Gollum in the Kremlin?

Sometimes the pettiest, puniest, tiniest, smallest incidents can change history in unexpected ways.  It might just be that way with a Boston billionaire still crying over his stolen special Super Bowl ring.

The New England Patriots' historic fifth Super Bowl win against all odds opened the door to the long known story about how Russian president Vladimir Putin casually pocketed Patriots owner Robert Kraft's diamond-encrusted ring commemorating one of his team's victories in the Super Bowl – and damn it, after all these years, he still wants it back.

According to New York Times reporter Steven Lee Myers, in his book The New Tsar, in 2005, Citibank big Sandy Weill took a group of businessmen to Moscow to see the Russian leader at a reception.  Kraft was with the group, fresh from his team's third win at the Super Bowl.  Kraft had a diamond-encrusted ring worth $25,000 commemorating the victory, which apparently was too precious to him to wear, so he kept it in his pocket.  According to Myers, the group was glad-handing with Putin until Weill asked Kraft to show Putin his ring.  Putin ogled the ring with awe and then casually took the precious object and put it in his pocket, walking off with three security guards, before a horrified Kraft could stop him.  The ring, after all, was Kraft's baby, because he was so proud of his team.  It meant something.  And for a man with enough money to buy anything, it was irreplaceable.

Kraft was distraught enough to say he wanted the thing back.  He told the Bush administration.  The administration, with no skin off their noses, told Kraft to take one for the team and instead announce that he gave it away to Putin as a gift.  He pleaded with them some more.  The Bush people told him only that it would be good for national security – and they certainly weren't going to ask for it back.  Crestfallen, Kraft did as they said and took one for the team, putting out an announcement that he gave the ring away.

But it's gnawed at him ever since – twelve long years.  Putin, meanwhile, could see the groveling from Bush...because he had to have known better than anyone that the ring was not a gift.  Putin did claim that it was a gift, and subsequent queries from reporters have only drawn claims of forgetting the instance at all, but the shifting responses quite simply draw attention to the fact that he has the ring and doesn't want to give it back.

As he damn well should. 

After all, it's just a stupid ring.  It's not Edward Snowden's treasure trove of U.S. intelligence.  It's not the WikiLeaks archive.  It's not a pile of state secrets, and it's not a spy or two up for the swap, let alone the Sword of Excalibur or the Holy Grail.  It's...a ring.  Valued not for its gold or diamonds, but for its significance to its owner, who loves the way it stands for his football victory.  Kraft did offer to make Putin a specially monogrammed duplicate of the ring for probably more than the $25,000 cost, but to no avail.

The fact that Putin won't give it back raises baffling questions as to what possible value the ring, now in a Kremlin state museum, could have to Putin.  How could it be more important to him than Kraft's distress and the amazing way the story keeps coming up?  After all, the picture of an Eastern European leader pocketing something has been played out before.  Why would Putin expose himself to similar ridicule?  Is it the idea of projecting power?  If so, it doesn't work, as most Americans will sympathize with Kraft.  Is it that Russians live on another planet, are an alien race, have values utterly at odds with ours?  Or is it something weirder still – is Putin really Gollum, guarding his "precious" ring, as the odd little antagonist in JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit did, to express his love and hate of himself?  Because that's what it looks like now, given the Kremlin's preposterous refusal to give it back.  And more to the point, someone is going to think of this and start making Putin a figure of fun – out on the internet.

It not only will bring ridicule, but call to mind that Putin has helped himself to other things – without paying.  In Putin's Kleptocracy, Karen Dawisha recounts an incident described by journalist Masha Gessen, who claimed that when Putin was a KGB officer in Dresden, East Germany, the local agents – FARC terrorists and the like on the KGB payroll – would typically bring back goodies from the West to their case officers, such as Putin.  One time, a Blaupunkt stereo was presented as tribute along with a fancy Grundig radio.  Case officers would typically ask agents, "What do I owe you?," to which the agents would say nothing, but that protocol was never followed by Putin.  He just took the stuff without offering to pay.  Dawisha's broader picture, of course, is that Putin has expropriated pretty much the whole country on that pattern.

This could present political problems for Putin if the noise gets loud enough.  He doesn't like that kind of noise at all.

Now, with Donald Trump the president, and the Patriots in the spotlight, the story is back about Kraft's long lost ring – a story often coupled with the one about Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's stolen jersey, now worth about $500,000.  Unique among U.S. presidents, Trump loves sports, television, and entertainment people, and of course, he is friends with Brady.  He also knows the value of a symbolic victory in that he could at long last talk Putin into giving the ring back.  What's more, he considers Bush's foreign policy feckless and weak.  Is it likely he will step up for Kraft and ask Putin to give that ring back?  He just might, given Putin's interest in friendlier relations and Trump's outstretched hand.  The directness of Trump's delivery might just draw Putin's respect, too, and spur him to fork it over.

If not, Putin faces a steady dribble of stories about things he took without paying for, with the final insult in all the likely internet memes depicting him as Gollum guarding his ring.

It would make sense for Putin to return that ring pronto.

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