During a press conference at the NATO Warsaw Summit on July 9, 2014, President Obama spent half of his time explaining the tragic events that had been unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri.
The world watched and listened.
“If you look at the pattern of death, violence and shootings that we have experienced over the course of the last year, or ten years,” the U.S. President said, “we are unique among advanced countries in the scale of violence we experience.”
These words were widely reported in Russia. After all, wasn’t Barack Obama the one who had been belittling Russia, speaking again and again about U.S. “exceptionalism”? This kind of attitude, among other issues, prompted the Russian President to publish an op-ed in The New York Times in September 2013, warning of the danger of “encouraging people to see themselves as exceptional—whatever the motivation.”
Putin words were immediately labeled “hypocritical” and “dishonest.”
Ferguson-type examples of American “exceptionalism” and Obama’s admission of America’s “uniqueness”—following Putin’s op-ed by less than a year—were all the Russian President needed to take his small revenge.
On the day of Obama’s press conference in Warsaw, pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestiya published a story entitled “Obama: USA Are Unique by their Level of Violence.”
“The cause of the Ferguson unrest was the ‘cold-blooded murder by the white policemen of two Afro-Americans,'” the article read. The message was clear: the U.S. was indeed “unique among advanced countries in the scale of violence”—against people of color.
Russia’s major weekly news program News of the Week gleefully reported that “Obama admitted the existence of racism in the USA,” but “despite the shootings of blacks” in America, the U.S. still tried to impose its values on other countries—“especially on those ones whose natural resources they wanted to grab.”
Two weeks later, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, an official Kremlin mouthpiece, reported that the Union of African Students in Russia had organized “non-sanctioned” protests by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Remonstrating against hidden racism among U.S. police forces, the students demanded an end to police shootings and expressed deep concern for the wellbeing of relatives studying abroad in the U.S.
“Who Will Save the US from Racism?” was the title of Rossiyskaya Gazeta‘s story. The answer was provided in the first sentence: “African students asked Putin to save the US from racism.” According to the article, “students were convinced that only the intervention in the situation by the Russian authorities and by President Putin will help resolve the bloody conflict.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was the highest-ranked government official to speak publicly on the Ferguson and Dallas shootings. “What has been going on with regards to the police violence against [Americans] of color and with regards to the response reaction by blacks against law-enforcement agencies,” he said, “is a serious wake-up call. Even President Obama was forced to speak about this publicly. Americans will have to do some serious thinking about that.”
That was all the Kremlin had to say and, for more than two years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been deaf to all appeals, refraining from commenting on the issue.
But American “exceptionalism” remained a thorn in his side, and he has been awaiting the chance to get back at Obama.
As if humiliating the lame-duck U.S. President with the taking of Aleppo wasn’t enough, Putin, during a meeting with Russian intellectual elites in the Kremlin on December 2, unexpectedly raised the issue of police violence against African-Americans in the U.S. As reported by TV Channel Vesti, Putin said, looking straight into the camera: “If Dr. Martin Luther King, the author of the beautiful words ‘I have a dream,’ would live to these days, he would be very happy that a head of the United States is a person of color. But he would get very upset if he saw that the police injustice toward the Afro-Americans continues. Life is full of contradictions.”
Putin is not famous for his human-rights record and his concerns can be interpreted as one final jab at Obama’s legacy, as if he was saying, “Hey, America and Obama, is this your exceptionalism?”