NEW YORK – At his annual year-end press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin was as informal, audacious, and offensive as his favorite American presidential candidate, Donald Trump. He answered a question about the state of the country with a joke.
“How’s life?” one man asks another.
“My life is all stripes, black stripes followed by white ones,” the second man answers. “Now I’m in the black one.”
Six months later, they meet again. ”How’s life?” the first man asks again. “I know it’s all stripes, but which one is it now?”
“It’s black now,” the second man replies. “Looks like it was white last time.”
The rest of Putin’s press conference was as cynical as this revealing witticism. He repeatedly claimed that Russia and its rapidly collapsing economy are thriving – something not even his most ardent supporters believe.
After 15 years of performances like this one, I am used to Putin’s Orwellian doublespeak – war is peace, ignorance is strength, etc. But on this occasion, he took his bombast to another level.
Putin insisted that the drop in Russian GDP – some 3.7% in the last year – had been caused primarily by plummeting oil prices, offering only a brief mention of the Western sanctions imposed in response to his annexation of Crimea. And while he boasted that Russia has $364 billion in foreign-currency reserves, he declined to note the country’s crippling 12.3% annual inflation rate or that much of those reserves have already been pledged.
Putin’s insistence on the health of the Russian economy calls to mind his own joke. Contrary to his assurances, the current black stripe is likely to seem white in comparison to what is to come. Indeed, earlier this month, a group of Russian economists described the government’s predictions of a rebound next year as sorely “out of touch.”
The annual press conference also provided Putin an opportunity to put Russia’s involvement in Syria in a positive light, and took pains to do so. After all, even with the secrecy that usually surrounds Russian military losses, it will be hard to temper public discontent once the coffins start coming home.
He assured the world that Russia would not be “more Syrian than Syrians themselves,” and he insisted that the United States should not dictate the country’s political process. American policy in the Middle East has been so incoherent, he says, that it warranted Russian intervention. Putin also suggested – despite all the evidence to the contrary – that Russia’s presence in Syria would not extend beyond the resolution of the conflict. But Russia already has naval and air bases in Tartus and Latakia – assets that Putin is committed to defending.
Indeed, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine suggest that Putin gathers territories; he does not give them up – at least not without getting something in return. He once lauded Catherine the Great as his favorite Russian ruler: “She shed less blood, but amassed more land than Peter the Great.” In 1772, Catherine sent a warship to Syria to assist the locals in fending off the Ottoman Empire. Two years later, she chose to leave the region, satisfied with Ottoman concessions on Crimea. Putin appears to want a similar outcome.
Like Catherine, Putin, hopes to trade off his invasions. Ukraine clearly remains Russia’s top priority. By intervening in Syria – a conflict of primary concern to Europe and the US – the Kremlin feels it has acquired leverage over Ukraine’s Western partners. The consequences – including military casualties and the threat of retaliation by the Islamic State – pale in comparison to the possibility of a grand bargain that secures his gains closer to home.
Putin is so confident that he holds all the cards that he made a point of toning down his usual anti-American bluster. He said he supported US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to address jointly issues “that can be resolved only together,” and that he was ready to “work with any president voted in by the American people.”
There is little question, however, about which US candidate Putin would like to see in the White House. In remarks following the press conference, he praised Trump as “a very colorful, talented person” and the “absolute leader of the presidential race.”
The two men certainly deserve each other. Both are consummate propagandists and performers. And both are prepared – even eager – to bully, harangue, and lie to get ahead. Compare Trump’s advice from his book How to Get Rich (“When somebody hurts you, just go after them as viciously and as violently as you can”) with Putin’s description of how to fight terrorists (“We will hunt them down and kill them, even in a toilet”).
Trump has built his campaign on ignorance dressed up as strength. His simplistic slogan – “Make America Great Again!” – could have been taken from Putin’s playbook on how to turn incompetence and weakness of character into the appearance of omnipotence and bold leadership.
Putin plans to remain in power for at least another decade. If the US elects Trump as President, it will have a friend in Russia, if almost nowhere else.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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