Is Russian President Vladimir Putin backing off from a confrontation with the West over Ukraine? Not hardly. But at a small question-and-answer session Tuesday he did hit the pause button, not least to show that he’s the man who holds the remote.
As a testy Putin fielded a few sharp queries and a lot of softballs (and ordered a woman out of the room when her phone rang) what may have been most remarkable was the way he described the drama he’s been watching in the Ukraine.
In Putin’s version of the crisis, Russians and Russian-speakers are under threat after the Europeans and Americans “supported an anti-constitutional coup” in Kiev “and declared those people legitimate.” Ousted President Viktor Yanukovych remains the leader of Ukraine, Putin said, and if he asks for Russian support to protect the Russophone people in the south and east of the country, Putin will oblige.
But that hasn’t happened yet. Even in the Crimea, which is now effectively occupied by Russian forces, Putin said there was no invasion. No shots have been fired except into the air.
“If I decide to use armed forces it will be in line with international law,” Putin insisted. He said he is “not concerned about war breaking out, we are not going to be fighting in Ukraine” – as long as the people there behave themselves.
Putin said there had been no ultimatum for Ukrainian forces to surrender, as was widely reported Monday. He announced Tuesday that the threatening Russian military maneuvers near the Ukrainian border are now over. And even as Putin said he supported Yanukovych, he dissed him. The infamously corrupt president-in-exile has “no political future,” Putin said, but had to be taken in by Russia for humanitarian considerations, otherwise he might have been killed.
In Putinworld, the regime that now rules in Kiev is not characterized so much by pro-European liberals but by tools of the West, played with “like laboratory rats” in some sinister experiment by the Americans and Europeans.
On the streets of Ukraine, a savage neo-Nazi element does exist. But Putin played it up as a huge threat that essentially dominates the Ukrainian revolution. He suggested even the members of the now-disbanded Berkut security forces – blamed for slaughtering scores of protestors – are really victims of nefarious plots. The murders in the Maidan were the work of “provocateurs,” Putin suggested.
Of course the Russian head of state, who spent his pre-presidential career in the Russian secret services, the KGB and FSB, knows all about provocateurs. Jewish leaders in Ukraine believe that the people who’ve been painting anti-Semitic graffiti on synagogues are not, in fact, the neo-Nazis, but agents working for Putin. And much of the fear in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking region is the result of relentless, shameless and extensively fabricated Russian propaganda.
While Putin stirs up as much trouble as possible for the new pro-Western government in Kiev, from the continuing military threat to increased prices for natural gas, he also presents himself as the soul of moderation.
The United States and Europe are dialing back on bilateral cooperation with Russia, and Putin laments that relationships are easy to destroy and hard to restore. He wouldn’t like to pull his ambassador out of Washington, he says.
As for Crimea, shouldn’t the people there have the right to decide their own fate? As a precedent, Putin cited Kosovo, which the West helped carve out of Serbia in 1999 against Russian objections. Russia supports the rule of law, Putin said, and the best way forward in Ukraine would be at the ballot box and with a new constitution.
As for other measures the international community might take against Russia, he was asked about talk of a boycott targeting the Paralympics in Sochi. That would be “cynical,” said Putin, whose cynicism knows few bounds.