On a sun splashed hillside overlooking the Black Sea, the President of Ukraine and half of his cabinet gathered July 12 for a summit meeting with Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. The site was Livadia Palace, the Czarist-era estate that was the setting for the 1945 Yalta Conference, the meeting where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin divided up post-war Europe.
But on that day last month, Ukraine’s leadership waited. And waited. And waited.
On his way in from the airport, President Putin had decided to stop for a drink with the White Wolves, a Russian motorcycle club that gathers every summer in Crimea.
After drinks, Mr. Putin changed his black shirt and pants for a business suit. He then went to meet the Ukrainian President. He arrived four hours late.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych gamely welcomed him: “We are glad to welcome you to Crimean soil. It’s a little hot here, but I know that you had time on the way to chat with your friends, the bikers.”
To which, the Russian President replied: “They’re also waiting for you.”
The meeting went downhill from there.
The next day, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Volodymyr Ogryzko, told reporters in Kyiv: “Rather than rush to a meeting, a stop was made to drink a glass with bikers. In my opinion, it is a diplomatic slap in the face or just plain rudeness. This is a manifestation of abnormal relations.”
His colleague Viktor Baloga, Ukraine’s Minister of Emergency Situations, wrote on his Facebook page: “Yesterday I was at a commission with the Russians. Dreadful impressions. There was a great deal of bad manners, which shook the welcoming Ukrainians. President Putin exceeded the limits of lateness. He traveled to bikers and their war brides, this was his priority.”
The Ukrainians may go down in history for finally saying — in public: the Emperor is late.
Over the years Putin’s tardiness has grown from delays that can be blamed on the traffic – 15 minutes late in 2000 for an audience with Pope John Paul II, and 14 minutes late in 2003 for a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II.
Mr. Putin favors expensive Swiss watches. But, in the 90 days since he started his third term as president, he seems to use calculated lateness as a policy weapon.
If it is any comfort to the Ukrainians, they have good company.
In mid-June, Mr. Putin flew to Mexico for a meeting of the G-20. It was also to be the first time for Vladimir Putin and Barrack Obama to meet as presidents. In May, Mr. Putin had dropped out of a G-8 meeting that Mr. Obama hosted near Washington.
No one is talking on the record, but President Putin showed up late for his meeting with President Obama.
Golf cart gridlock inside La Esperanza Resort in Los Cabos? No one is saying.
How late? No one is saying. Sounds like 15-30 minutes late.
A sequence of photos taken by White House photographer Pete Souza on June 18 shows President Obama first pausing for a quick briefing by White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew. Then, a few minutes later and a few yards down the terrace, the American president can been seen having abandoned his suit jacket and settled down for a good chat with Michael McFaul, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia.
That snub was just a warm up for the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, four days later.
For months, Kremlin officials cajole foreign businessmen to fly to St. Petersburg for “Russia’s Davos.”
On June 22, the hundreds of foreign business executives assembled to learn about foreign investment opportunities. They had to wait 40 minutes for Mr. Putin to appear to give his address.
Then the real treatment came. About 10 executives of foreign energy companies were assembled to meet the Russian president separately. They were confined in a narrow, dark, poorly ventilated corridor. There were no chairs. Accounts vary. Some say they waited in the summer heat for three hours. Some say four hours. Assembled in the hallway were the chiefs of: Britain’s BP, France’s Total, Germany’s Eon, France’s GDF Suez, Norway’s Statoil, Italy’s Enel, the American General Electric, and several Russian energy majors.
“People are feeling insulted,” an oil company executive later told The Wall Street Journal. Another blurted out: “The combined per hour salary of all the CEOs here would match the budget of the forum for years.”
But energy company executives know that oil and gas reserves remain in the ground without cooperation from politicians above ground.
After the one hour meeting, Christophe de Margerie, CEO of Total, summoned French arts of diplomacy. He smoothly told reporters: “I feel more optimistic after leaving the room.”
Then Mr. Putin was off to Israel.
There, as Haaretz newspaper reported, the Russian president kept “the entire upper echelons of Israel’s government” waiting for 90 minutes before arriving to unveil a monument to the Soviet Red Army in World War II.
For some Putin watchers, the president’s tardiness is becoming a national liability.
The Moscow Times wrote in an editorial: “Obviously, foreign investors are not going to ignore Russia because Putin cannot make it to meetings on time. Russia offers tremendous opportunities, and Putin has made it easier to invest here. But his apparent inability to keep appointments does reveal a lack of respect for investors, for whom ‘time is money.’ Putin is overlooking a simple way to show investors that he values them. He should be on time.”
For other observers, the Russian president’s cavalier attitude toward others conjures up images of Mel Brooks playing French King Louis XVI in the hit 1981 movie, “History of World: Part 1.” Surrounded by fawning courtiers, the French king squeezes all women within reach, then drops a gold coin as a tip in a freshly filled chamber pot. Turning to the camera, he grins broadly and exclaims: “It’s good to be king!”
In real life, Louis XVI’s autocratic ways sparked the French Revolution. He was guillotined in 1793. His brother, Louis XVIII, spent 23 years in exile, until becoming king in 1814.
Perhaps chastened by years of revolution and exile, Louis XVIII coined a phrase that has held up over two centuries. He said: “Punctuality is the courtesy of kings.”
(US president Barack Obama talks with chief of staff Jack Lew at the Esperanza Resort in San Jose Del Cabo, Mexico, before the start of a bilateral meeting with president Vladimir Putin of Russia on June 18 2012. Official White House photo by Pete Souza)