IN 1991, when Soviet Communism collapsed, it seemed as if the Russian people might at last have the chance to become citizens of a normal Western democracy. Vladimir Putin’s disastrous contribution to Russia’s history has been to set his country on a different path. And yet many around the world, through self-interest or self-deception, have been unwilling to see Mr Putin as he really is.
The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, the killing of 298 innocent people and the desecration of their bodies in the sunflower fields of eastern Ukraine, is above all a tragedy of lives cut short and of those left behind to mourn. But it is also a measure of the harm Mr Putin has done. Under him Russia has again become a place in which truth and falsehood are no longer distinct and facts are put into the service of the government. Mr Putin sets himself up as a patriot, but he is a threat—to international norms, to his neighbours and to the Russians themselves, who are intoxicated by his hysterical brand of anti-Western propaganda.
In this section
- A web of lies
- Fanfare for the common man
- Stop the rockets, but lift the siege
- How to stop the inversion perversion
- Relax, your kids will be fine
Crucifiction and other stories
Mr Putin has blamed the tragedy of MH17 on Ukraine, yet he is the author of its destruction. A high-court’s worth of circumstantial evidence points to the conclusion that pro-Russian separatists fired a surface-to-air missile out of their territory at what they probably thought was a Ukrainian military aircraft. Separatist leaders boasted about it on social media and lamented their error in messages intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence and authenticated by America (see article).
Russia’s president is implicated in their crime twice over. First, it looks as if the missile was supplied by Russia, its crew was trained by Russia, and after the strike the launcher was spirited back to Russia. Second, Mr Putin is implicated in a broader sense because this is his war. The linchpins of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic are not Ukrainian separatists but Russian citizens who are, or were, members of the intelligence services. Their former colleague, Mr Putin, has paid for the war and armed them with tanks, personnel carriers, artillery—and batteries of surface-to-air missiles. The separatists pulled the trigger, but Mr Putin pulled the strings.
The enormity of the destruction of flight MH17 should have led Mr Putin to draw back from his policy of fomenting war in eastern Ukraine. Yet he has persevered, for two reasons. First, in the society he has done so much to mould, lying is a first response. The disaster immediately drew forth a torrent of contradictory and implausible theories from his officials and their mouthpieces in the Russian media: Mr Putin’s own plane was the target; Ukrainian missile-launchers were in the vicinity. And the lies got more complex. The Russian fiction that a Ukrainian fighter jet had fired the missile ran into the problem that the jet could not fly at the altitude of MH17, so Russian hackers then changed a Wikipedia entry to say that the jets could briefly do so. That such clumsily Soviet efforts are easily laughed off does not defeat their purpose, for their aim is not to persuade but to cast enough doubt to make the truth a matter of opinion. In a world of liars, might not the West be lying, too?
Second, Mr Putin has become entangled in a web of his own lies, which any homespun moralist could have told him was bound to happen. When his hirelings concocted propaganda about fascists running Kiev and their crucifixion of a three-year-old boy, his approval ratings among Russian voters soared by almost 30 percentage points, to over 80%. Having roused his people with falsehoods, the tsar cannot suddenly wriggle free by telling them that, on consideration, Ukraine’s government is not too bad. Nor can he retreat from the idea that the West is a rival bent on Russia’s destruction, ready to resort to lies, bribery and violence just as readily as he does. In that way, his lies at home feed his abuses abroad.
In Russia such doublespeak recalls the days of the Soviet Union when Pravda claimed to tell the truth. This mendocracy will end in the same way as that one did: the lies will eventually unravel, especially as it becomes obvious how much money Mr Putin and his friends have stolen from the Russian people, and he will fall. The sad novelty is that the West takes a different attitude this time round. In the old days it was usually prepared to stand up to the Soviet Union, and call out its falsehoods. With Mr Putin it looks the other way.
Take Ukraine. The West imposed fairly minor sanctions on Russia after it annexed Crimea, and threatened tougher ones if Mr Putin invaded eastern Ukraine. To all intents and purposes, he did just that: troops paid for by Russia, albeit not in Russian uniforms, control bits of the country. But the West found it convenient to go along with Mr Putin’s lie, and the sanctions eventually imposed were too light and too late. Similarly, when he continued to supply the rebels, under cover of a ceasefire that he claimed to have organised, Western leaders vacillated.
Since the murders of the passengers of MH17 the responses have been almost as limp. The European Union is threatening far-reaching sanctions—but only if Mr Putin fails to co-operate with the investigation or he fails to stop the flow of arms to the separatists. France has said that it will withhold the delivery of a warship to Mr Putin if necessary, but is proceeding with the first of the two vessels on order. The Germans and Italians claim to want to keep diplomatic avenues open, partly because sanctions would undermine their commercial interests. Britain calls for sanctions, but it is reluctant to harm the City of London’s profitable Russian business. America is talking tough but has done nothing new.
Enough. The West should face the uncomfortable truth that Mr Putin’s Russia is fundamentally antagonistic. Bridge-building and resets will not persuade him to behave as a normal leader. The West should impose tough sanctions now, pursue his corrupt friends and throw him out of every international talking shop that relies on telling the truth. Anything else is appeasement—and an insult to the innocents on MH17.