The West should have seen Putin coming – but failed to decode what his propaganda machine was telling us. This article, written before the fatal missile attack on a Malaysian airliner in July 2014, sets out clearly the game the Russian president is playing, and how ineffective the West has been in dealing with it. Putin may not have ordered the attack but he controls the chess pieces on the board.
In a few short months, the Russian president has annexed the Crimea, redrawn the map of Eastern Europe, demolished the post Cold War consensus, and set the stage for a new era of confrontation. Along the way Vladimir Putin has violated numerous international agreements, including the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act and other treaties of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances for Ukraine of December 1994. Also badly holed are the Russian-Ukrainian friendship treaty of 1997, the Sevastopol Naval base agreement of 1997, and an additional Sevastopol agreement of 1998. Putin has also damaged the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, driven a wedge into the G8, and violated the provisions of the World Trade Organisation.
He may well also have convinced Iran that giving up a nuclear weapons capability, as Ukraine did in 1994, would be a strategic blunder. And he has got away with it – there have been no significant street demonstrations in the West, and just muted condemnation of this coup d’état. Putin has scored an astonishing success, and his phone call to Obama in Saudi Arabia, and John Kerry’s hasty shuttle diplomacy, reflect the recalibration of “big power” relations to reflect a new reality.
The purpose of this article is to examine how a serial breach of international law and international norms was reinforced by a clever propaganda campaign which has split many of his opponents and left others wondering how black – annexation of sovereign territory – has miraculously morphed into white – the legitimate reunification of Mother Russia.
Successful propaganda requires a good conspiracy theory, an avoidance of the real issues, and a focus on possibly useful, but actually irrelevant, information.
In the first strand, Putin’s overarching conspiracy theory – for general consumption – is that the US, NATO and the EU are trying to destroy Russia. Much of this relates back to 2008, and the Russian conflict with Georgia. Simultaneous mis-steps on the part of EU and NATO which without seriously considering the likely consequences, talked at that time about the possible admission of many of the states bordering Russia, particularly the Ukraine and Georgia, into the EU and NATO. Both ideas were quickly dropped, but both fed the paranoia of many Russians, particularly Putin.
This conspiratorial view links the lengthy protests in Kiev, the various “colour” revolutions in former USSR countries, the protests against Putin in Russia, and the revolutions of the Arab Spring. All have supposedly been choreographed by the West to impose liberal-democratic ideas on local traditions and values. Thus the protests at the Maidan square in Kiev were “evidence” of a Western plot to overthrow the elected, Russian-supporting government in the Ukraine, with Russia as the next objective. Putin, an ex-KGB lieutenant colonel, is repeating the successful Soviet tactic of describing any opposition to the regime as internal treachery supported by foreign enemies who wish to destroy the state.
Finally Putin and the Yanukovych regime in Ukraine advanced self-contradictory conspiracy theories. External audiences were told about supposed attempts by National Socialists to take over Ukraine; while at the same time “internally” the security forces supporting the regime were being told that Jews were leading the revolution!
The second strand of the propaganda strategy involves ignoring the real issues involved, as they do not support Putin’s case. The real issue masked by Putin’s bellicose propaganda, and misunderstood by his “useful idiots” in the West (to paraphrase Lenin), explains why he annexed the Crimea. As a substitute for reality, Putin is trying to impose on Russia, and as much of the former USSR as he can manage, the logic of his Eurasian ideology.
This ideology was articulated around 2001 by the Russian political scientist Alexander Dugin, who has long advocated the colonisation of Ukraine. It envisages a grouping of ex-Soviet states bound by their anti-democratic, anti-liberal, and pro-authoritarian credentials. It draws upon elements of Hitler’s National Socialism and the legacy of Stalin, to create a new totalitarian ideology for the 21st century, a form of National Bolshevism. Dugin’s major work, The Foundations of Geopolitics, follows closely the ideas of Carl Schmitt, a leading Nazi political theorist. Propaganda for Eurasianism in Russia is spearheaded by Dimitry Kiselyov (a target of recent US sanctions), the host of the most important TV “talk show” in Russia, and director of the state-run Russian media conglomerate designed to shape national public opinion. Infamous for saying that gays who die in car accidents should have their hearts cut from their bodies and incinerated, Kiselyov has converted Putin’s campaign against gay rights into a weapon against European integration. As Timothy Snyder, author of the critically acclaimed Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, has noted: “according to the Russian Foreign Minister, the exploitation of sexual politics is now to be an open weapon in the struggle against the ‘decadence’ of the European Union.” This is part of a proposed ethnic purification of the communist legacy to create National Bolshevism.
Putin is also an admirer of Ivan Ilyin, the émigré Russian philosopher of the first half of the 20th century who wanted Russia to be a nationalistic dictatorship, and whose grave he has visited and whose works he often cites. Ilyin wrote: “We know that Western nations don’t understand and don’t tolerate Russia’s identity… They are going to divide the united Russian ‘broom’ into twigs to break these twigs one by one”.
Critically, Putin has described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, and has vowed to reverse it. Many did not fully understand his private comment to George W. Bush that Ukraine was not “a real country”. This was no misstep on his part. Subsequently, the supposedly more “liberal” president Medvedev, challenged the sovereignty of Ukraine in a letter to its government. (This was noted in a posting on my website as far back as January 2010.) No matter that in 1994 Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum, guaranteeing Ukraine’s borders on the removal of nuclear weapons from that state. In a press conference on 4 March, 2014, Putin claimed that the Ukrainian state no longer exists as such, and therefore is not protected by treaties or law. This echoes the Nazi lawyers who claimed that Poland no longer existed after its invasion by Germany in 1939.
Putin’s Eurasian Union project is of a piece with his military action against Georgia and the subsequent integration of South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Russia. The “justification” for these illegal actions has been the defence of “Russian compatriots” – a concept with no legal status. Putin refers here to people the Russian government claim as Russians and who therefore need its protection. This is the same argument – the need to protect the “Volksgenossen” – advanced by Hitler in 1938 in advancing his “peaceful” claims on Austria and the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. This substitution of ethnicity for state borders led directly to the Munich conference, appeasement, and World War II. Russian historian Andrei Zubov has developed the comparison with Nazi aggression even further, likening Putin’s actions to Hitler’s Anschluss (annexation) in Austria, and reminding us that it led to a war that turned against its authors.
Putin, whose wealth was estimated by the respected Peterson Institute for International Economics at $41 billion some years ago, has gone a long way towards achieving his objective of turning Russia into a Eurasian, anti-Western, and anti-liberal dictatorship, capable of exercising direct or indirect control on the states that comprised the old Soviet Union and the states on their borders.
The third strand of Russian propaganda has been the description of the revolution in Ukraine as essentially a national socialist coup d’état. This diverts attention away from the Yanukovych regime and its attempt to turn Ukraine from a democracy to an autocracy. It also conveniently attempts to blacken the revolutionaries and in particular their attempt to maintain the rule of law in their country. In noting this, we must recognise that many Ukrainian politicians have not served their country, or democracy, well, and note how this has played into Putin’s hands.
As Yulia Mostovaya the editor of Zerkalo Nedeli (an influential Ukrainian weekly) explained it, the Maidan protests were essentially an uprising against a malevolent state which failed in its basic tasks, a state in which the government robbed the public rather than serving it; in which the courts covered up injustice rather than right it; in which prosecutors perpetrated crimes instead of investigating them.
Yanukovych wanted to be not only the president but also the number one oligarch in Ukraine. His son Oleksandr, a dentist, suddenly became one of the wealthiest men in Europe, extracting billions from the Ukraine exchequer. Ukraine’s new interim prime minister has accused the Yanukovych regime of moving €70 billion to private offshore accounts. Recently Swiss authorities opened a criminal investigation into Yanukovych and his son, investigating allegations of “aggravated money-laundering”. Anders Aslund, a Ukraine expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, estimates that the president and his family and cronies, embezzled between $8 billion and $10 billion a year since he took power in 2010.
The Maidan protests were started by Mustafa Nayem, a leading investigative journalist, (and interestingly a Muslim Afghan) who used social media to call students and other young people to rally in the main square of Kiev in support of a European choice for Ukraine. When Yanukovych sent his riot police to attack the students, they were defended by more “Afghans”, Ukrainian Soviet Red Army veterans who had served in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. By last December the protests embraced millions of people, countered by increasing direct oppression of the protesters and their supporters, and the introduction, illegally, of laws constraining the freedom of speech and assembly, criminalising organisations including Catholic and Jewish groups who had contact with the outside world, and labelling the protesters as “extremists” who could thus be imprisoned. The protesters covered a wide gamut of opinion and background, including radical leftists, Jews from the large Kiev Jewish community and elsewhere, gays, Catholics, Ukrainian and Russian anarchists, members of the Ukrainian Polish minority, and Ukrainians from all parts of the country (including Russian-speaking parts), anxious to reinstate the rule of law and at least have an option of being part of Europe with all that entails.
The Ukrainian far right did play a part in the revolution. As Timothy Snyder has explained: “What it did, in going to the barricades, was to liberate itself from the regime of which it had been one of the bulwarks. One of the moral atrocities of the Yanukovych regime was to crush opposition from the centre-right, and support opposition from the far right. By imprisoning his major opponents from the legal political parties, most famously Yulia Timoshenko, Yanukovych was able to make of democracy a game in which he and the far right were the only players.” [Ukraine: the Haze of Propaganda, New York Review of Books, 12 March 2014.]
Contrary to the Russian propaganda story, the transitional authorities were not primarily national socialists or from the political right or even all from the western part of Ukraine where nationalism is more widespread. All the power ministries (the natural target of any coup-plotter) were led by professionals and Russian speakers. The new government, chosen by parliament, is similar in its general orientation. Cutting through all the propaganda, if you are searching for National Socialists, you won’t find them under the beds in Kiev, but rather in the beds in the Kremlin.
Sadly thus far Putin’s propaganda has made significant inroads amongst gullible Westerners, as in 1938, only too anxious to indulge in wishful thinking.
What do we do?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, an East German and a Russian speaker who knows a thing or two about communism and Russia, has remarked that Putin was living “in another world” and that he had resorted to the “law of the jungle”. Our role in Ireland and in the West is to hold out against the “law of the jungle If Putin is not stopped, war will be forced upon a reluctant Europe. The Baltic states, the rest of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and others lying on Russia’s flanks, are now threatened by the supposed need for military action to protect Russian “compatriots”.
The simple question for us, and for the West, is do we unite in opposing this behaviour, and if not what do we really believe in? Don’t ask the ghost of Neville Chamberlain.
Richard Whelan is a geopolitical analyst, and the author of Al Qaedaism The Threat to Islam the Threat to the World, www.richardwhelan.com