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Putin's insane-sounding quote about bears is essential for understanding Russia today

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, at a press conference on Thursday to address the country's increasingly dire economic crisis, made an extended, bizarre reference to bears that is drawing a lot of attention, and rightly, because it makes him sound absolutely crazy.

But Putin's bear quotes — and the bear, it is widely understood in Russia, is a metaphor for the Russian nation — are actually essential for understanding Putin and his growing hostility to the West. Here is the quote, per the AP's translation, and its summary of a related point he made midway through:

Sometimes I think, maybe it would be better for our bear to sit quiet, rather than chasing around the forest after piglets. To sit eating berries and honey instead. Maybe they will leave it in peace. They will not. Because they will always try to put him on a chain, and as soon as they succeed in doing so they tear out his fangs and his claws.

[Putin says that by fangs and claws he meant Russia's nuclear weapons. And the West wants to weaken Russia, he says, to win control over its rich natural resources.]

Once they've taken out his claws and his fangs, then the bear is no longer necessary. He'll become a stuffed animal. The issue is not Crimea, the issue is that we are protecting our sovereignty and our right to exist.

Yes, to be clear, you are correct to read his argument as bananas crazy: that there is a Western conspiracy to destroy Russia and its nuclear weapons so as to steal Russian resources — the same oil that is trading at bargain-basement lows right now — and that Russia can only prevent this catastrophe by "chasing around the forest after piglets," in other words by being occasionally aggressive against other, smaller countries.

What Putin is really talking about

But this isn't just Putin randomly popping off on a bizarre tangent. This line of reasoning is, and has always been, a deliberate part of this strategy. That strategy is to portray any Russian economic downturn as the fault of nefarious Western aggressors, play up Russian imperial-style nationalism as a means of generating popular support, and to launch aggressive military campaigns that bolster and connect those two things.

Putin, in this quote about bears, is directly referencing Russia's imperial past, and the idea that Russia is an inherently powerful and superior country whose basic nature — indeed, whose right according to natural law — is to physically domineer other countries. That's about justifying Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea, and its ongoing invasion of eastern Ukraine, not to mention Putin's more recent shows of aggression against other eastern European states, but it's about much more than that.

This idea is popular among Russians; since the fall of Soviet Union, and especially the economic catastrophes of the 1990s, there has been a sense of lost greatness and lost pride in Russia. Putin is telling Russians that they are still a great world power, and blaming any feelings of national shortcoming not on failures of Russian leadership but on Western aggressors whose very existence just further proves that Russia is an equal and competitor.

Putin's bear strategy works in the short term, but it is extremely dangerous

What's canny about this is that Putin is basically arguing that the real reason Russia's economy is collapsing is in fact because the Russian state is so great, that those nefarious Western imperialists just couldn't stand it and are trying to chain up the bear.

And he is further arguing that the way for Russia to deal with this problem isn't to, say, institute painful but necessary economic reforms, or back out of the Ukraine invasion that has invited damaging Western sanctions — rather, the answer is for Russia to be even more aggressive, because "chasing piglets" is Russia's inherent and glorious nature, and only that can stave off the real threat.

This sort of rhetoric is popular in Russia. People like to hear that their problems are actually a sign of their strengths, that their country is something they should have great pride in, that they are inherently above and apart from the rest (you would not have to look hard to find similar rhetoric in US politics).

But it is extremely dangerous, for the world and for Russia itself, because Putin is setting himself up to solve every problem with nationalist rhetoric and military aggression — which in turn will only invite more problems, and require more nationalism and aggression to paper over.

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