In Sunday's New York Times, Peter Baker reported that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had tried talking some sense into Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader has an affinity for the Germans and Merkel especially: He served in the KGB in East Germany, where Merkel grew up. And yet, nothing:
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told Mr. Obama by telephone on Sunday that after speaking with Mr. Putin she was not sure he was in touch with reality, people briefed on the call said. “In another world,” she said.
If you weren't sure of the veracity of that little reportorial nugget, all doubt should've vanished after Putin's press conference today.
Slouching in a fancy chair in front of a dozen reporters, Putin squirmed and rambled. And rambled and rambled. He was a rainbow of emotion: Serious! angry! bemused! flustered! confused! So confused. Victor Yanukovich is still the acting president of Ukraine, but he can't talk to Ukraine because Ukraine has no president. Ukraine needs elections, but you can't have elections because there is already a president. And no elections will be valid given that there is terrorism in the streets of Ukraine. And how are you going to let just anyone run for president? What if some nationalist punk just pops out like a jack-in-the-box? An anti-Semite? Look at how peaceful the Crimea is, probably thanks to those guys with guns holding it down. Who are they, by the way? Speaking of instability, did you know that the mayor of Dniepropetrovsk is a thief? He cheated "our oligarch, [Chelsea owner Roman] Abramovich" of millions. Just pocketed them! Yanukovich has no political future, I've told him that. He didn't fulfill his obligations as leader of the country. I've told him that. Mr. Putin, what mistakes did Yanukovich make as president? You know, I can't answer that. Not because I don't know the answer, but because it just wouldn't be right of me to say. Did you know they burned someone alive in Kiev? Just like that? Is that what you call a manifestation of democracy? Mr. Putin, what about the snipers in Kiev who were firing on civilians? Who gave them orders to shoot? Those were provocateurs. Didn't you read the reports? They were open source reports. So I don't know what happened there. It's unclear. But did you see the bullets piercing the shields of the Berkut [special police]. That was obvious. As for who gave the order to shoot, I don't know. Yanukovich didn't give that order. He told me. I only know what Yanukovich told me. And I told him, don't do it. You'll bring chaos to your city. And he did it, and they toppled him. Look at that bacchanalia. The American political technologists they did their work well. And this isn't the first time they've done this in Ukraine, no. Sometimes, I get the feeling that these people...these people in America. They are sitting there, in their laboratory, and doing experiments, like on rats. You're not listening to me. I've already said, that yesterday, I met with three colleagues. Colleagues, you're not listening. It's not that Yanukovich said he's not going to sign the agreement with Europe. What he said was that, based on the content of the agreement, having examined it, he did not like it. We have problems. We have a lot of problems in Russia. But they're not as bad as in Ukraine. The Secretary of State. Well. The Secretary of State is not the ultimate authority, is he?
And so on, for about an hour. And much of that, by the way, is direct quotes.
Gone was the old Putin, the one who loves these kinds of press events. He'd come a long way from the painfully awkward gray FSB officer on Larry King, a year into his tenure. He had grown to become the master of public speaking, who had turned his churlish, prison-inflected slang to his benefit. A salty guy in utter command of a crowd. That Putin was not the Putin we saw today. Today's Putin was nervous, angry, cornered, and paranoid, periodically illuminated by flashes of his own righteousness. Here was an authoritarian dancing uncomfortably in his new dictator shoes, squirming in his throne.
For the last few years, it has become something like conventional knowledge in Moscow journalistic circles that Putin was no longer getting good information, that he was surrounded by yes-men who created for him a parallel informational universe. "They're beginning to believe their own propaganda," Gleb Pavlovsky told me when I was in Moscow in December. Pavlovsky had been a close advisor to the early Putin, helping him win his first presidential election in 2000. (When, in 2011, Putin decided to return for a third term as president, Pavlovsky declared the old Putin dead.) And still, it wasn't fully vetted information. We were like astronomers, studying refractions of light that reached us from great distances, and used them to draw our conclusions.
Today's performance, though, put all that speculation to rest. Merkel was absolutely right: Putin has lost it. Unfortunately, it makes him that much harder to deal with.
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