A Tough Guy Puts Image before Words

By Bohlen, Celestine | International New York Times, June 17, 2014 | Go to article overview

A Tough Guy Puts Image before Words


Bohlen, Celestine, International New York Times


There's something about the Russian president's body language that draws attention, and it's not always flattering.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is known for a peculiar muscular pose, carefully cultivated over the past 14 years. He shows it off at news conferences or at his desk, standing up or sitting down, not to mention bare-chested on horseback. It's not hard to read the body language: Mr. Putin likes a manly image.

That's an important starting point for his recent extraordinary remarks about Hillary Rodham Clinton. Asked by two French journalists on June 4 about her comparison of Russia's seizure of Crimea to Hitler's aggression in the 1930s, Mr. Putin scoffed. "It's better not to argue with women," he said. "When people push boundaries too far, it's not because they are strong but because they are weak. But maybe weakness is not the worst quality for a woman."

Leaving aside the blatant sexism, Mr. Putin strayed into what for him is potentially dangerous territory. If pushing boundaries too far is a sign of weakness, then what to say about Mr. Putin's own policies in Ukraine? When Russia annexes Crimea, when it gives tacit support to attacks by pro-Russian separatists on Ukrainian border posts, isn't that -- literally -- about testing the frontiers of a neighboring sovereign state? Does that make it muscle-flexing by a weak man?

There's something about Mr. Putin's body language that draws attention, and it's not always flattering. President Obama once described his "slouch" as the behavior of the "bored kid at the back of the classroom." Mrs. Clinton has described him as a "tough guy with a thin skin." Things got even more personal in 2008 when she said Mr. Putin, as an ex-K.G.B. man, couldn't possibly have a soul. He retorted by saying that "at a minimum, heads of state should have a head."

"Hard men present hard choices -- none more so than President Vladimir Putin," Mrs. Clinton wrote in her new book, "Hard Choices."

Mr. Putin's behavior with other leaders is often seen as a clue to the quality of his personal relationships with them. In theory, he and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany should have an excellent rapport; each speaks the other's language, and the two countries have strong economic ties. …

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