Secretary of State John Kerry has been thinking about, talking through and wrestling with the Ukraine crisis for weeks, but he still grasps for words to describe the motivations of the man at its center: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"You almost feel that he's creating his own reality, and his own sort of world, divorced from a lot of what's real on the ground for all those people, including people in his own country," Kerry said in an interview late Monday.
Mr. Kerry spoke just hours after President Barack Obama's administration announced another round of economic sanctions on Russian individuals and companies, and just hours before Europeans were to announce full details of their own new sanctions, all taken in hopes of somehow stopping Mr. Putin's intimidation of neighboring Ukraine. But the secretary didn't sound as if he thinks his work on the sanctions front is done with this latest round, the fourth so far.
Asked why the administration continues to punish individual Russians or single Russian companies rather than impose broader penalties on whole sectors of the Russian economy—the energy, financial or defense sectors, for instance—Mr. Kerry replied: "We're inches away from that now. And if they continue on this path, that's where it's heading."
He also argued strongly—and there is some evidence to support the argument—that the sanctions are biting at the top end of the Russian economic and political power structure. The best argument that the economic threat is making a difference is simple: Whatever else Mr. Putin has or hasn't done, he hasn't taken the fateful step of sending his troops across the border directly into eastern Ukraine.
But while sanctions may be pinching Kremlin cronies, the conversation with Mr. Kerry leaves no doubt that he sees Russia's actions as the product not of any collective Russian view of the world, but of the determination of an individual: Vladimir Putin.
The Ukraine crisis, Mr. Kerry said, is "obviously very personally driven in ways that I think are uniquely inappropriate to 21st century leadership." He added: "It's an amazing display of a kind of personal reaction to something that just doesn't fit into the lessons learned for the last 60 years or 70 years. It's so divorced that it leaves you feeling badly for the consequences. I think the Russian people are going to pay a price for this. It's unfortunate for the Russian people, who clearly don't fit into the costs that are being attached to this, because it appears to be so personal to President Putin."