Vladimir Putin's Truth Problem: Five Holes in the Russian President's Story

Vladimir Putin at a construction site for a World Cup stadium RIA Novosti/Alexei Nikolskyi/Kremlin/Reuters

Deception and misdirection have long been important tools for a KGB agent (which Vladimir Putin famously was). But some of the things the Russian president has said since the crisis in Ukraine began last year go well beyond purposeful deceit. They've been outright howlers.

Here are the top five, starting with the most recent, in the wake of the heinous shooting down of Malaysia Air Flight MH17.

1) "The government over whose territory it occurred is responsible for this terrible tragedy."

He actually said this. After MH17 was shot down by a Russian made anti-aircraft system in eastern Ukraine, the first thing the Russian president said is that it was Ukraine's fault. The war that Putin started, on the territory of his peaceful neighbor to the West, that his military intelligence service (the Glavnoye razedyvatel'noye upravleniye (GRU) has overseen since the beginning, and its most horrific turn to date—the murder of 298 innocent civilians—was somehow Kiev's fault. Incredible.

2) "We understand what worries the citizens of Ukraine, both Russian and Ukrainian, and the Russian-­speaking population in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine. It is this uncontrolled crime that worries them. Therefore, if we see such uncontrolled crime spreading to the eastern regions of the country, and if the people ask us for help, while we already have the official request from the legitimate president, we retain the right to use all available means to protect those people. We believe this would be absolutely legitimate."

In an interview with reporters in Moscow in early March, after Russia's intervention in Crimea in eastern Ukraine, Putin raised the specter of Russian speakers in the country being fearful of "uncontrolled crime," and thus it would be "absolutely legitimate" for Russia to intervene in Ukraine to protect them.

With this, Putin allowed pundits the world over to use the Sudetenland analogies. The Soviet Union gave anywhere from 8 million to 13 million of its sons to the Great Patriotic War (World War II) against the Germans. Now the Russian president is drawing comparisons to Hitler—while, according to reputable opinion polls, the Russians love him. Strange place this world can be sometimes.

3) "We can all clearly see the intentions of these ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler's accomplice during World War II."

So said Putin in a speech in March. Since the onset of the trouble in Ukraine, Putin has tried to brand the opposition to what was the Kremlin backed government in Kiev as "neo-Nazis." The vast majority of protesters in Kiev's Maidan Square sought to move Ukraine toward the E.U. How that squares with "neo-Nazism" is never explained by Russia's propagandist-in-chief.

The reference to Stepan Bandera, a nationalist who declared Ukrainian independence in 1941, as "Hitler's accomplice" was par for the course. Bandera hoped, it was true, that Hitler would be an ally and help Ukraine attain independence. Didn't turn out that way. He ended up being arrested by the Nazis.

4) "We don't want to enslave anyone or dictate anything. But we won't be able to stay aside, if we see them being hunted down, destroyed and harassed."

Putin here—from an hour long chat in March with Kremlin reporters—was referring to Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine. Have Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens been hunted down, destroyed or harassed? While Russian troops per se have indeed stayed across the border, local militias have popped up in cities like Donetsk and Luhansk, and some have been armed and trained by Russia's GRU. The United States is convinced that one of the militias fired the missile—from a Russian made anti-aircraft system that didn't just fall from the sky.

5) "It's all nonsense. There are no Russian units, special services or instructors in the east of Ukraine."

Putin said this back in April. The relatives of those killed on flight MH17 might now simply ask: "How did those who shot down the plane get access to a Russian-made Buk S-11 anti-aircraft system?" and "How did they learn to operate this sophisticated piece of military hardware and take down a plane flying at 33,000 feet?"