In the run up to Donald Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin, a meme has been popping up on my twitter feed. It’s a picture of President Obama’s meeting with Putin at Obama’s final G20 in China, September, 2016. A dead-eyed, slightly sweaty Putin looks up as Obama goes full Eastwood, glaring down at him. ‘I don’t think it’s funny you laughing at my mule!’ he could be whispering between gritted teeth. Now we’ve learned that Obama was actually warning Putin to knock off the interference in the November election, which security agencies in the US already knew had been launched by Russian state actors and, more importantly, not to even contemplate hacking the voting machines themselves.
Perhaps better than an Eastwood film, the photograph is a throwback to Rocky IV with Ivan Drago and Sylvester Stallone going eye to eye, though with the height advantage reversed. “Typically the tone of our meetings is candid, blunt, business-like — and this was no different,” a grim Obama told a press conference afterwards. This translates roughly as “I will destroy you”. It apparently didn’t work.
Donald Trump’s first confirmed meeting with Putin at the G20 this week seemed less like a tough guy confrontation and more like the closing act of a long-running ‘will-they-or-won’t-they’ sit-com romance. The sweet talk was evident in a brief press call when Trump put Russia first as he asserted: “We look forward to a lot of very positive things happening for Russia … and for the United States and for everyone concerned.” In the USA, where anti-Russian sentiment is resurgent, the order of countries mentioned will be seen as mirroring the ‘traitor’ Trump’s Kompromatted agenda.
Putin’s statement that he was ‘delighted’ to personally meet the president was no doubt designedly double-edged: stroking the Trumpian ego while also stirring the conspiracy plot. The Russians have long understood the only thing better than interfering is to have everyone think you are interfering. See for instance a recent press conference where Putin admitted the possibility that some patriotic hacker might have interfered in the American elections. Putin’s denials are knowingly ironic. The whole story boosts Putin’s prestige at home, serves as a lingering threat for other foreign powers with elections coming up *cough* Germany *cough* and continues to destabilize American polity to an incredible extent. The opposition is rightly enraged at a possible collusion, making bipartisanship nigh on impossible. And if the GOP agenda on health care and taxes can’t go forward and the midterms go South, then Russia will become a useful pretext for Republicans wishing to dump Trump.
In the run up to the G20 conference in Hamburg, Putin met with President Xi Jinping of China and presented a united front on North Korea while signing trade deals worth $10 billion. The EU and Japan announce a huge trade deal, effectively snubbing their noses at the isolationism of both Brexit Britain and Trump. And, while all this is going on, where is Trump? In Poland, applause-bathing in front of a handpicked crowd and being snubbed by the Polish First Lady Agata Kornhauser-Duda. Leader of the Free World? This guy can’t even book a hotel room convincingly.
Meanwhile, last week Sylvester Stallone hinted in a series of Instagram posts that Creed 2, the latest installment of the Rocky saga, will be linked to Rocky IV. In the 80s, Ruskie-bashing – with the exception of the odd Sting song – was perfectly admissible, from 007 to Red Dawn. Following the end of the Cold War, films turned to the Russian Mafia of Eastern Promises or whoever Liam Neeson fancies killing. But now it seems we have gone full circle. In Stallone’s photoshopped post, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) gets in Ivan Drago’s face. Perhaps, the Hollywood fantasy machine will give the US something they currently lack: a hero willing and able to take on a Russian.