It's hard to believe how much time we have spent in recent weeks musing about Russian President Vladimir Putin. And we still don't have a clue what his end game is.
The first (and only) time I met Putin I tried to look into his eyes to see if I could ascertain anything about his soul. A la George W. Bush who said of Putin, "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country."
I saw nothing but two cold beady orbs. Let's be honest here, the cynical Putin resembles the ultimate James Bond villain more than a modern major potentate.
Putin turned the Olympic Games into a soap opera about him. We fretted about the horrific corruption in Putin's regime. Then we worried about terrorism springing from Russia's war with Chechnya 300 miles from the games. We recoiled from the weirdly colored hotel water.
We feared Putin's response to the losses of his beloved hockey team. We were upset that Russian police arrested two members of Pussy Riot, the not-particularly talented but intensely anti-Putin singers. We were appalled at the anti-gay restrictions of Putin's government and giggled when he inadvertently hugged a lesbian medalist.
And then Ukraine erupted into violence, its pro-Russian puppet president fled and the world held its breath, waiting to see what Putin would do.
The former KGB colonel held war games, started making threatening noises and ordered troops to surround Ukraine's small military outposts. Then he ordered Russian troops to show force in Crimea, part of Ukraine.
To Secretary of State John Kerry's astonishment, Putin denied there are Russian troops on alert in Crimea. Putin said he has no intent to start a war but warned he just might have to use force to protect Russian interests. He signaled he might support Ukrainian elections. But he insisted he must protect Russia's Black Sea Fleet off the coast of Crimea. He denounced Ukraine's new government, calling it "the people who call themselves the government." He lashed out at the United States, blaming the West for all the trouble.
Putin is an extremely tiresome person.
We are now scrambling to recall how imperialism started the World Wars I and II and what the Crimean War in the 1850s was all about and seeking European understanding on just what Putin's motives are. (Europeans don't know but suspect he wants to reassemble the Russian empire. They're also worried about irritating him because his country provides a lot of their natural gas.) Some of the pundits are even suggesting this is a restart of the Cold War.
The United States and Europe are treaty-bound to protect Ukraine from invasion or Russian force. Meanwhile, Ukraine is totally out of money, so one idea to defuse the whole mess is to pour in billions of dollars. (Americans on food stamps may be on precarious territory; unstable but strategic foreign governments are on firmer ground when it comes to federal dollars.) And when in doubt, we usually go with economic sanctions and then we cancel international meetings.
Putin is centuries too late to go down in history as Vlad the Terrible or Vlad the Impaler. But clearly he wants a big chapter. Putin the Impenetrable doesn't really work, but Vlad the Invader is a distinct possibility. Vlad the Diplomat seems unlikely. (Vlad the Stupid is a personal favorite.)
In our age of celebrity worship it always comes as a bit of a shock when somebody famous can wreak havoc on so many people with such insensitivity and such ferocity, getting thousands of minions to do his dirty work. Perhaps Putin didn't think this through. Probably even he doesn't know how it will end.
We are trying to assess which is more tedious -- the cold temperatures and snow of this dreadful winter or figuring out the Russian bear. It's a tossup.
(Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune.)