My chat with Vladimir Putin

  • Article by: ROSS DOUTHAT , New York Times
  • Updated: September 16, 2013 - 7:08 PM

‘As much fun as I had baiting’ Americans, ‘part of my op-ed was sincere.’

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, listens during a meeting with Russian Parliament speakers at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, on Monday, Sept. 2, 2013. President Vladimir Putin hopes to send a delegation of Russian lawmakers to the United States to discuss the situation in Syria with members of Congress, the Interfax news agency reported Monday.

Photo: Alexei Druzhinin, Associated Press - Ap

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When I came into my office, he was in my chair, feet up, shirt off, an AK-47 propped against the desk.

“President Putin,” I said, playing it cool. “Nice op-ed last week.”

He looked up from my computer. “Ah, yes. I was just checking this, how you say, ‘most e-mailed list’ that your New York Times keeps. I see I’m still No. 1.”

“Only until someone writes a piece about Ivy League admissions, Mr. President.”

His laugh sounded like ice cracking in a Siberian spring. “Call me Vlad,” he said. “And tell me: Is it always this easy to get a rise out of you Americans? I watch your TV, I follow your elections. I thought you are used to propaganda.”

“Well, if it’s our own. But it’s different being lectured on peace and human rights by a ruler who doesn’t give a fig about either.”

“Yes, but all this whining from your politicians. This Bob Menendez saying my piece made him want to vomit — like a podrostok who cannot handle vodka. And John Boehner, I know he sometimes cries like a babushka but to whine that he was insulted by my column … does he get so offended when he watches the White House’s propaganda network, this MSNBC?”

“Actually, the White House doesn’t run …”

“And this anger about the paragraph where I questioned American exceptionalism? After reading the online comments, I concede that American people are exceptional: exceptionally easy to bait.”

“Well, you can’t blame us for being annoyed with the situation. President Obama traps himself by threatening a war that Congress wouldn’t support, you sweep in with a bogus solution he has to accept because the alternative is impotence …”

“How is the solution we have offered not a good one?”

“Will it lead to Assad giving up his chemical weapons?”

“I have no idea. But the diplomatic to-and-fro makes him unlikely to use them, which is what you wanted, no?”

“Well, the ultimate goal is to remove him from power …”

He banged his hand on my desk. “This is how it always is! You cannot stop with reasonable goal. You must have unreasonable one. Toppling the Taliban was not enough — you had to repeat our mistake and occupy Afghanistan. Saddam contained was not enough — you wanted regime change, democracy. Killing terrorists is not enough — you want the Muslim world to love you.

“Well, there’s that exceptionalism thing.”

“Yes, yes, I admit, America really is different. Sometimes, deep in my cold, black heart, I even feel flicker of admiration for that difference …”

“Well, thanks …”

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