There’s no love lost between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama. The former US president has said he doesn’t trust his Russian counterpart, that he has a “kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.” Meanwhile, Putin has riled Obama with his backing of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, his annexation of Crimea, and support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.
And yet, despite a near decade of discord, the two granted each other a measure of intimacy allowed to few others: calling each other “Barack” and “Vladimir.” (We contacted Obama’s office to seek confirmation, and will update with any reply.) So the Russian president revealed to director Oliver Stone in The Putin Interviews, a four-hour marathon, shot between 2015 and 2017, that aired on US cable television this week. That doesn’t mean the conversations—which, Putin says, would take place on the phone without a video link— are warm, however. Asked if they are “cordial,” Putin replied: “No, they’re businesslike.”
Obama seemingly isn’t the only president with whom Putin is on first-name terms. At another point in the documentary he refers to George W. Bush as “George,” while accusing the US of supporting Chechen rebels in their war against the Russian state in the early 2000s. “I think George remembers our conversation,” he said, telling Stone that he had confronted Bush about it. Asked how he had felt when Bush (notoriously) told reporters he had got “a sense of [Putin’s] soul,” the Russian president said: “I felt he was a person you can come to an agreement with, to work things out with—or at least that’s what I’d hoped.”
He also had words for the new American president. While denying hacking last year’s election, Putin said: “Of course we felt kindly towards Mr Trump—and we still do—because he publicly said he was ready to and wanted to restore Russian-American relations.” He went on to compliment Trump—albeit in a somewhat backhanded way—on his “intelligent” campaign: “I also thought he was going too far with some of his campaign speeches but it turned out he was right,” he said. “He struck a chord in people’s souls and was able to play on that.”
However, the Russian leader was more cautious than effusive asked whether there’s “any hope of change” in US-Russian relations with Trump as president. “There is hope until the very moment they take us to the cemetery to bury us,” he said.
Reflecting on the fact that he is now dealing with his fourth US president, Putin said “almost nothing” changes with each new incumbent. “Life brings some adjustments but everywhere, especially in the United States, we have strong bureaucracies and it’s bureaucracy that rules the world,” he said.