Remember Dick Cheney insisting it wasn’t torture to pour water over a man’s face in such a way that he thinks he is drowning? President George Bush, Jr., proclaiming “mission accomplished”? Embedded news correspondents filing enthusiastic reports of the U.S. military “liberating” Iraq?
A similar nightmare is now playing itself out in Russia against the background of increasing hostilities between Russia and Ukraine. For the second time in his 14-year reign (president for 10 years, prime minister from 2008-2012), Vladimir Putin has mounted a massive attack on the truth.
I set aside many of Putin’s little wars of prevarication, such as jailing oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky for ostensibly stealing more oil from his own company Yukos than Yukos owned; his decision to replace national gubernatorial and mayoral elections with personal appointments to improve the quality of government; his dainty eight-day war with Georgia in 2008.
No, I’m talking big stuff drawn from the Joseph Goebbels playbook, which suggests that lies are imperative to keep a state in power. Like when Putin crushed two popular independent television stations, NTV and TV6 in 2000-2002, removing countless hard-hitting, probing journalists and programs from the public discourse. In the lead-up to, and in the immediate aftermath of, the 2014 Winter Olympics, Putin again went to war against freedom of speech.
It would take too long to list all his actions, but here are a few.
- In December he suddenly dissolved the respected RIA Novosti news agency and replaced it with an organization called Russia Today, appointing as its head a gay-basher and Kremlin attack dog. This is the guy, Dmitry Kiselyov, who boasted on his “News of the Week” program on Sunday that Russia is the only country in the world capable of turning the U.S. into “radioactive ashes.”
- In February Putin “allowed” Russia’s primary cable providers to drop the Rain TV station overnight as punishment for one of their correspondents daring to ask the “unpatriotic” question of whether it was worth losing 1.5 million people during the Siege of Leningrad in World War II, thus depriving the station of 90% of its viewership and advertising revenue. More to the point, Rain was broadcasting live streams of the events of the Maidan revolution in Kiev, bringing information to the Russian populace that was at profound odds with the Kremlin’s objectives.
- New attacks preceded Sunday’s disputed referendum in Crimea. The editor-in-chief of Russia’s respected news website Lenta.ru was replaced with a Kremlin-friendly stand-in. The website of the Echo Moskvy radio station, Moscow’s only politically independent radio, was closed for a day because they posted a blog by popular opposition politician Alexei Navalny. Navalny’s own blog on the Live Journal site was blocked. The Grani.ru and Kasparov.ru websites, key sources of alternative information, were blocked.
The assault was massive and--as Americans might expect thanks to their knowledge from the aftermath of 9/11--it was successful. Putin’s approval rating in Russia shot to 67%, its highest in years. Even better for Putin, the official count of the referendum vote stated that 96.77% of Crimeans voted to join the Russian Federation.
Setting aside the legitimacy of these figures, the bare numbers are sweet music to Putin’s ears. He did precisely what he intended. As the Russian economy showed distinct signs of entering a recession, Putin diverted attention by blowing smoke in his countrymen’s eyes. He taunted the West--always a popular move for a Russian leader. He stoked the fires of nationalistic patriotism. He accused anyone of not supporting him of treason. Add to that the information blockade combined with a well-oiled propaganda machine and you have a recipe for chaos.
It didn’t take much for Putin to turn Russians against the events in Kiev. Historically for Russians Ukraine was “Little Russia,” its language “little Russian,” and the people “little Russians.”
But suddenly those “little neighbors” showed teeth and guts. They began the long, costly feat of tossing off a grossly corrupt leader in President Viktor Yanukovych, openly defying Russia and Putin.
This wasn’t just galling for Putin, it was a personal threat. The Maidan protests, growing into the Ukrainian revolution, were a looking-glass for the Russian president. Like Yanukovych, he has stolen astronomical amounts from his people. His wealth is estimated at $75 billion. Not bad for a former KGB foot soldier. As such, since the reflection in the mirror could not be changed, the glass had to be smashed.
Appeasing world opinion one last time before the Winter Olympics, Putin engineered showy releases of his most famous political prisoners Khodorkovsky and the women of the Pussy Riot activist group. But that came wrapped in the press crackdown and a much more aggressive attitude to protesters on Russia’s streets. Lately in Moscow I have attended “unsanctioned” rallies--that is, protests not officially licensed by the authorities-- where as many as 400 of 1,000 or 1,500 participants were arrested.
And, whereas in the past, these arrestees would be held awhile in a paddy wagon then let go, they now often receive fines of 10,000 rubles ($285) or jail time of one to 10 days. That plants fear in the average mind; open dissent has waned.
If 150,000 Muscovites turned out to protest Putin’s inauguration following a tainted election in 2012, around 50,000 gathered Saturday to protest potential war with Ukraine. It was the biggest turnout in two years, but numbers don’t lie. In that time Putin had neutralized two-thirds of Russia’s protest movement.
What does the near future hold in store?
- Western countries will impose sanctions on Russia but they will serve Putin first. The more the sanctions hurt, the more he will blame the “hostile West” for Russia’s failing economy.
- Crimea will long remain a bone of contention, but it is fully back in the Russian sphere of influence.
- At home Putin will continue cracking down on dissent, stoking the flames of victorious pride that the Crimean campaign sparked. He will continue doing that until something breaks, because repression always does break.
When that potentially catastrophic moment comes, I expect to see Ukraine tenaciously holding onto its newfound independence from the Kremlin.We will likely see more Russian landgrabs and perhaps even hot skirmishes in the Russian-leaning eastern regions of Ukraine. But Ukraine, I wager, has stepped out of the shadow cast by its “big brother” Russia. Untruths can only last so long and do so much.
Photos by John Freedman, captions top to bottom:
The remains of a former monastery loom over protesters carrying Russian and Ukrainian flags and a sign declaring "Quit Lying!" on Monday in Moscow.
50,000 people in Moscow marched in opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin's policies in regards to Ukraine on Saturday.