On Wednesday, Vladimir Putin offered his thoughts on Hillary Clinton in response to a question from a French journalist about her comments comparing modern Russia to Hitler's Germany. His answer was bluntly sexist. It was also an astonishing act of projection. Putin might as well have been saying "I really screwed up in Ukraine."
"It's better not to argue with women," Putin began, on a high note. "But Ms. Clinton has never been too graceful in her statements. Still, we always met afterwards and had cordial conversations at various international events. I think even in this case we could reach an agreement. When people push boundaries too far, it's not because they are strong but because they are weak. But maybe weakness is not the worst quality for a woman."
The emphasis is mine, because it's got to be the least self-aware thing ever said. In the past six months, Putin has done almost nothing but push boundaries. That's literally true, not a metaphor. His major foreign policy initiative has been moving Russia's border west into Ukraine. If pushing boundaries is a sign of weakness, then Vladimir Putin is about to get sand kicked in his face on the beach.
When Obama wanted to embarrass Putin in March, he used language almost identical to what Putin just said about Clinton. "Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors - not out of strength, but out of weakness," Obama said. "The fact that Russia felt the need to go in militarily and lay bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more."
Putin really did push boundaries too far. Russia's stock exchange, along with several other major Russian economic indicators, took a severe tumble. Investors freaked out about Western sanctions, and Putin seems to have internalized the message that aggression in eastern Europe wasn't worth the economic risks.
And Russia is fundamentally weak. Its greatest chance to be a global power again, an alliance with China, is stillborn. Its newest attempt to spread its influence, a free trade pact called the Eurasian Economic Union, is only a fraction of the EU and the US' size.
One way to read the Ukraine adventure, in light of this weakness, is a desperate attempt to reassert Russia's international and regional influence in the face of an obvious and rapid decline in power after the Cold War. Pushing boundaries is a form of lashing out over post-Soviet powerlessness.
Hmm. That sounds like, if you tweak it a little, it could make a good soundbite. Maybe some politician should save it for an interview.