Russian president Vladimir Putin’s cult of personality continues to grow. Apparently bored with the ease of annexing Crimea and drawing big dotted lines down the eastern part of Ukraine, he has found time for a Kim Jong-un–level of public demonstration of his physical fitness. Putin captained an ice hockey team in an amateur match with some former NHL players, and while leading them to a 21–4 victory, the Russian leader scored six goals and had five assists. It’s not quite the achievement of Roman emperor Nero, who in a.d. 67 competed in the Olympic Games, winning a modest 1,800 medals (olive wreaths, actually), and this despite being an athlete mediocre enough to be thrown from his chariot and nearly killed (which would have saved his assassins from their labors a year later). Putin had to settle for something a bit more down-to-earth, but for all his tough-guy image, he apparently barely felt the sting of any other player’s stick. It would have been nice to see how he reacted to a serious body slam. Similarly, we’ve only been treated to pictures of him throwing opponents in judo, and never getting thrown.
Nonetheless, his increasingly bigger-than-life persona should give pause to those worried about what it means on far more serious playing grounds, like Ukraine. Putin’s March 18 speech to the State Duma was a throwback to Russian imperialism and Soviet paranoia. Stalinist images of adoring lawmakers jumping to their feet to applaud the leader only added to the image of an iron-fisted ruler. As my AEI colleague Leon Aron has pointed out, Putin is the first charismatic leader to control a nuclear arsenal. While it’s unlikely that he’ll decide to incinerate London or Washington, our entire history of nuclear doctrine has been premised on the assumption of rational, collective leadership controlling nukes. In the case of Russia’s Wayne Gretzky, it might be wise to reconsider some of our basic assumptions. As he showed over the weekend, and in Ukraine over the last months, he takes advantage of any power plays he can. It’s up to the West to stop getting body slammed, before we wind up getting into a major brawl.