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A picture often speaks louder than words, and the photograph taken of the leaders who attended the G20 summit last week certainly does that. Vladimir Putin, the infamous leader of Russia, is out on the end of the front row, looking as if he has been cast adrift from the centre of politics. Effectively, he has. The Canadian Prime Minister is noted to have said to him: “I only have one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine.” Blunt words for a supposedly peaceful meeting.
Putin isn’t any stranger to blunt words, however, as early in November he announced that there was nothing wrong with the Nazi-Soviet pact (also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact), which the Soviet Union made with the Third Reich. It was a treaty of non-aggression between the two nations, stating that they would carve up Poland, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Romania between them. These comments were made by the Russian president when talking with young historians in Moscow, urging them to critically examine the causes of the Second World War.
These comments are a direct U-turn from ones that the Putin regime made in 2009 when he condemned the same pact, but said that the Munich Agreement of 1938 made by Britain and France destroyed any chance of an anti-fascist front. Critics have said that the comments Putin made last week are a blatant attempt to shore up Putin’s authoritarian regime and his position in Ukraine by using history as justification. A pact that agreed to a division of land in Eastern Europe might naturally cause alarm in that part of the world, but once again it seems like mostly hot air from the ultimate balloon. I don’t think it’s something to get too wound up about just yet.
I’m not trying to say that Putin isn’t a threat to the stability of Eastern Europe, because I believe he is, but to deny the words of Gorbachev from last week I don’t believe we’re already in a third cold war. This might seem even more likely as Putin himself has threatened this outcome during a tit-for-tat expulsion of German and Polish diplomats from Moscow after a supposed Russian spy was expelled from Warsaw. These moves all seem to portray Putin as being the ultimate bully-boy, flexing his muscles and causing mayhem just to big-up his own ego. Putin’s awareness of his image, and the image he’d like to portray, is undeniable; most of us have seen the picture of him bare-chested in army trousers having done 10,000 push-ups or whatever the caption says. This is compounded by the extremely silly fact that an art exhibition recently shown in Moscow had Putin portrayed as the Greek demi-God Hercules in traditional scraped-away-black pottery style of ancient Greece, but they all had a modern twist. Some of the paintings showed Putin defending Russia against terrorism, whilst others showed him wrestling with western sanctions. The exhibition was opened to celebrate Putin’s 62nd birthday last month.
In terms of what is going on in Ukraine, maybe the man has a goal in mind. He continues to deny that Russia has supplied arms to the rebel separatists in the area despite continued international pressure about the question. What is most striking, more than anything, is Putin’s seeming lack of concern about what anyone else says or does; he headed home from the G20 early, claiming he needed a good night’s sleep. He is seemingly convinced about the power behind him, and whether his words are just bluster or not, his highlighting of various incidents in Russian history that seemingly mirror today’s events can only add to the image of this authoritarian and domineering figure.