Vladimir Putin loves projecting the image of a strongman, whether it is by riding bare-chested on a horse or striding through the bush, also shirtless, with a rifle in his hands, playing the role of the great white hunter for the Kremlin’s photographers. While the resulting photos often trigger mockery abroad, he is convinced that they work to his advantage at home, reinforcing the notion that he exudes so much raw power that he cannot be challenged.
But whatever else the events of the last few days demonstrated, from the moment Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mercenaries launched what looked like a possible coup attempt to the still murky deal that cut the mutiny short, they demolished whatever was left of Putin’s aura of invincibility. They did so by demonstrating, for those who still had any doubts on that score, that the Russian leader is far from a courageous superman.
It may have been tactically wise to tolerate this open display of defiance against his regime at first, but it was a devastating sign of weakness. Putin failed to act on his impulse to punish Prigozhin and his troops immediately because he was far from sure he could prevail in an outright test of strength. His subsequent praise of his military and security forces for standing up to the danger was pure theater; everyone could see how they melted away when the Wagner Group took over Rostov-on-Don and then drove unopposed straight north to within 125 miles of Moscow.
There is a long history of Putin’s efforts to cement his fearsome image. When he succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president in 2000, he immediately set out to prove that a tough new boss was taking over, someone who was the antithesis of his heavy-drinking, often mercurial predecessor.
In an interview with three Russian journalists that was issued as the book First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self Portrait by Russian’s President, he dwelled on his prowess as a judo master who won the Leningrad championship at age 21. He was willing to admit defeat on one occasion, when he faced Vladimir Kyullenen, but even that was a form of boasting. “I was not ashamed to lose to a world champion,” he declared.
The message was that he never lacked courage. Describing matches with more muscular opponents, some of whom left him gasping for breath, he emphasized that he still emerged victorious. But the impact of such braggadocio has been fading for some time. When Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine, the International Judo Federation suspended him as its honorary president and ambassador. More tellingly, Yasuhiro Yamashita, the president of the All Japan Federation, denounced him for his “cowardly” actions.
Probably no adjective stings Putin as much as that one—but it is perfectly accurate. He may have demonstrated physical courage in his youth, but Putin, as Russia’s leader, has not done so. In fact, all his trappings of power only underscore how reluctant he is to take any personal risks.
While Putin has had no hesitation in sending young, ill-prepared, poorly equipped conscripts to their deaths in Ukraine, his whole existence revolves around minimizing any risks to himself. He was obsessively frightened of COVID, so much so that in-person visitors were kept to a minimum until recently. Before admission to his presence, they were sprayed as they walked through a special disinfectant device. Once they were in the same room, they still were kept at a big distance. Hence, the awkward photos of Putin addressing them as they sat at the end of an extra-long table.
Nor has Putin shown any inclination to demonstrate more than perfunctory solidarity with his troops on the front lines. In April, he visited military command posts in the Russian-controlled Kherson and Luhansk regions, but the video footage leaves no doubt that he was there for quick photo ops, nothing more. There was nothing like Winston Churchill’s frequent walks through freshly bombed out neighborhoods during the Blitz, when the British leader showed that he was unafraid to expose himself to the same dangers as his countrymen.
A much more recent contrast was provided by Yeltsin, when he confronted the troops that were supposed to help carry out the putsch by Kremlin hardliners on Aug. 19, 1991. Mounting a tank, he addressed both the soldiers and civilians, turning the volatile situation around. No one can imagine Putin taking a similar personal risk in an analogous situation. Instead of exposing himself to danger, he would have disappeared behind a sea of bodyguards.
The prototype of the Russian tyrant, Joseph Stalin, also looked like he would run for cover after Hitler’s troops launched the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Panicked that his strategy of cooperating with Hitler had failed, he retreated to his dacha, unwilling even to address his countrymen on the radio. Callers to the Kremlin were told “Comrade Stalin is not here and is unlikely to be here.”
But at the urging of his Politburo, he resumed his duties and, at a critical moment, took a decision that demonstrated his willingness to take a personal risk. When it appeared that Moscow would fall to the Germans in October, most of the regime’s senior leaders were evacuated to Kuibyshev, the city designated as the alternate wartime capital, and Stalin was slated to join them. Instead, he decided at the last minute not to board the special train waiting to evacuate him. It was a signal to everyone that he was not willing to surrender the capital—and the Germans fell short of their goal.
Putin has proclaimed his admiration for Stalin’s wartime leadership on several occasions, overlooking his many miscalculations and record of unrelenting brutality against his own people that almost led to catastrophe. But just like it is hard to imagine him taking as big a risk as Yeltsin did in 1991, it is even harder to imagine him acting the way Stalin did at the train station a half-century earlier.
In Putin’s world, risks are borne by others. Ironically, though, his preoccupation with his own safety may ultimately prove to be his undoing. There is no greater risk for a tyrant than putting his own cowardice on display.