On January 13, numerous Russian news agencies and media reported that a former top U.S. consultant had called President Vladimir Putin the most brilliant leader on the world stage.
The reports were based on an analysis written by geopolitical strategist Harald Malmgren and published January 13 on a U.K. website. Malmgren has served as an adviser to U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford.
The title of his post: “What The West Gets Wrong About Putin.”
But the Russian media ended up getting Malmgren wrong.
Take REN TV, which reported:
“Former senior aide to U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, Harald Malmgren, said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is the smartest politician on the world stage.”
But that statement is misleading. REN TV not only exaggerated the original quote, it ignored the fact that Malmgren brought up Putin’s intellect while comparing him to an Italian mob boss.
Here is what Malmgren wrote:
“The impression of Putin that I was left with was of a man who was more intelligent than most of the politicians I had met in Washington and in other capitals around the world. I was reminded of my childhood: I grew up in a predominantly Sicilian neighbourhood, with a mafia maintaining order. No disorganised crime allowed. Putin did seem to have the instincts of a Sicilian mafia boss: quick to reward but quick to pose mortal risk in the event of non-conformity to the family rules.”
REN TV is owned by the National Media Group, a $30 billion private corporation led by former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabayeva, with whom Putin reportedly had a romantic relationship and at least one son. (Kabayeva has denied those reports, however.)
Apart from REN TV, Russian state media and others reported the story in a similar manner – exaggerating Malmgren’s description of Putin's intellect while ignoring the mafia comparison. Here are examples from TASS, a state news agency; Ria Novosti, also a state news agency; Izvestia, a newspaper owned by Gazprom, the state-controlled natural gas monopoly; and Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a government newspaper.
Malgrem’s remembrance of the Russian leader comes as Putin threatens a possible invasion of Ukraine over objections about the expansion of the U.S.-led NATO military alliance. Putin, 69, has led Russia since 1999. His current term will end in 2024, and although he has been able to stifle political dissent and sideline opponents, his popularity is waning among young Russians.
In a survey conducted by the independent Levada Center in September 2021, 57% of the respondents aged 18-24 said they did not want to see Putin as Russia’s president after 2024, 32% said they’d like him to remain in the office and 11% said they found it difficult to answer the question. The responses from those 55 years and older were almost the exact reverse.