Sometimes Putin's Point Is Found in the Analysis

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During a meeting with journalists last week, President Vladimir Putin was asked whether Russia would support sanctions if Iran refused to halt its uranium enrichment program. "If my grandmother had certain sexual attributes, she would be my grandfather," Putin replied, demonstrating the unsuitability of conditional clauses in political discourse. The journalist never got a clear answer, but he was present at the coining of Putin's latest aphorism.

Putin's state-of-the-nation address contained a similar pearl, about the "wolf that eats and listens to no one." One polling agency asked people whom they thought Putin had in mind. A majority said the United States. Many thought the wolf referred to NATO. And a few shrewd respondents said that big business was the target.

No one today is interested in direct statements by Russia's leaders. Analysts focus instead on Aesopian language, Freudian slips and risque turns of phrase. During the Soviet era, Kremlin-watchers assessed the political situation using the arrangement of officials atop the Lenin Mausoleum during parades. In a similar way, the decoding of Putin's latest nugget can yield more food for thought than an hour-long speech.

At a meeting with his advisory council on sports and physical fitness last week, for example, Putin remarked that "no matter what we undertake" in this area, "we end up with the NKVD," an earlier name for the KGB. This comment could have been interpreted as an expression of Putin's displeasure with the ambitions of the siloviki, and an early indication of his intention to dismiss Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov. This only underscores the importance of reading between the lines.

Psychoanalysts note Putin's frequent use of vulgar or earthy images in response to sharp questions. Who could forget his offer to have a French journalist circumcised "so that nothing grows back." And now he's talking about his grandmother's "sexual attributes." Psychoanalyst Alexander Kantor notes the pronounced "phallic emphasis," which suggests an unconscious desire to demonstrate power, masculinity, aggression and superiority.

In the case of Iran, the battle is complicated by the fact that the ruling elite cannot decide who the adversary is -- the "wolves" in the United States or the "lambs" in Iran. After all, armed with nuclear weapons, the lambs would be worse than the predators. As with Yugoslavia and Iraq, Russia finds itself between grandmother and grandfather, as Putin might have put it. We don't want to be the grandma, but we just can't seem to be the grandpa.

Maxim Glikin is the editor of the political section at Vedomosti, where this comment appeared.