Last December, during a visit by Japanese journalists, Russian President Vladimir Putin was filmed staring intently at a large dog called Yume. In the video, Putin is shown feeding the dog which stands dutifully on its hind legs.
The dog, an Akita, was actually an official gift to Putin by the Japanese government in 2012, one designed to cultivate cordial relations between the two countries. Putin, showing his control over the animal, allegedly told the attending journalists not to be ‘scared’ of the dog.
It was a masterclass in how Putin conducts diplomacy. The Japanese visitors were visibly unnerved by the barking dog, and in that sense would be joined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel who is also known to be uncomfortable in the presence of large canines. Last January, Putin introduced his pet Labrador Connie to Merkel while they were sitting together. As before, the event was heavily recorded and Merkel was visibly unnerved by the animal. Putin was angry with Merkel and other EU leaders over the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea and conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Timing wise, the publicity surrounding Yume came at a time when the Russian president stood accused of interfering in the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. But here, tellingly, was something rather different. Putin being portrayed as someone in complete control of a large and obedient dog (almost Pavlovian you might think). Perhaps suggestive, by way of analogy, of his firm leadership over the large Russian nation-state. He is particularly invested in displaying his ‘masculine leadership’, whether it be stroking a sedated polar bear, or fishing bare-chested in Siberia.
“While they can tug at the heart strings, iconic animals such as dogs, pandas and whales can occasionally help to change the geopolitical mood music”
Inevitably, given Putin’s popularity, there has been something of an Akita boom in Russia. The imprimatur of the Russian president matters. As an icon of street fashion and political loyalty, an Akita now costs around £1,000 or more in Moscow.
Japan is eager to discuss again the fate of the disputed Kuril Islands to the north of the country’s Hokkaido island. The then Soviet Union occupied the territory at the end of the Second World War and retained a military presence ever since. Concerned about expressions of China’s naval power in the South China Sea and Sea of Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has every incentive to improve Japan’s relationship with Russia. Unbelievably, Russia and Japan have not been able to formally sign a treaty ending hostilities because they remain locked in dispute over the islands. Japan claims, specifically, ownership over four islands in the archipelago.
What makes things harder for Japanese negotiators is that Russia has stationed anti-ballistic missile facilities on Kuril, in a move to apparently protect Russia from the designs of others, whether it be Japan, the United States, China or North Korea. Russia is more interested in promoting joint economic development with Japan in the midst of US and EU sanctions than agreeing to relinquish de facto sovereignty over the islands. Negotiations over their future territorial status are likely to prove frustrating for Japan, and it is unlikely that Putin will be offered a canine companion for Yume. As Putin demonstrated, it was he who was in complete control of that particular Japanese breed of dog.
“It gives cause to wonder in the process why it often takes images of iconic animals to do that sort of work, rather than images and stories of human beings suffering in places like Aleppo”
While they can tug at the heart strings, iconic animals such as dogs, pandas and whales can occasionally help to change the geopolitical mood music. Older readers might remember a famous example involving three whales trapped in Arctic sea ice in the winter of 1988. Dramatised into a film called The Big Miracle, it became emblematic of US-Soviet co-operation. The story started in October of that year when an Alaskan Inupiaq hunter first encountered the trapped whales. After attempts using chainsaws failed to secure their release into open water, a US helicopter was drafted in to puncture holes through the sea ice using a large hammer.
As public attention grew in the US and beyond, the Reagan administration approached the Soviet Union and requested icebreaker assistance in what was termed Operation Breakthrough. Working in tandem, two Soviet vessels, the Admiral Makarov and the Vladimir Arseniev, cleared the sea ice so that the whales could swim into open water. The youngest whale died during the rescue operation but it was never established whether the older two survived.
Criticised later on the grounds of cost and appropriateness, US-Soviet co-operation in the waters off Alaska came at a time of growing superpower rapprochement. While at the time it probably made no sense to throw more than $1million at the rescue operation, it was an extraordinary moment in the geopolitical history of the Cold War. No other region had been so militarised and securitised by both superpowers.
Given recent news regarding the US presidential election and the poor state of US-Russian relations in general over a host of issues from Ukraine and Syria to cyber-security and missile technology, we might look somewhat wistfully at a story like this, when the plight of three whales proved sufficiently compelling for two adversaries to work co-operatively and peacefully. It gives cause to wonder in the process why it often takes images of iconic animals to do that sort of work, rather than images and stories of human beings suffering in places like Aleppo.
This was published in the February 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.