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Nip, Tuck, Invade: The Curious Case of Benjamin Putin

As the developments in the Russia - Ukraine standoff were unfolding at warp speed, there was one thing that remained constant -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's facial expression.

There's a new anti-Russian government in Ukraine?
Dead-eyed stare with a slight smirk.
Crimea is up for grabs?
Dead-eyed stare with a slight smirk.
Let's invade!
Dead-eyed stare with a slight smirk.

And this has happened before:

2012: The Russian constitution was changed for me to run for a third presidential term?
Dead-eyed stare with a slight smirk.
2003: Why not arrest Russia's richest man, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky?
Dead-eyed stare with a slight smirk.
2000: Why don't we make Chechnya part of Russia?
Dead-eyed stare with a slight smirk.

Maybe he's just remarkably stoic. Maybe he's a great actor. Or maybe something else is at play. Has Vladimir Putin "had work done"? Has he been "nipped" and "tucked?" Is the Russian president just another member of the international elite -- the tight-skinned and high-cheekboned -- addicted to plastic surgery?

Here's the Curious Case of Benjamin Putin, who seems to look younger with each passing year, even as he sticks to his dead-eyed stare. And his smirk.

In 2000, a gaunt Putin, then acting president and by the looks of it free from Botox, arrives at a polling place to cast his ballot.

ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

Three years later, the presidency has taken its toll:

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Perhaps due to the rejuvenating effects of uninhibited power, things started to look up in 2005.

MAXIM MARMUR/AFP/Getty Images

Shirtless and smooth-skinned in Siberia in 2009.

ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

Both tabloids and more reputable outlets have for years speculated about the source of Putin's youthful appearance. The chatter became especially loud in 2011 when Putin was up for a third term as Russia's president. The New Times, a Russian magazine, asked some plastic surgeons about Putin's surprisingly youthful experience. The verdict: Vladimir was likely to have had an eye-lift, Botox injections, and cheekbone injections.

"In a bid to once again become Russia's president, Vladimir Putin has pledged to lift his country's sagging economy, nip corruption in the bud, and smooth fractured relations with regional neighbors," ABC wrote in 2011, shortly after that report, barely containing its glee.  Some 60 percent of responders to an online survey on the Huffington Post thought that Vladimir Putin "had work done;" 40 percent said he probably "just got more sleep this weekend."

Here, in 2011, he looks to have shaved about 10 years off his appearance, with the dark circles under his eyes magically disappearing.

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With former Italian prime minister  Silvio Berlusconi, a man known to have dabbled with artificial anti-aging techniques, in 2012:

DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images

A year later, as Putin turned 60 and divorced his wife of 30 years, the rumors returned. In the summer of 2013, Vanity Fair, ever so diligent on the plastic surgery beat, compared his neck to Play Doh and likened his forehead "delicately raked valleys of sand in a tranquil Japanese garden." The magazine concluded that his face "reveals a laws-of-physics-bending tightness not seen since Rush Limbaugh successfully sat in a two-seater car." 

Last year, with a forehead smooth like a baby's. Did we mention he used to be in the KGB?

ALEKSEY NIKOLSKYI/AFP/Getty Images

And did the Russian leader get a refresher for his pet project, the 2014 Sochi Olympics? Judge for yourself. Here, Putin during the closing ceremony.

PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

Mimicking emotion during the Sochi Paralympics opening ceremony:

Ian Walton/Getty Images

If there is one thing that we can be sure of in this world, it's that whatever happens, Putin's surgeons will make sure that he maintains his uncanny resemblance to a hairless cat.

ALEKSEY NIKOLSKYI/AFP/Getty Images

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How to Skirt an Arms Embargo -- DPRK-Style!

Let's say you're the supreme leader of a pariah state. You're looking to move a few hundred tons of Soviet-era arms across international boundaries, but you've been slapped by a harsh arms embargo. You'd like to quietly transport a weapons shipment across the globe, but you'd really rather avoid detection. So what's a Dear Leader to do?

Thanks to a new U.N. report, you don't have to guess. On Tuesday, a panel of eight experts concluded that, despite nearly a decade of U.N. sanctions, North Korea's illicit arms trade is thriving and remains a major source of revenue for the heavily sanctioned country. Its secret for success? A sophisticated system for evading sanctions that makes clever use of foreign embassies, shell companies, flags of convenience, secret cargo holds, and -- of course -- code words.

As the crew of the Chong Chon Gang learned in July 2013, when the North Korean-flagged ship was caught transporting a large cache of Cuban weapons, these tactics don't always work. But even the best of criminals won't get away every time.

The U.N. report includes a detailed look at that ship's seizure, which the panel of experts say provides "an unrivalled insight" into the "multiple and tiered circumvention techniques" used by North Korea. So if you're looking to tear a page out of the hermit kingdom's playbook, contravene international arms sanctions, and ship weapons around the globe, here's how it's done.

1. Create a vast web of shell companies to own and operate your illicit trade fleet

You'll want some distance between yourself and the fleet carrying your weapons-- even if, as in the case of the Chong Chon Gang, the ships bear your national flag. As the report explains, "the maritime industry is characterized by complex ownership and operator arrangements." This is something you can use to your advantage.

A web of private shell companies that purportedly own or operate the ships in question will, the report says, "deflect scrutiny with a veneer of legitimate trading." And, in the event that the ship's illicit cargo is discovered, this approach offers a few other advantages. First, you, Dear Leader, can always argue that the company, being privately owned, is solely responsible for violating the law. Second, if the company's assets are seized or frozen, its financial impact can be contained, allowing the larger trade to continue more or less uninterrupted. Once the seized ship is released, you can always rename, reflag, and declare it the property of a brand new company.

2. Make good use of your foreign embassies

The U.N. report alleges that North Korea's embassies in Singapore and Cuba facilitated the country's illicit trade deals -- remember, diplomatic protection is your friend. The embassy in Singapore shared facilities with a company that acted as the shipping agent for the company that owned the Chong Chon Gang. Meanwhile, the North Korean embassy in Cuba is believed to have arranged the shipment.

3. Come up with some code words (but don't write them down)

In the case of the Chong Chon Gang, the ship's captain had "secret" instructions for smuggling the arms, as well as special phrases he should use when referring to the shipment. For example, the captain was ordered to refer to "containers" as "mechanical parts" and told to watch out for the message "Payment arranged for 26K," which would indicate that he should make a false declaration of his shipment in Panama. Conversely, the message "Payment was not arranged for 26K" would indicate that he need not declare the shipment at all. Unfortunately, the captain kept the instructions on paper, making it all the easier for the U.N. to get their hands on the evidence.

Lesson: Don't write down your secret codes.

4. Conceal the illicit cargo by any means necessary

Following the example of the Chong Chon Gong, modify your ships so they can accommodate 40-foot containers deep within their cargo holds. The illicit freight should be placed at the bottom of the holds, covered with some innocuous cargo (like thousands of bags of sugar), closed, then covered with another layer of innocent cargo (like more sugar).  Containers should also have false walls and bottoms to add another level of security. Create false stowage plans and customs declarations to fool everyone.

5. Conceal your position as you move through open waters

If you want to avoid unnecessary attention from less friendly nations, turn off your ship's automatic identification system and falsify your shipping logs, so no one can track your location. But don't take it too far. As the Chong Chon Gang's crew learned the hard way, these tactics are also sure to generate suspicion. So if your ship does gain the attention of the authorities, do not ignore calls from nearby ports! Just show your falsified documents, and hope for the best.

Here's the full U.N. report, with the complete rundown of North Korea's illicit trade strategies.

Happy smuggling!

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