Russian President Vladimir Putin has put himself at the center of world politics — only to be upstaged by a table.
As his country massed troops on Ukraine’s borders, Putin was pictured sitting at one end of a very long, white table during crisis meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron and later German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who were placed at the other end
The striking images of the white and glistening 20-feet-long table generated mockery and memes.
Proving that no matter how serious the subject, social media users will find something to poke fun at, one jokester depicted the table as a seesaw, another showed the leaders playing table hockey, and a third put a red megaphone into Macron’s hand. Other users pasted Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” painting and also “The Mad Hatters Tea Party” from “Alice in Wonderland” into the background.
Similar memes also appeared after the showdown with Scholz on Tuesday, one superimposing an Olympic curler between the pair.
One Twitter user, Kristian Harstad, posted a mock Ikea advertisement for an extremely long table called “Putin,” adding that it cost “$599.99.”
The actual table was built in the mid-1990s by a small Italian firm called Oak, according to Renato Pologna, who runs it. He told Reuters that its top was made from a single sheet of beech wood, lacquered white, gold-plated on the side, and supported on three hollowed wooden stands. It would cost almost $114,000 if you wanted something similar today, he added.
Putin has also been pictured at the head of another extra-long table -- this time a mahogany one -- during a meeting with his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, which inspired another slews of jokes and commentary, including one that turned it into a sushi conveyor belt.
The Russian leader is no stranger to social media stardom, having been widely satirized after he was pictured riding topless on a horse. Ukraine’s official Twitter account has also used a GIF from “The Simpsons” to mock Russia as the countries sparred over the historical origins of Anna Yaroslavna, an 11th century figure born near Kyiv who went on to become the queen of France.
The large table was also used to make his Western counterparts “uncomfortable,” said Olga Khvostunova, a director at the Institute of Modern Russia think tank in New York.
“It’s a power play,” she said, adding that Putin “would take pleasure” in unnerving his rivals in a bid to get the upper hand. The images would likely play well among his supporters at home because of “the perception of pressure it is placing on Western leaders,” she said.
The table may also have been used to telegraph the Kremlin’s geopolitical preferences.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro sat across the width of the table during a meeting with Putin on Wednesday, although it was unclear whether he had agreed to take a Russian Covid-19 test. While Brazil is traditionally close to the United States, the hard-line South American leader is perceived as being more friendly to Moscow.
Putin’s health was the reason for the extra-long furniture, according to the Kremlin.
Fears about Putin getting seriously ill likely played a part in the decision to distance the leaders, according to Ben Noble, an associate professor of Russian politics at University College London.
Putin “plays an overwhelmingly important role in key areas” of the Russian political system, while often performing the role of arbiter between competing groups in other areas, he said.
“Because there is constant pressure for decisions to go through him personally, that makes him more important than political institutions for lots of areas of governance in Russia,” Noble said.
With no obvious successor, it is unclear who would replace the 69-year-old leader and “that can lead to nervousness among members of the elite — and, therefore, increases the importance of the visible steps taken by the Kremlin to shield the president as much as possible from the coronavirus,” he added.