The Most Powerful Men in the World

Vladimir Putin on screen delivering an annual news conference, in Simferopol, Crimea, December 23, 2016
Pavel Rebrov/Reuters
Vladimir Putin on screen delivering an annual news conference, in Simferopol, Crimea, December 23, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mode of public communication is the very opposite of Donald Trump’s: rather than tweet 140-character bursts, he stages elaborate, laboriously choreographed affairs that far outlast anyone’s attention span. He holds one press conference and one televised call-in show a year. Participants are pre-screened, question topics are pre-cleared, and many are pre-scripted. Each event usually lasts more than four hours. Each usually contains a memorable and informative passage that summarizes Putin’s current vision of himself in the world. There have been times when he positioned himself as the savior of a country on the brink of catastrophe, a conqueror, a victor. This year, in his press conference on December 23, he positioned himself as the most powerful man in the world.

Here is Putin’s scripted exchange with a state-media journalist (I am quoting both sides at length precisely because this is pre-written dialogue):

Journalist: Vladimir Vladimirovich, the world is undergoing a global transformation. We are witnessing nations expressing their will, voting against old political concepts, against the old elites. Britain voted to leave the EU, though we still don’t know how it’s going to play out. Many people are saying that Trump won because people were voting against the old elites, against faces that they are tired of seeing, among other reasons. Have you and your colleagues discussed these changes? What will the new global order be like? Remember, at the General Assembly, on the seventieth anniversary [of the United Nations], you said, “Can’t you see what you’ve done?” Where are we going? At this point we are still in the context of confrontation. The back-and-forth yesterday about whose military is stronger. During his last press conference your still-colleague Barack Obama said that 37 percent of Republicans like you and that Ronald Reagan is probably turning over in his grave.

Putin: What was that?

Journalist: 37 percent of Republican voters like you.

Putin: Really?

Journalist: Yes, and if Ronald Reagan knew, he’d be turning over in his grave. By the way, we as your voters are very pleased that you have such power, that you could even reach Ronald Reagan. Our Western colleagues often tell us that you can manipulate the world, pick presidents of your choosing, intervene in elections wherever you want. How does it feel to be the most powerful man in the world? Thank you.

Putin: I have addressed this issue on numerous occasions. But if you think that I need to do it one more time, fine, I will say it one more time. The current US government and the leadership of the Democratic Party are trying to blame all their failures on outside forces. I have some questions and a few ideas regarding this.

The Democratic Party lost not only the presidential election but also the election to the Senate, where Republicans have the majority, and to Congress, where Republicans have the majority. I wonder if that’s my accomplishment too. [Here Putin cracks a joke with a reference to a Soviet-era film about a hapless college student who gets in trouble and takes the blame for things he did as well as things he didn’t do.] None of this is true. All of it is testament to the fact that the current administration is facing systemic problems. I have talked about this before.

I think there is a gap between the elites and the broad masses, as we used to say in Soviet times, regarding what’s right and what’s wrong. The fact that a significant portion of, let’s say, Republican voters are supporting the Russian president is not something I take personal credit for. You want to know what I think? I think a large number of Americans share our ideas of what the world should be like, what we should be doing, where we face common dangers and problems. It’s good that there are people who share our understanding of traditional values, because it’s a good start for building relations between two countries as powerful as Russia and the United States, on this basis, the basis of mutual admiration of the people.

I wish they wouldn’t dredge up the names of their former leaders. I don’t know who would be turning over in his grave. I think Reagan would rejoice in the victory of his party and would be happy for the newly elected president, who had a fine understanding of societal mood and worked in that paradigm and went to the very end even though no one, except you and me, believed that he would win.

At this point Putin is interrupted by applause. After the break, he continues by chiding Democrats for being sore losers. Later in the press conference he dismisses the conclusions of the CIA that Russian intelligence services threw the American election through hacking, claiming (much as Donald Trump has done) that the hackers could have been anyone, including “someone lying on the couch or in bed.” But Putin is reveling in the idea that he is “the most powerful man in the world.” He is right: it doesn’t matter if Russian hacks were decisive in the election—what matters is that many people believe that they were. If Americans perceive Putin as the ultimate winner of the presidential race, then that is what he is.

Putin made it clear that he views the outcome of the American election as the end of a struggle for world domination—hence the reference to his September 2015 speech at the United Nations General Assembly. Back then he traveled to New York for his first address to the UN in a decade. He offered the United States a deal: Russia would help in Syria if the US government would withdraw its criticism of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. President Obama snubbed the offer, and Russia responded by entering the Syrian conflict on the side of Bashar al-Assad. Putin framed Russia’s actions in Syria as a battle against the American-dominated world order. It is this battle that he sees himself as having won on November 8.

Putin views Trump’s victory as the triumph of a particular world view: “a large number of Americans share our ideas of what the world should be like” and even of “right and wrong.” The phrase “traditional values” is crucial here: the instrumentalization of some vague idea of past greatness is something Putin and Trump share. Putin is no more likely a proponent of “traditional values” than is Trump: the Russian president is divorced and has long—long before his divorce—been rumored to be romantically involved with a gymnast-turned-politician, with whom he may or may not have children. The story of the affair originated in Putin’s hand-picked press pool, which consists of one journalist—like the story of Putin’s pivotal role in the American election, it may or may not be true but it is what he wants people to believe. Putin’s attitude toward women is remarkably similar to Trump’s. The Russian president once expressed admiration for former Israeli president Moshe Katsav, a convicted rapist. “What a powerful man he turned out to be!” Putin said in 2006. “He raped ten women! I never would have expected that from him! He surprised us all! We are all envious!”

In the last few years, the Kremlin has framed the battle for global domination as a conflict between a “Western civilization” rooted in the idea of human rights and a “traditional values civilization.” Putin’s “traditional values” campaign has included a virulent antigay offensive, an insistent effort to raise the birth rate in order to save the 145-million Russian nation from extinction, and, most important, a systematic discrediting of any idea that is viewed as connected with contemporary Western culture. This is where Putin sees a kindred spirit in Trump, with his flailing against political correctness and his defense of Christmas against a fictitious threat. “Traditional values” becomes a catchall term for an imaginary past—which goes a long way toward explaining Trump’s seamless symbiosis with the American Christian Right.

Putin has declared victory in his war on modern culture, which gives him the right to call himself the most powerful man in the world. But, of course, that description has generally been part of the definition of a different job—the one to which Trump has in fact just been elected. One suspects that having two men who believe themselves to be the most powerful in the world can’t go well. In fact, the predictable signs of trouble have already appeared.

On December 22, the day before the press conference, Putin held his annual meeting with the leadership of Russia’s defense ministry. Among other things, he mentioned nuclear arms, which he said had been well tended to in 2016, helping Russia maintain “strategic parity.” This was a notable step down in rhetoric from last year, when he directed the armed forces to “pay special attention to improving the fighting potential of our strategic nuclear forces.” Trump, however, responded by tweeting that “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability”—an unprecedented way of upending nuclear policy.

Putin fielded a question about Trump’s tweet during his press conference. He was magnanimous, as perhaps only the most powerful man in the world could be. “There is nothing unusual here,” he lied. He went on to explain his own comments about nuclear arms by stating that Russia aims only to be “stronger than any potential—pay attention here—aggressor.” Without naming any potential aggressors, he made it clear that Russia does not view the United States as one. This was another lie: Russia’s military doctrine, adopted in 2014, identifies NATO member states as the number-one military threat.

The specter of the American military has been essential to Putin’s domestic rhetoric. Throughout his seventeen years as the Russian leader, Putin has relied on the constant if sometimes vague idea of existential danger to shore up his popularity. This has been especially important during his current term as president, when he has responded to protests and a tanking economy by launching wars at home and abroad. All of these wars—against the “fifth column” inside the country, in Ukraine, and in Syria—have been framed by Russian media as wars against the United States. The wars have been good for Putin’s popularity rating, which has stayed above 80 percent ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2014—in spite of a precipitous economic downturn. But Ukraine and Syria would not produce those kinds of numbers on their own: it is the framing of these wars as proxy conflicts with America that make them important.

Putin went on to blame the outgoing Obama administration and the George W. Bush administration for having incited a new arms race. He was absolving Trump of responsibility for his tweet—or, really, for his country—as one might release a child from having to carry the burden of words spoken rashly. This mode of relating to Trump cannot be sustainable—if for no other reason than that Trump has made and seems likely to continue to make outrageous statements like this again and again, and will demand to be taken seriously. Both men share a primitive idea of power as something that is based on superior strength asserted and acknowledged publicly. Trump will tweet nuclear policy again, and Putin will not be as accommodating in the future.

Does this mean that we are entering a new Cold War? No—it’s worse. The Cold War was fought by men who had different visions of the future—the ideologies of the two sides were battling for the right to define societies to come. This made the prospect of mutually assured destruction an effective deterrent. We now know that on several occasions one or the other side took a crucial step back from the brink.

Trump and Putin, on the other hand, lack a concept of the future. In Putin’s version of the clash of civilizations, we have only a threatening Western present versus an imaginary Eurasian past. In Trump’s case, the threatening present is global while the alluring past is American. Both men traffic in appeals to the local and the familiar from the past against the frighteningly strange future. They are also both short-tempered, thin-skinned, not very bright, and disinclined to listen to advisers—all major risk factors for escalation. But it is their shared inability to look ahead that poses the greatest danger to the world.

Putin’s inability to plan has been well documented. European Russia scholar Mark Galeotti has called it the “Putin Paradox”: Putin is great at seizing opportunities but can never think through consequences or next steps. Galeotti was writing about Putin’s wars and his interference in US elections (though he was assuming a Trump loss), but the Putin Paradox can be observed in the Russian president’s personal behavior as well. I once wrote about an extravagant palace Putin was building with a billion dollars’ worth of embezzled and fraudulently appropriated funds. When I was reporting this story back in 2011, what struck me was that the palace—a private residence—was located in Russia. It seemed planned as a retirement residence, but Putin clearly hadn’t considered the impossibility of his retiring in Russia, in peace. Another example is Putin’s obliviousness to the political undercurrents of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Only in late December 2013 did he realize that Western leaders were declining his invitations to the Games—and pardoned political prisoners, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the party. But it was six weeks before the Olympics, and it was too late.

Trump’s short attention span is legendary. He also has a track record of making impulsive lavish investments that fail over and over again. It appears that his ability to plan for the future is as severely limited as Putin’s.

Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, seems to have a different temperament but a similar apres nous le deluge attitude. His company stands out even among oil giants in its steadfast refusal to invest in renewable energy and its clear commitment to discrediting climate-change science—in other words, a strategy of maximizing immediate earnings at the price of future generations’ ability to live on the planet. Applied to global politics and combined with Trump’s ballistic temperament, this augurs a war that will not be cold.