The consensus opinion after Putin’s press conference earlier today is that he has lost his mind. It was rambling, angry, discursive, and at times just bizarre.
Of course all of the usual Putinisms were there. Most notably, blaming the West for everything in a stream of whataboutism. This was accented by claims that the Ukrainian opposition consists mainly of thugs and fascists; that Yanukovych was wrongly ousted and didn’t order any violence against protestors; and that the opposition was very well trained and professional, having passed through training camps in the Baltics and Poland. (Take this as a very ominous warning, people.)
My dear colleague, look how well trained the people who operated in Kiev were. As we all know they were trained at special bases in neighbouring states: in Lithuania, Poland and in Ukraine itself too. They were trained by instructors for extended periods. They were divided into dozens and hundreds, their actions were coordinated, they had good communication systems. It was all like clockwork. Did you see them in action? They looked very professional, like special forces. Why do you think those in Crimea should be any worse?
Yes. Those evil Poles and Lithuanians, training crack troops to throw rocks and fashion catapults. Definitely far more lethal than camouflaged masked men toting AKs.
More broadly, Russia and Putin are always right: the West is always hypocritical and wrong.
Putin also denied the obvious, claiming that there are no Russian troops in Crimea, just local “self-defense forces” which he denies were trained by Russia.
In other words, there is no agreement on the basic facts of the situation, meaning that any attempt at negotiation with him, either by the Ukrainian government or the West, is doomed to failure. He rejects the legitimacy of the protests, views the outcome as a fascist coup arranged by the West, and denies that Russia is directly involved in the occupation of Crimea.
These were the substantive elements of insanity (paranoia, specifically) of the conference. But Putin added various asides that illustrated a man that feels no need to self-censor, but is so convinced of his own brilliance that anything that crosses his mind should be shared with the world. These “thoughts” were truly bizarre and mendacious, and even more suggestive of madness.
For instance, when discussing the alleged self-defense forces in Crimea, Putin claimed they were just kitted out in store-bought gear:
QUESTION: Mr President, a clarification if I may. The people who were blocking the Ukrainian Army units in Crimea were wearing uniforms that strongly resembled the Russian Army uniform. Were those Russian soldiers, Russian military?
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Why don’t you take a look at the post-Soviet states. There are many uniforms there that are similar. You can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform.
They must have some awesome Army-Navy stores in the FSU: not only can you get up to date cammo, you can also pick up the latest AKs and military trucks.
Then he went on to criticize the massive corruption and social stratification in Ukraine, but denied there was anything comparable in Russia:
Corruption has reached dimensions that are unheard of here in Russia. Accumulation of wealth and social stratification – problems that are also acute in this country – are much worse in Ukraine, radically worse. Out there, they are beyond anything we can imagine imagination. Generally, people wanted change, but one should not support illegal change.
In the same breath, he gave a Ukrainian history lesson:
In my opinion, this revolutionary situation has been brewing for a long time, since the first days of Ukraine’s independence. The ordinary Ukrainian citizen, the ordinary guy suffered during the rule of Nicholas II, during the reign of Kuchma, and Yushchenko, and Yanukovych.
Ordinary Ukrainians guys suffered under Nicholas II, Kuchma, Yushchenko, Yanukovich. Anybody notice a name missing from that list? Stalin, maybe? (Lenin should get honorable mention too.) The guy who killed one-third of the Ukrainian population via starvation and executions, a total of around 3-8 million people? Think there was a little suffering in 1932-1933? As bad as Yanukovych was, his total body count during the uprising is on the order of the body count every 6 minutes at the height of the Holodomor.
This omission is particularly disgusting given the immense psychological toll that the Holodomor took and continues to take on Ukrainians. Don’t think that the omission will not resonate deeply in Ukraine. It is a taunting reminder of how Russians deny, deny, deny the Holodomor, and get incensed-hysterical, actually-at any moral claim made against them by Ukrainians.
The impression of insanity is only reinforced by other actions during the past several days, including a live fire exercise in the Baltic (witnessed by Putin) and today’s launch of an ICBM test. Put it altogether, and Putin gives the impression of approaching Kim Jung Un or Kim Jung Il levels of aggressive craziness. (And for those who say these exercises and tests were planned in advance, they could have easily been canceled if Putin wanted to lower the tension level. The fact he let them proceed tells you all you need to know about his intent and mindset.)
So what are the broader implications of his disturbing display of mental imbalance? No doubt the Europeans are even more intimidated now, and will be all the more reluctant to challenge a leader with a nuclear arsenal that they view as mad.
And that raises another possibility: that Putin was playing the psycho for effect. The Slavic version of Nixon’s Madman Theory, and which Machiavelli wrote about centuries earlier: he wrote that leaders can find it “a very wise thing to simulate madness.”
I will say, watching the video, that Putin did a very, very credible impression of a madman, but that’s necessary to make the gambit work, isn’t it?
I don’t know whether he’s truly mad, or merely feigning it, but the effect will likely be the same. The disturbing display of mental imbalance will work to his favor, and lead the Europeans in particular to back away slowly, letting him keep his current conquests, and prepare for his next move. He may back off now, but he will be back for more. And quite possibly not just in Ukraine. But in the Baltic states and Poland.