Russian firebrand politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky made his name with crackpot, bellicose, and often offensive statements. But are his ideas really so eccentric in the current Russian context?
Since the early 1990s, the man dubbed the "clown prince" of Russian politics has gained a solid reputation for flying trial balloons on the Kremlin's behalf. Here are some of Zhirinovsky's seemingly outrageous proposals that have since become remarkably close to Russian reality.
The Baltic states have long been one of Zhirinovsky's favorite targets. He has urged Russia to build giant fans to blow radioactive waste over the Baltics, called for a Russian invasion, and last year suggested conducting local referendums on the return of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to the Russian fold. He voiced confidence that Balts would opt for joining Russia, arguing that Moscow had "abandoned" the three countries by recognizing their sovereignty in 1991. "They never wanted to live in independent states; they were and wanted to remain citizens of the U.S.S.R.," he said.
His tirades took a more ominous tinge when the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office, at the request of a lawmaker from the ruling party, subsequently examined the legality of the U.S.S.R. State Council's recognition of the sovereignty of the Baltic states and came to the conclusion that it was "defective."
Zhirinovsky has since predicted that Russian flags will fly over Kyiv, Riga, Vilnius, and Tallinn as soon as 2016.
Against that backdrop, Russia in 2015 sentenced Estonian security officer Eston Kohver to 15 years in jail on charges of espionage and illegally crossing the border. Tallinn has insisted Kohver was abducted in his home country and dragged into Russia (and an initial joint investigation hinted at the same). After protracted negotiations, Kohver was eventually exchanged for jailed Russian spy Aleksei Dressen.
And earlier this month, Russian jets buzzed a U.S. destroyer conducting military exercises within international waters in the Baltic Sea in what Washington described as a "simulated attack."
In April 2014, soon after an armed conflict pitting Ukrainian forces against Russia-backed separatists erupted in eastern Ukraine, Zhirinovsky addressed the State Duma in military fatigues and denounced the new Western-leaning government in Kyiv as a "junta." Four months later, he urged Putin to take resolute action in eastern Ukraine and "wipe out" Poland and the Baltic states if the West retaliated.
Although Russia has denied sending troops into eastern Ukraine (while acknowledging well after the fact that it deployed the "little green men" who occupied Crimea ahead of the peninsula's forced annexation), NATO has repeatedly accused Moscow of training, arming, and fighting alongside the separatists.
According to the United Nations, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 9,100 people and injured some 21,000 others.
Zhirinovsky once said that he dreamed of a day when Russian soldiers could "wash their boots in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean." His dream is now one step closer to becoming reality. In March, Russia's Pacific Fleet sent a naval group on an unofficial visit to five different countries, effectively restoring long-distance naval voyages. The fleet's spokesman, Roman Martov, said the purpose of the mission was to "ensure naval presence and demonstrate the flag in the Pacific and Indian Oceans."
As a candidate in the 2008 presidential election, Zhirinovsky pledged to shut Russia's borders as soon as he became head of state. "If you think that these are the actions of a police state, be my guest," he roared. "I promise that I will take these actions."
While at the time the remarks were dismissed as another of his eccentric rants, his pledge can now be seen as a troubling harbinger of Russia's current isolationist drive. Russia has since banned Western food imports, barred holidaymakers from booking package tours to Turkey -- one of the most popular tourist destinations among Russian tourists -- and prohibited Federal Security Service (FSB) employees, debtors, police officers, firefighters, and other categories of citizen from leaving the country.
Last fall, a prominent lawmaker announced that Russia was considering reintroducing Soviet-style exit visas for all Russians wishing to travel abroad. The lawmaker quickly retracted his statements, saying he had been misunderstood. But rumors continue to swirl that the authorities are mulling ways to control the ability of Russians to travel.
When bird flu spread around the planet in 2006, sparking worldwide panic, Zhirinovsky came up with a simple solution to end the epidemic: Send troops "from Sochi to Crimea" to shoot all the birds dead. "This little song of theirs has to be broken," he said, adding, "This is not a joke!" Eight years later, Moscow did indeed dispatch soldiers to Crimea. Their agenda, however, did not include birds. The Ukrainian peninsula was forcibly seized by Russia and a deepening crackdown is under way to silence critics in Crimea denouncing their peninsula's illegal takeover.