ANYONE WONDERING what Western leaders have been up against when they try to reason with Vladimir Putin need only read the transcript of the Russian ruler’s three-hour performance at the annual Valdai conference in Sochi on Friday. Mr. Putin was politely questioned by an assortment of Moscow-approved foreign journalists, scholars and former policymakers about Russia’s aggression in Ukraine — and out poured a poisonous mix of lies, conspiracy theories, thinly veiled threats of further aggression and, above all, seething resentment toward the United States.
“Having declared itself the winner of the Cold War,” the United States, with the help of “its satellites,” according to Mr. Putin, promoted a “unipolar world [that] is simply a means of justifying dictatorship over people and countries.” According to Mr. Putin, Washington has created chaos across the world by conspiring to foment revolutions, including what he views as an armed “coup d’etat” in Ukraine. Even worse, it believes “there is no need to take into account Russia’s views.”
Mr. Putin portrayed the invasion of Crimea as the corrective to this “imperialism.” “The bear will not even bother to ask permission,” he boasted. “Here we consider it master of the taiga, and . . . it will not let anyone have its taiga.” He made it clear that most of Ukraine is part of the “taiga” over which the Kremlin claims dominion — and Ukraine, he warned, “will certainly not be the last” “example of such sorts of conflicts that affect [the] international power balance.”
Other nations “at the intersection of major states’ geopolitical interests,” Mr. Putin said, could suffer from “internal instability,” leading to “a whole set of violent conflicts with either direct or indirect participation by the world’s major powers.” NATO’s Baltic members, as former republics of the Soviet Union, will no doubt pay particular attention to that prediction.
In a somewhat positive sign, Mr. Putin conceded that Western sanctions against Russia “are a hindrance” and, after more railing at the United States, he offered that “we are always open to dialogue, including on normalizing our economic and political relations.” He even said that Russia is willing to resume discussions of nuclear arms reductions — a favored initiative of President Obama that Mr. Putin stiffed two years ago.
The problem is Mr. Putin’s notion of what would constitute an acceptable settlement. After recalling with apparent nostalgia “the rules” of the Cold War, and twice mentioning that former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev pounded his shoe on a dais at the United Nations (“the United States and NATO thought: this Nikita is best left alone”), Mr. Putin protested that “we don’t need to be a superpower.” However, he said, “we want others to stay out of our affairs and to stop pretending that they rule the world.”
Judging from his rhetoric, Mr. Putin is offering the West a choice between ceding Russia its “taiga” — including dominion over Ukraine and whatever other parts of Eurasia that Mr. Putin chooses to claim — and “a whole set of violent conflicts.” No wonder that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has talked to the Russian ruler more than any other Western statesman, described him as “in another world.” Mr. Obama recently lumped Mr. Putin’s Russia with Ebola and terrorism as major threats facing the world. The speech infuriated Moscow, but if the Kremlin chief was hoping to show that he doesn’t deserve such treatment, he failed.