MOSCOW, Russia — Russian President Vladimir Putin took to the airwaves on Tuesday to set the record straight after days of international condemnation over his country’s alleged military incursion into Ukraine.
For anyone watching, the result may have been just the opposite — which may have been his intention.
Speaking casually in a televised news conference from his residence outside Moscow, he offered assurances that Ukraine was a “brotherly republic” and that war with Russia’s Soviet-era subject would be only a last resort.
He also slammed the West for allegedly fueling Ukraine’s months-long protests, speaking darkly of the “chaos” he claims has swept Kyiv amid the post-revolutionary government’s “anti-constitutional coup.”
In the end, it seems further military action remains on the table.
“We see the flourishing of neo-Nazis, nationalists and anti-Semites that is currently taking place in different parts of Ukraine, including Kyiv,” he said.
Anyone hoping for clarity from the former KGB spy would have been deeply disappointed.
Instead, they were treated to what some observers say was the sight of a leader typically known for his salty charm and arrogant bravado now unraveling at the frays, burdened by the weight of his greatest geopolitical gambit to date.
“He’s in a completely unpleasant situation and he couldn’t hide it,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst and former member of the Kremlin’s human rights council. “His aggressive rhetoric was almost that of an underdog.”
Putin’s briefing was undoubtedly aimed against the hailstorm of criticism he’s faced in recent days as mysterious and professionally equipped pro-Russian troops continued to swarm the Crimean peninsula, effectively seizing a swath of Ukrainian territory.
He hit back true to form, berating what he said was the West’s involvement in fanning the flames of protest in Kyiv in order to pull Ukraine deeper into its orbit. He even suggested America had experimented with the protesters like doctors with lab rats.
However, many of his responses were tinged with bizarre, sometimes contradictory claims.
He argued that the thousands of well-trained soldiers crawling across Crimea in Russian military uniforms — which, he noted, one can buy anywhere in the former Soviet Union — were in fact members of local “self-defense forces.”
He refused to recognize the new Kyiv authorities and repeated earlier official Russian statements that Yanukovych remains Ukraine’s only legitimate president.
Later, he admitted Yanukovych’s political career was over and that he may recognize Ukraine’s presidential elections in May — so long as they’re not held amid “terror.”
Stranger still, Putin that claimed the newly appointed governor of eastern Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk Region, a well-connected media tycoon, once stole money from “our oligarch,” a reference to billionaire Roman Abramovich.
When asked about the police snipers who fired from rooftops in central Kyiv during violent clashes late last month that left around 100 dead, he suggested they were “provocateurs from one of the opposition parties.”
Putin may have good reason to feel defensive.
As he spoke, US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kyiv to offer guarantees of $1 billion in loans to the fledgling government.
The rest of international community, meanwhile, continued to watch stunned as soldiers who are presumably Russian laid unremarkable siege to a peaceful peninsula where the enemy has been invisible by all accounts.
Analysts in Russia and abroad are adding up the possible political, economic and social costs of a military conflict in Ukraine that was recently unimaginable to many.
Although a war effort against “nationalists” and “neo-Nazis” may provide Putin a short-term boost in ratings, the negative economic consequences — from a weakened ruble to the displeasure of tycoons who may be hit hard by sanctions — would almost certainly be a dangerous load to bear.
Stanislav Belkovsky, a onetime Kremlin advisor, believes Putin’s actions betray a psychological complex.
After he had successfully pulled off a $50 billion Winter Olympics, Belkovsky says, Putin “decided he was capable of anything.”
“In the psychiatric literature, this phenomenon is described as Caesarian madness: when a nothing holds a person back, he begins to lose awareness of what he is doing,” he wrote on Snob.ru.
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Others have echoed that sentiment.
Andrei Zubov, a prominent historian, published a scathing article last week in the respected Vedemosti newspaper drawing parallels between Russia’s Crimean land-grab and Adolf Hitler’s pre-war annexation of German-speaking lands.
He was fired from his post at a top Moscow university on Tuesday.
“We always make prognoses based on the assumption that the politician, even if selfish and cruel, is intelligent and rational,” he said Tuesday in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
“But what we are now witnessing is the behavior of a politician who has clearly lost his mind.”