Three weeks ago, French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an effort to persuade Russia to de-escalate its troop buildup around Ukraine. To understate things somewhat, the meeting was unsuccessful.
Ostensibly, this was a function of the coronavirus pandemic. Macron was offered a Russian-administered test to ensure that he wasn’t infected with the virus, but France understandably declined to offer up his DNA. So, asked to pick between the long table and that test, the French opted for the table.
But, of course, that requirement doesn’t make a lot of sense. We are two years into the pandemic at this point, and most health experts will explain that two people can meet indoors safely with something less than a first-down chain between them — particularly if both are vaccinated: Run an air filtration system and have your conversation.
The implication is that perhaps the table was a negotiating tactic aimed at encouraging France to consider the Russia-administered test. Or, perhaps, that someone on the Russian side was being overly cautious in interpreting the risks. Speaking to Reuters, one source familiar with the negotiations said that “the Russians told us Putin needed to be kept in a strict health bubble.”
Why that would be the case isn’t clear. Again, perhaps it was just an effort to solicit DNA from Macron. But that doesn’t explain why Putin and Russia would use similar distancing when meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban this month. Was Orban, too, unwilling to submit to a Russian test?
Perhaps. But was Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov? When he met with Putin in Moscow on Feb. 14, he sat about as far away from Putin as Macron had. Photographs of the event are about 95 percent photos of the room, with the diminutive Russians depicted at either edge of the photo.
Clearly, Lavrov was not afraid of the Russian government obtaining his DNA. So why the distance? Perhaps it was born of urgency, a need to talk with Lavrov without waiting for test results.
That, though, doesn’t explain why, a week later, Putin’s staged conversation with his Security Council (in which members predictably concurred with Putin’s assessment of how to deal with Ukraine) took place in a room approximately the size of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. This was prerecorded, meaning that testing could have been administered easily. If it was, it didn’t matter: The council was kept at an extended distance from Putin.
That photo also shows that Putin is, in fact, the center of the bubble. There’s some distancing between the attendees (who one would assume have been vaccinated, given their government roles and Russia’s pride in its own vaccine). But all are kept at a significant distance from the president himself, even in that cavernous space.
A few days later, the same venue hosted Putin’s meeting with a number of oligarchs. In this case, those in attendance were also masked — perhaps as an added precaution for their neighbors. Putin was seated at the same desk at the opposite end of the room.
Behold Russia's business elite, in the Kremlin's Hall of the Order of St Catherine, where the astonishing security council session with Putin was on Monday.— max seddon (@maxseddon) February 24, 2022
Alexander Shokhin, who heads the oligarch lobby group, is talking about cryptocurrency regulation as Ukraine burns. pic.twitter.com/qpPkz3BYiV
On Monday morning, Putin met with economic advisers. And, once again, he sat alone at one end of the room.
There is an exception. Earlier this month, Putin met with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in Moscow. As The Washington Post reported, the two sat close to each other for their conversations and were photographed shaking hands.
Bolsonaro has had covid, perhaps providing some additional level of comfort for Putin. But, again, contrast this with Putin’s meeting with Orban, during which the two shared a toast as pictured below.
Bolsonaro aside, the metaphor here is quite pointed. As Putin embarked on his ploy to seize Ukraine by force, an invasion that has quickly led to Russia’s isolation on the world stage, Putin himself was isolated, from other foreign leaders and from his own advisers and allies.
It raises an important question, though: Why? President Biden has been assiduous about taking precautions against the virus, in part to model how he hopes Americans will respond more broadly. But even he still meets directly with people while masked and hosts meetings at which attendees are seated together around tables. What Putin is doing here is inexplicable, given what we know about the virus — or, if you prefer, irrational.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has been harshly critical of Russia’s invasion since the outset. He sits on Senate committees focused on foreign relations and intelligence. His assessment of Putin — that “something is off” — has attracted a lot of attention despite the general lack of details.
What’s obvious is that Russia is, in fact, building a bubble of physical isolation around its president, even with his closest advisers. That it overlaps with his decision to engage in an unprovoked war, a decision that has left his entire country isolated, is either a grim coincidence or two sides of an as-yet-unexplained coin.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Putin's meetings with Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary's Viktor Orban were part of the same event. The article has been corrected.