Kiev, Ukraine — Vladimir Putin is a master propagandist. Fresh from using his state TV to mount glittering coverage of the Sochi Olympics in February, he has turned his Kremlin stooges to the task of delegitimizing Ukraine’s government as “fascist” and portraying it as a clear danger to any Russian speakers under its control. If the West, especially the U.S., doesn’t step up its game in responding, it will soon wonder either how Ukraine was lost to Russia or how it was rendered ungovernable.
When pro-Russian separatist groups seized control of government buildings in the eastern city of Donetsk last month, they made sure to occupy the TV station. They brought a technician with them whose first job was to turn off Ukrainian channels and replace them with Russian ones whose idea of covering the crisis was to blend montages of Ukraine’s pro-Western leaders with footage of Nazi storm troopers from World War II.
Oleg Dzholos, the director of the TV station in Donetsk, said the separatists claimed that his station wasn’t properly reflecting local opinion. But Donetsk has a population of more than 1 million, and only about 300 individuals turned up to take part in the pro-Russian rally that preceded the takeover of the TV station. Most people in eastern Ukraine just want the crisis to be over. The separatists, however, want to use Putin propaganda to stoke fear of the Kiev government and disrupt the looming presidential elections, scheduled for May 25. They will then denounce the results as illegitimate.
The West has been shamefully slow to react to Putin’s Orwellian tactics. Secretary of State John Kerry scorns what he calls Russia’s “fantasy” version of reality and insists that “no amount of propaganda will hide the truth.”
I’m not so sure. “Putin doesn’t just rely on fooling people — he spreads free money around so people will parrot his views,” Gia Jandieri, co-founder of the New Economy School, a free-market institute in Tbilisi, Georgia, told me. “He has agents of influence everywhere giving out versions of his party line.”
Many European leaders agree with Jandieri. Last month, the contents of a briefing for Bulgarian politicians by the European Commission’s chief, José Manuel Barroso, were leaked. Barroso warned the Bulgarians that, given the seizure of Crimea, the EU might freeze plans to complete a key natural-gas pipeline from Russia through the Black Sea. “We are telling Bulgaria to be very careful,” Barroso said, according to reports in Bulgaria’s press.
There are “people in Bulgaria who are agents of Russia,” Barroso warned, referring to figures in the ruling Socialist party who have been cozying up to the Kremlin and have endorsed the results of the so-called referendum that annexed Crimea to Russia.
Krassen Stanchev, the director of the Institute for Market Economics in Bulgaria, told me that many people in his country have been compromised. Ironically, though, Russians are often the most willing to drop Kremlin-approved notions once they are exposed to outside information. When Stanchev recently hosted a large group of Russian managers for plant tours, he found that several of them adopted different views of the Ukraine crisis after watching Bulgarian TV and hearing the opinions of locals. “You cannot imagine the closed information system that Putin subjects these people to,” Stanchev said. “Only a small number of people access different points of view on the Internet, and now Putin is about to crack down on those.”
Putin has been truly brazen in his methods, which focus on taking whatever accusations are hurled against him and claiming that it’s his critics who are the guilty party. As Time magazine noted last week:
On Thursday, Putin achieved perfect info-warfare symmetry. . . . Amid continued calls for Russia’s army to stand down, the Kremlin released a statement saying that Ukraine is the side that should demobilize forces — from its own territory. Putin “emphasized that it was imperative today to withdraw all military units from the southeastern regions [of Ukraine],” the Kremlin said in a statement.
Putin’s approach puts the Big Lie techniques pioneered by Joseph Goebbels to shame.
As outrageous as the Russian approach has been, it has greatly influenced many Russian speakers in Ukraine. When Lucian Kim of Slate visited Donetsk, he was astonished by his conversations with protesters there. “Most often people mention a law downgrading the status of the Russian language that the interim government tried to pass, but that bill was immediately vetoed by acting President Oleksandr Turchynov,” Kim wrote. “Sometimes they complain that Kiev is using ‘tanks and planes’ against them, yet the army rolled in only once the separatists took up arms. . . . Nobody I’ve met at pro-Russia rallies has described any real threats or instances of repression. Asked what’s motivating them, they invariably turn to stock phrases that have been widely propagated on Russian state television: ‘Kiev junta,’ ‘fascists,’ ‘illegitimate government,’ ‘referendum,’ ‘federalization.’ Follow-up questions rarely yield any enlightening answers.”
Vladimir Putin is on his way to becoming one of the most successful authoritarian leaders of the postwar period. His sham democracy leaves just enough freedom for dissidents and the media so that he can take on the appearance of legitimacy. In parliament, most members of the political opposition are handpicked by him and seldom oppose him on any serious matter.
On one level, the West understood all this for years, even as we ignored it. But it’s time for us to wake up to the fact that Putin is trying to export his model of soft repression and Orwellian propaganda methods. He will use gas-soaked cash to buy friends or thugs to crash his adversaries in other countries and achieve his goals.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist at National Review Online.