Democracy Lab

Putin Walks Alone

Why the American president's cancellation of their pending summit meeting is just a blip on Vladimir Putin's radar.

MOSCOW — This morning, Russian president Vladimir Putin attended the funeral of his life-long friend and martial arts coach Anatoly Rakhlin, who died in St. Petersburg at the age of 75. A charismatic and strong character, Rakhlin met 11-year-old Putin back in the early 60s at "Trud" sport school. He trained the future president in sambo, a Soviet military hand-to-hand fighting technique, and in judo for 13 years.

Seeking solitude after the funeral, the president took a walk on Vatutina Street, an unusual gesture for the Russia's president, who never walks alone. Later, news agencies ran photographs of a sad-looking Putin on the streets of his former hometown, reminiscing about his teenage years.

Despite Putin's habitual tardiness, or even his frequent absences, from his martial arts classes, Rakhlin's tutelage enabled him to grow into a great fighter. In an interview many years ago, Rakhlin told me that he and Putin's German teacher convinced Putin's parents that their son was not an ordinary student, but a talented one.

"People close to us, of more senior age, sort of protect us from death," says Sergei Markov, a political analyst faithful to Putin. Asked to comment on what is likely to be going through the president's head today, he continues, "When they pass away, we think of our own destiny."

How, by contrast, is President Obama's decision to cancel his trip to Moscow weighing on Putin's mind? Most Moscow analysts agree that the Russian president is not greatly worried. News of the cancellation never made top headlines in the Russian mainstream media. A story like that would be out of place in the context of the television narrative of Putin as a strong, proud man fighting for Russia's sovereignty.

"Channel One and Rossiya Channel have the biggest number of viewers -- their managers must have decided not to explain to Russians that Obama's move was actually Russia's defeat," radio journalist Sergei Darenko told me.

Kremlin insiders say that in this presidential term, Putin is much more focused on his image at home than on how he's seen in the West. His priorities lie in the Russian public's perception of his legacy and of what he wants to achieve for the country. "Obama is not as important as the situation at home and economic issues," says Yevgeny Gontmakher, deputy director of INSOR, a think tank advising the Kremlin.

While President Obama recently accused Putin of having a Cold War mentality, the unfortunate truth is that it's not a tenable position.

"Our modernization of the army has failed, while America's defense ministry budget is equivalent to Russia's entire national budget. Putin knows better than anybody else that there is no room in the Kremlin for any Cold War ideas," says military expert Aleksander Golts.

As Putin walked and reminisced, many of the world's news outlets analyzed the beginnings of a new cold spell between Russia and the United States. The media accused Russia of helping wanted U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden and of avoiding compromise with the United States on Syria, Iran, and other current issues.

In an effort to understand Putin's thought process, I've been reading tweets by Alexey Pushkov, head of the Parliament's international affairs committee. In a recent tweet, Pushkov explains the Kremlin's take on the tension with Washington: "Russia is a country with a 1,000-year- long history of victories. Obedience contradicts its national psychology, and strikes at the very heart of the nation."

Was Putin supposed to let Snowden go to U.S. prison? No. According to Pushkov's logic, Russia does not submit to anyone's demands. Putin himself postponed the pending delivery of S-300 air defense systems to Syria, Markov says. Russia views its position as vindicated by the increasing radicalization of Syrian rebels. "Now Washington should compromise," Markov told me. "Hundreds are dying in Syria every week. So it's time for the U.S. to admit that it made a mistake by supporting the Islamists there and make a peace agreement with Assad."

Many things happened while Putin walked along the streets he knew so well as a child. Far East cities suffered from floods. Police arrested hundreds of illegal migrants all over Russia. Homosexuals all around the world called for a boycott of next year's Sochi Olympics. And Russian neo-Nazis hunted and tortured gay men.

Putin walked on. He needed a moment to grieve for an old friend.

Michael Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images

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