Staunton, January 30 – Yesterday, in “Der Spiegel,” that German publication’s Moscow correspondent Benjamin Bidder asked the question: “Does Putin Believe His Own Propaganda?” and suggested the best answer to that riddle has been provided by Moscow cartoonist Sergey Yolkin, who described Putin’s statements as an example of “hybrid truth.”
During his first and second terms as Russian president, Bidder says, Putin impressed many Western leaders with his knowledge of details and as “a difficult but all the same reliable partner in negotiations.” But those times are now “long past” (spiegel.de/politik/ausland/putins-luegen-glaubt-russlands-praesident-die-eigene-propaganda-a-1015309.html; in Russian, at https://openrussia.org/post/view/2370/).
Since returning for his third term, Putin has made dishonesty and lies “practically a daily element of Russian policy,” employing “the big lie” as part of a conscious effort to define the situation and “small lies” in the Kremlin leader’s speeches which raise the question: “Is he only poorly informed or does he believe his own propaganda?”
In the summer of 201, Putin tried to convince German Chancellor Angela Merkel that protests against him in Moscow were “manifestations of ‘the sexually deformed’” and that those involved in the Pussy Riot actions were “anti-Semites,” statements so at variance with reality and so unnecessary that his German audience was shocked.
Most recently but in the same key, Bidder continues, Putin told students in St. Petersburg that pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas were “fighting not with the Ukrainian army but with ‘a NATO legion.’” One might expect such things from lower level propagandists but “not from the senior leader of a major nuclear power.”
According to the German correspondent, “it is unclear what stands behind such expressions.” Was Putin consciously lying? Was he poorly informed? Or has he fallen under the spell of his own propaganda? There are cases which can provide evidence for all of these possibilities, Bidder suggests.
Putin has clearly lied about key events in the course of the Ukrainian conflict, denying what he had to know was true or asserting things that he had to know were false, Bidder says. But he has also said things which show that he has been poorly briefed – his assertions about the number of Ukrainians in Russia, for example – or believes his government’s own propaganda.
But whatever is true in any particular case, one thing is clear, Bidder argues. “In this way, the Kremlin sets the tone, and the Russian media follow, in the big lies and the small. To the extent that Putin knows he is lying, that is one thing – lies can be deployed as part of state policy – but if he doesn’t, that raises an even more dangerous possibility: he doesn’t know what he is saying and doesn’t care.
That he doesn’t know about many things, Bidder says, is suggested by the following: Putin as is well known doesn’t like the Internet, but as “The Guardian” reported last summer, he doesn’t want reports that are longer than three pages in 18 point type. “This cannot be true,” the German writer says.
But he adds: “Putin himself has said that he doesn’t have the time to read newspapers” and gets most of his news and information from subordinates, although he does “watch television.” That means, Bidder says, that “reality reaches the leader of the Kremlin only after being filtered through his own propaganda.”
And that in turn means, although Bidder doesn’t say so, that Putin is seeing his own lies multiplied and confirmed rather than challenged and corrected, a dangerous situation for anyone but especially dangerous in the case of a ruler who has invaded a neighboring state and put his own country at odds with the world.