Intelligence officers live by a time-honored credo: When in doubt, admit nothing, deny everything, make counter-accusations.

It was in that spirit that Vladimir Putin, the one-time KGB man who rules Russia, addressed his nation and the world last week on the annexation of Crimea.

The March 18 speech began with a blatant lie - "A referendum was held in Crimea on March 16, in full compliance with democratic procedures and international norms" - and continued in that vein for more than 40 minutes.

Putin presented an argument so logically tangled - so unappealing to anyone but Russian nationalists such as those who packed the Kremlin to applaud him - that it seemed intended less to refute contrary arguments than to bury them under a rhetorical avalanche.

True, during the days of the Soviet Union, Crimean Tatars were "treated unfairly," Putin conceded - a rather bland formulation for the Tatars' mass expulsion to Central Asia by Stalin. Everyone, but "primarily Russians," suffered in those years, Putin said, so he feels the Tatars' pain, and they can trust him when he says their rights will be safe now.

A few sentences later, Putin lamented the collapse of this empire, on the grounds that its downfall made Russians "one of the biggest, if not the biggest, ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders."

He told Ukrainians: "Do not believe those who want you to fear Russia, shouting that other regions will follow Crimea" down the road of annexation.

He alluded to the post-Soviet Ukrainian state's alleged "forced assimilation" of Russians, saying the Bolsheviks drew Ukraine's borders without regard for the Russian population in eastern regions - and pointedly noted that "the guarantee of Ukraine's ... territorial integrity" depends on Kiev seeing to it that the Russian population's rights "are fully protected."

Putin professed sympathetic understanding for the protesters in Kiev's Maidan Square and their unhappiness with corruption, oblivious to the contradiction with his own repression of Russians who dare to protest his corrupt rule.

Putin trumpeted the right of "Crimea's residents to freely choose their fate," just as Americans declared independence in 1776 and Ukraine seceded from the Soviet Union in 1991. Yet consistent application of this principle would probably lead to the secession of two Russian republics - Chechnya and Dagestan - whose national aspirations Putin has ruthlessly crushed.

Putin's most shameless argument related to Germany. Of all people, the Germans "will also understand me," he said. Unlike Britain and France, the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev supported speedy German reunification after the Berlin Wall fell. Therefore, he said, "the citizens of Germany will also support the aspiration of the Russians, of historical Russia, to restore unity."

Of course, the Soviet Union was largely responsible for dividing Germany after World War II and for building the wall in the first place.

The biggest problem with this cover story is that Putin may actually believe it.

As Putin depicted them, all U.S. presidents are heirs to an ancient Western policy - dating to the 18th century - designed to "sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position."

Even Barack Obama - who came into office promising a "reset" in relations, sought nuclear-weapons treaties and scuttled a missile defense plan in Eastern Europe - is not trustworthy, he said.

Obama can lecture Putin all he wants about being on the "wrong side of history." Putin doesn't care. He has his own interpretation of the past, and it fills him with a sense of grievance powerful enough to transform the map of Europe.

Charles Lane writes for The Washington Post.

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