The Ukraine government, Putin noted, does not like the agreement. “Like it or not,” Putin jived, “it’s your duty, my beauty.” The saying, as Russian journalists told Putin’s spokesman the next day, has well-known sexual connotations.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, predictably denied the implication, and Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky tried to blend humor with poignancy when asked by reporters about the offensive comment. He said: “Ukraine is a beauty,” but the “my,” is an “overstatement,” meaning it does not belong to Russia or to Putin.
Putin’s words, however, are only a part of his playbook. Among autocratic leaders, the display of power and intimidation is a key tactic. We’ve seen it many times, in many forms.
In fact, Putin seemed to have no qualms about standing alongside China’s Xi Jinping in Beijing last week. The distance is a symbol of, well, distance. “Emmanuel, you’re not my friend,” it said; unlike Xi.
The substance of relations, of course, matters. But in an autocracy, policy becomes hyper-personalized. In her book, “There’s Nothing for You Here,” Fiona Hill, Trump’s top Russia policy hand in the National Security Council wrote that Putin essentially invented the modern style of “personalized, bravura” leadership — one that other leaders with autocratic tendencies, including Trump, tried to emulate.
Because negotiating successfully with the US required gaining favor with Trump, Hill recalls, foreign officials tried to ply Trump with over-the-top praise. She says her office “closely tracked” efforts to flatter the President, because of their foreign policy implications.
Populist autocrats may impress their autocratic counterparts. Trump frequently expressed his admiration for Putin and even envy of other all-powerful autocrats. But, however much admiration it inspired among certain people, the autocratic style of leadership is harmful to their countries. As Hill notes: “Personalized leadership tilts the playing field away from good governance … toward corruption and nepotism.”
Russia plainly displays that and other ills of autocracy.
Still, the world needs to adjust its methods to deal with Putin. His negotiating style has been endlessly analyzed. Putin doesn’t appear particularly vulnerable to praise. Like other strongmen, however, he respects strength, but a minutes-long Macron handshake won’t do.
The current standoff over NATO, and over the ability of Russia’s neighbors to determine their own future, will require determination, unity, and a clear-eyed memory about the lessons of the past. Macho energy is not a requirement, as Merkel demonstrated in her role as Europe’s chief negotiator.
Above all, this moment demands understanding that the world is facing an authoritarian leader accustomed to bullying and intimidating. In the end, it’s not so much Russia facing off against Ukraine or against the West, as it is its authoritarian President. The West is scrambling for the right language because this, as Russia’s neighbors and the rest of the world know, is Putin’s show.