Vladimir Putin is tough. That's the message conveyed by the pictures showing him shirtless on horseback, cuddling leopard cubs, and throwing his judo opponents to the floor that flood media sites in both Russia and the west.
These photos don't deter Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and editor-in-chief of its Lawfare blog, who threw down the gauntlet and challenged Putin to a fight. While he didn't go so far as to call Putin a pansy, Wittes emphasized that he wasn't about to back down from the challenge.
“It is real,” he said in an interview Monday, according to the Fiscal Times. “I am prepared to meet him mano a mano any time, any place he lacks the jurisdiction to have me arrested. Everything else is negotiable. The style, the rules. I’ll work with the Kremlin on that.”
Mano a mano isn't generally how foreign leaders solve differences of opinion with their critics, but Wittes has had enough of Putin's posturing.
“He is a phony martial artist who uses these displays of masculinity as a legitimation device of his rule. If you take a close look at any of those videos, what you’ll see is that he’s not repelling devoted attacks. These are very short clips designed to make him look good. I can’t promise that I will kick his ass, but I can promise I won’t try to make him look good,” Wittes said, reiterating his earlier challenge.
Although a second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do himself, Wittes describes his own martial arts abilities as proficient but not excellent. After all, he is a middle-aged man who sits behind a desk most days.
With makes the challenge all the more important from Wittes' perspective.
“If he’s not prepared to fight a middle-aged legal writer of no particular distinction, maybe he should knock off the machismo,” Wittes said.
Taunting aside, the odds of such a fight taking place are slim. But for Wittes, Putin needs to be challenged, not just on the world stage or at the UN, but also on the image he projects.
Posting on Facebook, Wittes wrote that, “these displays of masculinity are important to Putin's image domestically. In my opinion, they are also deeply connected to his aggression against his neighbors, his repression of dissidents, and his grotesque treatment of the LGBT community in Russia.”
Wittes seems to think that like a schoolyard bully, much of Putin's authority comes from the image of toughness that he projects and that someone needs to take him down a notch, by force of fist or ridicule.
And if Putin doesn't want to fight? Well, then Wittes has words for him:
“Man up, dude! Either fight a reasonably well-trained but not especially expert middle aged martial artist in a situation in which he's actually allowed to kick your ass without fear of reprisal, or face condemnation worldwide as a wuss.”