Putin Plays Nice

Vladimir’s condolences over the latest carnage in France are much sneakier than they seem.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - NOVEMBER, 26: Russian President Vladimir Putin greets French President Francois Hollande during their meeting in the Kremlin on November 26, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. Hollande is having a one-day trip to Moscow. (Photo by )
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - NOVEMBER, 26: Russian President Vladimir Putin greets French President Francois Hollande during their meeting in the Kremlin on November 26, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. Hollande is having a one-day trip to Moscow. (Photo by )

Russia knows terrorism. Between the apartment bombings of 1999, the bloody hostage situations of Beslan and Nord-Ost, the many, many suicide bombings, and, now, the wave of Russian citizens departing for Syria, Russia has been dealing with terrorism for the last two decades. Which is one reason Vladimir Putin is so quick and scrupulous on the sympathy-for-foreign-leaders button. Famously, he was the very first foreign leader on the line to George W. Bush the morning of 9/11. Last November, when Islamic State gunmen stormed Parisian cafes and a concert hall, Putin sent François Hollande a telegram, expressing his “deepest condolences to you personally and to the people of France.”

But Friday morning, in the wake of the grizzly attack in Nice, Putin decided to forgo that private pleasantry. “Last night, we all heard about another outrageous terrorist attack in France,” he declaimed stiffly from the Kremlin, holding onto the back of an ornate chair. “I understand that the president and many of France’s leaders are too busy now for telephone conversations. Therefore, I would like to address Mr. President publicly.”

He went on.

Dear François, 

Russia knows terrorism and the threat it creates for us all. Our people have had to deal with similar tragedies many times, and we are deeply distressed at the news. We would like to express our sympathy and solidarity with the French nation. 

The criminal act in Nice that resulted in death and injury, including among Russian citizens, was committed with extreme atrocity and cynicism.

I would like to stress again that only through a united effort can we defeat terrorism.

Mr. President, I kindly ask you to pass on my words of most sincere sympathy and support to the victims’ families and friends and wishes for a speedy recovery to the injured.

It’s a fine sentiment, a noble sentiment, but also a sneaky, clever sentiment. You Westerners think Russia is scary and cruel? Wrong. Russia has a wide and generous soul, and it bleeds with you, openly, despite our recent conflicts. We are all in the same boat, braving the choppy seas of global terrorism. He took pains to “stress again that only through a united effort can we defeat terrorism.” How are we going to get to shore, François, if half the people on the boat refuse to cooperate with the well-meaning Russian rower? How’s that boat going to do, François? Not very well. Not very well at all. It might even sink. Do you understand what I’m saying, François?

Of course, what Vladimir is really saying is that he needs you, François. Because it’s cold out there in Sanctions Land, outside what used to be the G-8. Putin is clearly wearying of the isolation imposed on him by America and the EU in punishment for twice invading Ukraine and annexing part of it. It’s not that he thinks Russia did anything wrong — he doesn’t. In fact, he is happy with the realignment of Russia’s role in the world. It’s exactly where he wants it to be. Russia is a global player again and in a very real way, which is why U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry went to Moscow to plead with the Kremlin for cooperation on Syria and not the other way around. Because now Russia, not America, is calling the shots in that conflict. Putin loves that he achieved that particular goal.

The next goal is to lift the punishment imposed on Russia for, in Putin’s mind, simply standing up for its interests and playing its historical geopolitical role. Why should one be sanctioned for that? In Putin’s mind, one shouldn’t be, so the trick is now to lift the sanctions, end the isolation, by showing the West that a resurgent, muscular, even belligerent Russia is not contradictory to its interests. In fact, Russia is showing by, as it claims, going after terrorists in Syria that it is fighting a common fight and doing the West’s dirty work. A thank you would be nice.

Terrorist attacks in the West, especially in Europe, are the perfect opportunity. Last time there was an attack of this scale in France, there was more than a little schadenfreude and hurt feelings on the Russian side. After Russia’s double invasion of Ukraine and the start of its Syrian adventure, tensions with the West were running at historic highs. Russian officials and journalists wagged their fingers at the French and Americans, saying Islamic State terrorism was ultimately their fault, because they rattled the wasp’s nest of the region. And two weeks before the Bataclan attack, a Russian passenger jet full of Russian tourists had been blown out of the sky in Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all 224 people on board. And yet no one in the West cloaked their Facebook avatars in a transparent Russian flag. That stung.

Putin’s November telegram was also a bit harsh, even in its expression of sympathy. It was also much more overt in what Putin hoped France would learn from the Paris attack. “It is obvious that to counter this evil effectively the entire international community needs to truly join efforts,” he wrote in the public part of his telegram. “I would like to confirm the readiness of the Russian side to closely cooperate with our French partners in investigating the crime committed in Paris. I expect both the originators and perpetrators to be justly punished.”

Let’s do this, François. Drop the sanctions, drop the posturing, and let’s do this. Let’s go into Syria and get those fuckers. (We don’t have to parse it too much; they’re all terrorists, and maybe I can convince, or bamboozle, you into propping up Assad, but we can talk about it later.) This was, after all, one of the main reasons Putin went into Syria: to come in from the European cold.

Sure enough, within the week, Russian and French jets were together in Raqqa, pounding Islamic State targets. And sure enough, by January, Hollande was suggesting the Europeans lift sanctions against Russia because Putin “doesn’t want to annex eastern Ukraine — he told me that.” Last week, even as he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel extended the EU sanctions against Russia, Hollande was publicly insisting, “For France, Russia is not an adversary, not a threat.” Seen from Russia, France is the weak link among the three major European powers, representing a hope that any day now the French will convince the Brits and Germans to just stop icing Russia and lift the sanctions.

Here again we see Putin’s deft touch: He is the bad cop and the good cop, the tough and the love, all in one man. After the November Paris attacks, Putin was tough because the shock was more shocking, even after Charlie Hebdo. It was the second massive terrorist attack for the French. By now, with a third attack in less than two years, it’s already sinking in that these are not one-offs. And that’s depressing. So Putin is here, François. He’s got your back. He understands. He sends his sympathy, and he wants to stress again, gently, that only a united effort — a united effort, François — can defeat terrorism.

And, of course, he also sends you a separate, private telegram.

Photo credit: SASHA MORDOVETS/Getty Images

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