Sunday, April 9, 2023

How Russia talked itself into war

Ira Straus

This is the story of how a great country, Russia, piled lie upon lie in its mind, until it talked itself into invading Ukraine.

The lies kept building and compounding upon each other. Put together, they yielded a very substantial false conclusion: that Russia must invade Ukraine and eliminate it as a separate state in order to save itself. That conclusion, stated baldly, sounds absurd; and yet it does indeed follow as an absolutely logical deduction from its premises. It is the premises that are false.

Invasion was the answer to the problems Russia had created in its imagination. It was an accident waiting to happen after all the lying: the conclusion that the regime was ineluctably drawn to. Given enough time, the accident happened.

Can it fix its mistake and emerge into truth? Yes, but not without an effort. The lies have meanwhile filled all the pores of society: official power circles, the public square, the common language of how people talk – for the lies determine what people are rewarded or punished for saying -- the media apparatus, and even a chorus of foreign acolytes with their own varied motivations and spheres of influence. The lies have reached such a height that most people have forgotten the petty lies that lie at the bottom of the heap. But Putin himself, deep down inside, knows the whole structure of lies from top to bottom: it was all created under his close supervision. A part of him knows that it is all nonsense, no matter how little this part is allowed into the conscious mind.


A bad start in 2014, a worse continuation

The lies and self-deceptions had already risen in 2014 to a kind of cult level, replete with superstitions of an almost supernatural kind about a supposed Nuland coup plot, about Maidan not being a popular movement but a manipulation of events by hidden powers, about revealing the powers behind the conspiracy as fascism and America, about the revolution not being a revolution but an American-orchestrated coup, about the coup regime being about to commit a genocide against the Russians and Russian-speakers; to which the one and only answer -- logically enough after all that -- was for Russia to nurture secessionist movements and use them to seize Crimea and as much of Eastern Ukraine as it could.

The pile-up of lies had only grown worse by 2022. The Ukrainian people were imagined to be groaning under this fascist regime which somehow they inexplicably kept electing in free elections, longing for reunion with Russia, waiting to welcome Russian invaders as liberators. Invasion of the whole country was something that followed by deduction from the accumulation of lies.


From the Nuland Coup Myth to the package of lies about everything

At the bottom of the heap of lies is an almost silly one: a patently false version of a phone call from an American official, Victoria Nuland, a lie that a shockingly large number of people have swallowed whole: that this call, about whom it would be best for Yanukovych to appoint as prime minister in order to defuse the protests, was actually somehow a call about plotting a coup against Russia and Yanukovych.

This petty lie has been parlayed into an entire system of lies about the Ukrainian crisis, eventuating in the war we are seeing today. It grew into a package of lies already in 2014: the Nuland-coup planning, the American-made Maidan, the neofascist-coup. This trinity of nonsense was already the narrative of a large anti-American crowd in 2014, when they had only the Russian seizures of Crimea and Donbas to justify.

Fast forward eight years, and it is still the same people with the same false narrative, just compounded by many more layers of falsification, and far more horrors to justify.


The really big fascism lie

But let’s fast backward for a moment. There was nothing new in the 2014 lies about Western plots and fascism.

Putinists had been lying for years, virtually from the start in 1999, about the Baltic states being “fascist”. The ostensible reason was the anti-Russian language discrimination that Russia ridiculously exaggerated as fascist. The practical reason was that these countries were successfully running democracies that Moscow could not corrupt very effectively, that were insulating themselves from Russian influence, and were joining the West.

Likewise, Putin and his ideologists had, from early on in his reign, been calling the genuine liberal-democratic opposition at home “fake democrats” and “fascist”. Instead, he claimed that his own sponsored youth movements were the true democrats. It was a piece of nonsense that began with his and Surkov’s doctrine of “managed democracy”. This soon became more repressive and mendacious under the title “sovereign democracy”. It required an “ours” – a “Nashi”, a sponsored super-patriotic “democratic” youth movement – to crowd out the real democrats who, as natural friends to Western democracy, could be labeled puppets of the West and somehow “fascist”.

How could they be called “fascist”? Because the lie goes still deeper than that. As Prof. Timothy Snyder points out, the Soviet Union had for decades been treating “fascism” as defined by being anti-Russian, rather than by the characteristics most people understand as constituting fascism. This made it easy to call it “fascism” when anything seemed bad for Russian power, as for example when the liberal democrats of Russia were not as insistent on Russian power as Putin wanted to be.

All the Putinists did in the early 2000s was to extent this Soviet language of lies about fascism to the Baltic states and the Russian democrats. All they did in 2014 was to extend this language of lies about fascist Balts and fascist democrats to Ukraine, calling the increasingly democratic and independent Ukraine “fascist”.

It was nothing new, in terms of the logic of the lie. But it had a new significance. It was used for starting wars and making annexations this time. It turned the Nuland-coup lie from a small one into a really big one.

The layers of nonsense grew quite a bit more extreme after 2014. They fed on themselves; the regime made its lies the requisite currency for discussion, rewarded building on them, and penalized refutation of them. Ukraine was graduated from being “fascist” to being a genocidal Nazi state. It was supposedly genociding the Eastern Ukrainians, genocide evidently now consisting of keeping up its side of the war Russia was fighting there on Ukrainian territory against it. Never mind the minuscule civilian death count this Ukrainian “genocidal” policy was producing after the war settled down, in the periods when Russia was not re-escalating the war. And there was an Azov battalion to harp on, one that did have some fascist elements; never mind the presence of far more serious fascist elements in the Russian state and political system.

For a moment, after Poroshenko was elected president, Lavrov congratulated Ukraine on electing a legitimate government and seemed about to lay off on calling it a fascist, coup-based regime. But then this legitimate government refused to capitulate to Russia’s demands, and he and Putin went back to the old language.

In 2022, Putin added the twist that Russia cannot fulfill its civilizational mission without absorbing Ukraine. Therefore (somehow) Russia cannot exist without taking over Ukraine. And a world without Russia, he intoned in existentialist profundity, is not a world worth having. Therefore …

Therefore, Putin seems to conclude, it is perfectly logical to threaten nuclear escalation and global destruction so Russia can get its way with Ukraine. This would add no additional cost to the total destruction that Putin has already defined as being done to everything worthwhile in the world by the independence of Ukraine.

We see in this how, when policy gets swung around on the tail end of a long angry polemic, replete with lie after lie, it can swing in quite dangerous directions.


The myriad baseless strategic arguments for invading

Putin was not short of accessory lies.

1. Putin warned, in a tone mixing anxiety with fury on the eve of the invasion, that if Russia left Ukraine intact, it would have Western nuclear missiles there less than 500 miles from Moscow.  In reality, that’s obviously untrue on no less than three counts: A. Latvia, a NATO member, is the exact same distance as Ukraine from Moscow (and much closer to St Petersburg). No nukes there, no hint of them. Adding Ukraine to NATO would change nothing in regard to the distance. B. Ukraine wasn’t joining NATO (see below). C. Most NATO countries don’t have American missiles, much less nuclear ones; and some non-NATO countries do have American missiles. The two things are unrelated, just another paranoid conflation of different things.

This argument for invading was so baseless that one is tempted to think Putin knew it was nonsense. But it is possible that he really did talk himself into believing it. The Russian media never refuted it, nor for that matter the Western media (that same attitude of ‘why dignify it with a response’). He never paid any price for saying this nonsense. Putin could safely keep saying it, turning it into a well-worn a pathway for his neurons to travel, long since forgetting the reasons why it was absurd. Many Russians never knew of those reasons. All of them, believers or not, could safely say it with impunity -- with assurance of getting approval for it in the Russian public space, and no fear of getting refuted. It was safe to think and talk this way. People continue to repeat it to this day as if it were a valid explanation for their invasion.


2. Putin argued that independent Ukraine would inevitably go nuclear. Nonsense. Ukraine had in reality given up its nuclear force in the 1990s, under American insistence, for which Russia never thanked America – and in return for Russian pledges to respect its political independence and its borders, pledges Russia already began violating in a mere few years, and brazenly threw out in 2014. Now Putin argues for violating them even further, in the name of the circular argument that otherwise it’ll be Ukraine that will violate the denuclearization agreement. It had never considered re-nuclearizing itself, to be sure. What Putin’s invasions did finally accomplish was to push a minority of Ukrainians to finally ask, all too logically given Putin’s actions, whether it hadn’t proved a bad idea to give up the nukes they used to have.

Like a reverse King Midas, he created a bit what he accused Ukraine of already planning. Cause and effect are reversed here. But logic matters nothing for him; in his regime of controlled media, it is all Ukraine’s fault if he forces Ukraine to become what he said it is.


3. Putin argued that Ukraine would join NATO, unless he deprived it of its independence. Nonsense. For more than two decades, from 1991 until the Russian invasion of 2014, NATO membership had been kept off the table by the fact that the Ukrainian people had consistently rejected the idea – rejected it by a robust supermajority, one that the westernist part of its elites all but despaired of changing after several failed attempts. It was only Putin’s invasions that persuaded a majority of Ukrainians to change their mind and to want into NATO, first a small majority after he invaded in 2014, than a near-unanimous supermajority after he invaded again in 2022. Russia’s invasion, and it alone, is what has turned NATO membership from an impossibility into a real, but still faint, possibility for Ukraine. The Ukrainian people now want it, meaning that Ukraine finally meets the truly relevant criteria for it. But France and Germany and other countries are still absolutely blocking it anyway, so are other countries, and the U.S. government is more against it than for it. NATO officially still says it’s possible only years down the road. The only thing certain about it is that, if it ever finally does happen, it will be entirely Putin’s doing.

Once again, the reverse Midas touch, creating himself what he accused others of. And once again, the illogic matters nothing to him, nor probably to most Russians. In the controlled press regime, the fact that Putin has finally forced Ukrainians to want to join NATO is chalked up simply to the blame of Ukrainians wanting to join NATO, therefore proving Putin right in his accusations.

While the nonsense of what Putin has been saying about NATO is obvious, he does so a PR skill in this. He knows there are millions of Westerners, not just Russians, who dislike NATO. They have no interest in noticing that the anti-NATO polemics of Putin make no sense. They are more concerned to welcome Putin’s polemics against NATO, as a boost to their own polemics. They can also say that NATO has done some things wrong since 1991 too, so it also played a part in what went wrong, and that some things the West says also don’t ring true, so it lies too, so everyone’s lying, so what does it matter that Putin lies. They feel good about blaming it all on NATO and swallowing whatever accusations Putin makes against NATO, no matter how nonsensical.


4. The pretended promise of NATO membership and the whipped-up outrage about it.

This lie is influential in the West, so it’s worth reminding people of what’s wrong with it.

In 2008, NATO decided against giving a MAP – a Membership Action Plan - to Georgia and Ukraine, in effect killing the prospect of their membership in this era. At the time, Russians overwhelmingly welcomed the decision. Then Russia changed tack for its own reasons of making hostile PR, called the decision a push toward membership and a threat to Russia, and lied ever thereafter about it.

A MAP, to clarify, is not membership. Even if Ukraine had gotten a MAP, any NATO country could have blocked its membership in the next step, and several would have done just that. Turkey has shown in the last year that membership can be blocked by a single country at no matter at what stage of the process -- even after that country’s diplomats had approved its membership when acting in the NATO Council. But still, a MAP does matter. It can created a momentum toward eventual membership. So its rejection in 2008 mattered. Russia was glad that it was rejected.

Russia also appreciated at the time the insignificance of the verbal concession that NATO made for moral compensation to the Georgian and Ukrainian governments, when NATO said that someday the two countries “will become members of NATO”. It was one of those empty declarations about historical inevitability that Russians had lived with for 70 years under Marxism, and had learned just how empty they were.

I should acknowledge that, at the time in 2008, I was also glad for the decision against a MAP; albeit for rather different reasons, as I thought a further course correction was needed in NATO. I wrote up my reasons at the time, describing what an appropriate MAP would need to have contained, unlike the routine ones being considered and that emphasized technical adaptations; the point would have been to give more operational substance to the MAPs’s then-perfunctory calls for prior reconciliation with their Russian neighbor, and with ethnic minorities that that neighbor was supporting, and to insulate NATO’s own decision-making capabilities from internal vetoes by new members that suffer on both ends politically -- from extreme anti-Russian sentiment and from large-scale Russian influence and infiltration. That point quickly became, however, irrelevant. Russia itself eliminated the space for such a constructive course correction (forcing me to begin making some course corrections in my own writings). It seized upon NATO’s deference to its wishes and avoidance of a MAP in 2008, not to move things for the better, but to move them decisively for the worse, with a war in Georgia that was a precursor to the current one in Ukraine.

Russia’s kinetic action, in contrast to the initial happy verbal take in Moscow on the no-MAP decision by NATO, was to treat that decision as a green light for aggression against the countries that were not being given a MAP. Russia quickly provoked the 2008 war with Georgia, and used the war to upgrade its seizure of some of that country’s territory.

That was a strategic turning point, a Zeitenwende, even if Merkel and the Germans refused to figure it out at the time. There were still ambiguities in the wider picture, to be sure; it was not as cut and dried as it is today. But it was a major turn, and should have sunk in better. Instead, it took two more invasions, in 2014 and 2022 -- and a change in who was running Germany -- to get to the point where the change would sink in.

Despite the failure of the collective West to adequately adjust its course after 2008, a lot of people in the West did draw a fairly logical conclusion from invasion of Georgia: that the failure to give Georgia the MAP was a cause of this war. The war was certainly not caused by the throw-away line about how Georgia “will” become a member, which Russians still saw at that time as insignificant. The real failure to give a MAP had a real effect: not the calming one it was supposed to have, but an effect of inviting and exciting aggression. The danger had proved to come not from provoking Russia by Western strength, but of provoking Russia by weakness, with the West avoiding anything that it thought Russia might call a “provocation” and, in the process, giving Russia a green light to invade.

This led some people to a further conclusion, one that also looks depressingly prescient and logical today: that Georgia and Ukraine should have been given a MAP then and there, even though that would not have meant membership and Article 5 protection. Why? Because it would have served as a signal to Moscow that we were fairly serious about protecting the two countries.

It had turned out that it was not the logic but the signaling – the signaling of ambivalence and indifference -- that Moscow saw in our decision against the MAP. It acted on the weak signal when it invaded: it read the light as green, and proceeded through the intersection. It should have seen yellow or red, but we did nothing to show it those colors.

Later, Russia and its friendly propaganda circles began a practice of misconstruing the 2008 “they will become members” statement as a serious one and as something that Russia was greatly offended and threatened and provoked by. Within Russia, this served the purpose of whipping up people into feeling provoked by it. That turned its lie into a kind of truth, with the usual reversal of causality: the cause of the “provocation” was not an actual provocation by the West, which Russia was clear at the time did not happen, but Russia wanting subsequently to claim to be provoked, so it could use this as a basis for cultivating its mentality of resentment and proceeding further with of its diplomacy of complaint and threat.

And therein lies a real cost of NATO’s own pap language that these countries “will” someday be members. It served as a talking point for Russia, without itself meaning anything useful. After Russia got over its actual relief that this was how NATO had dealt with the issue, and after exploiting its weakness to invade Georgia, it figured out that it could use it anyway to stir up resentment toward the West, and then play this offendedness card against the West. The card has consistently been played that way ever since in Russian media, and in anti-NATO media everywhere. By now the reality is buried under mounds of forgetting and lying; it is only the layers of propaganda-accusations that remain alive in the collective mind.

At the beginning of February 2023, Boris Johnson, as Britain’s envoy for Ukraine, made a strong realist point: that, in retrospect, NATO should have had the courage to admit the two countries, and that the ambiguity and weakness of NATO’s formula -- not granting membership, but pretending that it “will” happen – was part of the problem that brought on the war, since it gave Putin a talking point without giving Ukraine any protection. This was misconstrued in anti-NATO media, West as well as East, as Johnson admitting that NATO provoked the war.

Misconstrual has its uses for making accusations. It can seem successful in the short run as a tactic. But it comes at a high cost to sanity, a cost that is strategic not just tactical.


The real faults on the West’s side

A. Giving an inadvertent perverse incentive for Russia to invade.

NATO had long ago, in its 1990s criteria for new membership, given Russia another perverse incentive to invade its neighbors: NATO stated that a country cannot join the alliance unless it controls its own territory and doesn’t have some of its territory occupied in an ongoing conflict with a neighbor. This was intended as an incentive for aspirant countries to make peace with their neighbors, and was successfully used that way when the leaderships on both sides of a line had good will. But it turned into a perverse incentive when a leadership on the far side of the line, in Moscow, had ill will. Russia understood its obstruction of good relations and of settlement of outstanding issues with neighbors as a way of blocking their entry to NATO. It did indeed serve that purpose, but it also inflamed their neighbors to want to join NATO and inflamed many Westerners to want to provide them that protection. As a step further on this, Russians openly talked for years about how they could stop countries from joining NATO by invading and taking some of their territory. It is not surprising that they eventually began acting  on this thought. With the result once again of causing their neighboring country populations to finally want by overwhelmingly majorities to get into NATO, and creating enormous sympathy for such an outcome in the West even though still not removing the blockages to action on it.

Russia has taught NATO a bitter lesson: that sometimes it should be less trusting and generous. There is finally some discussion around NATO circles on what conclusions to draw from this lesson. Perhaps NATO will find a way to correct its mistake and stop giving Russia, through its very generosity to Russia, a perverse incentive to keep conflicts brewing and to invade neighbors.


B. Its failure to engage seriously on Russia joining NATO.

NATO never took seriously the feelers of Russia about joining NATO. It never prepared a plan for making Russian membership something that could work.

Russia sought intermittently to join NATO from 1990 under Gorbachev to 2002 under Putin. It tried hard under Yeltsin, and his government was badly burned from the start by the lack of response from the West. It tried more gingerly under Putin in the months after 9-11 in 2001.

I have written volumes about this, even before 1990, when it was only a potential scenario. In 1985 I wrote about the need to start preparing for the contingency of Russia joining NATO -- by preparing our thinking so we would welcome such an outcome when a window of opportunity might exist, and by preparing NATO structurally to be able to continue acting effectively with far more, and more diverse, members, by overcoming its reliance on unanimity in making decisions -- as it could potentially become a real issue much faster than anyone thought, and we were on track to being dangerously unready if it did. This in fact happened. I wrote still earlier about the scenario, far more hypothetically, in 1980. The preparations advocated in these writings were never made; the feelers of Russia to join starting in 1990 were treated as effectively inconceivable, in the absence of the preparations on the Western side. Water under the bridge? Yes; but the costs are great. Does it provide lessons worth learning, so as not to make the same mistake again if that vast opening in history, now so seemingly conclusively closed, were to reopen? Yes, but it would take pages to write about that seriously. It will have to be done in other articles.


Their lies and ours

 Loads of Putin acolytes will jump up and down at this point and tell me, “But you’re admitting that there were Western lies about NATO too, or at least loads of Western self-deceptions too about these and many other things, deceptions that led the West to commit disastrous mistakes. So why all this one-sided criticism of Russian lies?”

Why? For very good reasons.

Because Russia’s lies are the issue here, and a darned important one at this time.

Because misperceptions and inadequate perspectives are not the same thing as deliberate lies.

Because two lies, even in conditions (not the present one) where they’re equally dishonest, don’t make a truth, any more than two wrongs make a right. The problem for a serious citizen is to fight the lies and overcome them, not to excuse them by pointing to other people’s lies.

Because the Russian pile of lies and self-deceptions has led it to start a very substantial and dangerous war. It’s important to talk about this right now. And not shrug it off with any whataboutism.

When an earlier article of mine on the subject of Russian lies and the war appeared, it was followed in the same journal by an entire series of articles about Western lying about Russiagate. As if to create a kind of contextual whataboutism. Perhaps that tells us about the whataboutism of the editor. It no doubt appealed to the many crude two-camp readers, who will think the issue is which set of lies to oppose. Who knows, maybe they’ll suppose that I must be supporting Russiagate if I’m against Russian lies. But they’re wrong about that too. They are separate sets of lies and I’ve been against both. I wrote elsewhere, where it was relevant, against the lies and self-deceptions of Russiagate, and the insane level of demonization and lying about Trump. Most of my writing about self-deceptions has been about Western ones, for years and decades on end, not because they’re the worst in the world – they’re not -- but because of the harm they do to the West’s capacity to form sound policies, which I care about.  I do not share my critics’ sense of special joy and pride in exposing Western lies, or calling things Western lies whenever they can find any pretext for that no matter how feeble; nor the wish of many of them to undermine the Western role in the world. My criticism, unlike theirs, is not for malice but for cause. It is the same with my criticism of the Russian pile of lies. It is for cause, a cause that is important for Russia not just for its opponents: for they are lies that it is vital for Russia -- potentially vital for its own survival -- to see through at this time.


2012: a radical intensification of lying and repression

Putin’s win in the 2012 election, which switched him back from PM to President, was achieved with a high level of irregularities in the vote counting. These were met by a high level of protests. The regime, which by then had grown accustomed to projecting blame for what it had wrought, depicted the protests as engineered by the West as part of its wish to tear apart Russia, and upped its repression of them. Over the subsequent months and years, the repressions got cumulatively more severe, the foreign policy of the regime cumulatively more anti-Western, and the lying cumulatively worse. 2012 was another turning point.


2002: Putin’s decisive turn against the West -- and toward lying as a main practice

The deciding turn came probably in 2002. That was when Putin turned back away from NATO, dissatisfied with the progress – real but not transformative – that was achieved in deepening Russia-NATO relations after 9-11. He began his long trek toward an extreme anti-Westernism.

Discarding his post-9-11 language of solidarity with the West against Islamist terrorism, Putin expressed his turn in a major new lie: blaming the West for an Islamist terrorist episode in Beslan, by saying it was caused by external powers trying to take another territorial bite out of Russia. The “external” was interpreted by all analysts as meaning “Western”; that was the obvious part. But why did he call it “another” bite? That implies a previous “bite” that the West took out of Russia. It was a way of aligning himself with the longstanding radical nationalist phobia that it was hidden Western scheming that had brought about the break-up of the USSR.


Were the lies after 2002 rooted in an Ur-lie of the Putin regime in 1999?

The lie about a hidden foreign hand behind the terrorists was in many respects an extension of what was probably the original lie of the Putin regime, a sort of “ur-lie”. That one was about the apartment bombings in Moscow in 1999. Putin and his FSB probably organized these bombings, in order to blame it on the Chechens and gain popularity for the second Chechen war, so the popularity would ensure his regime’s staying power politically. I say “probably”, because the better part of the evidence supports that Putin & Co. did it, but it is far from conclusive. It cannot be conclusive, as long as Putin rules in Moscow. He has no interest in allowing an investigation to find evidence for this. Russian authorities instead produced, with considerable difficulty and unconvincingness, their own alternative evidence for blaming it on others.


Comparative Mentocracies: the Putin Regime and the Soviet Regime

If it is true, as seems probable, that the bombings of 1999 were FSB false-flag events, then the Putin regime has from the start been a mentocracy: a regime of lies, built on lies at its very base, compounding continuously, with new lies produced to perpetuate the old ones. In this case, it replicates much of the Soviet mentocracy, minus the Marxist ideology. Its spells of pausing on its lies and championing some practical truths become only intermittent intervals in its regime of lies.

If the main accumulation of lies began instead in 2002, then the same conclusion unfortunately follows. The mentocracy is only 3 years less deep in that case; it still has 21 years of accumulation. The difference in layers and extent of lies is not great.


How Mentocracies End

Nevertheless, the regime in this case would have an easier option of climbing out of its mound of lies. It would not need to discredit a big part of its initial foundation. It would only have to roll back its subsequent mound of lies.

It would be not as bad as the dilemma of Soviet elite reform, which instinctively protected itself by discrediting Stalin’s political purges and terror after 1934, only to find that it couldn’t be consistent about this without moving on to discredited the social terror of dekulakization and collectivization in the early half-dozen years; only to find under Gorbachev that it couldn’t be consistent about any deStalinization without moving on to deLeninization; only to discover in the end that it could not be consistent about that either without deMarxification. The load is less heavy today: it is just the reign of a single ruler that has to be renounced, and maybe not even his first couple years.

It is important to that everyone, including the regime, understand the fact that the regime does in fact have a viable option of coming out from its mentocracy without committing personal or national suicide. It would not be simple, but would be much easier than the task Khrushchev and Gorbachev faced. It may be unlikely to do this, but it needs to know that the door is open for it: it is only its own phobias, like those of Kafka’s K, that keep it from walking through its door.

When a mentocracy does not find the will-power to climb out of its system of lies and regain a more ordinary share of firm grounding, the prognosis is grimmer. In that case, the regime can explode and take the society down with it. Its various factions, each seeking to restore hope through its own special combination of the regime’s lies, are left to duke it out in a mostly imaginary mental universe, like the worst kind of virtual reality game.

Those are the options for what might become. Let us return now to what has been. We left off twenty years ago.


Taking over the media after 2002, making space for far bigger lies

At the same time as his turn away from the West after 2002, Putin renewed his campaign to destroy the independence of the major Russian media and its capacity to tell truths he didn’t want people to hear. It was a campaign he had put on hold in the immediate period after 9-11.

Perhaps in 2001 Putin genuinely became less hostile and fearful toward the West and saw more common interest with the West against the terrorists; and therewith became also less fearful of independent domestic media influencers who might align with the West in saying true things. Or perhaps he simply didn’t want to alienate the West further at this moment when he was hoping for something from it. In any case, he paused his campaign against the media in 2001. When he turned back against the West in 2002, he also turned back against the remaining independent major media. And he soon had fully eliminated them.

Having eliminated the media as a restraint, it was easier for him to resume the method of lying in bulk, piling up the lies one atop another. And it became harder to resist the temptation to do that; it seemed cost-free, in the absence of effective criticism.


The really big lie: the Western plot to break apart Russia

Ever since, Putin has continued intermittently plugging the theme of a Western plot to break Russia into pieces. What he had said about the Beslan terrorist kidnapping was just a small brief precursor to his really dangerous campaign of agitation on this lie since 2005.

When he first came to power, following upon the Kosovo war, Putin had seemingly put a damper on the widespread belief in Russia that the West was about to intervene militarily in their country to break it apart. It was a popular slogan in Moscow at the time that NATO was bombing Belgrade today and would be bombing Moscow tomorrow. Presumably Putin knew how wildly off base that accusation was, not only because Russia unlike Serbia had nuclear weapons, but because the West and its leaders viewed the moral cases of Russia and Serbia as opposite, not parallel: they still viewed Russia as almost entirely benign in avoiding wars during and after the break-up of the USSR, while viewing Serbia as almost entirely malign in starting every war it could in the former Yugoslavia. The parallelism with Serbia existed in the minds of the pro-Serb nationalists in Russia, not in mainstream Western minds. Putin knew this. Moreover, he knew that Clinton had mostly supported Yeltsin against the rebels in Chechnya and Dagestan. The talk of blaming it on the West existed in his ideological milieu and entourage, but as one who cultivated a fairly nationalistic hardline reputation from the start, he was well positioned politically to calm down the hysteria. It was against the Chechens, not the West, that he whipped up sentiment with the apartment bombings.

After 2002, Putin reverted to riling up the fears that he had seemingly calmed in 1999. He remorselessly fanned the fears of Russia breaking up.

In the process, he gradually turned his predictions of doom at least a bit of the way into self-fulfilling prophecies. He kept people talking about it when there was no reason to be worrying. He turned his regime into little more than a “power vertical”, rendering it more brittle on all levels, dependent on a single vertical line without the guy-wires to stability itself – the breadth of genuine elections on all levels to give itself a depth of substance and legitimacy on those levels. Break-up remained improbable, but with his failures in his war against Ukraine starting 2022, it became a more serious possibility than ever since 1991.

Putin already grew apoplectic about the prospect of Russian collapse and break-up when Georgians and Ukrainians made their “color revolutions”: they came out en masse onto the street, protesting the dishonest counting and overturning of their election results by the powers that be; and they succeeded in overturning the overturns and getting honestly elected governments for themselves. He blamed it all on America, which he would say “gave the signal” for the overthrows by its comments – in fact, a mere occasional friendly – and honest -- pronouncement about the protesters. He promoted fears that it would result in an overturn in Russia too, also on supposedly American instigation, and then in America breaking Russia into pieces. That is how he prepared himself for the reflex of saying that the 2012 protests against his own election fraud were all created by the occasional American honest word about the fraud.

And that is how today it turns out today that, in his rhetoric, Ukraine’s extraordinary morale and success in fighting off the Russian invasion is treated by him, almost as a matter of course, as a part of the America-NATO plot to break Russia into little pieces, something that he increasingly presents as really slated to happen unless Russia wins this war. It is the logical deduction from his 20-year mound of lies piled upon lies, on this subject as so many others. It has become his way of talking, the mental neurons that his brain and mouth travel along habitually, and that myriad other minds and mouths travel along together with him in his controlled media.

With his constant accusations that the West wants to break up Russia and is pushing it toward collapse, he creates a grain of reality for this lie too: He has indeed induced Westerners to think about the possibility that Russia might come apart. An unsystematic Atlantic Council survey of elites this year found that a large number thought that Russia could break up in the next decade. This does not mean they want this to happen. We do not know if they do. Inevitably, when people think of such a prospect as real, some of them will begin to think that it would not be such a bad thing as they had previous assumed; but others will draw the opposite conclusion. My guess is that most Americans, elite and general public alike, are still against a Russian break-up as something with great risks and few benefits for America. Unfortunately we lack any survey on this. But even if we had it, it would not stop Putin from saying the opposite.

What else could we expect Putin and his organs to do, after they themselves generated this discussion of Russian break-up with his accusations that the West wants this? He will cite the Western discussion of it – a very small discussion -- as proof that he was right all along with those accusations. Here again he is inverting cause and effect; he was never right, and he himself created the faint glimmer of the effect. Still, what else can he do, but project the blame on the West? It’s classic Freudian projection of guilt.

It’s also a classic Adlerian inferiority complex, overcompensated for by threats and bluster and pretensions of superiority. Is this just a therapeutic play-aggression, something to be laughed at? It is, alas, no laughing matter; he is making the whole world pay.



The Inverted-Midas Touch: How Putin turns his fears into realities

It’s been widely observed, sarcastically, that Putin has a Midas touch: everything he touches in his rage turns into what he accused it of having been all along. This should not be just a sarcasm. Many of the consequences are deadly.

To be sure, it is not exactly a Midas touch. That is not really fair to King Midas, who wished for something that seemed beneficent, gold, before realizing that he had wished for too much of it. Putin’s warnings and induced creations are not of gold but of the monsters in his mind. His wish for them is not an open wish for a good thing; it is a venting of a subconscious nightmare-wish. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy because it is like the death-wish, the wish that Freud discovered in his reflections on the darkest realities of the human subconscious; the wish so dark that it must always be kept down in an inferior position to the healthy wishes and not vented carelessly. Putin has given himself to venting it with growing frequency and carelessness.

He calls Ukraine the “anti-Russia”; for the first time in history, he turns it into something like that.

He calls Ukraine “NATO”; he turns its people to finally want to join NATO.

He demands an end to Western positioning of forces in the new NATO member countries, of which there had been essentially none up to 2014; he gets a lot more of it. And they’re there for good reason: because he has created a very threat to the Eastern European countries, one that requires a real NATO presence to protect against.

He demands an end to NATO expansion; he causes Finland and Sweden to decide to join.

He explains to a Westerner that he wants to Finlandize eastern Europe; instead he NATOizes Finland, something NATO had been unable to do for 70 years.

He says Ukrainians will welcome Russian troops and topple Zelensky just as soon as he touches the country. Instead he loses most of the support that Russia once had in Eastern Ukraine, and causes Ukrainians to fight back and rally around Zelensky with an impressive 90% rating.

And instead of Ukraine falling apart, it is Russia that Putin now thinks might soon fall apart.

He accuses America of trying to tear Russia apart; he succeeds in inspiring a significant number of Russians and Americans alike to think Russia is collapsing. He is probably inspiring far more Russians than Americans to hope for a Russian break-up, but surveys are insufficient on the American side and not available at all on the Russian side.


Inverting Cause and Effect as well

Putin’s accusations are simply false when he makes them. But he proceeds to take actions “in response” to the dangers he alleges, and his actions that cause the dangers to become real. That is the first inversion.

The second inversion is to claim that this proves he was right.

What does he care that it was a lie when he actually made the accusation? He simply says after the fact, ‘you see, it’s true now, I was right all along’.

It is not just that no one in his media will point out the inversion of cause and effect. It’s that paranoids never really are bothered by their inversion of cause and effect. They live by it. When they themselves bring about the things they had feared and accused other people of doing, they stick to their narrative and say it proves they were right.

This is not just cynicism. Often they actually feel the continuity between their warnings and the outcome as a validating continuity, and are able, by dint of a public relations repetition of this warning-outcome, to keep out of mind their own logical guilt for the causation of this warning turning into an outcome. Public relations logic or fuzzy logic replaces dialectical logic or cause and effect. In this fuzzy logical continuity, the minor matter of cause and effect is put out of mind. The consider their own causal role is something that feels to them like excess verbal argumentation, an obfuscating interruption of the continuity that seems so powerfully to confirm their warnings.

The horror-outcome is something that a part of them needs. Freud, in his older and wiser days, understood this with his concept of the death-wish.

George Kennan had pointed out the same logic in the Soviet regime. With its structural paranoia, it would induce what it feared. Its Hegelian habits of mushing cause and effect together would then kick in to perpetuate the paranoid narrative and raise it to a higher level.

We had all held out hope after the 1980s that the successor regime would be different. And for a time it was. But not long.

Let us not be unfair to King Midas. He only destroyed a few things right next to himself before realizing how suicidal his magic power was, and he repented of it. Putin brings into existence the things he hates across vast expanses of the world. In response to this disaster, he has for years found none of Mida’' wisdom or will to repent, but only redoubled his fury at the world and gone further with it. Midas’s otherworldly magic could never do the harm that Putin’s very worldly psychology has wrought.



The dangerous descent into nihilism

How to understand Putin’s turn, after decades of caution and an initial ‘do no harm’ mantra, to start making radically nihilistic comments and getting suicidally reckless? What to think, when he argues that Russia would cease to exist without Ukraine, that Russia is all that matters, that ‘what does a world without Russia matter’?

I am sure that the world does matter to the 140 million other Russian people. And that Russia matters to them too, with or without Putin.

Putin’s rhetoric sounds more and more like the death-wish, Thanatos, on a mass scale. His chief media propagandist, Vladimir Soloviev, says that life isn’t worth much and it’s better to die for your country.

The very name is a bitter sarcasm on Russian history. The greatest Russian Christian philosopher was also named Vladimir Soloviev. The wiser Soloviev described his Slavophile nationalist colleagues as a pagan tribe, using Orthodox Christianity as their pagan banner. He warned that nationalism tended to progress from national sentiment to national boastfulness to national suicide.

Most Russians don’t want to commit suicide.

One has to hope that the rejection of regime-assisted suicide is something that matters enough to Russians -- and Russians high enough up in the hierarchy -- to pull them out of their passivity and get them to see to it that Putin is not given the chance to take his country and the world down with him.

One can, to be sure, interpret the comments of Putin cynically, as meaning, “If we fail to conquer Ukraine, the my regime will cease to exist. I will get killed. I am Russia. I hate the thought of a world without Putin-Russia.” This interpretation, alas, makes it even more nihilistic: it amounts to saying he would rather blow up the world than cede his personal power. It is like Hitler at the end, when the Fuehrer concluded that the German people were not worthy of him. Fortunately Hitler never had the nuclear weapons to bring the world down with him. The death-wish does not come cheap.



Putin’s Choice, Russia’s Choice

To be sure, Putin can do something other than just continue down the path of nihilism. He can stop lying.

He just chooses not to.

It wouldn’t be easy on him to stop lying. It would be a shock at this point. But not too bad a shock. Not nearly as bad as the shock that Gorbachev had to lead his people through.

Gorbachev did it, not as a quick shock, but as a five-year process of transforming the national psyche. He unraveled the lies, layer after layer of them, returning the country to living in a kind of truth -- the normal disappointing mess of a world of plural thoughts and confusing truths.

Putin thus far wants none of it. On a day to day basis, it’s easier for him to go on living the lie and compounding it. But the costs keep mounting on him personally, as well as on Russia. He can see some of the costs, in his down moments.  The cost to his own ability to think straight. The cost to his ability to get honest advice. The cost to his ability to make sound decisions, once something that in his first years he would boast of as a personal trademark, with at least some plausibility after his erratic predecessors. The cost to everything he had accomplished in past years.

Today he desperately needs a way out of that mound of lies.

Lucky for him, the way out is right there in front of him. His mound doesn’t go as deep as the Soviet mound of lies had gone. The Soviet mound had many generations of growth, many layers of factions suppressed and “un-personed”, a comprehensive Marxist-Leninist Party ideology, with millions of Party members and general public educated in it as a holistic way of thinking. His own mound is almost entirely of his regime’s own making, which means his personal making.

He knows the way out of it. The off-ramp is there waiting for him. He is responsible every day for his failure to take it.

Despite all the regime's melodramatic depictions of these decisions being controlled by an omnimalovent West, at once omnipotent and omni-incompetent, in real life they have been Putin's choice.

The off-ramp still is Putin’s choice. And Russia’s choice.


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