Russian President Vladimir Putin has a brother from another mother: Marlo Stanfield, the fictional kingpin from the classic HBO series, The Wire. The gangster DNA both men share are almost identical Both men are brief and to the point. Neither gives a fuck about rules that do not favor their own self-interests, nor do they have a problem tooling up if you threaten undermine their authority. And the sooner American policymakers see the similarities, the better able Washington will be able to handle Putin’s Moscow.
The Russian leader wants to wear “The Crown,” to use some Wire talk. He wants to have his own empire, just like America does. It may be morally wrong to annex parts of Ukraine and set up shop in in the eastern part of its nation, but so what. That’s what gangsters do. They take shit and ask any mothafucka to step to them if they have a problem with it. In Putin’s mind, he is doing nothing more than what America did to position itself as a world power: The United States was founded by white men who killed off American Indians who were here first. It enslaved millions of people from Africa to build up the economy and, later, set up Jim Crow to keep black people in check for decades after that didn’t work out. American global dominance exists, in part, because Washington killed off millions of people through war and slavery. That is what is wearing “The Crown” is about in international relations: Taking shit because you can.
You may argue that drawing a comparison between a real-life world leader and a fictional television character undermines the seriousness of any intellectual discourse on Putin’s global and domestic influence. To the contrary, I believe Putin and Marlo share the same world view and operate within structures that are equally broken and flawed. Understand one man, and you’ll get the other.
Here are examples to help:
Putin Took Over Eastern Ukraine In Marlo Fashion
“This spot all built up and shit. We need it, yo.” — Marlo Stanfield
There was a scene in Season Four where Marlo, along with his top enforcers Snoop and Chris, approached dealer Bodie Broadus on his drug corner. Bodie had the corner humming with business, but Marlo wanted it. “This spot all built up and shit,” Marlo told him. “We need it, yo.”
Bodie had three ways to respond. He could take Marlo’s package—his heroin supply—leave the corner altogether, or fight Marlo. Now, by this point in the series, Bodie had no protection. His former employer, the Barksdale Organization, fell apart after its leaders were either arrested or killed. Bodie was by himself and couldn’t defend his territory, so he had to buy drugs from Marlo— until his new boss eventually killed him for snitching to the cops.
Like Bodie, the leaders of Ukraine found themselves defenseless against a stronger, expansionist Putin who, himself, has no respect for boundaries. After protesters took to the streets in Kiev in November of 2013 to protest former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a trade agreement that would have integrated the country more closely into the EU economy, Putin soon backed anti-government rebels in the east with military support; they would eventually take over several key regional cities and Russia annexed Crimea. Basically, Putin took a “corner” of Ukraine that was “built up” and has forced its leadership to accept his diplomacy to solve a problem he created. According to the UN, more than 9,000 people have died since the war broke in the spring of 2014. Not even several rounds of sanctions against Moscow and summits convened to end the violence has convinced Putin withdraw his troops out of Ukraine.
Like Marlo, Putin does not believe in pulling out of territory he believes is his. Until Ukraine gets enough muscle to fight Putin, they’ll have to accept his package. For now, that package is Russian troops in east Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.
Marlo’s ‘Vacants’ Operate Like Putin’s Prison System
“Marlo can make an inconvenient nigga disappear, can’t he?” — Proposition Joe
In Season Four of the series, Marlo was winning a violent street war against the Barksdale Organization and other smaller drug outfits. When Marlo wanted someone executed, he would dispatch Chris and Snoop to kill the person in an abandoned home, nail the entrance shut with a power gun and leave their bodies. On the streets, these Marlo-made tombs were known as “vacants.” Anyone who dared to cross the young drug lord found himself in one.
Proposition Joe, an east side drug lord who organized “the co-op” where the city’s top dope boys handled street disputes under an United Nations-like framework, joked during one of their meetings that “Marlo can make an inconvenient nigga disappear, can’t he?”
In Russia, the prison system serves as Putin’s vacants.
Almost anyone who openly opposes his power ends up arrested on a trumped-up charge and slapped with a lengthy prison term. The most famous person to find himself in Putin’s vacants was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the owner of Yukos, the largest oil company in Russia in the early 2000s. Khodorkovsky’s wealth was estimated to be $15 billion at one point, according to Forbes. After Putin won the presidency in 2000, he met with the country’s key oligarchs in February of that year and told them he would not interfere with their businesses as long as they stayed out of politics. Khodorkovsky did not heed Putin’s warning and began supporting his opposition. He was eventually arrested on fraud, tax evasion, and other financial crimes. Then he was held in prison for two years before he was tried and sentenced to nine years behind bars in 2005; Khodorkovsky was released in 2013 and is now living outside of Russia.
But the former billionaire isn’t the only person to have found himself in Putin’s vacants.
Under a 2014 law designed to suppress political dissent, anyone who is arrested for disrupting a public space more than twice within a 180-day period is subject to arrest and a stiff prison term of up to five years. Anti-government protesters have been sentenced to lengthy prison for terms of one year and more in recent months. Human-rights groups have called sentences harsh and a freak violation of civil liberties. But, in order to do anything on Putin’s streets, you have to seek his permission first. Protesting the government isn’t one of them. Like Marlo, Putin can make an inconvenient political foe disappear in vacants of his own. What makes him worse than Marlo is that he doesn’t have to resort to using boarded-up houses in desolate parts of town. The Russian prison system is Putin’s vacants and Russians who dare to publicly oppose his power know they’ll end up in one.
Putin Addressed The UN General Assembly In Marlo-Like Fashion
“My name is my name.” — Marlo Stanfield
When Putin spoke before the UN General Assembly in October after a 10-year absence, he came to New York to tell world leaders who Russia was and how he expected others to engage Moscow. And if they didn’t like it, tough. The sanctions Brussels and Washington orchestrated against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine had begun to hit its economy hard at this point, so he probably felt the need to speak forcefully to show the Russian people he would not be punked by the West.
Similarly, Marlo had to lay down the law toward the end of Season Five. He and his three top lieutenants were arrested and detained for conspiracy to distribute narcotics. In their holding cell, one of them told Marlo that Omar Little, the most notorious robber of drug dealers in Baltimore, had been calling him out by name on the streets. Marlo took that as a threat to his street cred and ordered his men to let the hood know he isn’t a punk and will take out anyone who second-guesses his gangster.
“My name was on the street? When we bounce from this shit here, you gon’ go down on those corners and let them people know, word did not get back to me. Let ’em know Marlo step to any muthafuckin’ body. Omar. Barksdale. Whatever.
“My name is my name.”
That pretty much sums up Putin’s speech last year. Calling out world leaders for manipulating the global diplomatic process to benefit a few “privileged” nations, he said: “However, the bloc thinking of the times of the Cold War and the desire to explore new geopolitical areas is still present among some of our colleagues. First, they continue their policy of expanding NATO. What for? If the Warsaw Bloc stopped its existence, the Soviet Union have collapsed and, nevertheless, the NATO continues expanding as well as its military infrastructure. Then they offered the poor Soviet countries a false choice: either to be with the West or with the East. Sooner or later, this logic of confrontation was bound to spark off a grave geopolitical crisis. This is exactly what happened in Ukraine, where the discontent of population with the current authorities was used and the military coup was orchestrated from outside—that triggered a civil war as a result.”
Translation: If the West can expand its empire, so can we. Russia has a right to do what the hell we want to do in our country and areas that we consider to be within our “sphere of influence,” namely Ukraine. If we want to invade a country, annex a huge chunk of it and regulate its political outcomes, we will.
During his speech, he didn’t express regret over the lives lost during the war in Ukraine or admit to any wrongdoing for his troops being there. (He denies Russian troops are conducting offensive military operations). He even took shots at the United States and Europe for its NATO operation in Libya by essentially saying it left a power vacuum for terrorists to fill. “I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation, do you realize now what you’ve done? But I am afraid no one is going to answer that,” he said. “Indeed, policies based on self-conceit and belief in one’s exceptionality and impunity have never been abandoned.”
Putin’s message was clear: I may be a gangster, but so are you. He was letting the world know that “my name is my name.”
Putin has never portrayed himself to be something he isn’t. Like Marlo, his thirst for power leaves him very little wiggle to negotiate with dissenting voices. In Russia, doing so would mark him as “weak” and his adversaries will try him. That’s why he creates laws that lock up anti-government protesters for up to five years. Kremlin politics are a blood sport. The way Putin approaches politics is very much how Marlo views the drug game. There was a scene in the show where Marlo shoplifted a pack of candy in plain view of the guard on duty. When the guard confronted him to explain how disrespected he felt, Marlo’s response was, “You want it one way. But it’s the other way.” Like many people who disrespected Marlo, the guard ended up dead.
Though no one can link Putin to their deaths, his most prominent opponents all end up dead: Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed near the Kremlin in February two days before he was to lead an opposition rally. Anna Politkovskaya, an activist journalist who earned international acclaim over her coverage accusing the Russian government of human-rights abuses in Chechnya, was shot dead outside of her apartment in 2006. Alexander Litvinenko, a former secret service agent, died in November of 2006 after being poisoned with a deadly dose of radioactive polonium. It is alleged that Russian security servicemen carried out the poisoning to silence Litvinenko after he blamed the government for orchestrating the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia so it could then blame it on Chechen rebels to justify its invasion later that year.
Like Putin, Marlo was accused of murder. But the cops couldn’t find enough evidence to link him to any bodies. In their own ways, both men operate like Teflon Dons.
That is pretty much where the Marlo-Putin comparison comes full circle. In international politics, no one’s hands are clean. Putin, at the end of the day, is a world leader who is looking out for Russia’s interests and his own. And, as much as I abhor drug dealing, Marlo is just a peg in the wheelhouse of a fucked up city in which all of its institutions are failing the people. The drug game is horrible, but international affairs is just as vicious and corrupted by the same kind of greedy, flawed players who look down on the Marlo’s of the world.
Putin’s behavior in Ukraine and treatment of his own people may very well fit the description of thuggery, but let’s not pretend America’s own expansionism and human-rights abuses (the second Iraq War, numerous documented CIA assassination attempts of world leaders, over-policing and mass incarceration of marginalized groups for starters) doesn’t measure up to what the Russian leader is doing in his own country. Also keep in mind a black person like me can walk outside of my home here in New York City and be choked to death like Eric Garner or slammed to the ground during a routine traffic stop and die in jail three days later like Sandra Bland. Yes, the drug game Marlo played in was vicious and cruel. But, so is American imperialism and white supremacy.
Putin said as much during an interview with Charlie Rose in October: “Do you believe that everything is perfect now from the point of view of Democracy now in the United States? If everything was perfect, there wouldn’t be the problem of Ferguson. There would be no abuse by the police.”
Though Russia has race issues of its own, Putin has a point: America is the pot calling the kettle black.
From a foreign policy standpoint, we have to stop positioning America as the more noble side during our engagement with Moscow because both countries are imperialist nations with expansionist agendas. Neither is better than the other. They both do fucked up shit to weaker states. America did invade Iraq in 2003. And NATO felt it was its business to take out Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011. And let’s not even get into the United States’ long, long history of interfering—to often terrible effect—in Latin America and the Caribbean.
By viewing U.S.-Russian policy through the lens of The Wire, I believe we can analyze more effectively how to best engage Moscow. But to be clear, Putin is like Marlo: they’re both gangsters. But given how dirty both of their worlds are, I just don’t think it’s fair to single them out as the worst ones. The Wire understood this and positioned its depictions of the “good guys” and “bad guys” accordingly. Too bad the men in three-piece suits in Washington and Brussels condemning Putin over his behavior can’t look at their own actions with similar honesty and self-reflection.