There’s only one way to deal with Vladimir Putin now that he has gone so far as to arrest a Wall Street Journal reporter for “espionage.”
And it’s not a stern warning from the State Department or an open letter to the Kremlin demanding the release of Evan Gershkovich, which, like so many other former Moscow correspondents, I signed.
It’s the Chicago way—the method Sean Connery prescribes to combat Al Capone in the 1987 film The Untouchables. “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That’s the Chicago way.”
The Biden administration should find someone that Putin would hate to lose and throw that Russian into a supermax prison—or worse. Speeding, tax evasion, espionage, cyber-crime, shoplifting, any flimsy charge will do: finally, the Patriot Act pays off.
It’s a shame we don’t cage prisoners at trial in glass booths as they do in Russia, but maybe a Russian detainee in an orange jumpsuit, manacles, and a Hannibal Lecter hockey mask would send a similarly chilling message to the Kremlin.
The Russians are quite familiar with reprisal diplomacy. During the decade-long Lebanon hostage crisis, when more than a hundred Westerners were kidnapped, a few Russian diplomats were grabbed by Muslim extremists in the early 1980s. Moscow reportedly responded by hunting down a relative of the Shia Muslim leader, castrating him, and sending the severed pieces back to the Imam. They then shot the relative through the head. The story was never confirmed definitively. On the other hand, no other Russian diplomats were kidnapped.
The Biden administration should find someone that Putin would hate to lose and throw that Russian into a supermax prison—or worse.
The trouble is finding someone Putin cares enough about to scare him straight. Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s caterer-turned-paramilitary-warlord confidant, would be tricky to snatch and smuggle onto an air-force base in Germany, but not impossible. At the height of the Cold War, agents on both sides did their share of kidnapping people behind enemy lines.
But Prigozhin’s ego, bluster, and ambition may have already worn thin on his boss; for all his boasting, Prigozhin’s mercenary force, the Wagner Group, has not made any more headway in Ukraine than the regular Russian Army has. It could well be Putin, like Henry II, is looking for someone to rid him of this meddlesome chef.
The United States faces the same problem with expat oligarchs, such as Roman Abramovich. It’s tempting, but there too we could be doing Putin a favor—the Russian president would undoubtedly relish seeing a multi-billionaire, the kind he helped enrich and who now keeps his distance from the safety of Dubai or Positano, be frog-marched off a yacht and into a squad car. Watch your head.
Many oligarchs have children in Ivy League schools, and some have surely committed all kinds of infractions that could warrant arrest, but Putin probably couldn’t care less about their plight, either.
There are a few Russian reporters still working in Washington, but I suspect tit for tat won’t cut it—if Putin doesn’t care how many Russian journalists he has thrown in prison or killed for trying to report candidly about his regime, he certainly won’t trade Evan Gershkovich for some little-known Russian foreign correspondent with an expense account, a Subaru, and a split-level house in Silver Spring.
It has to be someone related to Putin or a figure so vitally important to Russia’s prestige that detention would cause national humiliation. Tennis champion Daniil Medvedev is an obvious candidate. He may live in Monte Carlo now, but he remains loyal to Russia and is beloved by Russians, a superstar who finessed the invasion of Ukraine by deploring war in general without mentioning Putin. He may be even more popular in Russia than Brittney Griner is here.
On the other hand, Putin may not care about him either—it’s not like Russian media would accurately report how Putin brought such an international scandal on himself.
It has to be someone related to Putin or a figure so vitally important to Russia’s prestige that detention would cause national humiliation.
So that leaves family. Nobody really knows how many children Putin has nor who his current mistress is, but he does have two grown daughters from a first marriage, and if our intelligence services can access the Russian military’s war plans, as is now known they can, surely they’re able to track the summer-travel itineraries of Putin’s daughters. It is possible some of their favorite fleshpots have extradition treaties with the U.S. It has happened before: Canada, at our behest, held Huawei C.F.O. Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, under house arrest for almost three years.
My money is on Alina Kabaeva, who is a twofer: a former rhythmic-gymnastics Olympian who is a genuine sports idol in Russia and is also rumored to be Putin’s longtime lover and the mother of as many as four of his children. Kabaeva has been described as the most flexible woman in Russia.
She set tongues wagging when she carried the torch at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but every time a Russian tabloid prints something about her possible liaison with Putin, the Kremlin shuts the newspaper down. Someone once asked Putin about his family at a press conference. “I have a private life in which I do not permit interference. It must be respected,” he said icily. “I have always reacted negatively to those who with their snotty noses and erotic fantasies prowl into others’ lives.”
If Kabaeva’s arrest violates Putin’s finicky sense of privacy, all the better. But his real vulnerability is fear. That’s why he has food tasters, lives in total isolation, is surrounded by bodyguards, and won’t say a word about his family, let alone let them be seen. He worries someone will do to them what he does so implacably to others.
Kabaeva is said to live with her children in Switzerland, and U.S. and European intelligence could surely confirm her whereabouts and status. The children don’t all have to go into juvenile detention, necessarily. For the youngest, foster homes could do the trick. Imagine how Putin would feel watching one of his little girls being interviewed on the Today show by Jenna Bush Hager.
Some would argue that Kabaeva and her children are innocent bystanders who don’t deserve to be used as pawns in a dangerous superpower standoff. Putin should have thought of that when he had Evan Gershkovich arrested.
He puts one of yours in the gulag, you put two of his in Guantánamo. That’s the Chicago way.
Alessandra Stanley is a Co-Editor of AIR MAIL