News reports described the encounter between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama on Friday as “awkward,” one in which they were apparently “avoiding one another” and acted “much like divorced parents at a child’s graduation.”
A more accurate simile might go something like this: “like divorced parents, one of whom abused the child systematically for years, then stopped briefly, only to emerge from rehab and violate the restraining order and resume the abuse.”
Less than three months ago Putin completed the first forcible annexation of land in Europe since World War II. For this, he has been predictably compared to Hitler by scores of commentators, including Hillary Clinton and Prince Charles. The rate of repetition has not, however, made the comparison banal and apparently irrelevant to present-day politics: It was Putin’s inclusion on the guest list for the 70th anniversary of D-Day that had that effect. It also gave him the opportunity, in an interview with French journalists, to dismiss Clinton’s comments as a woman’s folly.
The festivities in Normandy on Friday commemorated the beginning of the end of Europe’s 20th century nightmare. The Allies launched their offensive in June 1944, and for roughly half of Europe the nightmare ended less than a year later, in May 1945. The other half remained under occupation for another 4 1 / 2 decades — complete with the persecution of political dissenters and ethnic minorities, with pervasive secret-police surveillance and with labor camps. This was the part of Europe occupied by the USSR. And Putin is the politician who has done more to re-glorify the memory of Joseph Stalin than any other Soviet or Russian leader since the tyrant’s death in 1953. In contemporary Russian historiography, Stalin has once again come to personify the great victory.
What could be the rationale for inviting Putin to take part in the celebration? Would it be the role the USSR played in the Allied effort? This was never enough before. Indeed, back in 2004, Putin became the first Russian leader ever to share in the festivities (by this time he had already instituted state control over broadcast media, dismantled the Russian electoral system and thrown his main political opponent in jail). Ten years earlier, the previous Russian president, the post-Soviet, anti-communist Boris Yeltsin, had been snubbed, painfully, by then-host François Mitterrand.
Could the rationale be that, for all his faults, Putin runs one of the great European powers and must be recognized? This would be pretty thin. First, Russia under Putin no longer considers itself a part of Europe: This is in fact the basis of the country’s recently unveiled new “cultural policy.” It is also evident in Russia’s disregard for the decisions of the European Court for Human Rights, among others. More important, Putin cannot by any stretch be considered a legitimately elected leader. He started his third presidential term in 2012 following a rigged election in which he controlled the media and ran against hand-picked opponents who didn’t campaign — and the ballot boxes still had to be stuffed. In addition, the Russian constitution sets the term limit for presidents at two.
Vladimir Putin should not have been in Normandy, or anywhere where he might be treated like a legitimate world leader — but French President François Hollande invited him, and other Western leaders lacked either the desire or the leverage to object effectively. Putin’s presence at the D-Day festivities served to legitimize him and delegitimize the occasion.
Predictably, Obama’s effort to pretend Putin wasn’t there failed — here the comparison to divorced parents seems apt. They talked, and on their way out Obama administration officials mumbled something about this being a “positive development.” Like if that parent who was trying to avoid the systematically abusive and unrepentant ex-spouse said something about a glimmer of hope. We all know how that story ends.
Masha Gessen is a Russian American journalist and the author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.