MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin displayed a rare bit of leader-to-leader empathy Thursday, calling President Obama a “decent man” for describing the U.S. military intervention in Libya as possibly his greatest mistake in office.
The backhanded praise follows years of Russian anger over Western airstrikes in Libya, which helped lead to the downfall of dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011 and the country’s descent into civil war.
Moscow regularly cites the intervention as a cautionary tale against armed intervention against sovereign governments, particularly in the case of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an important Russian ally.
In a Fox News interview that aired Sunday, Obama said his greatest mistake in office was “probably failing to plan for the day after what I think was the right thing to do in intervening in Libya.”
For Putin and other Russian officials, it was a satisfying mea culpa.
“First of all, this yet again confirms that the acting U.S. president is a decent man,” Putin said in some of his first remarks during a nationally televised call-in show. “It’s correct. It’s very good that my colleague has the courage to make those kinds of statements. Not everyone can do that.”
“Almost the same mistake has been made in Syria and it’s not clear how it will end,” added Putin, who last year ordered the Russian military into Syria to help prop up Assad’s government.
Obama’s remarks, Putin said, could open him to political attacks.
He was “being bitten from all sides,” Putin said.
Russia abstained from a 2011 U.N. Security Council vote that established a no-fly zone over Libya. But Putin, then prime minister, was vocal in his opposition to the French- and British-led airstrikes that followed. At the time, Putin said it resembled “medieval calls for crusades.”
Relations between Russia and the United States have cooled considerably over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and Russian support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. But there have been moments of modest cooperation, including the Iran nuclear deal and discussions over a resolution to the five-year-old war in Syria.
In a recent interview with the Atlantic magazine, Obama offered some measured praise of his own, saying that Putin was “constantly interested in being seen as our peer and as working with us, because he’s not completely stupid.”
On Thursday, Putin recalled Obama’s criticism of the Iraq War as a member of the U.S. Senate but said Obama had “committed the very mistakes he had spoken about in Libya.”