How does he do it? On both sides of the Atlantic, Western leaders can only marvel at Vladimir Putin’s positioning. All week he has outsmarted them over Ukraine. Throughout three hours of Q&A, broadcast live from the Kremlin earlier today, he more than held his own with a domestic audience.
Where Putin is concerned, foreign policy success is not just a pretty face saver for failure at home. The Russian president is simply firing on all fronts.
Is it all down to appearances? Judging by today’s performance, indeed there are iconic elements in the way Putin presents himself; such as the starched white shirt (the more effective because we have previously seen the bare torso underneath), and chillingly blue-grey eyes. Yet his Yul Brynner bone structure is countered by, of all things, a comb-over, linking Putin to various downtrodden husbands from a spate of late twentieth century sitcoms. The studio set didn’t help much, either. The ice-blue background was meant to be cool; instead, of all things, it looked like leftovers from a UK Aids-awareness campaign of the 1980s.
But none of this matters much because with Putin, appearance is not what’s paramount. This is not a man of whom you would dream of saying, he is a brand. Ofcourse by now his reputation precedes him, but only because, long before any concern for brand building or reputational enhancement, he first of all addresses the question – any question – in and of itself. This approach allows Putin to appropriate the situations in which he finds himself; in other words, he grasps the nettle instead of being stung by it.
While British politicians and even Barack Obama are afflicted by an unbearable lightness of being, Putin’s actualité has allowed him to develop a successful realpolitik. He personally may pine for films about KGB men in the Soviet era, or dream of returning to the womb of Mother Russia, but it’s Mother Thatcher he resembles in his address to the world as it really is.