The Real Meaning of Putin's Press Conference

The Russian leader tries to claim the role of senior partner in his relationship with the U.S.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Mikhail Svetlov / Getty

You have to feel bad for the Moldovan president. The newly elected Igor Dodon had traveled to Moscow to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin for the first Russian-Moldovan bilateral meeting in nine years. Yet here he was, standing side by side with Putin, his hero and model for emulation, at a regal-looking press conference and some reporter has to go and ask about the prostitutes.

“You haven’t yet commented on the report that, allegedly, we or in Russia have been collecting kompromat on Donald Trump, including during his visit to Moscow, as if he were having fun with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel,” said the reporter with the pro-Kremlin LifeNews. “Is that true? Have you seen these files, these videos, these tapes?”

Dodon looked half mortified, half amused as he looked over toward a laughing Putin.

“You know,” Putin said, “there’s a category of people who leave without saying goodbye, out of respect for how things have come together, so as to not disturb anything. Then there are people who endlessly say goodbye. The departing [U.S. presidential] administration, in my opinion, is in the second category.”

Then he tried, barely, to suppress a smirk.

A week ago, Buzzfeed published a dossier of unverified allegations reportedly compiled by a former British spy, a partial summary of which intelligence officials had presented to President-elect Donald Trump and outgoing President Barack Obama. Officials were concerned, in CNN’s words, that Russian operatives could have “compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.” For a week, Trump vocally contested the claims, but Putin said nothing. Putin has no computer, no Twitter account. Whatever denials we heard came from his spokesman, the mustachioed Dmitry Peskov.

What we saw today was the old Putin, the classic Putin, the one all us Russia correspondents loved writing about.

Unlike Trump, who tends to react immediately and viscerally, Classic Putin likes to keep people waiting in suspense. Whenever something big and important happens, don’t expect Putin to speak. For days. When pro-democracy protests broke out in Moscow in 2011, Putin was silent for more than a week. He was one of the first to personally congratulate Trump on his election victory, but he said nothing publicly about the results of the election until November 21, nearly two weeks after the fact. When he meets with pretty much anyone—Queen Elizabeth, the Pope, the parents of children who were killed in a plane crash—he keeps them waiting for him. (The Queen waited 14 minutes, the Pope for 50 minutes, and the grieving parents for two hours at a cemetery. According to The Guardian’s Shaun Walker, “Ukraine’s ousted president Viktor Yanukovych ... was once kept waiting for four hours, while European leaders regularly report a wait of an hour or more.”) Because suspense is power. It underscores the dynamic that people will keep waiting just to hear what Putin has to say.

Classic Putin is both a master bureaucrat and a salt-of-the-earth guy; he is fluent both in cunning bureaucratese—as when he described the alleged prostitutes referred to in the dossier as “women of decreased social responsibility”—and in the language of the muzhik, the hearty, salty Russian man—as when he then joked that, regardless of anything else, Russian prostitutes “are undoubtedly the best in the world.” (The beauty of Russian women is a matter of national pride, though a common joke in Russia is that, in addition to oil and gas, they are Russia’s other export.) We’ve seen a little less of the latter Putin over the years as he has finally grown into the role of international statesman, but once upon a time, this was just how this guy from the mean streets of Leningrad talked. He said he would get terrorists in the outhouse, and told journalists not to smear their snot on paper and call it journalism. He once threatened to string up then-president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili “by the balls.” Later, when asked on national TV if he really did “want to string up Saakashvili by a certain spot,” he responded, “Why by just one?”

Classic Putin is a master of the confirmation-by-denial trick, as he was Tuesday when he said that the DNC hacking scandal was a false flag, “but I want to reiterate, the hackers didn’t doctor anything, they didn’t make anything up. Whoever they may have been, they just unearthed the information.” Or when he said that whoever is doing this—all of this—is trying “to undermine the legitimacy of the newly elected president. And in regards to that, I’d like to note, whether the people who are doing this want to or not, they are doing massive damage to the interests of the United States. Massive damage.”

Which brings us to another trait of Classic Putin: Blame others for doing the things that you’re doing. Typical example: Putin accused those same pro-democracy demonstrations of being paid for and organized by the U.S. State Department while he was organizing and paying for protestors to attend Potemkin rallies in support of himself. Which is also what he claimed was happening on the Maidan in Kiev in 2014—the American government trying to implement regime change by paying people to protest against a Moscow ally—so Moscow paid people to protest and take over government buildings in Eastern Ukraine.

Because this is a massive sore spot for Putin still, he brought it up again on Tuesday. “There’s an impression as if, having practiced in Kiev, they want to organize a Maidan in Washington just to keep Trump from taking office,” Putin said. That is, this is all about the thing Putin hates most: American-organized efforts to topple leaders, especially pro-Russian leaders—like Trump. What’s happening to Trump, Putin said, is people trying to “tie the hands and feet of the newly elected president as he tries to fulfill the promises he made to the American people during the electoral campaign, [regarding what he would do] both inside the country and on the world stage.” One such promise, per Trump’s April foreign-policy speech: “I believe in an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia.”

And this is another thing Classic Putin does: He’s a master of using provocation as a smoke screen. What the American media will most likely take away from his comments at Tuesday’s Kremlin press conference is that Putin praised Russian prostitutes, which he did, or that he slammed Obama for lingering, which he also did. But those things were not the most important part of the press conference.

What was important was Dodon, who few people on this side the Atlantic even know. Putin was having a celebratory press conference with the new Moldovan president, who ran on a platform of tearing up Moldova’s trade agreement with the EU, having his country join the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union, and mimicking Putin. “The only difference between me and Putin right now,” Dodon told The Daily Beast’s Anna Nemtsova during the Moldovan presidential campaign, “is that I am not the president, yet, as soon as I become one in a few days, I will run Moldova just the same way Putin runs Russia, I assure you.”

And Moldova is important because, for much of 2014, as Putin was carving up Ukraine, Western observers feared Moldova would be invaded next, followed by the Baltics, which are NATO members. Yet Putin didn’t have to invade Moldova, a former Soviet republic, to bring it back into Moscow’s sphere of influence. Moscow had created within the country the breakaway Republic of Transnistria—recognized by no United Nations member countries—which makes Moldova ineligible for membership in NATO because it has a territorial dispute in its borders. And then it reeled in the rest of the country with promises of trade and political power.

Moldova is also important because it is another sign that, thanks to Putin’s efforts, the hairline fractures in the EU’s foundation are growing larger, and whole sections are breaking away from its embrace. Moldova was one of those impoverished nations that had once been part of the Soviet universe and, after its collapse, pushed Moscow aside and strained to get into Brussels’s orbit. Now that Western universe looks increasingly chaotic and unsavory, while Putin’s looks gilded and welcoming.

Amid all the attention for Putin’s comments on “women of decreased social responsibility,” we will have missed yet another critical development. On Sunday, in an interview with Germany’s Bild and the U.K.’s Times of London, Trump not only called NATO obsolete—another victory for Putin to hear this from the country that created NATO—he also finally outlined the “deal” he wanted to cut with Putin: America lifts sanctions, Russia cooperates on a nuclear disarmament deal. Both the Kremlin and the Russian parliament immediately said that they won’t bargain to get sanctions lifted. “Russia didn’t initiate these restrictions, and Russia, as the President of Russia made clear, is not going to bring up these sanctions in the course of our international contacts,” Peskov said. We didn’t impose the sanctions, in other words, and we’re not the ones who can lift them, so you do you, America. Which means that Trump, who ran on being the kind of tough negotiator that can finally cut a deal with Putin, has no bargaining position to even start the negotiations.

What Putin’s comments showed is that he is, finally, after all these years of frustrated ego, the senior partner in this relationship. He has to defend Trump’s sullied reputation; he has to defend his undermined legitimacy; he is now Trump’s protector, guarding him the way a mob capo might protect a diamond shop. And that’s Classic Putin, too.