Despite the recent plunge in oil prices, Vladimir Putin is on his way to becoming one of the most successful authoritarian leaders of the modern era. 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.
But it is in his Orwellian propaganda methods where he has really excelled. Whether it’s inventing atrocities by the “fascist” pro-Western government of Ukraine or denying responsibility for the downing of a Malaysian passenger plane, Putin’s use of the media has many Western observers in awe. NATO’s General Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, has called it “the most amazing information war blitzkrieg known in history.”
That’s why a new book by Peter Pomerantsev, a former producer of several Russian TV shows, is a must read. In Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible he lays out just how Putin is buying friends and influencing people in the West. In an excerpt of his book in Politico he recounts a chilling meeting with a top official of RT, the $300 million a year TV news network:
“There is no such thing as objective reporting,” the managing editor of RT, Alexey Nikolov, told me when I interviewed him in 2013. By then, I was based in London again, working in think tanks, and Nikolov met me in his bright, large office at RT’s Moscow HQ. A veteran international reporter, he spoke near perfect English and sat at the top of a very long desk wearing a knowing smile. In the corner was a Kalashnikov, a collector’s item from one of his reporting adventures. “Does it scare you?” he half-joked, when he caught me looking at it.
“But what is a Russian point of view? What does Russia Today stand for?” I asked.
“Oh, there is always a Russian point of view,” he answered. “Take a banana. For someone it’s food. For someone else it’s a weapon. For a racist it’s something to tease a black person with.”
And there you have it: Russia’s opportunistic foreign policy, all wrapped up in a banana metaphor. Thus the Kremlin preaches non-intervention and sovereignty while defending Assad, yet uses the reverse position to justify the invasion of Georgia and annexation of Crimea. Thus it warns against American exceptionalism while claiming that Russia has a special mission to rule over and enlighten its “near abroad.” The Russian point of view is anything the Kremlin wants it to be.
On one level, the West has understood Putin’s malevolence for years, even as we ignored its significance. 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. Oil prices are sure to bounce back someday, and in the meantime he has enough gas-soaked cash to buy friends or thugs to crush his adversaries in other countries and achieve his goals.