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Putin's Body Language Betrayed Anxiety, Aggression

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin titled to the side during his press conference, an attempt to relax that showed he was feeling tense, according to body language analysts. ALEXEY NIKOLSKY / AFP - Getty Images

Vladimir Putin tried to sound reasonable and in control as he addressed the Ukrainian crisis during his news conference Tuesday — but his lip-licking and furrowed brow betrayed a mix of aggression and nervousness, body-language experts said.

At times slouching in a chair, Putin might have seemed — at first glance — relaxed as he discussed the Russian military intervention that has put Moscow at odds with the West.

But Joseph Tecce, a psychology professor and body-language scholar at Boston College, said Putin's "unusual" number of quick head movements suggested he was feeling anxious. He licked his lips frequently, a sign of a dry mouth that also conveys unease.

"Early on, he shifts his body posture to be somewhat tilted in an attempt to relax more, another indication that he was feeling tense," Tecce said.

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin licks his lips during the press conference, a possible sign of nervousness. NBC News

Erik Bucy, a professor at Texas Tech University who researches non-verbal communication, said that it's clear Putin is trying to make his case calmly even though his words are "quite combative."

"Non-verbally, this is Gorbachev; verbally, we’re listening to Brezhnev," he said, referring to former Soviet leaders. "In this sense his demeanor is deceptive, precisely because it doesn’t appear outwardly belligerent."

Tecce noted the living-room-type setting seemed calculated to evoke informality. The reporters were all young and had to ask their questions at the start.

"Thus, he essentially gave a lecture to a group of students and had full control of the continuity of his remarks," Tecce said.

"His eye contact during the monologue was good and his smiling helped engage the audience. He even seemed to enjoy being the teacher educating his young Russian colleagues."

But as time went on, Putin's facial expressions showed more aggression, Bucy said.

He bared his lower teeth — "a clear anger/threat display" — and furrowed his brow. His rate of speech sped up and he used an angry tone.

"His hand gestures, even though cupped, also become increasingly demonstrative — open hand gestures transform into fist pumps that are used with angry verbal expressions," Bucy said.

"Non-verbally, this is Gorbachev; verbally, we’re listening to Brezhnev."

Another giveaway of discomfort: Putin repeatedly averted his gaze — looking down as though he was searching for an answer, eyes darting up and to the right.

At the same time, his blinking rate of 42 times per minute was in the normal range, indicating that while he may have been feeling tense, he maintained a measure of control, Tecce said.

Bucy noted that the journalists in the room did not hide their reactions.

"[They] are riveted and show an odd mix of surprise, disbelief, amusement, and concern, reflecting both the gravity of Putin’s remarks and the post-hoc nature of his narrative," he said.

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