On Monday, a bombing raid on a humanitarian aid convoy in Syria killed 20 people, in a sustained and brutal bombardment that strained the recent cease-fire agreement to breaking point and beyond. The US blamed Russia or Syria. A Russian government spokesman countered that there were “no signs that any munitions hit the convoy” and that video footage taken by “the so-called activists” merely showed the cargo catching fire – which “began in a strange way”.
In sport, meanwhile, Olympic athletes including Bradley Wiggins faced fresh questions over injections received to treat conditions such as asthma or hay fever, obtained under official “therapeutic use exemptions”. The data was leaked by a hacking outfit calling itself the “Fancy Bears”. The group has been accused of having strong ties to Russia’s intelligence apparatus.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about “post-truth politics” – the idea that the fragmentation of the media and distrust of elites have fused to the point where no one can be held account for anything, where one person’s narrative is as good as anyone else’s. It’s most usually been used in the context of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, which has demonstrated a flagrant and sustained disregard for factual accuracy – to the point where, according to PolitiFact, only 4 per cent of the claims that come out of the candidate’s mouth are verifiably true. But the same point was made (not least by me) in the context of the Brexit battle, too.
Yet by any standard, the absolute king of post-truth politics has to be Vladimir Putin. Whole books have been written about the scale and success of his propaganda machine. There are entire networks – the cable channel RT, the “alternative news” service Sputnik, the news agency Interfax – that are devoted not so much to putting forward the Russian point of view as to pumping out chaff: throwing up enough smoke and confusion that the truth becomes hard to make out.
We can see this pattern again and again. Are Russian soldiers – the famous “little green men” – operating in eastern Ukraine, seeking to undermine and destabilise the very country Putin already stole Crimea from? Yes, says the world. No, says Russia. Did Russian agents hack the Democratic Party’s email system? Yes, says the FBI. No, says Russia – although whoever did do so deserves a great big pat on the back.
Did Russia engage in a massive, state-run drugging programme to bump itself up the Olympic medal tables? Yes, say the experts. No, says Russia – and even if we did, look at all those juicy TUEs used by Wiggins and Froome. In Syria, is Russia bombing Isis terrorists or propping up its client Bashar al-Assad by targeting his more moderate opponents? The former, claims Putin. The latter, claims the evidence. Did Putin’s United Russia party rig the recent elections? No, says Russia’s election watchdog. Um, probably, say neutral observers, even though he really didn’t need to.
There are two points to make about this. The first is that it’s not very subtle, or very convincing. But it doesn’t need to be. Russian propaganda isn’t designed to seem true. It’s designed to give people the option of believing it – to introduce just enough doubt that those in the West who believe their own political classes are up to no good can claim, semi-convincingly, that the jury is still out. And the depressing thing is just how little effort it seems to take.
As Edward Lucas, author of ‘The New Cold War’, told me recently, there is an audience for Putin’s propaganda on both right and left: those who consider Putin a strong leader (such as Trump, Nigel Farage or Diana James of UKIP), or who have a lingering fondness for Russia’s communist past (such as Jeremy Corbyn or his adviser Seumas Milne). But there’s also what Lucas calls “the greedy middle” – those businessmen and politicians, many of them in Europe, who want relations with Russia to get back to normal either for the sake of a quiet life, or for reasons of personal or national profit.
Consider, for example, the shameful reaction of the International Olympic Committee to Russia’s doping offences. Having failed to ban Russia from the Games (the ban was merely on Russian athletes, under the auspices of the IAAF), they now intend to punish WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency) – allegedly for not catching Russia sooner, but in reality for having the temerity to derail the gravy train. Similarly, there is as yet no serious movement for Russia to be stripped of the 2018 World Cup – despite it having merrily violated every conceivable sporting, diplomatic and political norm.
Which brings me to the second point about Russia’s propaganda: that its victims are not just those in Ukraine, or Syria, who suffer from its actions, but its own people. For all the election-rigging allegations, Putin is demonstrably an incredibly popular figure in his home country – but he is also one who has delivered corruption and stagnation.
Building a prosperous economy relies, in large part, on facts – on clarity about what the laws are, what the regulatory environment is, what the broader economic climate is like. In Russia, there is none of this. What the regime offers is not GDP growth and prudent management of the national finances (themselves almost wholly dependent on an oil price whose recent collapse has taken Russia’s fiscal stability with it). It offers a vision of national greatness, personified by Putin himself. And where it does admit that things have gone wrong, it places the blame squarely on external enemies.
Russia has, according to the latest estimates, lost almost a decade of growth. Its economy in 2016 is only 1 per cent larger than in 2008 (Britain’s, by contrast, is now 7 per cent bigger than before the financial crisis). As with its foreign policy misadventures – the hacking and the drugging, the bombing and the smearing – Russia will seek to throw up chaff, to blame anyone and anything bar the regime itself. But ultimately, the person who has let down Russia’s people, who has cost them the jobs and goods and growth that might have been, is none other than Vladimir Putin himself.