Putin gave his annual press conference today. It turned into a 3 hour and 10 minute marathon, which is pretty much par for the course.
Several times before I have pondered whether Putin is mad, or just feigning madness. I had been favoring the feigning alternative, but today’s event tilts the scales heavily to the “truly nuts” verdict (as @libertylynx has been arguing for some time).
Why do I conclude that? Here’s why:
You know, at the Valdai [International Discussion] Club I gave an example of our most recognisable symbol. It is a bear protecting his taiga. You see, if we continue the analogy, sometimes I think that maybe it would be best if our bear just sat still. Maybe he should stop chasing pigs and boars around the taiga but start picking berries and eating honey. Maybe then he will be left alone. But no, he won’t be! Because someone will always try to chain him up. As soon as he’s chained they will tear out his teeth and claws. In this analogy, I am referring to the power of nuclear deterrence. As soon as – God forbid – it happens and they no longer need the bear, the taiga will be taken over.
We have heard it even from high-level officials that it is unfair that the whole of Siberia with its immense resources belongs to Russia in its entirety. Why exactly is it unfair? So it is fair to snatch Texas from Mexico but it is unfair that we are working on our own land – no, we have to share.
And then, when all the teeth and claws are torn out, the bear will be of no use at all. Perhaps they’ll stuff it and that’s all.
So, it is not about Crimea but about us protecting our independence, our sovereignty and our right to exist. That is what we should all realise.
I think said bear is not snacking on berries and honey, but is grazing on magic mushrooms, for he is clearly hallucinating.
The paranoia is palpable: “someone will always try to chain him up! They will declaw and defang him!” Note too the explicit nuclear threat.
You know the “they” is the United States. The speech is shot through with paranoid and critical ravings about the US. Nothing is Russia’s fault. Certainly nothing is Putin’s fault. The country’s torments are attributable to the US, first and foremost.
The statement about “high-level officials” lamenting the unfairness of Russia having sole access to Siberia is also a shot at the US. Here Putin is recycling an urban myth that he first trotted out in 2007. In the telling, Madeleine Albright (a has-been high-level official) allegedly uttered these words. Here’s the story:
When Alexander Sibert told President Vladimir Putin that former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had said Siberia held too many resources for Russia alone, Putin dismissed the statement as “political erotica.” Albright might have found “political fantasy” more appropriate.
Putin said he was not aware of the comment, Albright denies ever making it, and no one else seems able to provide any evidence that she did.
But this hasn’t stopped Putin and others from attributing these thoughts to foreign figures who they say wish Russia harm.
Sibert, 70, a mechanic who works at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Novosibirsk, brought up the purported statement in a question during Putin’s annual call-in show last month.
“I know some politicians entertain such ideas in their heads,” Putin replied, adding that Russia was able to and would protect its natural resources. [How does he know that? Just wait! All will be revealed.]
The only problem is that Albright, who is now a principal at the Albright Group strategic management and lobbying firm, denied through a spokeswoman that she ever entertained the idea.
“I did not make that statement, nor did I ever think it,” she said.
On Tuesday, Sibert was unable to provide a source for the alleged quote, or even a guarantee that he had heard it.
“I don’t know. I might have made a mistake,” he said by phone from Novosibirsk. “But I don’t think I did.”
But wait. It gets better!
In perhaps the strangest part of the story, there are those who argue that it doesn’t matter what Albright said — they know what she was thinking.
Boris Ratnikov, a retired major general who worked for the Federal Guard Service, said in a December 2006 interview with government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta that his colleagues, who worked for the service’s secret mind-reading division, read Albright’s subconscious a few weeks before the beginning of the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999. [So now we know how Putin knows what is in the heads of foreign leaders.]
[Read the rest of the story. It adds even more ludicrous details.]
In other words, Putin is regurgitating a story that was proved to be bullshit seven years ago. A story that he himself dismissed once as “political erotica.” (Weird choice of words, that, especially given that Madeleine Albright is involved <shudder>). A story allegedly based in part on the security services’ “mind reading division.” You cannot make up this stuff. Go ahead. I dare you to even try.
He flogged the tiresome story (which as fantastical as the Albright one) that Nato violated a pledge not to expand to the east:
It is not now that this happened. You are an expert on Germany and on Europe. Didn’t they tell us after the fall of the Berlin Wall that NATO would not expand eastwards? However, the expansion started immediately. There were two waves of expansion. Is that not a wall? True, it is a virtual wall, but it was coming up. What about the anti-missile defence system next to our borders? Is that not a wall?
You see, nobody has ever stopped. This is the main issue of current international relations. Our partners never stopped. They decided they were the winners, they were an empire, while all the others were their vassals, and they needed to put the squeeze on them. I said the same in my Address [to the Federal Assembly]. This is the problem. They never stopped building walls, despite all our attempts at working together without any dividing lines in Europe and the world at large.
I believe that our tough stand on certain critical situations, including that in the Ukraine, should send a message to our partners that the best thing to do is to stop building walls and to start building a common humanitarian space of security and economic freedom.
You have to hand it to Putin, he is generous, letting 300+ million Americans live in his head, rent free. But I for one hate what he’s done to the place.
There was also a weird interlude where a slurring reporter from Kirov asked why stores were more likely to stock Coke and Pepsi than kvas, the fermented, putrid Russian drink. (In the summer it is sold by vendors from large wheeled tanks that could well be used to hold diesel or pesticide at other times of year.) Putin made a crack suggesting the man was drunk, which was a faux pas because his slurring was due to multiple strokes, rather than overindulging the kvas as Putin suggested. Putin then slurred Coke: “I do not know whether Coca-Cola is a harmful drink, but many experts say it is [harmful] for children”. Whatever.
As for the substance of the speech, it was tediously unoriginal, a 280 minute spinning of the hamster wheel. The Ukrainian government was overthrown by a coup. Russia’s population is growing. Blah blah blah.
He gave no hint of backing down in Ukraine.
He did acknowledge economic difficulties (how could he not?) but minimized them. He actually suggested there is a pony in there somewhere in the economic manure pile in which Russia currently finds itself: it will give the country an opportunity to diversify.
Like we’ve never heard that before. Hasn’t happened yet. Won’t happen anytime soon. The hamster wheel will just spin faster.
Putin grudgingly conceded the crisis could last for two years, at most, but the country’s massive reserves would prevent catastrophe: the markets certainly disagree. After that, things will be hunky-dory:
However, it is equally certain – and I would like to stress this – that there will be what experts call a positive rebound. Further growth and a resolution of this situation are inevitable for at least two reasons. One is that the global economy will continue to grow, the rates may be lower, but the positive trend is sure to continue. The economy will grow, and our economy will come out of this situation.
How long will this take? In a worst-case scenario, I believe it would take a couple of years. I repeat: after that, growth is inevitable, due to a changing foreign economic situation among other things.
Growth is inevitable! Well, eventually the economy will grow, but by how much? Post-2009, growth has been moribund. Absent another reversal in energy price trends, growth after the current crisis is likely to be moribund as well, given that it is almost inevitable that the institutional and legal changes necessary to encourage growth will not be forthcoming while an aging Putin is in power.
In sum, Russia is ruled by an autocrat with a tenuous (at best) connection to sanity, and who is not going to change policy one whit despite almost total isolation abroad and looming economic catastrophe at home. An deranged autocrat with the largest nuclear arsenal in the world-a fact that he never misses an opportunity to remind us of. Since he will only get more insane, the next months and years will be fraught indeed.