This weekend, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft went public with claims that Russian President Vladimir Putin stole his 2004 Super Bowl ring during his visit to Russia in 2005.
Here's how Kraft described the incident to the New York Post:
“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.”
Even though Putin's spokepeople are denying the story, it's still incredibly hard to imagine a similar accusation being made about the leader of any other major world power. Could you imagine Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, or Angela Merkel being accused of a casual and petty theft?
To anyone who has been following Putin for a long time, however, the story makes sense. In Putin's personal history there have long been rumors and reports of petty thugishness and abrupt rudeness when dealing with others.
Here are seven examples:
Firstly, the ring theft has already been described in a book by Russian journalist Masha Gessen, "The Man Without a Face." In her description it actually sounds a little worse than in Kraft's telling of the story.
REUTERS/Shamil ZhumatovHere's how Gessen described the ring transaction:
Several times, at least one of them embarrassingly public, Putin has acted like a person afflicted with kleptomania. In June 2005, while hosting a group of American businessmen in St Petersburg, Putin pocketed the 124-diamond Super Bowl ring of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. He had asked to see it, tried it on, allegedly said, ''I could kill someone with this'', then stuck it in his pocket and left the room abruptly. After a flurry of articles in the US press, Kraft announced a few days later that the ring had been a gift - preventing an uncomfortable situation from spiralling out of control.
This isn't the only time Putin has been accused of petty theft.
REUTERS/Kirill KudryavtsevGessen goes on to describe another, even more brazen moment, when Putin allegedly had his bodyguards steal a glass Kalashnikjov filled with vodka from the Guggenheim:
In September 2005, Putin was a guest at New York's Guggenheim Museum. At one point his hosts brought out a conversation piece another Russian guest must have given the museum: a glass replica of a Kalashnikov automatic weapon filled with vodka. The gaudy souvenir costs $300 in Moscow. Putin nodded to one of his bodyguards, who took the glass Kalashnikov and carried it out of the room, leaving the hosts speechless.
Gessen goes on to argue that Putin suffers not from kleptomania, but the more obscure pleonexia — "the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others."
Putin has been accused of far bigger scams too.
ReutersIn Gessen's book she also describes how, in 1991, Putin, then deputy mayor of St. Peterburg, allegedly organized a number of scams involving meat imports into the poor, starving city. This drive is believed by many to have enabled Putin to make himself fabulously wealthy — with reports of his wealth ranging from $40 billion to an incredible $70 billion. Even powerful oligarches who've challenged him have forfeited their personal fortunes to the Russian state.
APMikhail Khodorkovsky was once Russia's richest man, one of the original oligarches who got seriously rich by taking over energy giant Yukos during the "Wild East" Russia of the 1990s. However, after he gave a presentation on corruption in Russia to Putin and other business leaders, the Russian state began pursuing Khodorkovsky and other Yukos employees for tax evasion. Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 and has been in prison ever since.
Here's how Gessen describes Putin's reactions to Khordokovsky's corruption presentation in an article for Vanity Fair:
The person who did comment was Putin. To those who knew Putin, it was clear from a characteristic smirk on his face that he was livid. “Some companies, including Yukos, have extraordinary reserves,” he said. “The question is: How did the company get them?” He shifted in his chair to raise his right shoulder in a gesture that made him seem larger. His thuggish smile made it plain that he was making a threat, not asking for information. “And your company had its own issues with taxes. To give the Yukos leadership its due, it found a way to settle everything and take care of all its problems with the state. But maybe this is the reason there is such competition to get into the tax academy?” Putin was accusing Khodorkovsky of having bribed tax inspectors. Between the lines, he was also threatening a takeover of Yukos.
However, it's not all to do with personal enrichment. Putin is notorious for being late to meetings with foreign officials — reportedly keeping John Kerry waiting for three hours earlier this year, for example.
"This habitual lateness of Putin's can be read in different ways, as a character trait or his way of demonstrating his attitude toward others," Andrei Kolesnikov, opinion editor of the Moscow-based opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta said last year . "But only God is above him now. He's person No. 1, and he can afford to be late whenever he wants." At the beginning of his presidency, Putin gained support for his tough response to a series of devastating bombings on apartment buildings in Russia reportedly by terrorists in Chechnya and Dagestan. However, there's been a long running, and somewhat credible, rumor that the FSB (the successor agency to the KGB) engineered the bombings as a "false flag" to garner support for Putin and a new war in Chechnya.
293 people were killed in the bombings, and more than a thousand people injured. Putin, for his part, has specifically denied any knowledge of a plot his biography "First Person", published in 2000:
“What?! Blowing up our own apartment buildings? You know, that is really…utter nonsense! It’s totally insane. No one in the Russian special services would be capable of such a crime against his own people.”
In his personal life there have also been accusations of dodgy behavior. In the 1980s, during his time as a KGB agent in East Germany, German intelligence reports described him as a "philanderer and a wifebeater."
APWhen Putin and his wife announced their divorce earlier this month, it was only after years of reports of dalliances with younger women, including former gymnast Alina Kabaeva and his personal photographer Yana Lapikova.
These stories have been around for years, and Putin himself does little to deny them. The Russian president's upbringing in Leningrad, a city nearly starved out of existence by a Nazi blockade during World War II, was notoriously tough, and Putin himself has played up the thuggishness of his attitude at the time — even his official biography for the 2012 election remarked that he was a "bully, not a pioneer" during this time. He was never part of the Moscow-elite, and spent much of his career in the KGB as an outsider.
Many observers believe this tough background helped craft a leader who, depending on your perspective, was either endearingly tenacious or worryingly ruthless. Either way, it goes a long way to explaining why he's been at the top of Russian politics for 13 years with virtually no challengers to his throne.
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