Opinion

John Lloyd

Meet Vladimir Putin’s homophobic, vitriolic, charismatic master of propaganda

John Lloyd
Jul 24, 2014 20:54 UTC

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity has soared at home in the wake of his actions in Ukraine – and the masterful spin his intervention has been given.

The joy that greeted Putin’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in March was due, at least in part, to a propaganda system less complete but more virulent than its Soviet predecessor.

At the center of the system is a remarkable journalist called Dmitry Kiselyev. A long-time and popular presenter on the state-owned Channel One, Kiselyev has “put the nation on a diet stripped of critical voices and soaked in patriotism.”

In December 2013, Putin put Kiselyev in charge of a big media-holding company, Rossiya Sevodnya (Russia Today), which replaced the relatively balanced RIA Novosti news agency. It’s separate from the country’s TV news channel, also called Russia Today, which broadcasts to the world but is milder in tone and more closely allied to the narrative lines put out by the state.

Kiselyev has boasted that Russia is “the only country in the world capable of turning the U.S.A. into radioactive dust.” He said it with a mushroom cloud in the background. He heaped abuse on the Ukrainian government, its armed forces and the country itself – “there is no Ukraine, it is only a virtual concept, a virtual country … now it’s a failed state.”

Are we at war? And why can’t we be sure anymore?

John Lloyd
Jun 30, 2014 06:00 UTC

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron poses for group photograph taken with G8 leaders at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen

The question — “Are we at war?” — seems absurd. Surely, we would know it if we were. But maybe we’re in a new era — and wars are creeping up on us.

In the decade after the collapse of communism, the United States and its allies seemed invulnerable to challenges, from military to technological to economic. All changed in the 2000s, the dawning of the third millennium: an Age of Disruption. Russia, under a president smarting publicly at the loss of the Soviet empire, has now delivered an answer to decline: aggressive claims on lost territories.

China, admired for its free-market-driven growth since the 1980s, is feared for the strategic expansion that now accompanies it. This happens in its own region: a dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over disputed ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands remains tense. It is also at work far beyond — in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America — where it seeks energy and natural resources.

When the U.S. needs support, Europe pleads poverty

John Lloyd
Jun 4, 2014 15:15 UTC

The United States has troubles. This was the subtext of President Barack Obama’s speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point last week. The latest trouble is the raw ambition of Russian President Vladimir Putin to dominate as much of the former Soviet Union as he can.

This trouble is, of course, in Europe’s neighborhood; but the United States is managing the crisis. Nevertheless, while America is powerful, it needs help. It is unlikely to get it from Europe.

The United States has long supported the European Union’s stated aim to integrate the continent into a single entity. The idea has been that a more united Europe will be a more powerful Europe, and thereby become a greater help in maintaining the United States as an “indispensable nation” — a phrase President Obama borrowed from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in his speech on foreign policy at West Point.

For Russia, it can only get worse

John Lloyd
Apr 28, 2014 17:05 UTC

Russians who disapprove of what their country is doing to Ukraine are a small and unpopular minority.

The boldest champion of dissent, Alexei Navalny, is under house arrest. He and his brother Oleg are awaiting trial for fraud involving the French company, Yves Rocher — which the company has denied ever happened. Pavel Durov, who founded and ran In Touch, Russia’s largest social network, has left the country after being fired from his position. Sergei Guriev, the former head of the New Economic School, the center of liberal economic thinking, fled Russia last year, fearing arrest.

Even with their backs against the wall, though, the liberals are feisty. They press their case that Russia is now hastening its own doom. I caught up with several of them at a conference outside of Moscow last week, organized by the Moscow School of Civic Enlightenment, a non-governmental organization focused on democratic and civic issues. (Full Disclosure: I have been on the Moscow School’s advisory committee for the three years).

The claims for Russian imperialism

John Lloyd
Mar 4, 2014 19:28 UTC

The more or less liberal, democratic, capitalist countries that make up seven of the Group of Eight (G8) have condemned Russia and are discussing boycotting the June G8 meeting in Sochi. There is even talk of expelling Russia from the group.

This western government consensus against Russia’s actions is based on evidence that prompted the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power to say that it is “hard to avoid concluding that Russia does not want peace and does not want a diplomatic solution.”

It is time, since this is what news media in democracies do, to question that consensus. Let’s consider the case for what’s being called Russian neo-imperialism.

Ukraine is Putin’s great test

John Lloyd
Feb 28, 2014 23:22 UTC

To lose Ukraine — as the Russians and the President of Russia Vladimir Putin would see it — would be a huge blow. For Russians, it is part of them; of their history, of their economy and of their kin. If Putin were to “lose” Ukraine it would hurt him with the large part of the Russian population who have supported him and even more with the circle of military and security people who are his closest and most critical colleagues. The specter of being deposed like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, or, even worse, Libya’s late dictator Muammar Gaddafi, hangs over him.

More than anything else in his 14 years in power, four of these behind the scenes as prime minister, Putin is faced with a test of his own rhetoric. After his return to the presidency in May 2012, his speech has been composed of increasingly bellicose warnings to the West.

“Nobody should have any illusion about the possibility of gaining military superiority over Russia,” Putin said in his annual state-of-the-nation speech last December. “We will never allow this to happen. Russia will respond to all these challenges, political and military.” In the same address, and on other occasions,  Putin has portrayed the West as degenerate. “Euro-Atlantic countries which have moved away from their roots, including Christian values…on the same level (are placed) a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership…this is the path to degradation.”

Putin’s vision of equality

John Lloyd
Sep 13, 2013 19:28 UTC

The light on the discussions on Syria in Geneva between the U.S. and Russian foreign ministers is dim and flickering and may well be snuffed out. But at least there’s a light.

For the light to become brighter, world powers must declare war not on each other, but on noxious geopolitics. It is time to end the zero-sum game. World leaders are magnetized to its bare calculus: if you’re up, I’m down. It’s not a pleasant equation, but it’s terribly hard to give up.

Vladimir Putin is a great aficionado of the game, partly because he was trained to be, as a KGB officer. All secret service people think that way. In their often brutal world, when your enemy wins, you are pretty sure to have lost. It’s likely that Putin enjoys his success in delaying the U.S.-led putative strike against President Assad of Syria as a move that establishes himself as a world figure with the future of Syria in his hands, while President Obama flails about, seeking to keep the military option on the table while constrained to follow Putin’s way. The Russian autocrat has put himself in tune with public opinion in the U.S. and Europe, and put a shine both on himself and on autocracy.

Where is Russia headed?

John Lloyd
Jul 24, 2013 12:20 UTC

Masha Lipman, one of the great chroniclers of Russian politics, told a story at a conference I attended outside of Moscow earlier this week. It was about two scholars who, in a recent discussion about the history of Russia and the Soviet Union, fell into a savage argument. One saw the end of the Soviet Union as a tragedy, the other as a release from tyranny. So radical and bitter was the disagreement that they came to blows, an unheard of event in the generally decorous world of Russian academia. 

Lipman also noted that, in a discussion in the Duma (parliament), several deputies called for the abolition of the country’s Independence Day on June 12, established in 1990. One suggested moving the date to whenever National Day took place in the 10th century, when “Rus” was first formed — in Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine — a none too subtle way of saying that Russia was once a Slavic empire, and could be again.

Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, might agree with the deputies. It would be surprising if he did not — he is, after all, the same man who said in 2005 that the end of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.

The special relationship: Putin and Berlusconi

John Lloyd
Jun 8, 2013 04:01 UTC

Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin are seen in a combination file photo.  REUTERS/File

The only other divorcee among Russian leaders before President Vladimir Putin was Czar Peter I, or Peter the Great.

Peter’s first bride, Evdokiya Lopukhina, was chosen for him by his mother — a mistake, at least for her son. Evdokiya, a deeply religious, conservative but strong-willed woman, didn’t like her husband’s modernization drive. With her equally niggly relatives, she so roused Peter’s ire that he secured a divorce and bullied her into a convent.

Russia’s reckoning

John Lloyd
May 7, 2013 18:05 UTC

Russia is now in a hard, even dangerous, place. A series of shocks are coming, and it is not well placed to weather them. It has, to be sure, little debt: Vladimir Putin’s administration is proud that the state has borrowed little and has built up a multibillion-ruble national reserve fund. Yet even that is ending, and the basics of the economy are weak. The former Marxists among Russia’s ruling class will know that the economic base determines the political and social superstructure. It is not looking good for them.

What’s worse, Russia isn’t a major player in the global economy. According to Eurostat figures, it has 2.4 percent of world gross domestic product, slightly under that of India; and 2.6 percent of world trade, slightly more than India has. It’s important, especially to Europe, in one significant economic aspect: It ships very large amounts of energy: 63 percent of European Union imports from Russia is oil, a further 9 percent is natural gas, with a further 3 per cent for coal. Icy Russia heats Europe. In return, Russia has, for the past decade, been enriched, as a once impoverished nation, which defaulted in 1998, surged to a lifestyle that supports a burgeoning middle class.

But oil and natural gas prices are falling now, and don’t look like they will rise again soon: “Over the coming few years,” writes Forbes commentator Bill Conerly, “look for oil prices to decline at least below $80 a barrel and quite possibly more” because of increased production. Gas prices are worse: The once-mighty Gazprom, which had dictated prices and terms to those it supplied, has been forced to discount and saw its profits fall last year by $6.5 billion, or 15 percent. The warnings, inside and out of the country, that it was dangerously dependent on fossil fuels for its newfound wealth and strength are coming home to roost. Russia may face recession.

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