Indian journalists had a rare opportunity to connect and interact with the Russian President Vladimir Putin and experience at first hand his razor-sharp wit and humour, his ability to be charmingly informal, the depth of his knowledge of world affairs and the force of his personality. Raman Swamy pens his impressions for our readers in this article …
The venue was the Taj Exotica hotel in Goa, and the occasion was a news conference following the meeting of the leaders of BRICS member states. Thanks to the few television channels that had the good sense to take a break from focusing entirely on Indian leaders and spokespersons at the BRICS summit and telecast a portion of Putin’s press conference live, many ordinary Indians also got the chance to get a rare glimpse of one of the world’s most powerful leaders, about whom they have heard so much but know so little.
As an event, it had all the ingredients of a top rated news programme – a global celebrity addressing serious international issues at a pivotal juncture in the history of the world. Adding spice to thew whole affair was an embarrassing bit of drama, when the electricity failed for a brief moment and the lights went out when Putin was halfway through giving an incredibly frank and detailed reply to a very relevant question pertaining to cyber warfare. The Russian president was speaking very pointedly and very deliberately about the most sensitive and secretive of subjects – espionage, intelligence, cyber-hacking and phone tapping.
Referring to the NSA (National Security Agency), the US intelligence service, he pointed directly at the assembly media and said: “They are spying on everyone of you, all of you. You are a target for the intelligence service because you have information. You have access to presidential press conferences like this one. You hear something, many things. You see something. You are free to talk on the phone. You can say anything you like on air. You don’t care about sensitive data. But you can be tracked by Intelligence. All the information you transmit will be on the NSA’s files”.
At that precise moment, the electricity blipped at the Taj Exotica, all the lights blinked out and the entire room went dark for a fraction of a second. When illumination returned, Putin leaned back, rolled his eyes and said with a ghost of a smile – “Oh! Something happened, certainly. Maybe I said something wrong. It seems they are listening, certainly!”
This quick-witted instant reaction was greeted with a burst of laughter. It dissolved all the pre-conceived notions about Vladimir Putin – that he is a cold, robotic and terrifying man who never departs from the pre-prepared script and speaks only in metallic monotones aimed at dominance and intimidation. This is image that Western media have drilled into the heads of even the educated classes in third world countries and emerging economies. Quite to the contrary, Vladimir Putin appeared relaxed throughout the press conference, often shifting languidly in his chair, leaning forward to listen to questions attentively and coming out with either a detailed answer or with good humoured quips and quotable one-liners.
At the Goa press conference, the Russian president was asked a barrage of questions about the fast-escalating verbal attack on Russia by top leaders and officials of the United States. In the last few days Washington has accused the Kremlin of hacking email servers of the Democratic Party and has threatened to retaliate in a similar way. As recently as Friday, US vice-president Joe Biden virtually confirmed that Russia would soon be at the receiving end of a cyber-attack by US intelligence. Vladimir Putin replied with what appears to be his characteristic style: “One can expect just about anything from our American friends. After all, what did he (Biden) say that we didn’t already know? Didn’t we know that US authorities are spying and eavesdropping on everyone?”
He paused for a second and added: “The only novelty is that for the first time, at the highest level, the United States has admitted involvement in these activities, and to some extent it has threatened us – which of course does not meet the standards of international communication”.
Then, after another pause, he quipped with a half-amused smile: “Apparently, they are nervous,” he added.
Clearly, this was not just a singular opportunity for the Indian media to see and hear Vladimir Putin from close up, but this is probably the very first time that Indian journalists have had a front-row seat to witness the unfolding of a potentially catastrophic global class of giants between two of the world’s most powerful nuclear nations and that too from Indian soil.