In the United States, the currency of presidential press conferences is about as devalued as the Russian ruble. The sheer volume of presidential pronouncements has taught us not to hang too much meaning on any one of them.
Not so in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin gave a set-piece press conference this week. Billed as his annual, end-of-the-year Moscow presser, Putin was asked by one reporter whether the troubles with the Russian economy were in any way "payback for the unification with Crimea." In Putin's Russia, the question was about as spontaneous as the dutifully noted punctuations of "spontaneous, sustained applause" in Stalin's published speeches.
Putin had a ready answer. It came in the form of a parable.
As translated in Russia Today:
The president said that even if "the Russian bear" started "sitting tight... and eating berries and honey," this would not stop pressure being applied against the country. "They won't leave us alone. They will always seek to chain us. And once we are chained, they'll rip out our teeth and claws - Our nuclear deterrence, speaking in present-day terms," Putin said. "As soon as this [chaining the bear] happens, nobody will need it anymore. They'll stuff it. And after that, they'll start to put their hands on his Taiga [Siberian forest belt]. We've heard statements from Western officials that Russia's owning Siberia was not fair," he exclaimed.
As Putin patiently explained to his press corps pupils, the nuclear-armed bear is Russia. Once defanged and declawed (memo to the U.S. State Department: so much for the next round of nuclear-arms control) the bear will be powerless to stop the Taiga land-grab, siezing the Siberian region that Putin asserts is coveted by "Western officials."
As for Putin's statement that some find Russia's ownership of Siberia "not fair" - is there some fear that the 12,000 remaining descendants of the Vogul tribes of the 16th Century are ready to rise up and reclaim 9 percent of the world's landmass?
Don't wait for the Moscow press corps to push back for an explanation. There's no fact-checker to award Putin Pinocchio points for stretching or simply ignoring the truth.
What we're left with is a psychological portrait of a wounded nation-state. Russia is under siege and aggrieved - a passive-aggressive, nuclear-armed actor on the global stage. In Putin's world, Russia had no choice but to retake Crimea, in order "to preserve Russia as a nation, a civilization and a state." Stroke by stroke, we see Putin author a new nationalism, daubed onto an oil-fueled autocracy, that would have made Stalin proud.
Yet we cannot dismiss Putin's geopolitical fairy tale outright. As Ukraine has learned, Moscow cannot be ignored, and Putin's fanciful Taiga tale provides clues to the direction of his thinking - clues sprinkled into his rhetoric like Hansel and Gretel's trail of breadcrumbs.
Let's look at why Putin frets about the Taiga. What lies beneath the Siberian permafrost? An ABC of metals and minerals. As reported in the Department of Defense's National Defense Stockpile Requirements Report of 2013, and in the current annual minerals summary of the U.S. Geological Survey, Russia is a "Top 3" producer of the following: aluminum, bauxite, chromium, cobalt, germanium, iridium, magnesium, nickel, palladium, platinum, rhodium, ruthenium, scandium, selenium, silicon carbide, tantalum, tellurium, thallium, titanium, and vanadium. In terms of naturally occurring elements, that covers about one-fifth of the periodic table.
The United States has known resources of nearly all of the metals listed above - but a post-industrial mindset has made the process of bringing a new U.S. mine into production the lengthiest in the world. So how about diversifying away from Russian resources? Near-term efforts to shift from Russia will mean increased reliance on China, which happens to be a top-three global producer for 13 of the 20 metals on the Russian resource list.
With the free-fall in oil prices crashing the Russian ruble, and Russia's oil and gas leverage over its neighbors dwindling fast, only the Taiga's metals remain. Several months ago, Boeing and United Technologies began bulk purchases of Russian titanium airframe parts, worrying the metal may become subject to Putin's retaliatory sanctions. That's prescient on their part, but has the rest of the West reckoned on what it will do if Russia uses its hard-rock resources as leverage, as it can no longer do with its oil and gas?
It's one matter to replace Stolichnaya - the export version is produced in Latvia, anyway - and those tricked-out Lada 4-by-4s. It's not so clear that the United States can get by without reliable supplies of the metals and minerals we rely on to power everything from our smart phones to our smart bombs.
Is Putin headed toward that kind of trade warfare? That's the problem with parables: It's hard to know for sure. For now, this much we do know: The Bear is angry. And most confrontations with angry bears don't have happy endings - not in the tales told by the Brothers Grimm, nor in Vladimir Putin's geopolitical fable.