With the stroke of pen, Russian pride is restored
Vladimir Putin is not an extrovert.
There was no smile of satisfaction, no crinkle of his brow, no flourish of the pen when he signed the document formalising the annexation of Crimea yesterday, March 18, 2014. But as he crossed arms and joined hands with the three Crimean leaders who had added their signatures to the treaty, the tiniest flash of a smirk slipped through the passive visage.
Perhaps later, in private, he might have allowed himself to punch the air.
At a stroke Putin has reclaimed Crimea for Russia, confounded the revolutionary government in Kiev, and ripped up what many in Moscow see as an unjust post-Cold War settlement that has held sway in Europe for 23 years.
And he has exacted a much-delayed but very sweet revenge, for he has denounced what he regards as the West's own repeated trampling of international law since the fall of the Soviet Union – from NATO's intervention in Kosovo, to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. "It's good that they remembered that there is such a thing as international law. Better late than never," he quipped, to rapturous applause in the gilded Kremlin.
But there was much more to Putin's lightning annexation of Crimea than simple opportunism.
In many ways, it was the culmination of his decade and half in at the helm of the world's largest country that has been defined, more than anything else, by the ambition of restoring Russia to what he sees as its rightful place in the community of nations. Putin has promoted an ideology that embraces a certain Russian exceptionalism, glorifies the Soviet Union's role in World War II almost as a founding myth, and bemoans the wrongs of an unjust post-Cold War settlement.
This means that, while for many in the West the wilful destruction of the post-Cold War consensus is nothing short of alarming, for Putin and many other Russians it is about a restoration of historical justice.
Hence he reminded his audience of Crimea's sacred status for Russia as a symbol of military glory, of valour.
"When Crimea suddenly found itself in another state, Russians felt that she had not only been robbed, but plundered," he told his audience. And hence the casting of the revolution in Kiev as a coup led by "neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites".
In recent years his conservative ideology has hardened into a world view that sees the collective West as a threat, and the revolution in Kiev as a Western-backed plot aimed at evicting Russia from Ukraine, and ultimately overthrowing the Russian government.
But whether the motive is a kind of historic justice, or pre-emptive self-defence, leaders in Kiev and the West will now be worrying just how far Putin will go.
"Don't believe those who try to make Russia scare you, crying that after Crimea will follow other regions.
"We don't want to divide Ukraine, and we don't need to," he said.
Putin insisted yet again that Russia had not deployed troops across Crimea – a claim that flies in the face of acknowledged facts.
While Putin was speaking, members of the Crimean Tatar community were burying a man who appears to have been murdered after disappearing from a protest.
And last night, the Ukrainian military said one of its men had been killed after gunmen stormed one of its remaining bases in Crimea. In those two deaths lie ominous signs. (© Daily Telegraph, London)