Holman Jenkins tells a good story about Vladimir Putin in the Wall Street Journal. For a long time Bob Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, said he gave his 2005 Super Bowl ring to Putin when they met. Sounds a little unlikely, doesn’t it? More recently, Kraft ‘came clean’, as Jenkins puts it. The truth illustrates Putin’s character perfectly. The reason Kraft did not object to Putin’s theft says a lot about our country’s position in the world now, too.
So Putin and Kraft meet in Russia not long after the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory, and presentation of Kraft’s ring to Kraft. Putin asks his new friend Bob if he can try it on. Kraft gives it to him, Putin tries it on, then slips it into his pocket as Kraft holds out his hand to take it back. Three KGB agents surround Putin, and the group walks away. We can only guess what Kraft must have thought.
The case of Kraft’s ring is amazing and perfect. What would you want with someone else’s championship ring?
Jenkins tells this story as an example of how Putin points at things, and he winds up owning them. We don’t know how much he is worth, because owning stuff isn’t relevant to his case. When you’re Russia’s capo crimini, you don’t need to own stuff. You just steal it.
As Kraft relates the story: “I took out the ring and showed it to [Putin], and he put it on and he goes, ‘I can kill someone with this ring,’ ” Kraft told the crowd at Carnegie Hall’s Medal of Excellence gala at the Waldorf-Astoria.“I put my hand out and he put it in his pocket, and three KGB guys got around him and walked out.”
The case of Kraft’s ring is amazing and perfect. What would you want with someone else’s championship ring? Putin can’t tell people he won the Super Bowl. He can’t wear the ring as a classy piece of jewelry. It’s not a keepsake that has sentimental value for him. That leaves only a few other motives: (1) humiliate Kraft, and – as it turns out – the United States; (2) kleptomania; (3) show you can do it, say, on a dare, or simply to brag about it later. In the entire interaction, Putin shows what we already know: he has a bully’s instincts, with all the insecurities those entail.
The honor of victory, and its symbol the ring, are inseparable for the team owner. Yet Putin wanted the ring without the honor. What does that tell you about the Russian leader, his integrity and sense of success?
People don’t want to stand up to him, because they fear the consequences. He has murdered enough antagonists by now that we do not doubt his resolution and reach. Interestingly, Putin did not need to intimidate Kraft – he just tricked him – but he did intimidate the United States government, as we’ll see below. For theft of the ring when Kraft and Putin men met, only deceit enters the picture. Only the ring – symbol and souvenir of victory – is at issue. Kraft possesses the victory and its praise no matter who holds the ring.
The honor of victory, and its symbol the ring, are inseparable for the team owner. Yet Putin wanted the ring without the honor. What does that tell you about the Russian leader, his integrity and sense of success? What does it tell you about his courtiers, friends and ministers? If you stole someone’s Super Bowl ring, would you want your friends to know about it? What would they think of you if you told them? Most people would want to hide that they had done something so low. On the contrary, Putin wants to restore Russia’s sense of strength and self-esteem!
The lesson Putin teaches is simple – one that applies to politics, business, and Super Bowl rings – don’t deal with people you don’t trust. Don’t deal with weak people who need to demonstrate their strength.
The episode certainly tells you some interesting things about the way Putin interacts with the world. The man is shrewd and without scruples. He is good at what he does. He knows how to play from weakness. You do not succeed in post-Soviet Russian politics without these and similar skills. His theft of the ring was a scam, as was his theft of Crimea. He has out-maneuvered the West in Syria, Ukraine, and who knows how many other less well known theaters of conflict. The lesson Putin teaches is simple – one that applies to politics, business, and Super Bowl rings – don’t deal with people you don’t trust. Don’t deal with weak people who need to demonstrate their strength.
Here is the first article’s opening sentence, which points to yet another motive Putin may have had for stealing Kraft’s ring:
“In Mother Russia, stealing Super Bowl rings is sign of a good president.”
That’s kind of a joke, as I expect Putin is the only Russian president who has ever owned a Super Bowl ring. Apparently he keeps it safe in the Kremlin Library.
Note too that the White House insisted Kraft accept the humiliation, and lie about how Putin obtained the ring. The White House forced Kraft to say he had given the ring to Putin as a gift. Putin must have thought, “Oh my, these jokers in the White House are weaker than I thought! I screw them over, and they just take it.” From these matters of honor, do wars occur.
The U. S. government could have stood by Bob Kraft, to help him recover something important to him. It could have gone to Putin in private, through conventional diplomatic channels, to tell him that some misunderstanding has occurred, the ring was not intended as a gift when Kraft showed it to you. We’re sorry you perceived otherwise, but we would like to have the ring returned.
Putin would understand, if he did not respond to this offer to save face, the United States would extend its next invitation to resolve the misunderstanding in public. Now everyone knows Putin has Kraft’s ring, and Kraft wants it back. The only honor to be lost in this situation is Putin’s. If Vladimir says no in public, or simply ignores the request, he looks mighty bad. So does the country he leads.
Instead, the administration leans on Kraft to say nothing! As I’ve said over and over, members of Obama’s foreign policy team are amateurs, and they know it. Their unwillingness to stand up for Kraft – who was Russia’s guest, no less, when Putin stole the ring – shows the measure of their wobbly spines. Putin handed them a perfect opportunity to be polite, yet firm, and they declined it!
Here’s my reply to the first comment, which contains a correction:
Thank you! I need to write an update about the president. I’m too eager to criticize Obama these days. The sources don’t actually say the date of the theft: only that Kraft told the story in a speech he gave in 2013. We assume the theft occurred not long after Kraft received the ring, as he still carried it with him.