In some ways, the venue Vladimir Putin chose and the emotional lecture he gave the world about Russia’s actions in Ukraine said it all.
In an hour-long chat with a handful of Kremlin pool reporters at his presidential residence, Putin sat in an easy chair and spoke with the bravado of an ex-KGB agent suspicious of Western plots.
Wagging his finger at the reporters, the defiant leader dismissed the threat of US and European Union sanctions, alleged that “rampaging neo-Nazis” dominate Ukraine’s capital, and said the Russian and Ukrainian soldiers locked in a stand-off in Crimea are actually “brothers in arms”.
Putin has long been famous for his cool public demeanour at public appearances that often are carefully stage managed.
But during Tuesday’s news conference – which was televised live across Russia – he made it clear that he takes the Ukraine crisis personally.
He accepted questions from the reporters about the threat of war in Ukraine, the Russian military takeover of the country’s Crimean Peninsula, and the looming Western sanctions.
But he batted them away with his usual mix of disdainful sarcasm and political arguments in a rapid-fire delivery. When someone’s mobile phone rang in the middle of live broadcast, something that reportedly makes him angry, Putin paused then continued his speech.
Putin’s performance seemed to reflect his genuine anger about what he sees as the West’s hypocrisy and its heavy-handed involvement in Ukrainian affairs.
His remarks also showed what many observers have spotted: his deep involvement and strong personal feelings about the Ukrainian crisis, which he blames on the West.
He also seems to see Ukraine as a defining moment of his 14-year rule and a key turning point for post-Cold War Europe.
Putin acknowledged that the Ukrainians who rallied against their president, Viktor Yanukovych, were driven by anger against corruption and nepotism in his government. But Putin said the nation’s new government is merely “replacing some cheats with others”.
He denounced the ouster of Yanukovych as an “unconstitutional coup and armed seizure of power”. Putin claimed that the radical nationalists wearing swastika-like bands had come to control Kiev, and alleged that the snipers who shot and killed scores of people during the protesters were provocateurs, not government soldiers.
“Armed, masked militants are roaming around Kiev,” he said. Asked if Russia would recognise the outcome of Ukraine’s election set for May, he said, “We will not if such terror continues.”
He insisted that Yanukovych, who fled to Russia, remains the only legitimate leader of Ukraine. But he also spoke about Yanukovych with disdain, saying he has failed in his presidential duties.
Putin accused the West of staging the massive protests in the Ukrainian capital in order to reduce Russia’s clout there. He claimed that radical demonstrators involved in violent clashes with police in Kiev were trained by Western instructors.
“I have a feeling that they sit somewhere in a lab in America over a big puddle and conduct experiments, as if with rats, without understanding the consequences of what they are doing,” he said.
He said the ouster of Yanukovych hours after he had signed a deal to surrender much of his power and hold early elections has plunged Ukraine into chaos and put it on the verge of breaking up.
Turning tables on the west
Putin rejected Western accusations of Russian aggression against Ukraine, saying the US should know better, given what it has done.
“We have to remind them about the US action in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, where they acted without any sanction of the United Nations Security Council, or wilfully interpreted its resolution as in the case of Libya,” he said.
“Our partners, particularly in the United States, always clearly formulate their geopolitical and state interests and aggressively pursue them. They try to pull the rest of the world under them and start hitting those who put up resistance, eventually finishing them off, as a rule.”
He did not mention that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, starting a war that lasted for nearly a decade and precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Think twice about sanctions
Putin has shrugged off Western threats to impose political and economic sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine, saying that they will backfire against the West.
“In the modern world, where everything is linked and everyone depends on others in one way or another, we can incur damage to one another, but it would be mutual damage,” he said.
Asked about the possibility that members of the Group of Eight will not show up at its summit scheduled in Sochi in June, he said: “If they don’t want to come, it’s OK.”