Opinion: The only way to defeat Putin

Vladimir Putin and John Kerry

This tilting at windmills was labeled an ‘information war’ and filled the public space with loud militant drumming. Russia’s funeral ceremony has been going on for several years now – the colourful funeral procession has its political coffin, economic pit, expert farewell speeches, but is still awaiting its promised deceased.

Popular media and specialized journals are teeming with stories with the same bottom line, perfectly illustrated by one particular headline in Foreign Affairs journal a year ago: ‘Goodbye, Putin. Why the President’s Days are Numbered’. Oh, numbered again? Huh, lucky us!

Numerous prophets had claimed that Putin’s days were numbered during his first two terms. Others used to actively bury Putin’s regime during Dmitry Medvedev’s reign. The largest outburst of these death prophecies was witnessed over the last couple of years.

But all of this talk of ‘numbered days’ flashed briefly like shamanic incantations and quickly fizzled out, while Putin’s government flourished without any hassle. Well, the slave’s troubles do not matter in a country of slaves and masters – this is how Russia was labeled almost 200 years ago by the literary genius Alexander Pushkin.

For more than a decade, these voodoo gurus were considering only two alternatives – the liberalization of the current Russian regime or its quick and inevitable collapse (which is not happening). So it’s probably about time to admit that the Kremlin is immune to these voodoo rituals. Putin’s established model was and still is quite sustainable and will probably live on incarnated in some avatar of Vladimir Vladimirovich – not necessarily very smoothly, probably with some overturns, but definitely following in the footsteps of Putinism, sovietism, empire and the Golden Horde.

By the way, Putin has been running the state for almost as long as Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile – and Putin’s prospects for survival look much more promising than, say, Pinochet’s in 1989. His popularity in Russia is immense, and his government structure looks stable. Critical barking turned out to be a flop, while liberal opposition in the current regime is merely utopian (as there are actually less democrats and liberals than gays and lesbians).

So if someone somehow has the idea that Putin’s regime is failing, try to answer a simple question – what characterizes such regimes as successful? If enthusiastic speeches about the ‘numbered days’ merely express a banal thought that everything in life comes to an end, then what are we talking about? Should we seriously nod our heads to ridiculous ‘predictions’ stating that Tuesday will come after Monday?

Some say that such voodoo predictions are still vital because the best alleged way to beat the Kremlin’s propaganda is to start a propaganda machine of our own. And some people get so carried away with this propaganda that they miss the line between political analysis and mystification. Even people whose professional obligation is to seek out the truth start telling tales as if they were unbiased and reasoned analysis. Moreover, these people are fueled by the most sincere educational principles, or so they think.

In light of today’s information war, this propaganda story about Russia is, unfortunately, making us weaker, not stronger. As Jacques Ellul (a famous researcher of propaganda phenomenon) said, propaganda by its definition has to be effective. ‘Ineffective propaganda is not propaganda at all’, – he stated. In turn, the propagandist efforts in Lithuania (say, pricking these voodoo dolls) are exactly that – ineffective.

This is primarily because these efforts are merely shouting among insiders. But insiders don’t even need to be convinced or converted to the ‘true religion’ because they already share the same beliefs – or at least don’t oppose them. Other insiders can even be put off by such shouting, much like a swaying Hare Krishna procession moving on the same narrow pavement and in the same direction as you.

Meanwhile, across the street, the target of this information war will quietly enjoy the images and lies spread by the Pervyj Baltijskij channel. He doesn’t care what you broadcast via your channels or what speeches you deliver when all of the listeners are basically those who share the same views.

But that’s not all. As Ellul clearly states in his classic piece ‘Propaganda. The Formation of Men‘s Attitudes’, propaganda and democracy are essentially two opposing forces. This does not mean that democratic countries do not employ propaganda. Rather, it means that propaganda weakens democracy.

Though there are various different methods for propaganda, they all have one thing in common. Ellul reminds us of Goebbels’s quotation: ‘We speak not to share information, but to achieve a certain effect’. In other words, ideas and words can encourage actions and bring the result closer. In this respect, truth is only a matter of taste, while thinking and public space have to serve political effectiveness. The end justifies the means.

The propagandists behind the so-called information war will hardly admit that they wish this road for Lithuania and its Western allies, And it’s ridiculous to think that childish cheers of ‘Putler est kaput!’ will increase the resistance to Russia’s political myths, influence and diseases in a country like Lithuania – a democratic and liberal state driven by the critical principles of the Enlightenment Age.

Nevertheless, political myth should not be equated to political propaganda – at least according to Ellul’s interpretation. Any political community is consolidated by specific political mythology. Without political myth it is doomed to disintegrate. After all, patriotism primarily derives not from the rational part of a country’s life or legal regulations. For a majority of citizens, even the perception of superiority in terms of political regime is merely an obscure belief rather than a reasoned awareness that is pondered on a daily basis.

Democratic states without political mythology would probably have as much identity and vitality issues as non-democratic ones. They also created inspiring myths. The famous speech at Pericles’ funeral was the first example of democratic political myth. Athens’s policy was neither fair nor wise, contrary to what Thucydides was trying to convey in his speech. In reality, everything was far more complicated. However, the story of Athens’s democratic imperial greatness inspired the first citizens of the free world to build and fight, and this myth is so inseparable from the whole foundation of Western civilization that no one questioned its relation to reality at the time.

Political myth doesn’t only beautify things. It doesn’t just provide a foundation for political life or encourage belief in what you see when you close your eyes. On the contrary – it can make us open our eyes, take off our rose-tinted glasses and see the true face of evil behind a rational political theory, such as Marxism-Leninism.

This is how Tolkien’s mythical Mordor showed the Soviets’ political and moral essence, which was always coated in pink glaze both by Western leftist intellectuals (sponsored by the Kremlin) and their colleagues and fans who didn’t get paid for living lives as useful idiots. The myth of Sauron and the Western fight with the rising Eastern evil was more realistic than the gibberish of leftist liberals about the alleged social progress and fight for peace in the USSR which was supposedly being slandered by Western imperialists.

Ronald Reagan’s famous quote about the USSR being an evil empire was also a part of a political myth. But it encouraged us not to close our eyes and imagine a drawing from a comic strip, but to open them to what the rational minds of Western liberals could not accept and admit. Their minds kept repeating that “it’s never black and white in politics“.

For more than a decade, many people in the West tried to portray Putin’s Russia as an ally of NATO and the West and that it would move towards modernization and democratization. These thoughts were based on rational pleas. Russia should even join NATO within ten years – this was a prediction made by one of the most famous US political scientists in a book five years ago. Lithuanians who opposed such predictions were called ‘russophobes’ and victims of a mythologized mindset.

When Russia started the aggression in Ukraine, one famous US diplomat said, during a private conversation, that Lithuania is really vulnerable but should not complain because it’s its own fault – the Conservative government had reduced budget allocations for national defense. I remember thinking that a guilty Kubilius in Lithuania is better than an innocent Obama in the White House. But all I said out loud was that it is tough for such a small and poor NATO country to convince its society to pay more for defense while the biggest NATO allies do the opposite and keep repeating that it’s silly to fear Russia, which is still seen as NATO’s friend and partner despite the war in Georgia.
Here is a typical text in Lithuanian media in 2010: ‘NATO’s primary goal in terms of relations with Russia is practical development of strategic partnership. It was said by NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Wednesday during a meeting with world media representatives. When asked about the fear of Russia demonstrated by some of the Eastern European NATO members, Rasmussen stressed that ‘all NATO members recognize the necessity to strengthen partnership with Russia’. According to him, such an approach helps enhance common security.’

Just listen to this thought: ‘Such an approach helps enhance common security’. Completely out of touch with reality! Is this really the result of a professional analysis? Well, only if we admit that NATO (primarily the US) lost its former ability to collect reliable information and make adequate conclusions about Russia’s classified actions and intentions. So the urge to declare that partnership with Russia increases security was either a mistake or a partial truth hiding another – unpleasant – truth. The latter just falls into the definition of propaganda.

Let’s not forget: this was only two years after Russia had brutally violated Georgia’s sovereignty. The more you think about it, the clearer it bcomes that this ‘myth’ draws a misleadingly optimistic picture intended for the Western audience. Russia, on the other hand, sees this as a chance to win – to draw closer to its desired goal, influence the Western mindset, and foist the image that Russia is a friendly and modernizing state and the West is sometimes even submissive to it, demonstrably castrating its military potential and speaking of about ‘business as usual’. We get the picture of Mother Moscow – calm and satisfied, listening to the slogan ‘make love, not war’.

Maybe this image would suit America if the White House and Pentagon were occupied by hippies carrying weed and accompanied by half a dozen half-naked chicks, a couple of Kerouac books and, of course, colourful balloons and condoms inflated with freedom-flavoured air.
But the truth is that NATO and Washington could only use this partnership tale as a diplomatic cliché, while Russia would get all of the actual political benefit. And, as Ellul would say, a story that has a desired political effect can be categorized as propaganda.

For many years, we observed an amazing view – high-level officials from NATO and US thrilled about partnership and friendship with Russia, which the Western media covered with great pleasure. In the meantime, US and EU societies listened curiously and made certain conclusions. Russia is no longer a threat? Okay, so why do we need such a large and expensive army? And why are Eastern Europeans talking such nonsense about Russia’s alleged imperialism? Step by step, these Russian-friendly propagandist attitudes took root in the West and attracted huge crowds of RT viewers to TV screens.

I will keep saying that a large part of what we call Russian propaganda is injected into Western societies by their own politicians and media. All it took for the Kremlin was to create a few attractive pictures, stories and heroes, and then push this snowball towards the West. Not surprisingly, the U.S. and Europe were pressed underneath the propaganda avalanche that buried people’s common sense, political wisdom and critical thinking.

And now it’s time to get back to where we started – to that voodoo doll with the painfully familiar tiny eyes of a security agent and botox around the mouth that prevents the material from wrinkling.
Let’s get back to evaluations of Putin’s regime – it’s often stated that it is vulnerable and about to collapse, while democracy and freedom – or at least something remotely similar – will definitely win and make us all very happy.

All of these words and images about Putin are merely the tale of a bad boy tolerated by the Kremlin. A bad boy whose days are numbered, who keeps making mistakes, is isolated, ugly, crazy, full of botox, and hated even by Australian koalas. Because it’s not your average bad boy who was elected the person of the year by TIME magazine, who is seen as a real political macho in the West, who wasn’t afraid to challenge America, who works on achieving his goals to ‘bring back’ Russia’s ‘historic territories’, and who has his own specific view of the world order. In short, many people in the West see Putin as a real-life Hollywood hero – with his own weaknesses, exaggerations, and peculiarities – who is generally a cool guy who is just doing his job, as it is so popular to say in the movies.

So the first unpleasant conclusion for Putin’s fiercest opponents is that his image is not very bad in the West, not to mention Russia itself. The second conclusion is even more unpleasant – we will have to work with Russia for a very long time, even after Putin is no longer in charge. Russia will remain aggressive, will not meet the modern West’s standards, and will constantly challenge Western values and maintain its military and political influence – even during periods of low oil prices. And this is the Russia that we’ll have to deal with (even after Putin’s reign). The power games and geopolitical strategies will continue, no matter how much the pacifist EU hates brute force, geopolitics and Machiavellian thought.

The dreamers in Lithuania and other countries have to understand once and for all: Russia will not become a rainbow-colored democratic state with exceptional human rights anytime soon. Maybe someday, but it’s a long way off. All we can possibly see will be a short transition period reminiscent of Kerensky’s turmoil in 1997 or Yeltsin’s in 1993. The majority of Russia’s current political elite and even society understands this truth, so they make the appropriate conclusions. They are not even trying to create a revolutionary utopia.

Russia will remain as it is today and was for the last couple of centuries: the Putinist, soviet, imperial and tsarist successor of the Golden Horde. And no voodoo rituals will change this situation. Russia will still be a nation of slaves and masters, as Pushkin said, where low oil prices and the results of Western sanctions mostly concern the slaves, not their masters. But they will suffer and blame America, not their masters. Maybe they’re not as tolerant as North Korean slaves, but trust me – pasta, vodka and a TV set will be enough for most of them.

Of course, there is a hypothetical scenario that economic difficulties will fuel Russia’s conversion to Western democracy. The economic factor is indeed important, but it’s not a game-changer. Most people believe in the popular tale that the Soviet Union was brought down by low oil prices. They are completely wrong, but this article is not about that.

The main conclusion of this article is that many politicians, analysts and journalists are wrong to think that they are successfully waging an information war against Russia by constantly mocking Putin and his regime. They are wrong to think that the more they mock Russia and praise Merkel or Obama, the closer the West’s victory and triumph become. Such wishful thinking can be very costly.

Instead of consoling and encouraging themselves with the chatter that we call an information war, we must urgently change our political behavior and mindset. There are two immediate steps that have to be taken. First of all – increase Europe’s financial contribution to NATO to reach America’s level (not three times lower). Secondly – we should not turn the other cheek to Russia’s cynical foreign policy, but rather resist it with our own deep values and ruthless policy when it comes to enemies. If they only understand the language of brutality, we need to speak it.

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