Marc Ambinder

Why Putin lies so easily

The old Soviet Union had a variety of mainstays when they were confronted by the West. Putin's rambling press conference confirmed their salience today:

Tactic 1: Tu Quoque. You, too. That is, create moral equivalencies between Soviet actions and American actions to try and remove moral suasion as a source of pressure.

"And this isn't the first time our Western partners have meddled. I sometimes have the the feeling that over there across the pond, somewhere in America, they're like workers in a laboratory, conducting experiments on rats without any understand of what they're doing."

Tactic 2: Claim that military intervention was a last step and came only at the request of the duly elected government. (The Soviets so justified the respective invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979 this way.)

The Russian president defended the incursion into Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, calling it "the right step" that he said was requested by Yanukovych. He said following an "official request" from Ukraine's president, "we reserve the right to use all of the means to defend these people."

Tactic 3: Insist that the government is acting within its legal limits, just as the West demands.

"We proceed from the conviction that we always act legitimately. I have personally always been an advocate of acting in compliance with international law."

Tactic 4: Engage in strategic, tactical and operation deception. Move troops around quickly. Hire, using laundered state money, militias, and equip them with Russian arms. Issue threats and then claim to have never issued them. Deny stuff that definitely happened.

Of all the things he could have said, the idea that he would fill a press conference with so many outright falsehoods is interesting. He could have been genuinely conciliatory. He could have described, correctly, a Russian fear that fascist elements will control any new Ukrainian government. He could have explained that Russia has a special and long-standing tradition of protecting its culture and heritage in a way that sometimes requires special measures.

Instead, he just lied. They were lies strapped together in a familiar, if still unusual, way. They are KGB lies, or the type of lies that Putin was trained to tell. They are lies intended for a hypothetical audience of sympathizers around the world, lies intended to undermine the West.

But they are old lies, too. They are, in this age, best consumed by a domestic political audience because foreign listeners will find them laughable. Putin is trapped in the language of old Soviet self-justification. His lies seem hollow. He lied because — well, I can't get inside his head. If indeed he is acting irrationally, which could itself be a deceptive posture to confuse and mislead the West, it is only slightly more comforting to believe that he is lying for leverage, which he'll want to use later on, when "peace talks" begin.

As a leader on the world stage...he's no Krushchev. Not even an Andropov.

President Obama noted Tuesday that there's a "strong belief in the international community" that Putin's invasion of the Crimea, as well as his threats to follow through into the Ukraine, violate international law. Putin, he said, wanly, might have consulted a "different set of lawyers making a different set of assumptions."

Actually, the notion that Putin has or intends to speak to any Kremlin legal expert on the legality of his actions is rather far-fetched. One of the reasons why so many Western hawks have reacted so viscerally to Putin's actions is because the Russian incursions seem drawn directly from the dusty playbook of Soviet Cold War brinksmanship.

When they complain that Obama is misreading Putin, they're actually saying that Obama does not believe that Putin's interests are constituted any differently from other leaders he has dealt with, especially difficult ones, and that Putin is amenable to reason. I don't think Obama actually believes this. What I do believe is that he does not want to aggravate the situation by playing the part of the "Main Enemy."

That's because Obama wants to preserve the parts of his legacy that are bound up with Russian influence, like non-proliferation and negotiations with Iran. I don't know if this is wise or foolish, but it is not a reflection of naivete or willful ignorance.

Also, I sense that Obama would rather focus on the core problem — what is to become of Ukraine — rather than test wills with an implacable, unknowable foe who is not going to be persuaded to tell the truth.

Yes, truth is foreign to Vladimir Putin. That's an impediment to solving the crisis, but it's no reason why the crisis can't be solved, or ameliorated. It's just an obstacle.


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