In his annual year end press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin showed beyond the shadow of a doubt that he is in fact mentally unhinged. For three hours, by turns he demonstrated signs of schizophrenic paranoia, pathological dishonesty, deep seated passive-aggressive tendencies, woeful ignorance of world affairs and economics, and delusional confidence in Russia’s future prospects.
Putin evokes the national self-image of the Russian bear. Putin’s bear is a natural hunter contentedly chasing pigs and boars, but otherwise minding his own business in his own sovereign forest. But somebody wants this bear to have a makeover, and to give up manly boar hunting for meekly picking berries and eating honey. But even that won’t be enough for this bear’s implacable adversaries. No, they want to chain up this proud bear, and remove his teeth and claws. And once he’s been defanged, he’ll be stuffed and put on display by the mantle.
Putin makes clear that as long as he’s in charge, the bear’s going to keep his teeth and claws - otherwise known as nuclear weapons. And if the bear didn’t have nukes, his enemies would take over his forest, with all of its oil and gas. Putin is the only world leader other than Kim Jong-un to so blithely menace the world with nuclear Armageddon.
And if that doesn’t unnerve you, Putin’s display of full blown paranoia should. He sees shadowy conspiracies against Russia everywhere. After fighting an appallingly dirty war against separatists in Chechnya, Russia has been plagued by low grade conflict and terrorism in its North Caucasus. According to Putin, these entirely home-grown domestic terrorists are supported by the West, “an established fact” that “everyone knows.”
And what about the Sochi Olympics? This was supposed to be Putin glorious moment in the sun (and incidentally a massive $50 billion boondoggle for his friends). Criticism of the Olympian graft and Russia’s repression of gays were all part of a “clearly orchestrated” campaign to discredit Russia. “This is an undeniable fact!” (Having myself written several op-eds criticizing Sochi, if there was such a campaign I’m still waiting for my paycheck.)
These same devious foreigners (read: “Americans”) want to steal Siberia. Putin repeats a long debunked urban myth that a high level American official once claimed it was “unfair” that “the whole of Siberia with its immense resources” should belong to Russia. Russian security agencies ascribe this avaricious sentiment to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, based on a mind reading apparatus that can tell a person’s inner thoughts based on their facial expressions.
And Putin is bitter and angry that a country as peaceable as his is surrounded by warmongers. He repeatedly claims that NATO’s eastward expansion “right up to our borders” is some sort of dirty trick that fundamentally infringes Russian rights. He seems unaware that after the end of the Soviet Empire, every single former Warsaw Pact member (and three former Soviet republics) made membership in NATO a national priority to protect themselves from the above mentioned bear.
He’s also indignantly self-pitying. He whinges that Russia only has two foreign military bases, in strategic Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, while “U.S. bases are scattered around the globe.” And then Pentagon’s budget is ten times that of Russia’s military budget. It’s unfair, and obviously proof that it’s American and not Russian aggression the world has to worry about. Never mind that American troops are stationed around the world with the sovereign consent on our allies, and are there to protect them from rogue leaders like Putin.
Putin lies with such ease that it is hard to be sure he doesn’t actually believe his own lies. He breezily denies that Russia is fomenting a war in eastern Ukraine. Russia hasn’t been shipping arms and anti-aircraft rockets, it’s only sent “humanitarian convoys.” And annexing Crimea, territory of a neighboring state, wasn’t an infringement of Ukrainian sovereignty, it was a defense of Russia’s right to exist.
Even as the ruble collapses and Russia heads into the teeth of a severe recession, Putin paints a rosy economic picture. The decline in the ruble is “primarily” due to “external factors,” such as sanctions, falling energy prices, and “profiteering” by shady currency speculators. But Russia will easily “adjust” to sharply lower energy prices, despite the fact that oil and gas make up half the government budget and a quarter of GDP.
Putin expresses confidence that lower energy prices are actually a benefit, because it will be a reason to diversifying Russia’s economy away from dependence on energy exports. Putin has made this a promise regularly for the last 14 years. But Putin has a glib explanation why there’s been zero forward progress under his reign, it’s because businesses only want “fast and easy profits” from natural resources instead of investing in "unprofitable" sectors like technology and manufacturing. Putin seems utterly ignorant of the fact that it's only in his inefficient and kleptocratic state that technology and manufacturing are unprofitable.
Putin is anyway confident that energy prices will “inevitably” rebound, because the “global economy will grow.” The global economy is growing, but energy prices are falling anyway because more sophisticated Western technology is bringing more and more supply into the market.Again, Putin seems unaware of basic trends even in energy markets.
In one of the dumbest moves imaginable, earlier this year Putin decided to respond to Western economic sanctions by banning food imports from Europe. The ban marginally hurts EU food producers, but fueled a substantial increase in food inflation as those imports now have to come from far flung producers such as Brazil. And now with the ruble worth half what is was six months ago, inflation will really rip loose. That doesn’t worry Putin, as the government plans to “talk to producers” and convince them not to raise prices dramatically.
Interestingly, one word nobody mentioned in the talkathon was “corruption.” Russia has been for decades tied with the likes of Nigeria in global corruption rankings, and everyone and his dog knows corruption is Russia’s number one problem. But Putin merely expresses his confidence that the government and the central bank have been “taking all appropriate measures” and have the rapidly crumbling economic situation under control.
Putin proudly points to Sochi and the 2018 World Cup as proof of his successful governing strategy. It’s widely estimated that half of the $50 billion sunk into the Sochi Olympics was stolen outright, and the other half is a white elephant that will never recover its costs. But as Putin gloats, Sochi hosted a Formula 1 race for the first time in Russian history (and the one Russian team finished last, by the way). And by expenditure of $20 billion to host the World Cup will have the happy result of encouraging the populace to join sports clubs.
And Putin is casually dismissive of the few domestic critics that dare express any dissent against his regime. As he puts it, “there is afine line between domestic opposition and (traitorous) fifth columnists.” And in any event, his critics are mere “bander-logs,” the chattering monkeys of Rudyard Kipling’s jungle tales.
Thanks to the gross incompetence and greed of Putin and his Kremlin cronies, Russia is heading into economic disaster. And his internal repression, nationalistic posturing, and policy of foreign aggression are turning Russia into a pariah state. But to listen to Vladimir Putin’s version of affairs, none of this is his personal responsibility. And maybe more scarily, most of the Russian public accept his paranoia, lies and delusions with nary a sign of criticism. The rest of the world should be more skeptical of this vicous tin-pot autocrat, and deeply worried about what Putin is capable of doing next as the Russian economy begins to fall apart at the seams over the next few years.