WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It turns out all those years Russian leader Vladimir Putin was cavorting bare-chested outdoors, demonstrating his judo skills and darting whales, a Pentagon researcher may have been studying him for clues to his behavior.
The Office of Net Assessments, a sort of internal think tank for the U.S. secretary of defense, has spent $300,000 annually since 2009 for research to study the body language and movement patterns of key global leaders, one of them being Putin, who has served as Russia's president and prime minister.
Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon's chief spokesman, said Putin had been studied in 2008, along with Russia's then-President Dmitry Medvedev, and again in 2012.
He denied news reports implying there was an ongoing study of Putin in connection with the current crisis in Ukraine, and said the reports on Putin "have not informed any policy decisions by the Department of Defense."
"We didn't ... commission a study to study Vladimir Putin's body language," Kirby told a news conference. "The researcher ... determines the identity of the individuals that she wants to look at on her own."
"There's been no study of Vladimir Putin with respect to the recent crisis in Ukraine," he added.
Kirby said he had not seen the researcher's reports and did not know who in the Pentagon had read them. He said the reports are delivered to the Office of Net Assessments, and like much of its other research do not get circulated widely.
The research on foreign leaders has been conducted for years and at one point was carried out within the State Department, officials said. In the past 10 years, approximately 40 reports have been done on different leaders, a defense official said.
"It's a research program that examines the ... body movements and body language of various world figures to determine a better understanding of their decision making process," Kirby told the news conference.
Officials identified the lead researcher as Brenda Connors, a fellow at the Naval War College in Rhode Island and certified movement analyst, who conducts the studies with a small team.
While her reports have not been made public, she has written newspaper articles on Putin that were based on her research and were cleared by the Pentagon, officials said.
One 2004 article published in the Providence Journal in Rhode Island described Putin's movement style as one that "shows a man struggling to move forward - a weakness that is proving to be an impediment to both his leadership and Russia's future."
The article said by looking at videotapes in split-second detail it was possible to "discover a person's signature movement style, a pattern as unique as a fingerprint."
"Putin's inability to integrate movement ... raises obstacles to his sophisticated exercise of power," the article said.
"His judo displays show a contender trying to advance, but his movement pattern causes the 'tail' to lag. One could compare this to his desire to move Russia forward while remaining stuck in the Soviet past," it said.
Kirby said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had not read the reports.
Asked about Hagel's view of the reports, Kirby said: "The secretary was interested in the press coverage of it."
He "asked some questions about it this morning," Kirby added. "I suspect he'll be asking more questions about it."
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Mohammad Zargham