KIEV, Ukraine — Vladimir Putin seemed to be broadcasting from Bizarro World when he spoke on the Ukraine crisis Tuesday for the first time in weeks.
Did he admit to responsibility for causing the crisis by sending thousands of masked, unmarked troops to seize the Crimean peninsula and install a pro-Russian puppet? No. He said the guilty ones were the Western "instructors" who had "sat around a big puddle in America somewhere and experimented [with Ukraine] like with rats, without understanding the consequences of what they were doing."
Guilty also is Ukraine's new government, which came to power in an "anti-constitutional coup," Putin said.
Putin said he kept asking them, "Why are you shaking up the country? What are you doing?!" But they didn't listen. They keep on persecuting Russian speakers in Ukraine's southeast, he said. They're sending armed fascist bandits to Donetsk and Sevastopol, Kharkov and Odessa to sow bloodshed, he said. Just turn on Russian TV. Or have a look on the internet: That's how Putin said he found out about "provocateurs from the opposition" posing as police snipers who massacred protesters Feb. 20.
You wouldn't catch Putin destabilizing the "brotherly peoples" of Ukraine with meddling like that. He hasn't, according to him, even sent in any troops. The heavily armed men riding around in armored personnel carriers are just "local self-defense forces" with no connection to Russia, he said. Forget the Kalashnikovs and bazookas. They're not wearing Russian uniforms, are they? Just go to your local shop and see for yourself. "The post-Soviet space is full of such uniforms," Putin told the journalists gathered to hear him speak.
Hearing this stream of consciousness from Putin for more than an hour — during which he bantered on the definition of revolution with a Reuters reporter, complained about how a Ukrainian oligarch had "swindled" a Russian oligarch out of billions, and openly mused about the death of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych (who made a point of insisting he was very much alive during his last public appearance) — makes you feel a little bit sorry for his Western interlocutors, who put up with long telephone rants from him over the weekend. Angela Merkel apparently now thinks he was "in another world," according to the New York Times. His insistence that he would only invade Ukraine "in line with international law" and with (very lengthy) views on Ukrainian constitutional procedure didn't appear to impress Barack Obama.
"I know President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations," the U.S. president said Tuesday, "but I don't think that's fooling anybody." Secretary of State John Kerry, in Kiev Tuesday to pat the new government on the back and stick his tongue out at the Kremlin, scoffed at every word Putin said: "Not a single piece of creditable evidence supports any one of those claims," Kerry said.
To an extent, Putin's opponents in the West are right. Putin is living in a world of his own making. Right now, it doesn't sound like a nice place to be. He is disingenuous about the legitimacy of Ukraine's new government. He is paranoid that U.S. secret services are wreaking havoc on his turf. His pretext for invasion, which mostly centers around a Gulf of Tonkin-style "attack" on Crimea for which no evidence (bar an obviously fake video) even exists, is risible.
Why, then, if the U.S. and Europe "get" Russia's interests the way Kerry says they do, has it come to this? What could be worth Russia's market taking a 10% dip in one day and the prospect of Putin hosting a G8 for one in Sochi? And why didn't U.S. and European leaders see it coming? Maybe they've just got him all wrong. Privately, Western diplomats in Kiev have admitted throughout Ukraine's crisis that the Kremlin is a big black blot on their map. Russia's ambassador, Mikhail Zurabov, makes a point of refusing to speak to them. Senior U.S. officials worry their Russian counterparts are not really the ones deciding policy. (Russian officials who spoke to Kommersant Vlast magazine for a recent deep-dive on Ukraine policy all nodded at the ceiling and said, "Everything was decided up there.")
When the other side is that blank a slate, it's easy to project your own thoughts on it. But Putin thinks he knows the West far better. To an outsider like him, it looks pretty stark. Putin knows there has never been any action behind all those endless strongly worded statements. Western countries talk a good game on rights and international law, but they bend the rules at every possible turn. Just look at what happens when they open their mouths. You want to see Ukraine make a "free choice" in the "fight for a democratic, European future?" Fine: The Russian Federation has and will not interfere in the internal affairs of brotherly Ukraine, whose lawful president was elected for closer ties with Moscow. Mad if we "invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests?" Then guess you don't mind if we bring up Iraq again.
It's all part of the rules of the game. And Putin knows that game very well. He never had a reason to believe otherwise: All the Western criticism of his human rights record didn't — and still, judging by their foot-dragging on sanctions, hasn't — stop European governments from looking the other way as Russia's corrupt cash passes through their capitals. Putin cracked their secret: Say one thing while doing another, and change your tack whenever you feel like it. The symmetry's deliberate; there's even a term for it, "whataboutism."
It was all well and good when it was a zero-sum game over which side Ukraine would sign a trade deal with. But if you're voicing support for people who want to overthrow a government — as the vast majority of Ukraine's protesters wholeheartedly did — you're upsetting the order of things. "If someone's allowed to act like that, then it means everyone's allowed to," Putin said. "And that means chaos." We're conditioned to laugh when Russian officials accuse Western secret services of micromanaging the protests. But that's precisely what their worldview conditions them to think. It only makes sense. If you're trying to overthrow a government, why wouldn't you want to get the CIA involved? Isn't that what they're for?
Notably, the last time Russia lashed out as rashly as it's doing in Ukraine was when the U.S. passed Magnitsky Act sanctions against corrupt Russian officials in 2012, and Russia responded "asymmetrically" by banning adoptions of Russian orphans by Americans. Under Kremlin rules, acting out so disproportionately made perfect sense, because the rules of the game had been thrown out the window. That's how Putin sees the law: not as something that regulates actors' behavior, but a framework to guide it so long as the implicit understandings are adhered to. If you violate the law -- who cares? Everyone does it. But if you violate those understandings, the geopolitical gentleman's agreement is gone. Why do that if you're not out to upset the order of things?
Putin said as much when asked why Russia was ignoring the 1994 Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing to uphold Ukraine's territorial integrity. "As we know, diplomats were given language to hide their thoughts," he said. "So when we point out that there was an anti-constitutional coup, they tell us, 'No! [...] It's a revolution!'
"And if it's a revolution, what does that mean?" Putin continued. "Then it's hard for me not to agree with some [Russian] experts who think that a new state appears. Just like a new state appeared when the Russian empire collapsed after the revolution of 1917. We haven't signed any documents with or about that state."
Putin fears revolution because, by its very nature, it shatters the illusion his politics needs to operate. He built an entire political system, after all, around that tension between the cravenness that he thinks sustains international relations and the paranoia of things getting too real when the masks come off. When the last major threat to Russian stability loomed in Ukraine in the form of 2004's Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Putin didn't respond by rolling in a Belarus-style dictatorship at home: Instead, he had Vladislav Surkov, his master of the dark arts, install "managed democracy," a system with all the external trappings of democracy and none of the content.
It's no coincidence that Surkov was back running Russia's Ukraine account this time around. This time, protests were violent, Ukrainians' anger was much more palpable, and the country was, and still is, on the brink of default, if not outright collapse. All that made it even more threatening to Russia, where the pretense of democracy has been long abandoned. If stage-managed spectacle is no longer fit to stop Red Square becoming a Maidan Nezalezhnosti for Moscow -- the effect wore off on Russians long ago — it was ripe for export to Ukraine, whose politics are typically those of cloak and dagger rather than smoke and mirrors.
That's what is happening in Crimea, which almost seems like cold revenge for every wrong done Russia in the Slavic world. Thought you could get away with ordering airstrikes on Serbia without running it past Russia's veto on the U.N. Security Council? We'll just slip it into Ukraine. Thought it was OK to hold that referendum in Kosovo? We'll have our guy run one in Crimea, and pave the way for them to join Russia. Happy with those masked guys with guns marauding around the Maidan? See how you feel about them in Simferopol.
Now, the men who mastered politics as theater are trying their hands at the theater of war. If they're backing down from outright annexation, as appears likely from Putin's remarks today that there was "no need" to invade further, the show's over — why have the mess of a real conflict when you can get what you want from a managed one? Crimea is already lost to Ukraine, and not a soul has been hurt. No soldiers have engaged the other side in anything other than staredowns. Nothing in sleepy Simferopol, the provincial capital, even gives it away as a battleground save for the omnipresent war correspondents vox-popping local residents.
Putin has got the upper hand in Ukraine precisely because he treats it as a show. If the threat isn't serious, then making it doesn't entail any risk: You know all too well your opponent won't up the stakes with something real. Invade a neighboring country, and what happens? The U.S. withdraws its Paralympic Games delegation. Britain insists any banking sanctions don't bar Russian access to London's banks. Merkel pushes for an OSCE mission. None of that is going to keep the lights on late in the Kremlin.
No, what really worries the Russians is when they see the most tangible threat of all — a revolt at their door. And it gets all the scarier when they see Western officials — who, Russia saw, stood by when police violently suppressed the anti-war and Occupy movements at home — walking around Independence Square, handing out sandwiches and hobnobbing with opposition leaders. Thinking — as Putin appears to do — that Ukraine is teeming with nationalist guerilla cells micro-managed by CIA "technologists" is pretty paranoid, as things go. But paranoid people, as Thomas Pynchon had it, can't help but keep putting themselves in paranoid situations. Putin certainly doesn't need any more encouragement on that front from Brussels and Washington.