Intelligence officers live by a time-honored credo: When in doubt, admit nothing, deny everything, make counter-accusations.
It was in that spirit that Vladimir Putin, the quondam KGB man who rules Russia, addressed his nation and the world Tuesday on the annexation of Crimea.
The speech began with a blatant lie — “A referendum was held in Crimea on March 16, in full compliance with democratic procedures and international norms” — and continued in that vein for more than 40 prolix minutes.
Mr. Putin presented a legal and historical argument so tendentious and so logically tangled — so unappealing to anyone but Russian nationalists such as those who packed the Kremlin to applaud him — that it seemed intended less to refute contrary arguments than to bury them under a rhetorical avalanche.
True, during the days of the Soviet Union, Crimean Tatars were “treated unfairly,” Mr. Putin conceded — a rather bland formulation for the Tatars’ mass expulsion to Central Asia by Stalin. Nevertheless, everyone, but “primarily Russians,” suffered in those years, Mr. Putin said, so he feels the Tatars’ pain, and they can trust him when he says their rights will be safe now.
A few sentences later, Mr. Putin lamented the collapse of this empire, claiming Russians suffered more than anyone else, on the grounds that its downfall made Russians “one of the biggest, if not the biggest, ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”
He told Ukrainians: “Do not believe those who want you to fear Russia, shouting that other regions will follow Crimea” down the road of annexation.
Yet he also alluded to the post-Soviet Ukrainian state’s alleged “forced assimilation” of Russians, questioned the legitimacy of Ukraine’s borders because the Bolsheviks drew them without regard for the Russian population in eastern regions — and pointedly noted that “the guarantee of Ukraine’s … territorial integrity” is whether Kiev sees to it that the Russian population’s rights “are fully protected.”
Mr. Putin professed sympathetic understanding for the protesters in Kiev’s Maidan Square and their unhappiness with corruption and poverty, oblivious to the contradiction with his own repression of Russians who dare to protest his corrupt rule.
Mr. Putin trumpeted the right of “Crimea’s residents to freely choose their fate,” just as Americans declared independence in 1776 and Ukraine seceded from the Soviet Union in 1991. Yet consistent application of this purported principle would probably lead to the secession of at least two Russian republics — Chechnya and Dagestan — whose national aspirations Mr. Putin has ruthlessly crushed.
He said “it was hard to believe” that a European capital, Belgrade, in pro-Russian Serbia, could have come under NATO missile attack for several weeks in 1999. Apparently he missed the prelude, or didn’t find it so incredible: The Belgrade regime’s shelling and siege of another capital, Sarajevo, with the tacit backing of Russia, seven years earlier.
Mr. Putin’s most shameless syllogism related to Germany. Of all people, the Germans “will also understand me,” he said. Unlike Britain and France, the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev supported speedy German reunification after the Berlin Wall fell. Therefore, he said, “the citizens of Germany will also support the aspiration of the Russians, of historical Russia, to restore unity.”
Of course, the Soviet Union was largely responsible for dividing Germany after World War II and for the erection of the hideous wall that trapped the current chancellor, Angela Merkel, in East Germany for much of her life.
The biggest problem with this cover story is that Mr. Putin may actually believe it. The circumstances surrounding the speech suggested as much. The setting was operatic: the Kremlin’s massive, gilded St. George Hall. His delivery was forceful; he seemed at times to have a lump in his throat.
Shortly after addressing the dignitaries in the Kremlin, Mr. Putin faced a much bigger crowd in Red Square, where he concluded his short remarks with a cry of “Long live Russia!”
As Mr. Putin depicted them Tuesday, all U.S. presidents, Republican or Democrat, are heirs to an ancient Western policy — dating to the 18th century — designed to “sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position.”
Even Barack Obama — the dynamic progressive who came into office promising a “reset” in relations, disavowed the “Cold War chessboard,” sought nuclear-weapons treaties, scuttled a missile defense plan in Eastern Europe and reached out to Iran — is no more trustworthy than any of his predecessors.
Mr. Obama can lecture Mr. Putin all he wants about being on the “wrong side of history.” Mr. Putin doesn’t care and never will. He has his own interpretation of the past, and it fills him with a sense of grievance powerful enough to transform the map of Europe.
Charles Lane is an editorial writer for The Washington Post.