So if you’re coming here hoping that I watched all of Putin’s press conference yesterday so you wouldn’t have to, you’ll be disappointed. Sure, I kept track of the live tweets and read the highlights. I gave some commentary on the most important points on TV. But no, I did not watch the entire 3 hour marathon and if you want to know why I can only answer that with another question: Have you ever actually seen one of these things yourself? I had to cover Putin’s press conference last year. It was probably the longest time I ever spent listening to Putin and my conclusion was that he had totally lost touch with reality. This year seemed to be more of the same.
First of all, it’s important to understand the way Putin lies when he speaks. Whereas Western politicians, present GOP candidates excluded, tend to lie via clever omission and mincing of words, Putin resorts to a very Russian lying tactic which involves saying whatever you have to say to “win.” Think of the Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. “Your arm’s off!” says King Arthur, perplexed as to how his opponent refuses to recognize defeat. “No it’s not,” replies the Black Knight. The point is that credibility doesn’t matter. It’s almost not lying, it’s simply bullshit, i.e. when you don’t even care how easily people can check and debunk your claims.
Before I get into some specifics, here is a link to an official transcript of the press conference. And here are highlights from The Guardian and from Meduza. Another Meduza article, sadly only in Russian at the moment, shows some of Putin’s top lies at the conference and their corrections. With that out of the way, on with the show.
Probably the biggest bombshell was Putin’s concession that Russia was involved in Ukraine militarily. The way he admitted this was extremely limited, but it must be compared to nothing but flat out, categorical denial of not only Russian troop presence in Ukraine, but also logistical support for the “rebels” since 2014. The only thing the Kremlin ever officially admitted to providing was “humanitarian aid” up until yesterday. At Putin’s 2014 annual press conference, he admitted that some Russians were fighting in the Donbas, but said that they weren’t receiving money and thus cannot be called mercenaries. This, naturally, is absolute bullshit for a number of reasons.
One more point to make about Putin’s admission, in which he said: “We never said there were not people there who carried out certain tasks including in the military sphere.” In fact Putin himself said exactly that, denying not only fighting soldiers, but also instructors and advisers as well. For the Russian speaking audience, you can see Putin’s response in 2014 and roughly one year later in 2015, ironically to the same Ukrainian journalist, Roman Tsymbaliuk. See what I mean by not caring if anyone can check one’s lies?
In another highlight, Putin was asked questions about corruption in the ranks of the government, to which he responded with the usual bullshit: It happens in every country (yeah, mostly third world countries), he revived the economy (sure, over a decade ago), and the armed forces (in their time the Soviet armed forces were arguably stronger than the Russian army today, and look how that worked out).
Lastly I’d like to focus on two things Putin said about Turkey and Ukraine, because they really shine light on the vatnik mentality and how Putin appeals to his base. In reference to Turkey shooting down a Russian ground attack aircraft recently, Putin said (Guardian’s translation here): “Someone in the Turkish leadership tried to lick the Americans in a particular place, I don’t know whether the Americans needed that.” This appeals to vatniks on two levels. First you have a reference to butt stuff, which vatniks simply love. You can’t argue with a Putin supporter for too long without them bringing up some kind of prison sex imagery. Second, note that the Turks were supposedly motivated by a desire to suck up to the United States. This is in line with the geopolitical mentality that discounts “lesser” countries’ sovereignty and agency. In reality, Erdogan has many interests which are contrary to that of the US, and his involvement in Syria is part of his own regional ambitions. In reality, he’s just doing in Syria and Iraq what Putin is trying to do in Ukraine- maintain control over a sphere of influence.
Speaking of Ukraine, the second example I wanted to give on this topic concerns Saakashvili. Again showing the geopolitical mentality, Putin said about Saakashvili in Ukraine:
“I’ve already mentioned this but I’d like to repeat it. I think this is simply a slap in the face of the Ukrainian people. Not only have they been put under an external administration but they’ve also had to accept so-called politicians that were delegated there. By the way, I think Saakashvili was never granted a work visa to the United States but they sent him to run the show in Ukraine and he is functioning there. What was Ukraine told? We won’t just organise you – we’ll send people who will administer over you, people from more civilised countries – either your neighbours or from overseas.”
In the mind of Putin and his base, because Ukraine didn’t submit to Russia, its Customs Union, and by extension its Eurasian Economic Union, it has submitted to “external administration.” In reality, Saakashvili was appointed by the president elected by the Ukrainian people, in accordance with Ukrainian law. On this note it’s important to remember that Ukraine’s system was basically the same as Russia’s from 2004 to 2012, i.e. the president appoints local governors. It’s also important to point out that while Dmitry Medvedev brought back local elections for governors in Russia, it did not affect the entire country. For example, the first such election in 2012 involved 5 out of 83 regions in Russia. Secondly, while he certainly has flaws and it was odd to pick a foreigner so rapidly, Saakashvili has some solid credentials and is apparently getting results in Odessa.
Once again Putin is trying to use the domination/humiliation card that all Kremlin officials use when talking to foreign countries. If you’re not with us, you must be sucking up to the USA, the only other country in the world that matters. No matter how often this tactic fails, the Kremlin keeps using it. In reality, people in these countries understand that submitting to Moscow’s dictates really does entail domination, because this is the only relationship the Kremlin understands.
So there you have it, my take on what I considered to be some of the most important takeaways from a three hour rap session with a man who is rapidly descending into delusion. This is what I’d imagine Ben Carson or Donald Trump as president would be like. It never ceases to amaze me how people in both Russia and the West can be so impressed by this guy. And speaking of Western media being impressed with Putin, why don’t you get ready for a…
SURPRISE DOUBLE FEATURE!!!
Weren’t expecting that, were you? Yes, I wanted to add some commentary on a recent Putin story making the rounds, but yesterday’s press conference took precedent. That story is about Putin’s so-called “gunslinger gait,” which is allegedly a result of his “KGB training.” It seems to have made headlines in the British press, but even Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty actually repeated this nonsensical story.
Basically a bunch of rather naive neurologists “analyzed” Putin’s gait and read a translation of a KGB training manual, and then came to the rather peculiar conclusion that Putin’s KGB training must have had a permanent effect on the way he walks. Yes, these are neurologists. From the report:
“According to this manual, KGB operatives were instructed to keep their weapon in their right hand close to their chest and to move forward with one side, usually the left, presumably allowing subjects to draw the gun as quickly as possible when confronted with a foe.”
Okay let’s dissect that a little bit. It says they were instructed to keep the weapon in their right hand, but then he says this “presumably” allows them to draw their gun faster. Here’s a tip for this neurologist who obviously doesn’t know much about guns- if you have the weapon in your right hand at all, you have already drawn the weapon. And if we’re talking about drawing the weapon, what sort of holster are we talking about, shoulder or waistband? Putin’s right hand isn’t close to his chest when he walks. I could go on about holsters but we’re only scratching the surface of this idiocy. Let’s look at their “methodology.”
“To test their hypothesis, the neurologists studied YouTube videos of other Russian officials.
Bastiaan Bloem, a professor of movement disorder neurology at Radboud University Medical Centre in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, who led the study, said his team was “stunned” by what they saw.
They found the same characteristic walk in Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, in former Russian defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov and Sergei Ivanov, and in senior Russian military commander Anatoly Sidorov.
Like Putin, Ivanov is a former KGB officer who served in Europe during the Cold War. Serdyukov and Sidorov both received military training, the researchers note.
The outlier in this group is Medvedev, a lawyer by training who has no clear ties to the KGB and did not serve in the military, though he underwent brief reservist training during his university years.”
First of all, military training does not necessarily include handgun training, especially in the Soviet and Russian armies which are not known for a lot of cross-training like the US military. In US Army basic training, we were trained on a variety of weapons, but there was no pistol training. And on that note, pistol training doesn’t necessarily involve training in quickly drawing a weapon from a hidden holster, especially if you’re in the military. Incidentally I often walk with one hand in my coat pocket, a fine place to conceal and quickly draw maybe a CZ 70 or Smith & Wesson ASP, but guess what- I’ve never had any formal handgun training, not to mention close protection training or anything which involves rapidly drawing a pistol. But who knows, maybe I’m really the FSB’s Jason Bourne, reprogrammed after one of those all-night parties back in 2006.
Honestly how terrible is this “methodology?” When they get to Medvedev they all him an outlier, apparently never considering that this just might prove their poorly constructed hypothesis is utter bullshit.
The Western press, even when critical of Putin, has become so accustomed to tacking on the label of “former KGB agent” when talking about him that it seems they totally forgot to find out what Putin actually did in the agency. If this is your first time, let me give you the gist- he wasn’t involved in the kind of work where you’d need to quickly draw a weapon, or even carry a weapon for that matter. As Masha Gessen wrote:
“Putin and his colleagues were reduced mainly to collecting press clippings, thus contributing to the mountains of useless information produced by the KGB. Former agents estimate they spent three-quarters of their time writing reports. Putin’s biggest success in his stay in Dresden appears to have been in…[contacting] a U.S. Army Sergeant, who sold them an unclassified Manual for 800 marks.”
Got that? A desk job, behind the Iron Curtain, mostly collecting press clippings and writing reports. Wow! It’s a good thing Mr. Bond didn’t venture into that office! Otherwise Vladimir Putin might have utilized his KGB training to smash 007’s face in with a typewriter! Bottom line here is that being a KGB agent, just like a CIA or MI6 agent, doesn’t necessarily entail dashing adventures and gunfights. And if you were a KGB super spy, unlike Putin, would you want to walk in a way that telegraphs the fact that you’re concealing a firearm? The Secret Service and many other law enforcement organs around the world train in how to spot people with concealed weapons, even if they’re not prepared to draw them.
When RT or Russia Insider fawn over Putin, it’s understandable. What I find ridiculous, however, is how readily Western sources will fall for the Putin mystique and in some cases actually embellish it even further. Sometimes it even extends to entertainment media as well, and pop culture often has a far greater influence on people’s understanding of historical and current events than the news.
If I had to characterize Putin’s gait, I’d choose “awkward” or at best, “cocky,” not “gunslinger.” Let this be yet another lesson on how badly academics can screw up when they’re research takes them far outside their field.