Putin’s anti-American rhetoric now persuades his harshest critics
People I know in Russia, members of the intelligentsia and professionals who have long been critical of President Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western stance, have suddenly turned into America-bashers. Many have been swept away by Putin’s arguments that the United States, not the Kremlin, is destabilizing Ukraine.
Since the current crisis broke in Ukraine over its efforts to side with the European Union rather than Russia, Putin has been at war with the United States. He seems intent on proving that a U.S.-centric world order is over and that Europe should decide on its own what its relations with Russia will be.
Putin’s big lie reached fever pitch after Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 went down over eastern Ukraine on July 17. Putin swiftly placed the blame on the Kiev government and its reputed U.S. masters — not even bothering to express proper condolences about the dead.
Instead, the Russian president disingenuously asked for transparency in the investigation into the downing of the plane. In his laconic statements, Putin promised cooperation but delivered little. He insisted issues of politics had to be kept out of the tragedy.
Such as the nature of autocratic propaganda: The lie has to be overwhelming.
In his 14-plus years in power, Putin has honed this skill. In the Kremlin universe, when any conflict takes place around the globe, it is the West — particularly the United States — that is to blame. After hearing it repeatedly, this belief is now widely shared by the Russian public.
My friends in Moscow look at the current crisis in the Middle East and the turmoil created by the Arab Spring 0f 2011, particularly the unrest in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak was forced out and the lawlessness in Libya after Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was killed. “These were your American-supported revolutions,” they angrily reproach me. “Now it’s a mess. The U.S. has been wreaking havoc on our doorstep in Ukraine. They are out to get Russia.”
What has become clear under Putin is that so much of Russia remains the Soviet Union. Under the communist dictatorship, all problems were blamed on the enemies of the people or on Western imperialism.
Consider that in Moscow today the prevailing story, circulated by the pro-Putin media and pundits, is that the CIA actually loaded Malaysia Flight 17 with dead bodies in order to blame the Russians. Meanwhile, Russian TV networks and newspapers run photos of pro-eastern Ukraine demonstrations in Europe, with protesters demanding, “Stop U-S-A, the contractor of mass killings!”
Countries like Iran seem only too happy to help disseminate these anti-American conspiracies. Its Press TV, for example, talks about the Kiev “junta” and America’s wicked designs to take over the world.
Given the conspiratorial nature of the schemes attributed to Washington, these stories don’t seem even slightly believable to most in the West. But they serve to absolve Putin of any responsibility to provide facts that could support his version of the truth. When the West’s actions are presented by the Russian leadership in the grandiose, absolute terms of us versus them, questions as to “Why the missile was fired?” or “Who fired it?” begin to matter little.
A (now former) friend recently told me, “How dare you look for answers when Russia is under the attack of the ‘new colonialism,’ ” — a “threat” that Putin first spoke of in 2007.
The Kremlin is banking on this time-tested totalitarian propaganda technique: Use overwhelming patriotic fervor against an enemy. Then your people, even if skeptical of you, will not believe the words of other governments.
Russians have long been able to forgive domestic woes if an outside enemy is lurking. Why was Joseph Stalin’s network of Soviet gulags never fully probed? Because, as horrible as the mass purges were, the public still held to the conviction that communist interests against imperialism justified any means.
One of the best depictions of the Gulag mentality, Repentance by Georgian film director Tengis Abuladze, presents a chilling story about an anti-Stalinist who reports extravagantly exaggerated crimes against the state that were committed by hundreds of his friends. His reasoning is that the claims he makes are so outrageous that no one could believe them. Besides, he says, too many people would have to be arrested.
But all those he names were arrested — and shot.
In real life there was Leon Trotsky, among millions of others. This fiery revolutionary was on every Soviet patriotic poster. Until he was not. When Trotsky opposed Stalin’s version of totalitarian communism in 1928, he was suddenly the Soviet Union’s worst enemy. He was soon expelled and ultimately murdered in Mexico City 12 years later. Stalin had a very long reach.
Despite all this, many Russians today continue to admire Stalin. They also admire, and even love Putin — because he has stood up to what they see as U.S. meddling in Russia’s backyard.
I was recently in Bulgaria, where I was told repeatedly that Bulgarians don’t approve of all that Putin is doing — but at least Russia, their Slavic brother, is now strong enough to curtail the actions of the United States. Mind you, Bulgaria is in the European Union.
The Russian daily Izvestia, like newspapers in Soviet times, largely serves as a mouthpiece of the Kremlin, printing virtual propaganda that manipulates others’ discord to Moscow’s advantage. The paper called on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, to make a choice between Russia and the United States. It touted Merkel’s good relations with Putin and cited her disdain for Washington after the National Security Agency eavesdropped on German intelligence and read her email.
Yet, on Tuesday many members of the Russian intelligentsia are calling for a congress in support of Ukraine and hundreds of luminaries have signed the petition. The are many others I spoke with in Russia who are also incensed by the Kremlin’s callousness about Flight 17. Thousands of handwritten notes have been placed at the entrance of the Dutch Embassy in Moscow. Many plead for forgiveness, saying, “We are not killers.”
In the eastern Ukrainian villages surrounding the crash site, local farmers tried to preserve the dignity of the deceased, holding vigils and prayer services.
Now, when many Russians may feel guilty about the crash (even though Putin seeks to absolve them of all blame), is the time to test the theory that Putin cannot afford to alienate the entire West. For he still talks about a “strategic partnership with Europe.” After all, not only does Europe get roughly 30 percent of Russia’s oil and gas, the European Union is Russia’s top trading partner. Moscow needs this money because capital flight has reached an estimated $50 billion to $200 billion this year, and the national economy has grown only around 1 percent. Moscow’s Central Bank has raised interest rates from 5 percent to 8 percent, which has also stifled growth.
Until this week, the Europe Union was reluctant to damage its economic ties with Russia, but now both the United States and Europe are ready to start targeting whole economic sectors, including Russia’s banking system, defense industry and energy production.
Anybody who knows Russia (and Germany’s Merkel certainly does) must ultimately realize that if Putin is not strongly challenged, he won’t divert from his efforts to “splinter” the Western alliance. He will continue to aim at U.S. power, since Washington has often been the only one calling him to task.
Putin has already said that Russians should be prepared to accept sacrifices in economic growth for the sake of his foreign-policy objectives. But let’s see what happens when sanctions dramatically increase, and Russians are unable to get their favorite Italian wine or French lingerie. Will they finally wake up to the consequences of supporting Putinism?
PHOTO (TOP): Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of the beginning of the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany in 1941 near memorials by the Kremlin walls in Moscow, June 22, 2014. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin
PHOTO (INSERT 1): Journalists work at a media center as they cover Russian President Vladimir Putin’s live broadcast nationwide phone-in, in Moscow, April 17, 2014. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
PHOTO INSERT 2): Women inspect T-shirts, displaying images of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, which are on sale at GUM department store in central Moscow, June 11, 2014. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
PHOTO (INSERT 3): Joseph Stalin at the Tehran Conference in 1943. WIKIPEDIA/Commons
PHOTO (INSERT 4): Wreckage debris and mementos left by local residents are seen at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo), Donetsk region, July 26, 2014. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin