We waited in the hockey rink's press room for a few hours, but no sign of Putin. He is a notorious dawdler. He has kept the pope waiting for him. Queen Elizabeth too. He is also tautly disciplined. He carries himself with controlled menace and rarely smiles. When he walks into a room and coolly levels his gaze at those gathered around him, this is no act. His opponents have routinely wound up in exile or in prison. In Putin, there is nothing of a Western political leader, the perpetual candidate who charms his public, conveying a personable disposition. Putin is in charge, and he doesn't care what anybody thinks.
This delay gave me plenty of time to consider my question. Maybe I should ask: How will these Olympics affect the international perception of Russia and your leadership? After all, Putin has concocted a story for his people, that he is the one man strong enough to defend Russian territory and values against the Western invaders. Russian victories at Sochi will prove this.
The press woman led us upstairs to watch the game. Then Putin appeared, down at center ice, his voice emanating from the PA system. The press woman promised we would see him after the game. Now what I wanted to ask Putin was: Will I ever see you?
The final buzzer sounded and we hurried to a conference room. We waited more. I peeked through the doorway and down the hall. There I saw the great commotion that attends the approach of a very important person. The moment was nearly upon me, and I inhaled deeply.
Several large security men barged into the room. "Get out," they barked. They ushered us into a storage room and closed the door. There were a few chairs there, a small TV and a box of chocolate marshmallow bars. The press woman flicked on the TV, and the image on the screen was of the conference room we had just left. A group of men filtered into the room, Putin bringing up the rear. Seated at the conference table, he spoke with a measured tone. He said he was proud of the Russian victory in the game that had just ended. This was a good sign, a harbinger of Olympic victory.
I asked the press woman why we had been ejected from the conference room. Her face tightened. She spoke to me as though I failed to grasp the utility of my situation. Putin was conducting his press conference, and I was free to take notes. I looked around the room, searching for support from my Russian colleagues. There was none. One cameraman pointed his lens at the TV screen and began to record.
A s Putin enters his 15th year in a position of power, he has never been more securely in control of Russia. Part of this is by design, part plain coincidence, conditions having conspired to make Putin appear to be the world's craftiest statesman. The onetime KGB officer and former prime minister has faced down the U.S. on Syria, defusing the chemical-weapons controversy, and also the EU on Ukraine, lending Kiev $15 billion to remain in the Russian sphere. He has granted asylum to Edward Snowden, the NSA whistle-blower. He has trivialized a domestic opposition movement. In October Forbes named him the most powerful person in the world. He leapfrogged Obama in the rankings, and how much fun that must have been for Putin, a virtual unknown when he was appointed president in 1999. Now the West, and the rest of the world, will be compelled to come to Sochi to live under his decree for a while.