Russian President Vladimir Putin’s displays of power and machismo have become the stuff of legend, as the Russian media breathlessly circulates pictures of him spear fishing, petting tigers, riding shirtless on a horse, and – most importantly – flipping martial artists on their backs in frequent exhibitions of his judo prowess. In Russia, nothing is more central to Putin’s macho image than his judo skills. But according to Ben Wittes – a legal writer and cofounder of the Lawfare Blog – Putin is a fraud.
“At least in the videos I have seen, there are no committed attacks on Putin, and I see no evidence that his opponents are ever trying to get the better of him,” Ben wrote. According to Ben, Putin shows off his “masculine prowess,” and his opponents take a dive.
Ben should know. In addition to being a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and co-chair of the Hoover Institution’s Working Group on National Security, Technology, and Law, Ben is also a black belt in both taekwondo and aikido. And so, in 2015, Ben publicly called on Putin to prove himself in combat.
“I will meet him any time and any place where he lacks legal authority to have me locked up,” Ben said on Twitter. A Kremlin spokesperson brushed off the challenge, but Ben was undeterred – and has continued to call for the President of Russia to step up and fight somebody who will fight back.
“Putin needs either to fight this reasonably well-trained but not especially expert middle-aged desk worker in a situation in which I’m actually allowed to win without fear of reprisal,” Ben said, “or he should face condemnation worldwide as a wuss and a phony.”
Will Putin fight Ben Wittes? Probably not. But there’s an important point to this. Putin’s insistence on very public displays of martial arts proficiency – or what Ben has called “turbo-male bullshit” – is part of an attempt to create a cult of personality around his hyper-masculinity. In Ben’s telling, it’s one facet of a much larger propaganda campaign that includes his barbaric treatment of the LGBT community in Russia and his strongman behavior abroad. When that kind of conduct goes unchallenged – even at its most basic level – the ideas it represents can get accepted into the mainstream. By calling Putin a fraud and a liar when he puts on a tough-guy show, we can deflate his image and diminish his power.
We may not get to see the Superbad from Leningrad take on the…well…Ben. But the lesson here is bigger than Putin. The point is that that it’s important to identify a lie when you see one. It’s important to resist a cult of personality. And whenever a leader makes grandiose claims about his strength and domination, it’s important to stand up, speak out, and – occasionally – call him a wuss.
On the podcast last week, Ben and I discussed which of Donald Trump’s Cabinet officials should resign, what James Comey told him before being fired, and what moves he would use to beat Putin in a fight. Take a listen, subscribe, and stay tuned for more.