Vladimir Putin, the former spook who has now managed to conjoin both ceremonial power and actual power as the Prime President of Russia, is sad these days. He just doesn’t understand why, over a month after Russia sent columns of tanks, squadrons of fighter jets, and belligerent “peacekeepers” deep into Georgia, the West is just so damn pissed at him.
What were we supposed to do when Georgia attacked not our territory, he asked a group of guests and television cameras at a luncheon in Sochi? “Do you think we should have wiped the bloody snot away and hung our heads?” he asked, resorting again to his famous penchant for otolaryngological imagery.
Putin is surprised, “astounded” even, that the West has responded so angrily to Russia’s military actions in Georgia. Russia, he explains, loves America. We held a moment of silence for the victims of 9/11, he told the gathered. We are “not against anybody,” and we have “no ideological conflict” with you, he continued—and, in a dubious play to win the hearts and minds of America and Europe, he claimed that he still loves George W. Bush when most Americans have abandoned him.
Why is Putin suddenly on a media blitz? Why is he courting the Western media, turning up the charm, and backing away from his own very tough talk on NATO—talk that has revived discussions about Cold War 2.0?
The reason is simple: moneys.
Russia’s invasion of Georgia, provoked or not, has completely shattered foreign investors’ confidence in what was once a booming Russian market. Last year, the Russian economy grew by 8.1 percent and investors were in love. Then, in July, Putin decided to jostle Mechel, a mining company, for its lunch money, and the love started to fade. The Russian market started a long series of burps and belches and, by the time August and the Ossetian war drew to a close, over $20 billion of foreign investment had fled the country. Foreign lending to Russian companies dropped by 85 percent, and the Russian stock market threw up, losing over a third of its value since May, and falling to its lowest levels since the summer of 2006.
In his dealings with everyone from Yukos to Shell and B.P., Putin has shown that his main interest is capitalizing on Russia’s oil and mineral wealth—and lining his and his buddies’ pockets with it. He may talk tough on the international stage, but he knows when to cash in national pride chips for greenbacks.
And so, with the cameras and foreign reporters watching, Putin lit some incense, hit play on the Boyz II Men tape, and asked us all to kiss and make up. But for his intended audience, it might be hard to say goodbye to yesterday.Julia Ioffe is a freelance writer based in New York City.