Magazine article The Spectator

Putin's Toxic Power

Magazine article The Spectator

Putin's Toxic Power

Article excerpt

Russia's lying leader aims to convince the gullible that there is no such thing as truth

Vladimir Putin's spies have a dizzying variety of weapons at their disposal. This week Britain learned of a new one: Novichok, a nerve agent used in an attempt on the life of a former Russian intelligence officer in Salisbury. But Putin's real power, far more dangerous than all the rockets and poisons in his arsenals, lies in his toxic ability to corrode truth.

Putin lies, barefacedly and repeatedly. So do his acolytes. Even when the forensic evidence is massive and incontrovertible, Putin tells palpable falsehoods with easy fluency. In March 2014 he insisted that there were no Russian troops in Crimea, claiming that 'anyone could buy' Russian military uniforms. Within a month, he publicly thanked the troops that had participated in the annexation. With equal ease, he reversed himself on the presence of regular Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine -- after two years of denying they were there, Putin casually acknowledged the truth in 2016.

The point is that lying itself is the message. Putin's lies are not about concealment but rather about his ability to assert his power over truth itself. He says, now, that the Kremlin had nothing to do with the attack on Sergei Skripal -- and if British intelligence officers are convinced that the nerve agent used could only have come from a laboratory tightly controlled by the Russian government, well, that's their problem. If the British want an explanation for what happened in Salisbury -- by midnight on a Tuesday or any other time -- why would they come to him? Putin doesn't need to be honest. He believes that he controls the truth. He can make his own reality.

That belief in the ability to control any narrative simply by deceit is the root of Putin's hubris -- and that of the proxies under his authority but not always his command. The pattern has been repeated with increasing frequency over recent years: whether over the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines Boeing by a Russian army BUK rocket, the systematic campaign of state-sponsored doping of Russian athletes at the Sochi Olympics, US election hacking or, now, the attempted murder of the former military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal. The Kremlin believes that its people will never be brought to account for their actions.

It doesn't matter how ridiculous the conspiracy theory is -- as long as it exculpates Russia. This week the Russian state TV news anchor Sergei Kisilev claimed that Skripal was murdered by MI6 in a plot to whip up Russophobia and boost Theresa May's flagging poll numbers. Margarita Simonyan, founder and head of the Kremlin-funded propaganda channel RT (formerly Russia Today), wrote a sarcastic post on her Facebook page imagining 'some special guys' in the West 'drinking iced coffees and thinking, what kind of stunt can we pull before the elections to make Russians dislike Putin?' Does Simonyan really believe what she is saying? Does Kisilev? Does the foreign minister Sergei Lavrov really believe that he is speaking the truth when he denies the Assad regime's chemical weapons attacks?

It's a question I ask myself very often in Russia as I speak to apparently intelligent, well-informed and worldly Russian officials who spout unbelievable nonsense. The recent Oscar-winning documentary film Icarus, an extraordinary exploration of Russia's sports doping scandal, gives an important clue to what goes on in these people's minds.

The film's eccentric hero, Gennady Rodchenkov, was simultaneously head of both Russia's anti-doping agency and of its official doping programme. His job was to give performance-enhancing drugs to Russia's Olympic team -- and to help them conceal their fraud at the highest forensic level. A fan of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Rodchenkov explains his countrymen's easy attitude to lying in terms of 'doublethink'. To simultaneously hold two entirely contradictory positions in their mind and believe them both to be true is part of Russian culture, he muses. …

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