For about 24 hours, it looked like Russia was about to do something truly insane.
Yeah, I know. What else is new? But I mean something even crazier than everything we've been witnessing the past couple of years.
Russian news agencies reported on June 30 that the Prosecutor-General's Office had opened an investigation into the constitutionality of the Soviet Union's September 1991 recognition of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania's independence.
It was, of course, patently absurd. Prosecutors were going to investigate whether the actions of a state that hasn't existed for nearly two decades were constitutional according to a constitution that has been defunct for almost 24 years? Really?
And the issue at stake was whether it was legal for a Soviet Union on its deathbed to grant independence to three countries that it illegally annexed -- under the secret protocols of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Nazi Germany -- in the first place.
But beyond being the latest example of Vladimir Putin's Russia descending into la-la land, it was also menacing and deeply disturbing. Given Moscow's recent saber rattling vis-a-vis the Baltics -- and given that the Baltics are all NATO members -- it looked like a harbinger that something truly frightening could be on the horizon.
Could Moscow truly be contemplating an attack on the Baltics?
Fast forward one day.
On July 1, Russian officials scrambled to walk it all back.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin was unaware of the case and couldn't make any sense of the idea. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted that Russia and the Baltics have mutual diplomatic relations and their relations are bound by a series of international treaties.
And Marina Gridnyova, a spokeswoman for the Prosecutor-General's Office, said the inquiry into Baltic independence had no legal merit. Gridnyova said prosecutors had indeed opened a case but only because they were legally obliged to do so because two State Duma deputies had formally requested the probe.
So this wasn't the opening act of World War III.
But it nevertheless does point to an unsettling and potentially dangerous trend: an inability on the part of many Russians -- including top officials -- to distinguish between the hyperpatriotic fantasies the regime has been constructing and reality.
An Alternative Universe
On June 19 in a village in Yaroslavl Oblast, a 45-year old engineer beat a close friend to death because he was convinced the man was an American spy. He believed this, according to a report in Komsomolskaya Pravda, because the victim frequently traveled abroad.
This little tabloid news item is a tragic example of the corrosive effects of the fantasyland the Kremlin has constructed -- a world where fascists have taken over Ukraine, Russia is encircled by enemies, and American agents are lurking around every corner plotting to destroy the motherland.
The creation of an alternative universe, a meta-narrative to feed to the public, has long been a cornerstone of Putin's rule.
During his first two terms, under the stewardship of Kremlin spinmeister Vladislav Surkov, the regime spun a convincing story of Russia rising from its knees. Putin was bringing order to chaos and establishing a "dictatorship of law."
The narrative was powerful because it had the virtue of coinciding with a dramatic rise in living standards due to rising oil prices.
Together with this, Surkov masterminded a virtual political system.
There were fake opposition political parties that created the illusion of pluralism and stage-managed elections that reinforced the legitimacy of the regime.
There were set-piece dramas with recognizable villains -- like the arrest and trial of MIkhail Khodorkovsky -- to entertain and divert public attention from what the regime was really doing. (In this case, eliminating a political threat and expropriating his oil company.)
Tightly managed pro-Kremlin youth groups harassed, and state television ridiculed, regime opponents like Garry Kasparov.
The aim of it all was to soothe the masses, foster passive acquiescence among the intelligentsia, and instill hopeless resignation among the diehard opposition.
It was, as Andrew Wilson, author of the 2005 book Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World, "the society of the spectacle."
But since Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, and especially since the conflict in Ukraine, the nature of the spectacle changed -- and acquired a sharper edge.
Now the requirements of a less secure regime demand almost constant agitation and mobilization. With those fascists running around Kyiv and the West plotting Russia's destruction, the very survival of the nation is at stake after all!
And as a result, Wilson wrote in a recent essay, "Russian politics is even more virtual than it was before."
"And like all addictions, it has needed higher and higher doses to have the same effect," he added. "It has become more toxic as the impact of its more prosaic methods has grown blunt."
A Deadly Cocktail
All this has led to a spiralling dumbing down of Russian public discourse.
Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies, wrote recently that "Russian propaganda is incredibly inane and officials’ lie shamelessly and flagrantly" because the ruling elite has laid the groundwork to "first secure the same level of stupidity among the population."
It's all a potentially deadly cocktail. The longer you live in a fantasy, the easier it is to believe that fantasy is real.
That goes for a villager in Yaroslavl Oblast, who becomes convinced his friend is an American spy -- and kills him.
And it goes for two State Duma deputies from Russia's ruling party who thought it would a good idea to set in motion a process that could have led to a devastating international conflict.
Yevgeny Fyodorov and Anton Romanov's crazy idea may have been dismissed by the authorities as the rantings of two lawmakers who were "dizzy with success." Or it may have been part of yet another Kremlin spectacle designed to keep the West off balance and the public entertained.
In either case, it could be just a matter of time until somebody with real decision-making power gets caught up in the fantasy loop and does something truly insane.
"The dramaturgia has developed a logic of its own, one that long ago lost touch with reality or real-world consequences," Wilson wrote.
"Russia is not sleep-walking into disaster; it is marching at high speed while drugged up to the eyeballs."