Video: Kerry stunned to learn Putin denied that Russian troops are in Crimea

Via Greg Hengler, I don’t think this is evidence that Kerry, like Obama on so many matters, seems to be getting his news from TV rather than from his briefers. I think it’s evidence that he had a busy day. He was in Kiev all morning meeting with the opposition and probably didn’t have a chance to watch Putin’s presser before holding his own.

Worth linking anyway, though, as further evidence that the alleged geopolitical grand master is making some … strange plays lately. What’s the point in continuing to deny that the guys in fatigues carrying Kalashnikovs and driving around Crimea in Russian personnel carriers are Russian troops? What does Putin gain from it? See why even people who know him, like Angela Merkel, think he’s starting to lose it? Julia Ioffe, TNR’s veteran Putin critic, watched today’s press conference and came to the same conclusion as Merkel:

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…

Merkel was absolutely right: Putin has lost it. Unfortunately, it makes him that much harder to deal with.

A couple of Twitter pals argued with me about this earlier today, claiming that it’s dangerous nonsense to dismiss Putin’s lurch towards Crimea as the act of a madman. And that’s true, to an extent: I gave you a perfectly rational reason in the last post to explain why he’d seize a province that neither faced nor posed any threat. The thing is, “rational” and “delusional” aren’t perfectly mutually exclusive. A strongman who really is starting to believe his own BS may respond rationally within the parameters of the delusion he’s created for himself. To see what I mean, read David Brooks’s piece today about the goofy, messianic Russian nationalist propaganda that Putin’s spent years ingesting. He may believe, quite rationally, that he needed to make a show of strength in Crimea to intimidate other Russian satellites into joining his new Eurasian Union. He may simultaneously believe, not so rationally, that Russia is destined to unite east and west in some sort of spiritual utopia, if only the decadent Americans will stop obstructing him. If he sees Ukraine tilting away, and then maybe Belarus or Lithuania, what happens to that vision? How far would he go to protect it? If he’s perfectly rational and all the garbage spewed by the Kremlin about Nazis taking over Kiev is just cynical propaganda, there’s nothing much to worry about. But what if he isn’t?

Exit question: If Kerry’s going to indict Putin for failing to work through international institutions like the UN (there’s that dopey “19th century versus 21st century” talking point again), which he did at length in today’s presser, why doesn’t he read from Putin’s own op-ed in the NYT last year? Remember that? Right after he got done thoroughly humiliating Obama over his phantom Syria “red line,” Putin decided to spike the ball by extolling the virtues of the United Nations in America’s leading newspaper. Actual quote: “No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.” If that’s his rule, make him live by it.