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Putin To Dell: We Don't Need Your Help

Okay, so here's what happened in Davos.

Michael Dell asked how his company could help Russia solve its IT infrastructure problems, which was essentially either a question about what kind of joint venture or investment Dell could make in Russia, or just an inquiry about what kind of hardware he might sell in Russia, and Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, told him to go take a long walk of a short pier:

We don't need any help. We are not invalids. We do not have limited capacity.

There are a few ways to interpret this.

First, the funny way: Putin is suggesting Russians aren't dumb enough to buy Dells. Zing!

Second, the simple way: Putin misunderstood the Western business-speak of "how can we help," which really means "how can we do business" or, at its most basic, "what can I sell you" and decided that he and his nation were being patronized, and decided to respond as if his pride had been besmirched.

Thirdly, the paranoid way: Putin completely understood Dell's question and had no interest in doing business, and therefore was not insulted. However, politely declining does not serve his interests because the press would not pay attention to the remark. Saying something biting that props up Russian national pride and would be sure to get press attention abroad (but more importantly at home) was just the ticket: Putin kicks a Western capitalist square in the nuts while praising Russian ingenuity. It's perfect. One almost has to wonder how much Putin paid to Dell to lob him a softball like that.

This episode also I think illustrates a frightening trend. I have a feeling that there is something in common between nations whose international relations are carried out primarily for the purpose of managing the perception of leaders back home. Certainly this happens in almost any nation with significant international presence, but I can't help seeing a common thread between Putin's "we are not invalids" and claims made by leaders like Kim Jong Il, who claim that no nation dare attack North Korea for fear of instant and utter annihiliation by weapons so terrible and secret that we can't tell you what they are. Such statements are seen as laughable abroad but are probably taken quite seriously at home, where exposure to foreign press is, to put it mildly, limited.

However there is a sense in which Putin's repsonse is childish and counterproductive. It certainly was no part of a constructive dialogue about IT problems or about the current financial crisis in Russia in particular or in the world in general. (Putin did speak on that topic of course. News flash: It's the West's fault. Notice how Putin self-identifies Russia as not part of "the West" in this sense. More on that later when I find another pro-Russia article out of an American think tank I've been percolating a response to.)

In short, Putin wasn't talking to Dell. He's not interested in talking to Dell, and probably not interested in listening to him either. His remark was calculated to play at home, not in Davos, and not in the US. He's grandstanding.