Photographer: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images
Photographer: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

The New York Times reports, third-hand, that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, after talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone, worried that he was out of touch with reality, "in another world." To Russians and Ukrainians fearing a Kremlin-ordered military campaign, this sounded like evidence of something they have suspected since Putin asked the parliament for permission to send troops into Ukraine: That Putin is mad.

"Hypertoxic schizophrenia," political consultant Stanislav Belkovsky wrote in a post on Snob.ru, read by almost half a million people and re-posted almost 40,000 times on Facebook: "Putin actually decided he is a great man and can change the course of history."

Belkovsky theorized that the success of the Sochi Olympics went to Putin's head so that now he believes he can pull off anything: "In psychiatric literature this phenomenon is described as the Caesar complex: With no curbs, a person stops being accountable for what he does."

QuickTake: Unrest in Ukraine

It is easy to misinterpret the Merkel quote that way. Even considering a war between Russia and Ukraine in 2014 looks crazy. It's like modern-day England invading Scotland, or Germany attacking Austria. Putin's actions after obtaining parliamentary permission for a strike are, however, not those of a deranged dictator. If he bombed Kiev or landed troops in Donetsk, a diagnosis would be called for. Putin has not yet given any orders that might lead to bloody violence. He speaks with other world leaders for hours on the phone and even agrees to compromises, such as Merkel's proposal for a fact-finding mission in the Crimea under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Yet he is indeed "in a different world." That world is alien to the likes of Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama. They do not watch the same TV or read the same books. The world in which Putin lives is built on the works of nationalist philosophers and the false reports he receives; apparently he believes his own propaganda.

"The presidential administration and the government have lost the channels for feedback," the economist Konstantin Sonin wrote in his LiveJournal blog. "When exaggerations or even falsehoods are meant for 'external use,' that is understandable, though in today's world with decentralized, fast information channels the effectiveness of such tricks is doubtful. When, however, they become the basis for strategic decisions, bad mistakes are inevitable."

Sunday's Vesti Nedeli, the most-watched news analysis show on Russian state-controlled TV, painted a picture of an illegitimate, U.S.-supported regime in Ukraine endangering Russians' lives. According to the show, presented by Putin's propaganda czar Dmitri Kiselyov, the people of southeastern Ukraine resist this "cruel, insolent and cynical" regime and look to Moscow for aid and succor. It certainly did not show Sunday's rally in front of the Russian embassy in Kiev, where people stood with signs saying "I am Russian. I feel fine in Ukraine. Putin, I don't need your help."

The propaganda is working. According to sociological service VTsIOM, 29 percent of Russians describe events in Ukraine as "anarchy, lawlessness and banditry," another 27 percent as a civil war and yet another 25 percent as a "coup d'etat or a power grab." Other answers are significantly less popular.

Putin may well be getting information of the same kind and quality. Most Russian media are now under his control, and Ukrainian media were steamrolled by former president Viktor Yanukovych. Dozens of small, unreliable sites provide too much noise and too little in the way of verifiable information. Besides, there is the Russian bureaucracy with its own signals on Ukraine: The Federal Migration Service recently reported that 143,000 Ukrainians have asked for asylum in Russia in the last two weeks.

In his phone conversations with foreign leaders, Putin uses all his eloquence to defend the state-controlled media's uncomplicated view of the situation, as if his interlocutors had no other sources of information but Russian TV. It's easy to see what could have surprised Merkel about it: She expected Putin to have a more nuanced view.

She simply has not read the same books. Maria Snegovaya, a graduate student at Columbia University, provides a useful analysis of the sources of Putin's ideology, rooted in the writings of early 20th century messianic, nationalist philosophers Nikolai Berdyayev, Vladimir Solovyov and Ivan Ilyin. To them, Russia had a mission to spread and maintain the Orthodox Christian faith on territories it controlled, and the West was the eternal enemy of that mission, perpetually trying to break up the Russian world. Snegovaya also recalls the 2006 book "Third Empire: The Russia That Should Be," by Mikhail Yuriev, an entrepreneur and ideologue popular with Kremlin bureaucrats. In Yuriev's utopia, Russia gathers up the lands of the old Russian empire, grabbing, among other areas, eastern Ukraine after a standoff with NATO. Two years before Russia's small victorious war against Georgia, "Third Empire" described a Russian conquest of the disputed Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Putin's world view is so different from that of Western politicians seeking to prevent a war that they are speaking different languages, not just in the linguistic sense. The only language they have in common is that of money, but it has little effect on Putin now.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has threatened Russia with "visa bans, asset freezes, isolation with respect to trade, investment." Putin hears all that but apparently believes it's only so much noise: Russia got away with invading Georgia and splitting off Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008. He may well be taking the cynical view that the West needs Russian money and energy exports at least as much as Russia needs the West. Indeed, if Russia's territorial ambitions in Ukraine go no further than the predominantly Russian Crimea, the West may well give Putin a free pass again after making the requisite threatening speeches.

In Putin's world, the Russian civilization is clashing with the Western one. Money and the formalities of international law mean little in this existential struggle. Paradoxically, if the West is not willing to live by the harsh rules of this imagined world, it is going to watch Putin settle for less after threatening to take more. Specifically, Russia will keep formal or informal control of the Crimea, while the rest of Ukraine limps ahead on its nation-building path.

(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @Bershidsky.)

To contact the writer of this article: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.