Once the most accomplished world leaders exit the political arena, what memories do they leave behind? Margaret Thatcher went down in history as “the Iron Lady.” Ronald Reagan—as the president who cemented America’s position at the close of the Cold War. Mikhail Gorbachev will be remembered as the first and last president of the USSR, under whom that country collapsed while the two Germanys reunited.
What will Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin, be remembered for? Most likely for being late in his meetings with other world leaders.
Over the past twenty years, Putin has arrived late to such meetings nearly 200 times. Here are some of the most striking examples:
- 2003, an audience with Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom: 14 minutes late.
- 2006, an audience with King Juan Carlos of Spain: 20 minutes late.
- 2009, a meeting in Helsinki with Finnish president Tarja Halonen: two hours late.
- 2012, a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry: three hours late. The Kremlin had invited Kerry to go for a walk with Putin around Red Square.
- 2012, a meeting with President Barack Obama during the G20 Summit in Mexico: 40 minutes late.
- 2013, an audience with Pope Francis in the Vatican: 50 minutes late.
- 2014, a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi: one hour late, at which point Modi left.
- 2014, a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Milan: four hours and 15 minutes late, at which point Merkel rescheduled for the next day.
- 2015, another audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican: one hour late.
- 2015, Putin’s own speech to the UN General Assembly: one hour 15 minutes
- 2016, a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo: two hours late.
- 2017, another meeting with Shinzo Abe, this time in Helsinki: two hours late. Their discussion lasted 15 minutes.
- 2018, a meeting with President Donald Trump in Helsinki: forty minutes late.
- May, 2019, a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Sochi: three hours late.
All of these world leaders and many others had to wait for Putin. He is late always and everywhere. Nobody has ever repaid Putin’s boorishness in kind. The Russian diplomatic corps even makes this a point of pride. How many times have the leaders of other countries left without waiting for Putin? Only twice, in the incidents with Modi and Merkel mentioned above.
Has the leader of any country ever kept Putin waiting? Once. This year, Kim Jong Un was half an hour late for a meeting with him. Kim came in such a hurry, however, that he arrived with his jacket tucked into his pants. The other members of the North Korean delegation either failed to notice the faux-pas or were afraid to tell him.
Could this lateness be the result of extenuating circumstances? Of course not. Nobody is ever late to an audience with the Pope, the Queen of England, the American President, the German Chancellor or the Prime-Minister of Japan. It’s simply indecent. Barring an emergency situation, nobody puts off meeting with the Secretary of State for three hours. There are no such circumstances in a president’s life.
So, if it’s not by chance, what is going on with this tardiness? What is Putin trying to say?
In Russia, this is explained as Putin creating an image of himself as the “most important” party to the meeting. In Russian business meetings, the boss always arrives last. In those cases, though, he’s not late, he’s just held up by other meetings and important business. The others wait patiently for the meeting to begin. That’s how it works in Russia. It’s one of the peculiarities of the Russian approach to negotiations.
Real negotiations between world leaders begin long before they meet face-to-face. There is no practical reason to be late, but Putin does so on purpose to force the other side to wonder what’s going on. When he shows up late to a meeting with Obama or Trump, Putin shows that he dictates the terms of the meeting. That’s how the Russian press portrays it.
Is there any other way of looking at it besides Putin being the “most important” party to the meetings? It’s fairer to say that’s how he would like things to be. Many ambitious politicians dream of dictating terms. But to do that, you need recognized authority and large amounts of political capital. US presidents and a few others have it. Putin doesn’t.
When he meets with Obama or Trump, Putin is never really calling the suit. He is clearly the weaker party to negotiations. By showing up late and violating diplomatic protocol he’s doing nothing but putting on a show. When the other side has all the real leverage, some people try to balance the scales with pettiness. It’s a shame the president of Russia can’t come up with any more convincing arguments.