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Commentary: The two faces of Vladimir Putin

by on February 27, 2014 10:00 AM

Nighttime skies glowed fiery orange at the edges of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, just days ago — and the whole world was watching.

Last Sunday, the world watched the sky above Sochi, on Russia’s Black Sea border, 845 miles from Moscow:

Orange starbursts of fireworks celebrated the triumphant end of the 2014 Winter Olympics that Russia’s president had spent so lavishly to host. The Kremlin’s seldom-smiling leader desperately wanted to show the world (see also: the global economy) the new super-friendly face and open-arms partnership potential of Putin’s New Russia.

Last week, the world also watched the sky above Kiev, the Ukraine capital just 470 miles southwest of Moscow.

Menacing orange flames leaped skyward from fires surrounding thousands of anti-government activists who occupied the city’s famous Independence Square. Protesters were demanding the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych, who had spurned an economic partnership with the European Union to become the economic ally (see also: acolyte) of Putin’s Russia. Putin’s government urged Ukraine’s president to crack down, get tougher and stop being pushed around by the protesters.

For days a world of television and online viewers flipped back and forth between live simulcasts of the two very different epic battles for supremacy. We watched glorious battles for Olympic supremacy in Sochi and horrific battles for governmental supremacy in Kiev.

The world saw the two very different, but very real, faces of Putin. They saw the face of a new thoroughly modern Putin, looking quite pleased in the stadium beneath Sochi’s glowing orange sky. If the Olympics had been the only measure of Putin’s accomplishment, the Russian strongman surely would have been glowing on the inside, as well.

But the world had also seen the other face of Russia’s Putin. We saw in Kiev the face that was molded long ago, during Putin’s days in the Soviet KGB. World viewers recognized the face of the old Putin as they watched as Yanukovych’s thugs did just what Putin’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, had urged. The government got tough, fired rifles into the crowd of militant protesters — and killed 100 protesters in one day.

That was too much for Ukraine’s parliament; too much, even, for Ukraine’s police. Parliament yanked its support from Yanukovych; the police vanished from the square. Overnight Putin’s Ukrainian marionette had vanished from the presidential palace and from his private estate on which he’d spent the people’s money lavishly while his country went broke. He’d reportedly tried to flee to — (can you guess?) — yes, Russia. But his former border guards blocked his plane from taking off.

If the only scenes the world had seen last week were the visuals from Sochi, the movers and shakers of the global economy might have concluded that Russia’s president probably had miraculously transformed his long-troubled nation. Sochi’s orange firework sky glowed like a neon sign saying Putin’s New Russia was now open for business.

But the world saw the orange sky over Kiev and the red pavement of its Independence Square. And those scenes have indelibly colored the world’s portrait of Putin. The world’s view of Putin became starkly clear this week. On Tuesday, Putin sent troops to conduct a military exercise near Russia’s Ukraine border. Now all the planet sees him as a man with wide-open arms, but tightly clenched fists.

The only way for Putin to change the way the world pictures him is to change the face of his policies around the globe. He must start by ending his support for one of the planet’s most evil mass murderers of his own people — Syria’s despotic Bashar al-Assad. But the world’s leaders and citizens now know not to hold their breath waiting for Putin to do the right thing on anything.

It was the lesson the world learned last week — a week that marked the best of times and the worst of times for Vladimir Putin. It was a dickens of a week for Russia’s leader.

But the week may have served as a much-needed wake-up call for all those dreaming radicals around the planet. Especially so many ordinary citizens in uncertain places such as Venezuela and other Latin American countries, where people are still trying to find their own new paths to prosperity.

Putin has reached out hopefully to them in the past. But if they were watching last week’s worldwide simulcasts, they now know Putin will never be their answer.

Martin Schram is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. His column is distributed by McClatchy-Tribune News Service. Email him at
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