I'm pretty down on government officials, elected or otherwise, I make no secret of it. But, I do love to watch a good game, and I can appreciate a master when I see one. While Vladimir Putin is a despot extraordinaire, he is awfully good at what he does.
Truth be told, Michael Jordan wasn't paid millions in sponsorships and salary because he could put a ball through a net. He was paid his megamillions because he was fun to watch. If he put people to sleep while playing, no one would know his name. It was his miraculous dunks, his whirling fakeouts and electrifying play that made him a star. Admittedly, missing a dunk makes you look like a stooge, and his success was part of his allure, but his gamesmanship was what defined him. He was fast, he was smooth, and he always made the right moves.
Same with Vladimir Putin. Like an ex-KGB Wilt Chamberlain, Putin is dribbling circles around the international community and dunking on the gangly, aging centers representing pretty much everyone else. He is currently the most talented living politician, and though he plays for crooked fascists, he sure can dunk.
He scored an op-ed trashtalking Obama in the New York Times. Name the last Russian premier that landed an article excoriating a sitting US president in the country's largest newspaper. Day after day, newspapers around the world print Putin's every word as he drops cruel, subtle jabs against the US. Amidst the taupe backdrop of carefully crafted political messaging, Putin stands alone in his trashtalking skill.
He invaded and annexed Crimea without even admitting having done so. Not even Hitler thought to invade a country, then deny it was even happening as the tanks rolled in. Only a political genius, with a flair for the sociopathic would ever think that he could invade a country in full view of a huge constellation of US spy satellites, then roundly deny anything was going on. The worst part is that his denials seem to be stalling the awkward UN/EU/US attempts at scolding Putin for being a very bad boy. It is a lie so fabulous, a song and dance so preposterous that no one would ever think to attempt it in the 21st century. Putin did.
Putin has made a game of endearing himself to the third world by embarrassing US government representatives. Putin's team looked especially ace when Sergei Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister refused to take John Kerry's phone calls during a North Korean missile flap. Having "better things to do" than talk to the US Secretary of State (it's not even the first time, Lavrov gave Hillary Clinton the switch in 2012) is a calculated move, and an awfully good one at that. Vladimir Putin was similarly three hours late for a meeting with John Kerry. One can picture Putin and friends laughing at closed circuit TV footage of Kerry fuming in a Kremlin waiting room, crossing and uncrossing his legs, trying to read Pravda while checking his watch.
Putin has managed to make a mockery of the United States with his numerous international talks and "negotiations", mostly regarding his noninvasion of the Ukraine. By gladly speaking with the United States, and then refusing to make the slightest concession, he's managed to make the US team look useless and ineffective, as they've returned again and again from the negotiating table with nothing. Putin knows this, and will give the Obama team as many faux negotiation sessions as they can stomach. Maybe the US will catch on eventually, but in the meantime the Russians have been happy to bring John Kerry's bloviating gas-baggery into sharp focus.
In dealing with Edward Snowden, Putin leapt at the opportunity to embarrass the United States and offer himself as an enlightened ruler that stands up for liberty and the rights of the downtrodden. Putin, before any other despot, recognized and seized the opportunity to simultaneously endear himself to the international community, mask his own extensive crimes against human rights, and gain exclusive access to a valuable intelligence asset.
As the US consulate continues to shoot its foot off, one toe at a time, in the Ukraine, it seems more and more likely that the whole debacle was planned in the Kremlin from start to finish. Putin likely could have seen the admonishing finger-wagging coming, the sanctions and the UN saber-rattling coming long before he ever set into motion his gradual annexation of Crimea. Putin may have seen the value in Crimea not only in terms of land and treasure, but also as an international whipping post for the United States public image. Putin can take his time offending the UN, enraging the US and teasing the EU, and will likely drag out the annexation of Ukraine over many years to exaggerate his benefit. By showing that the West's most strident threats can be ignored without consequence, he reduces the West to a distant, barking dog. He could only have done so by invading a patch of land so inconsequential to Western interests that no one could credibly commit lives and billions to preventing it, and Crimea was just this place.
Putin is a master of doing precisely what he wants while embarrassing those that oppose him. Knowing when to hold 'em and knowing when to fold 'em is the essence of statecraft, and unfortunately this skill seems to elude most everyone in the political realm today.