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    June 26, 2016

    Vladimir's "Soft Power": How Putin's Simple Human Gestures Shape Politics

    June 26, 2016 - 
    Ekaterina Lukina, PolitRussia - 
    Translated by J. Arnoldski



    Monday, June 20th was a truly difficult day for the whole country. Not a single person was left who could refrain from biting commentary on the shameful failure of the Russian national football team of Euro 2016….Particularly remarkable was that the president of Russia did not even watch the Russia-Wales match. Instead, Vladimir Putin chose to visit an an excursion to “Lenfilm” film studio. It would seem that this is a manifestation of the simple human freedom of choice. However, such a “non-political” gesture has its own “very political” context. With such an act, the president made it clear that in the next few years the Russian team should not expect the support it formerly had. Russian film and its talented directors and actors are capable of becoming a source of national pride, which cannot be said of Russian football players. 

    The indirect hint of this non-political gesture was commented on by the president’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov: “Russian President Vladimir Putin did not watch the Euro 2016 football match between the Russian and Welsh teams because at the time he was at the Lenfilm studio, where business with animation and restoration was much better and more effective than the game of Russian football players.”

    Such behavior on the part of Vladimir Vladimirovich is nothing new. In the recent past we've seen five such big “non-political actions” of Putin, in each of which can be found something in fact quite “political.”

    No one and nothing is forgotten

    On the 71st Anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War, the Russian president paid no attention to two countries that were once part of the USSR: Ukraine and Georgia. Petro Poroshenko and Giorgi Margvelashvili were left without cherished official greetings from their former sister, Russia. Moreover, in his official statement, Putin stressed that he was celebrating the holiday with the leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, “as well as with the citizens of Georgia and Ukraine.”

    This gesture killed two birds with one stone. On the one hand, he showed Russians that Russia will neither tolerate nor forget any kind of political provocations. On the other hand, he made it clear to the citizens of the former Soviet republics that warm relations with Russia depend on the degree of competence of their leaders’ actions.

    “If you snooze, you lose” in big politics

    Yet another “non-political” gesture was Putin’s truly gentleman act at the APEC summit that took place in 2014. The Russian president put his arms around the shoulders of the wife of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping, thus causing a shock among media and Chinese diplomats. Chinese culture does not observe touching another person on an official level. At first, the situation could not but look bad. Xi Jinping was having a conversation with Barack Obama, while Putin violated the important, unwritten rule: “never touch another diplomat with your hands.” Media buzzed about this “unfortunate" pat of the Chinese leaders’ wife more than the “Russian Shenderovich’s mattress.” then Dmitry Peskov responded quite sluggishly in an interview with the radio station “Echo Moscow”: “Tradition, not tradition, wife, not wife - everything is cool all the same. What Putin did is a normal urge, a normal act, which absolutely everyone has probably done.” 

    Putin’s gesture was extremely dangerous from a diplomatic point of view, but this was filled with enormous political meaning. Bypassing all sort of stereotypical cultural codes, the Russian president hinted to the Chinese leader that “any game played on both fields, the American and Russian” would entail an inevitably gap in warm relations with Russia. Some missed the point, but others caught on. 

    Obama’s shoulders too

    In 2014, the APEC summit was a whole performance of meaningful gestures of Putin. The whole world followed the development of Russian-American relations with interest. The media literally watched with a stopwatch as the Russian and American presidents stepped onto the red carpet at the convention center. Of course, not a single curious detail could be missed. Barack Obama has a strange habit: while shaking the hand of any political leader, the American president usually pats him on the shoulder two-three times. Vladimir Putin changed the situation by patting Obama on the shoulder first. The president implicitly made it clear to the public that it was “he who would in fact run the show.” What at first glance was a friendly gesture, a pat on the shoulder in the situation of competitive struggle, meant the superiority of the one person over the other and a condescending attitude. In other words, the Russian leader once again demonstrated our independence and adherence to a course separate from that of the US. 

    Swiss precision vs. American nonsense

    The expression of firmness of character was seen by the public yet again in an even more resonant gesture of Putin. On September 28th, 2015, Vladimir Vladimirovich was late for the session of the UN General Assembly and arrived only after the American president had once again promised everyone a bright future with coca-cola. Ordinary people did not notice the political overtone of this gesture, but in fact it is far from likely the Russian president’s car ran into traffic jams in New York. This gesture was a litmus test of Putin’s attitude towards the American leader, his political course, and what he says. Scornfully speaking, this is a bit loud, but the Russian leader clearly conveyed a light breeze of skepticism in relation to Obama and doubtfulness towards his words. Putin’s gesture reflected the flashy Stanislavsky in saying “I don’t believe you!”

    Resentment is for the weak

    Putin also silently expressed his attitude towards ongoing events in 2014 at the G20 summit when he left long before the end of the meeting. The president referred to a “long flight,” but the real reason for his actions was something else. The leading countries’ leaders’ actions left much to be desired, as the Russian leader was received coldly. Despite the fact that the host of the summit was the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot, who from the point of view of international diplomacy was obliged to create an atmosphere of productive dialogue, before the meeting he threatened to “shirtfront” Putin and even “knock the Russian president to the ground in an one-on.” The behavior of the Russian President was thus quite justified, although unusual from the point of view of political ethics. It should be said that Putin demonstrated a cool head and appropriately responded to a general provocation and chose to show the leaders of other counties that he can never become the object of someone’s manipulation. The media positively assessed the Russian President’s gesture. Journalist Dmitry Danilov wrote: 

    “This is not politics. This is just decency, and not even diplomatic, but just human. Either you don’t invite someone or, if you've invited them, then during their stay you shake hands (without any stupid remarks) and behave appropriately.” 

    Bloomberg wrote: “In Brisbane, Putin proved that he can take a hit well.” 


    Numerous publications, journalists, and diplomats have paid attention to the unorthodox gestures of the Russian President. Perhaps the point is his past service, as people of his caliber are prone to meaningful moves. In any case, all that remains is to summarize: the Russian leader remains a mystery for most politicians, and consequently he continues to maintain influence in the global arena. 




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    Item Reviewed: Vladimir's "Soft Power": How Putin's Simple Human Gestures Shape Politics Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Jafe Arnoldski
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