How Vladimir Putin Stole a Super Bowl Ring

I remember this story at the time because it struck me as particularly generous. It was reported in 2005 that New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, one of the real good guys in sports and a legendary philanthropist, gave Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin his Super Bowl ring. Kraft was on a trip with other business executives to St. Petersburg when they were granted an audience with Putin.

The rest of the story is like something out of a tale that might have been told of Ivan the Terrible:

Kraft explained the incident happened while Sandy Weill and other business execs were in St. Petersburg. “I took out the ring and showed it to [Putin], and he put it on and he goes, ‘I can kill someone with this ring,’ ” Kraft told the crowd at Carnegie Hall’s Medal of Excellence gala at the Waldorf-Astoria.“I put my hand out and he put it in his pocket, and three KGB guys got around him and walked out.”

Kraft released a statement at the time, “President Putin, a great and knowledgable sports fan, was clearly taken with its uniqueness. I decided to give him the ring as a symbol of the respect and admiration that I have for the Russian people and [his] leadership.

Amazing. But the story doesn't end there. Despite his statement, Kraft wanted the ring back and enlisted the aid of the Bush White House in retrieving it:

But Kraft really wanted the 4.94-carat bauble back, he said Thursday, admitting he’d gotten a call from the George W. Bush-run White House, saying, “‘It would really be in the best interest of US-Soviet relations if you meant to give the ring as a present.” (In fact the Soviet Union had collapsed 14 years earlier.)

But, Kraft said, “I really didn’t [want to]. I had an emotional tie to the ring, it has my name on it. I don’t want to see it on eBay. There was a pause on the other end of the line, and the voice repeated, ‘It would really be in the best interest if you meant to give the ring as a present.’ ” The ring is now reportedly kept in the Kremlin library.

One could apply a metaphor about Putin purloining elections to this story but it goes far beyond that. Doing business in Russia basically means doing business with Putin. Corruption is rampant and it is believed that Putin has become fabulously wealthy as a result of kickbacks from foreign businesses. The once penniless former KGB agent has become a billionaire by milking the system for everything he can get.

So it isn't necessarily surprising that Putin would literally pocket a $25,000 ring. The surprise is that the US government didn't stand up to him and demand the ring's return. Such petty thievery should have been very publicly and explicitly rebuked by the Bush administration and the fact that it wasn't says a lot about how our government deals with this new Czar of all the Russias.