It’s hard to know what’s more unsettling: to imagine that Vladimir Putin actually believes what he said at a press conference today–or that he doesn’t. Either way, his remarks make clear that the West is dealing with a crafty, ruthless autocrat who isn’t afraid to bend reality to his own will. The only question is whether he secretly knows the difference between his castles in the air and the world inhabited by the rest of us.
His comments were so far-fetched as to be almost comical. Let’s see…
He claimed that the troops who have taken over Crimea were not Russian–merely local self-defense forces that happened to buy some Russian uniforms: “Look at former Soviet republics,” he said. “You can go to a store and buy a uniform. Were these Russian soldiers? No, they’re very well-trained self-defense forces.” (Makes you wonder, if the troops in Ukraine, went shopping for their own uniforms, why they didn’t buy German fatigues or American ones?)
He claimed that the anti-Yanukovych demonstrators in Kiev were all fascists and anti-Semites: “Our major concern is the orgy of nationalists, and extremists and anti-Semites on the streets of Kiev.” (If that’s the case, it’s odd, as Timothy Snyder notes in the New York Review of Books, that it was the Yanukovych regime “rather than its opponents that resorts to anti-Semitism, instructing its riot police that the opposition is led by Jews.”)
He claimed that snipers firing on demonstrators were not Ukrainian security forces but rather “provocateurs from an opposition party.” (So the opposition forces are killing themselves! How crafty.)
He claimed that Russia’s past treaty obligations to respect Ukrainian sovereignty are no longer operative because there is a “new state” in Ukraine. (How convenient, in case the “local self defense forces” currently annexing Crimea to Russia decide to do the same with all of eastern Ukraine.)
And of course for his grand finale he claimed that the whole thing is the fault of America: “They sit there across the pond as if in a lab running all kinds of experiments on the rats,” Putin said. “Why would they do it? No one can explain it.” (If Washington is so powerful it’s a wonder how Moscow managed to take over Crimea so easily.)
For good measure he claimed that Washington was being hypocritical in criticizing Russia’s incursion into Ukraine: “Let’s remember what the U.S. did in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.”
Never mind that Russia actually voted at the UN to authorize the military mission to Afghanistan and abstained from vetoing the one to Libya, or that the U.S.-led operation in Iraq had infinitely more international support than the Russian intervention in Ukraine which is supported by not a single other country.
Presumably Putin says such things to provide some rationale, however flimsy and far-fetched, to his own people to justify his aggression against a neighboring Slavic state. The very bizarreness of his assertions is further cause for alarm, however. A leader who utters one whopping big lie after another with a perfectly straight face–indeed with an air of utter conviction–is capable of anything.