Losing in Ukraine, Putin Tries an Old Strategy: Stroking Powerful Men's Egos
Berlusconi, Musk, and Trump have all been targets of flattery from the Kremlin.
Silvio Berlusconi, the 86-year-old three-time Italian prime minister who is poised to become a part of Italy's new right-wing coalition, was recently caught on tape saying he got a gift from Russian leader Vladimir Putin: 20 bottles of vodka and a "very sweet letter" ("una lettera dolcissima").
Of Putin’s “five true friends, I am the number one,” he boasted, according to a recording of his comments posted by Italian news outlet La Presse this week. According to the tape, he told a group of officials from his Forza Italia party, "I re-established relations with President Putin, a little bit. I knew him as a peaceful and sensible person."
The reaction from his coalition partner, Giorgia Meloni, who is poised to become prime minister, was unsparing. "Italy, with its head high, is part of Europe and the Atlantic alliance,” she said in a statement on October 19. “Whoever doesn’t agree with this cornerstone cannot be part of the government, at the cost of not having a government.”
Whether or not Putin's comments induce a collapse in Italy's coalition before it is set to take office next week, Putin's behavior was an old tactic: stroking the egos of powerful men to try to achieve his goals. Putin imbues an image of being a man's man, for example, having posed bare-chested on horseback or shooting a rifle with soldiers. The Russian leader gives vain leaders gifts and praise, and they in turn, do his bidding. (There are no obvious examples of him using this strategy with female leaders.)
Losing on the battlefield in Ukraine, one of Putin's few remaining plays is to try to pick off a government or two in the European Union to oppose the bloc's sanctions coalition and force Kyiv to make peace with Moscow. To achieve this end, he is hoping that high fuel prices and a cold winter will get one or more European countries to buckle. With the exception of Hungary's Viktor Orban, that hasn't happened. Meloni, despite being part of the European far-right which traditionally has been close to Putin, has been unwavering thus far on sanctions.
Putin has used the flattery strategy before to try to gain friends in the European Union. In 2006, Putin gave former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder a job working for Russian state-owned energy companies, earning almost $1 million a year. Schroeder, in turn, became a powerful advocate for tightening energy links with Russia, which was framed as a win-win in the policy of 'change through trade' ('Wandel durch Handel';) Germany would get massive economic growth from cheap energy and Russia would become more democratic. The latter didn't happen. But the policy did give Russia immense leverage over Germany's foreign and energy policy.
Putin's tactics may have been used recently to sway another powerful man -- Elon Musk. Earlier this month, Musk, who lacks any diplomatic experience, proposed a Russia-Ukraine peace plan on his Twitter account, polling his 107 million followers. The plan included Russian sovereignty over Crimea and more referendums in parts of Ukraine that Russia has annexed, albeit under U.N. supervision.
Ukraine hated the plan and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia welcomed it. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Voldoymyr Zelensky responded to the proposal with a Twitter poll of his own. Ukraine's former ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk told Musk to "f*** off" in a tweet. Eurasia Group president and founder Ian Bremmer said Musk told him he spoke to Putin before the tweet. (Musk has denied the claim.) Some days later, Musk threatened to stop funding his Starlink satellite service in Ukraine, which he provided last March to help keep Ukraine's military online during the war. (He suddenly reversed course on October 15 and said SpaceX would continue funding it.)
Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the U.S. president’s top adviser on Russia from 2017 until 2019, observed the same dynamic with Trump on multiple occasions. "Putin would never criticize. He would always say things that sounded like they could be praiseworthy when they were translated into English. Every single time he would try to win Trump over by flattery, even at the same time as he was trying to push his buttons," she said in an interview with Public Sphere last year.
Putin, in part from his training as a K.G.B. operative, is a skilled manipulator of the egos of narcissistic business and political leaders. We should expect to see this tactic again, because, unlike Russia's military strategy in Ukraine, it has a shot at working.
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