WASHINGTON — Former U.S. President Barack Obama took swipes at Russian President Vladimir Putin in his new book, calling him the leader of a government that resembled a “criminal syndicate.”
In “A Promised Land,” the first volume of his presidential memoirs published on November 17, Obama said Putin reminded him of a modern-day version of the corrupt political bosses that ran U.S. cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Those bosses, Obama wrote, viewed patronage and bribery “as legitimate tools of the trade.”
“In such a world, a lack of scruples, a contempt for any high-minded aspirations beyond accumulating power, were not flaws. They were advantages,” the 44th U.S. president wrote.
Obama said Putin, who has ruled Russia as either president or prime minister for the past two decades, has built a country “to be feared, perhaps, but not emulated,” adding that few, if any, citizens from developing nations look to Moscow for “inspiration.”
Obama, who served from 2009 to 2017, had a very strained relationship with Putin.
The former senator from Illinois came to power at a troubled time for U.S.-Russian relations: Moscow had invaded its neighbor Georgia in August 2008 — just three months before Obama won the presidency — raising deep-seated concerns in Eastern Europe about Kremlin aggression.
Though Obama initially sought to improve relations with Moscow, a policy his administration called “a reset,” entrenched distrust, disagreements on foreign policy, and a rollback of democracy in Russia impeded progress.
Putin accused the Obama administration in late 2011 of trying to foment unrest in Russia following pro-democracy protests in Moscow, straining bilateral relations. Then, in 2014, Putin annexed Crimea and backed rebels in eastern Ukraine after the toppling of Kyiv’s pro-Kremlin leader, sending U.S.-Russia relations to a new post-Cold War low.
The Obama administration along with allies kicked Russia out of the Group of Eight (G8), a talk shop for leaders of the most powerful industrial countries, and slapped sanctions on the country to punish Putin for his hostile actions toward Ukraine.
In the book, Obama recalled meeting Putin for the first time in July 2009 at his dacha near Moscow, describing the Russian leader — who was then serving as prime minister to President Dmitry Medvedev — as physically “unremarkable” short and compact — a wrestler’s build.”
He took a jab at Putin’s penchant for masculine photo ops, such as riding a horse bare-chested, saying he did so with the “fastidiousness of a teenager on Instagram.”
Obama said Putin launched into an “animated and seemingly endless monologue” during their first meeting, detailing all the slights made by the United States over the past two decades, including expanding NATO and invading Iraq.
He offered a more favorable view of Medvedev, Putin’s protege, who served as president from 2008 to 2012, saying the younger Russian leader did not appear to buy all the tales the Kremlin spun and showed enthusiasm for the reset in relations.
“I noticed a certain ironic detachment in his delivery as if he wanted me to know that he didn’t really believe everything he was saying,” Obama said of his first meeting with Medvedev at a G20 meeting in April 2009.
Obama pointed out that he had quite a few things in common with Medvedev. He said both had studied and taught law before starting families, “dabbled” in politics, and were helped along by older politicians.
However, he also described Medvedev as a “wealthy” man who leveraged his political connections to become part-owner of a major lumber company during the privatizations of the 1990s, when many Russians saw their living standards decline.
Obama said he and Medvedev barely spoke about politics when he had dinner at the latter’s dacha outside Moscow in 2009.
He said Medvedev’s wife Svetlana Medvedeva expressed concern about how their teenage son Ilya would handle the social pressure resulting from his father’s fame and expected him to want to study abroad.
“I was struck by just how ordinary the night had been – how, with the exception of the translators who’d sat discretely behind us while we ate, we could have been attending a dinner party in any well-to-do American suburb,” Obama said.
He said he sensed Putin was going to return to the presidency in 2012 after he publicly second-guessed Medvedev’s decision in March 2011 to abstain from a UN vote on military force in Libya.
Obama said it was “inconceivable” that Putin, who held the real power in Russia, did not back Medvedev in signing off on the decision to abstain.
“Putin seemed to have decided to deliberately make his handpicked successor look bad — a sign, I had to assume, that Putin planned to formally retake the reins in Russia,” he wrote.
Medvedev in September 2011 announced he would not run for reelection, making way for Putin, who won the following year. Putin picked Medvedev to serve as his prime minister, sacking him in January 2020 after eight years.
Obama criticized his predecessor, President George W. Bush, for not being tougher on Putin, claiming he let Russia get away with invading the South Caucasus nation of Georgia in 2008.
Russia’s five-day war against Georgia came five months before Bush was to step down from power after eight years in office.
“Beyond suspending diplomatic contacts, the Bush administration had done next to nothing to punish Russia for its aggression, and the rest of the world had shrugged its shoulders and moved on, making any belated effort to isolate Russia almost certain to fail,” he said.
Obama would himself face criticism from his successor, President Donald Trump, for not supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons to defend itself against Russian aggression.
Obama expressed the moral dilemma he faced in standing up to Putin on human rights abuses inside Russia and the Kremlin’s rollback of democracy.
After meeting Russian activists during his 2009 trip to Moscow, he questioned how far he would be willing to go to defend them in his pursuit of more strategic objectives.
“If Putin did go after one of these activists, how far would I go in taking him to task — especially knowing that it would not change his behavior?” Would I risk the completion of [New] START negotiations,” he said, referring to talks to reduce nuclear warheads.
The first volume of the memoir ends in 2011 before Putin returns to the presidency.
Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.