An end to Hollywood’s honeymoon with Putin -opinion

Putin himself encourages these associations and exploits the company of Hollywood action stars to raise his popularity with the conservatives in Russia and the West.

 Putin and Steven Segal (photo credit: REUTERS)
Putin and Steven Segal
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Vladimir Putin revels in portraying himself as a tough guy. He is a martial artist with black belts in judo and taekwondo, rides horses and hunts bears, and performs ritual baths in the open air during the freezing winter of Moscow. Many of the Internet memes that show Putin perform extraordinary feats are said to have been made by Russian security services with his approval.

Putin’s performance has endeared him to the stars of some of the most iconic all-American action movies of the late 1980s and early 1990s who regard the Russian president as one of their own and even openly associate with him.

Putin himself encourages these associations and exploits the company of Hollywood action stars to raise his popularity with the conservatives in Russia and the West.

Dolph Lundgren, the holder of Kyokushin karate black belt who starred as Ivan Drago – the towering Soviet fighting machine who pounded Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky before the Politburo in Rocky IV (1985), as well as the Spetsnaz agent gone rogue in Red Scorpion (1988) – thinks Russia is “blessed” to have a president like Putin.

According to Pravda, in 2017 he told the Swedish magazine Café, “If the country had someone weak as its leader, no one knows how everything would turn out for the country."

"The Russians have at least 5,000 nuclear warheads, and clearly, someone needs to keep an eye on the goddamned order. Putin has been good at it.” Lundgren later joked that “Ivan Drago would be working for Putin now.”

Jean-Claude Van Damme, the former world champion of kickboxing who broke fresh ground in Hollywood martial arts movies with blockbusters like Bloodsport (1988) and Universal Soldier (1992) – against Lundgren – has a special relationship with the Russian president.

In 2016, Van Damme said in an interview, “We need to run America like a business, and the first order of business should be establishing a relationship with Vladimir Putin.” In an account that looks like a tall tale, Van Damme has even claimed that he and Putin once came close to having a bare-knuckle brawl. 

Confirming a story that had been circulating in tabloids and on the Internet for years, Van Damme told The Hollywood Reporter in 2019 that when he had gone to Russia in 2007 at Putin’s invitation to attend a Sambo martial arts tournament, he had a fight with the president’s bodyguards. The Kremlin has never denied the claim.

But the Hollywood action star who has the most special relationship with the president of Russia is undoubtedly Steven Seagal, who holds an Aikido black belt and is the star of such huge hits as Above the Law (1988) and Under Siege (1992).

Seagal has hailed the Russian president as “one of the greatest living leaders in the world.” Putin, in turn, has granted him Russian citizenship and placed him in his political apparatus. In 2018, Seagal was made Russia’s “ambassador of peace” to the US. 

Putin also sent the action star and martial arts instructor on a cultural mission to Venezuela early last year to present the Russian president’s gift of a samurai sword to Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro.

Seagal had previously supported Putin’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula and its forced annexation to Russia. More recently, his comments about the Russian invasion of Ukraine being a “family dispute” has met with huge public backlash.

As Putin's campaign of destruction across Ukraine escalates and as the West is faced with the prospect of a neo-imperialist Russia pounding at the gates of Europe, it is dawning on the world what horrendous consequences the Russian president’s aggressive attitude can have for international politics and human rights.

One practical manifestation of Putin’s investment in aggression is his cultivation of strongmen as politicians and having them do his dirty work when the occasion arises.

One such ruffian is Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s praetorian guard and fanatic Islamist who rules the supposedly autonomous Chechen Republic. Ukraine’s security apparatus recently revealed that Putin had tasked Kadyrov with the assassination of the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which they managed to thwart.

Even now, Putin is keeping his finger on the launch button of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, bringing the world to the verge of a “Strangelovean” standoff that might any moment trigger the doomsday machine.

As such, we can clearly see that dictators don’t flex their muscles only for display; their flamboyant demonstration of power is a manifestation of their megalomania and an anticipation of the realization of their insane intentions.

Interestingly, a similar behavior can be observed in the supreme leader of Iran, who is also obsessed with demonstrations of stark power.

Today, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the international chessboard has been rearranged in such a way that Ali Khamenei can also project his tough-guy image beyond the Middle East to the world stage.

The supreme leader of the Islamic Republic and his thuggish Revolutionary Guards have been among the few around the world to have openly supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, squarely blamed the West for the war, and praised Putin’s “resilience” and confrontational approach. 

With Russia’s increasingly belligerent behavior and newfound expansionist drive which threaten to test the liberal world order, and with the eventual break off of the nuclear negotiations in Vienna, it is not unlikely for the apocalyptic regime of the mullahs to want to rush forward and go fully nuclear. Only then will the West realize that Khamenei’s warmongering was not meant only for Arabs and Israel.

As regards the question of Iran in the US, as long as partisan rivalry to extract concessions from the Islamist regime for domestic policy purposes overrides the more fundamental concerns for national security, international peace, and defense of human rights and democracy, the wily ayatollahs will continue to play Democrats against Republicans and vice versa and wreak havoc on the world. 

The only viable solution to the four-decade-old Middle East crisis is a bipartisan American resolution to see democracy established in Iran.

The writer is a political theorist and security analyst. He holds a PhD in English from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), and wrote his dissertation on political thought, cultural studies and emergence of democratic ideas in the English-speaking world. He is on the editorial board of Al-Arabiya Farsi as well as Ariel University’s Journal for Interdisciplinary Middle Eastern Studies.