The world is reeling from the consequences of Putin’s cruelty and violence. Many ask how we got to the point where a deluded despot could cause such suffering. Russian dissidents are telling the West “We told you so, but you enabled this man for decades.”
I have my own modest but disturbing story of a direct encounter with Russia’s president, when I personally experienced his cold-blooded dishonesty. I have known in my bones, ever since, that he was somebody to be wary of.
It was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2009. The WEF that year began with an address from President Putin. Then, as about 2,000 looked on in the plenary hall, several executives joined Putin on stage. One of them, Michael Dell, asked him what sounded like a reasonable and even generous question: “How can we, as the IT sector, help you broaden the [Russian] economy?”
The response was withering. Putin practically spat out his words: “We do not need any help. We are not invalids…Pensioners should be helped. Developing countries should be helped…” Virtually the entire audience shared Dell’s incredulity as we listened, aghast, to Putin’s rude and impertinent rant. The incident became the talk of the conference. (See the exchange between Dell and Putin here, at 57:15 in the video.)
It happened that I was a member of a group the Forum calls the International Media Council, including many of the world’s top business and financial journalists. A couple days later, as often happened with big name leaders, our group was offered a collective audience with Russia’s president.
Late one afternoon, about 35 of us clustered around Putin in front of a fireplace at one of Davos’ many ski hotels, converted for the week into a conference venue. Numerous dour-faced security men glowered nearby. Lionel Barber, then the editor of the Financial Times, moderated our conversation. He and Putin sat in a couple of easy chairs in front of the fire.
The assembled financial and political journalists asked a litany of questions about the economy, oil markets, and international affairs. But as the session neared its close, I realized nobody had asked about the incident we all had witnessed, and which I, at least, had plenty of questions about. I was one of the only technology-focused journalists there, and I realized perhaps it thus fell to me to inquire about the encounter with the computer industry’s Michael Dell. So, with reluctance but what I thought was determination, I asked for the microphone.
I gripped the wireless mike and stood near the outer ring of journalists, as Putin sat about 15 feet away. Barber called on me. “Mr. President,” I began, “many of us were surprised by your encounter with Michael Dell at the opening session the other day. I’d like to understand– why did you speak to him that way?”
Perhaps this is the sort of question that in such circles must remain unasked. In any case, I asked it. But I did not get an answer.
“Where did you get that ring?” was how Putin replied, pointing to my hand. I was nonplussed. “Ring?” I thought–“My ring? What? My hand? Didn’t I just ask a question?” At first I just stared at him.
But yes, on the ring finger of the hand that held a microphone in front of my face was a fairly large turquoise ring. I am a fan of Native American art and culture, and wore the ring proudly. Eventually I stuttered, “My wife gave it to me. It’s turquoise, Navajo, Native American…” After that I ran out of gas. He stared menacingly at me.
Putin had changed the subject so drastically that no further rational response was really possible. He said something else about the ring, but as he clearly intended, I was by now confused and lacked the presence of mind to continue pursuing my admittedly somewhat confrontational question. The ex-KGB agent had successfully pulled a mental Judo move and evaded a question he didn’t feel like answering. A few more awkward moments elapsed. Putin smiled.
In short order, Barber thanked Putin and ended the session.
Later, a Russian friend at least came up with an answer to my question for the President. “When you ask that sort of Russian man if he needs any help,” my friend told me, referring back to Putin’s interaction with Dell, “it sounds to him like you just said ‘I notice you don’t have any balls.’” A Slavic self-sufficient machismo is apparently intrinsic to Putin’s personality and self-image.
After my incident at Davos, the other journalists in the Media Council joked–sort of–that I might be well advised to not sleep in my hotel room that night. I did anyway, but slept poorly. In every subsequent year they asked me about my ring. And much discussion ensued then and later among the columnists and editors about just what it all said about Putin’s malevolence and deception.
It also appears Putin has a thing about jewelry. In a notorious 2005 incident, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft had been visiting Moscow. He met with President Putin while wearing a diamond-encrusted Super Bowl championship ring worth about $25,000. Somehow Putin got hold of the ring and slipped it on his finger. Then he decided not to give it back.
A day or two after my own disturbing jewelry-centric encounter, I ran into another journalist who told me that something similar had happened to her. She had been hosting and translating a call-in radio interview with Putin when a caller asked about a topic he didn’t want to address. So there, in the radio studio, he turned to the journalist sitting next to him and started asking about her pearl necklace. What he couldn’t have known, but somehow sensed, was how much significance it held. She had just purchased it to replace a near-identical one that had belonged to her grandmother but had been stolen from her apartment. She, too, was thrown off her game, to his advantage.
None of this of course could have foreshadowed that this malevolent man would hold the world hostage, threatening to use nuclear weapons if we dared push back against his wanton violence against an innocent nation. But this is a dishonest and dangerous man the world should have stopped humoring long ago. Understanding how much he is driven by macho hyper-manliness may help us predict his next irrational moves.