. The actor, whose "hooligan essence" he says Putin appreciates, renounced his French citizenship a year and a half (or so) ago—in favor of Russia's 13-percent-flat income tax, as well as generous relocation packages offered by regional leaders in Saransk and the central Russian region of Mordovia. (According to the BBC reports, Mordovia is "known for its Stalin-era prison camps." Depardieu went with Saransk.)

In January of last year, after signing a decree granting Depardieu Russian citizenship, Putin had dinner with the Frenchman in pre-Olympic Sochi. Here you can see the pair meeting in the Black Sea resort town and engaging in a tender embrace:

Depardieu was effusively warm in his gratitude to Putin, penning an open letter that said "I love your country, Russia—its people, its history, its writers. I love your culture, your intelligence."

He also said that Russia was "a great democracy, and not a country where the prime minister calls one of its citizens shabby," a not even thinly veiled dig at French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who had fatefully used the s-word to describe Depardieu's move to Russia.

But his praise did not stop there. His body and wealth expatriated, Depardieu has become one of Putin's most vocal celebrity advocates. He has compared Putin warmly to both former French president Francois Mitterrand and Pope John Paul II. He has condemned the protest that landed radical punk band Pussy Riot in prison, using the same talking points as the Kremlin. He's made fun of Putin's opposition, dismissing political activist and former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov's intellect as "good for chess and not much else."

But what would happen if some other country, perhaps a U.S. client regime dependent on America's generous foreign aid, were to institute at 10-percent-flat income tax? Or lower?

All we're saying is that Depardieu hasn't exactly been spending his tax savings on light arms bound for Donetsk. Talk is cheap, Cyrano!

Item: The Value Putin Places on His Rigidly Male Gender Identity is His Achilles' Heel

Since the conflict in Ukraine began, the European Union and the U.S. have been scrambling to find—as the Associated Press put it in July, and as David Koranyi, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council put it two days ago—"Putin's Achilles' Heel."

The conventional wisdom is that, if the global West wishes to truly force Putin's influence out of Ukraine, it must be willing to levy tough sanctions on Russia's energy sector, sanctions that will do real damage to that nation's economy, regardless of the consequences for its international business partners (e.g. Exxon). Here's Koranyi:

[In] their current form, energy sector sanctions are weak. They are limited in both time and scope. They only prohibit new agreements and fail to cover such major deals as Rosneft's and Exxon's joint venture at the Kara Sea inaugurated just last week. The unwillingness to extend the sanctions to the gas sector will mean technology transfer and investment will not be seriously hindered in Russian shale and offshore plays, due to the dual use of most technologies in both oil and gas extraction.

The EU and the United States need to adopt extended, better defined, and more comprehensive energy technology sanctions with urgency, especially if Putin decides to invade Eastern Ukraine under the pretext of humanitarian assistance. Even ramped up energy sector sanctions may not deter and force him to deescalate in Ukraine. But over time, they have the potential to seriously undermine Putin's power base. The West must show its resolve to play the long game.

As is so often the case with conventional wisdom, this wrong and self-destructive.

Putin's real Achilles' heel is his personal friendships with an international Gym-Rat Pack of famous action men (and Gérard Depardieu). Like riding horseback shirtless, these friendships define his strength and prestige to the Russian people and just as importantly, define these qualities deep within the Freudian ego of Putin himself.

This has been true nearly forever, which is critical to understanding just how deeply ingrained it is. It's fundamental to Putin's capacity to function. Here is a particularly illustrative example, dating back to the late 1990s, from a New Yorker piece this July:

Putin came to power thanks to Yeltsin, but Putin did not hesitate to put some distance between himself and his ailing patron. Bill Clinton, at the very end of his time in office, visited Putin at the Kremlin, and at one point in their time together Putin led Clinton on a tour of the vast and magnificent premises. (Compared with the Kremlin, the West Wing of the White House is as grand as an Ethan Allen furniture outlet.) First, they visited a gym, full of state-of-the-art equipment. "I spend a lot of time here," Putin said, body-proud even then. They proceeded down a long hall to another room; this one was gloomy, abandoned, with a hospital bed, a respirator, a cart filled with medical paraphernalia. Putin turned to the President. "The previous resident spent a lot of time here," he said.

Putin's displays of shirtless virility may play as a joke abroad, but to supporters like Prokhanov strength and its projection are at the center of Putinism.

Russia can and always has withstood devastating losses that impact its economy and people, predictably the least of its people most. What it cannot stand to lose, especially under Putin, is face.

Do you know what love is?

I will tell you: It is whatever you can still betray.

[Photos: Putin and Seagal via AFP; Rourke in Putin t-shirt via Reuters; Putin and Depardieu via Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/AP/File]

To contact the author of this post, email matthew.phelan@gawker.com, pgp public key here.