Russia's alpha dog: vintage Putin holds forth in chat with academics

The Russian president's musings and pronouncements further underscore his dominance of Russian politics and his influence beyond his country's border.

Maxim Shipenkov/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks during the final plenary meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club in the Novgorod Region, on the banks of Lake Valdai, Russia, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013.

Dispense with any doubts about who the Alpha Dog in Russia is.

For that matter, you might as well apply that characterization to the world stage, where a former mid-ranking KGB officer, black-belt judo master, and newly eligible bachelor is showing himself capable of performing diplomatic jujitsu on the West one day and the next, waxing philosophical on everything from gays and Syria to chemical weapons and political opponents.

Make no mistake: Vladimir Putin is at the top of his game these days, a veritable oracle offering counsel and scoldings about the right and wrong way to do things in the world.

Give him a platform and he’ll run with it. Last week, it was the opinion pages of The New York Times. On Thursday, it was a forum called the Valdai International Discussion Club, a formerly closed-door affair in a provincial town that in the past featured scholars typically from the West sitting down for off-the-record banter with Russia’s leaders.

This year, the Kremlin has pulled back the curtain on Valdai, giving President Putin yet another platform from which to opine, for example, Europe’s demographic crisis:

“Europeans are dying out. Don't you understand that? And same-sex marriages don't produce children. Do you want to survive by drawing migrants? But society cannot adapt so many migrants. Your choice in many countries is the way it is: recognition of same-sex marriage, adoption, etc. But let us make our own choice the way we see it for our country.” 

On the corruption of Western values:

“We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.”

On the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb that most Western governments and independent analysts believe was committed by Syrian government forces:

“We have every reason to believe that this was a provocation. You know, it was clever and smart, but at the same time, the execution was primitive. They used an ancient, Soviet-made projectile, taken from the Syrian army’s armaments from a long time ago – it even had “Made in the USSR” printed on it. But this was not the first time chemical weapons were used in Syria. Why didn’t they investigate the previous instances?”

On his “good friend” Silvio Berlusconi, the disgraced former Italian prime minister convicted for, among other things, paying underage prostitutes during wild sex parties

“Berlusconi faces trial for living with women. If he was a homosexual, no one would ever lay a finger on him.”

In the 12 plus years since Putin has reigned, either as prime minister or president, he has cut a wide swath at home and abroad. His public persona as a “muzhik”— basically, a regular, ol’ “guy” – has been finely chiseled by the Kremlin (with help from the US public relations giant, Ketchum), burnished by well publicized adventures as a long-range bomber aviator, large-animal conservationist, migrating bird guide, and bare-chested Siberian angler. His annual news conference with the Russian press corps routinely stretches hours in length, and his annual call-in show attracts tens of thousands of viewers and listeners across Russia, as he scolds officials, comforts the poor and responds to requests like a king and his subjects. He has also acquired a well-deserved reputation for his prickly wit and sharp tongue, with acerbic comments about circumcision, rape, and the best way to go about fighting terrorism in Russia’s long troubled North Caucasus.

Putin is in his third six-year term as president (the interim period between his second and third terms were spent swapping places with the now-prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, and waiting for the constitution to be amended so Putin could return to the presidency). Assumptions are always dangerous to make, particularly where Russia concerned, but most believe he will seek a fourth term, meaning he could remain Russia’s predominant political personality, and a force on the world stage, until 2024, well beyond when US President Obama is out of office.

In coming years, it may make for an increasingly brittle political system, which by some accounts is taking on trappings of a cult of personality. Regardless, Putin’s longevity means there will be plenty more opportunities for him, and the entire Kremlin policy making machinery, to out-maneuver the White House, as some argue happened with Syria and its chemical weapons arsenal.

Having seized the fickle attention of the American public with his Times morality lecture on the dangers of American exceptionalism, Putin also found time to swat away Sen. John McCain’s riposte, published earlier this week in the online Russian newspaper

“The fact that he chose to publish his article in Pravda – and he wanted after all to publish it in the most influential and widely read newspaper – suggests that he is lacking information. Pravda is a respected publication of the Communist Party, which is now in opposition, but it does not have very wide circulation around the country now. He wants to get his views across to as many people as possible, and so his choice simply suggests that he is not well-informed about our country.”  

Vintage Putin.

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