PARIS — Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer with black belts in multiple martial arts, has the skill and know-how to kill a man with his bare hands. He also has a big scary dog, as a pair of Japanese journalists were reminded before interviewing Putin on Wednesday.
The journalists "grimaced" and "stood there frozen" when Putin brought in Yume, his four-year-old Akita, who barked at the frightened visitors, CNN reported. With cameras rolling, the powerful president then led the large animal through a series of tricks. "You were right to take caution," Putin later told the Japanese men. "Yume is a no-nonsense dog … She is being a guard dog."
The Russian leader's alpha-male antics contrast sharply with the measured, soft-spoken approach cultivated by his outgoing U.S. counterpart, President Barack Obama. Of course Obama is about to be replaced by Donald Trump — a blustery billionaire with his own unabashed tough-guy vibe minus the karate chops. And then there's the imposing Xi Jinping, who is also accumulating the kind of personal power in China that hasn't been seen since the 1970s.
The three strongmen have little time or interest, it would seem, in normal checks and balances. And they prefer "deal-making" to diplomacy, Alain Frachon of the French daily Le Mondeargued in a recent article. That could include agreements among themselves whereby each leader recognizes and respects the other's sphere of influence. Trump said as much during his campaign for the presidency, suggesting, for example, that he won't interfere with Putin's plans for the Crimean Peninsula.
Writing in Russian daily Kommersant, Sergei Strokan and Maksim Yusin say the view in Moscow is that Trump (like Putin) is ultimately as much of a "pragmatist" as a strongman.
Still, as history has shown, the balance-of-power act can be a tricky one to maintain. Take the most horrific spot on the world map at the moment: Aleppo. With Putin's backing, the forces of Syria's own strongman, Bashar al-Assad, have taken back full control of the country's largest city and historic economic capital. Putin didn't bat an eye in the face of widespread reports of widespread civilian casualties in Aleppo.
But, as Georges Malbrunot writes in another French daily, Le Figaro, the Putin-Assad axis has its limits: Now that the so-called "useful Syria" is back under regime control, Putin (who has other hot spots to worry about) may want to push for negotiations and an end to the conflict and possibly to Assad's rule. The Syrian leader instead appears eager to reconquer all the territory he's lost, up to the Turkish and Iraqi borders. Whether a shift in the Russian-Syrian alliance means more or less bloodshed remains to be seen. Strongmen at odds or strongmen in cahoots — which is worse?