Thursday, January 29, 2015

Why Does the Kremlin, Living in Its Own Alternative Reality, Still Use Spies?

Paul Goble


            Staunton, January 29 – The arrest of three Russian spies in New York has prompted Kseniya Kirillova to ask a question that may have been in the minds of many but that no one had earlier posed directly: why does a government like that of Vladimir Putin which believes in its own propaganda need spies to gather facts that might call that propaganda into question?


            The obvious answers, of course, include Putin’s own origins in the KGB and his belief that nothing is as it seems but is only a mask for the real powers that be and inertia: Russia like many other countries has always spied and thus will continue to spy, however much its leadership is blinded by its own propaganda.


            But as Kirillova points out, her question is not as naïve as it might seem on first blush.  Given that spies are charged with finding information “which could be used for the good of their own country,” what use can they have in a country where propaganda has triumphed over facts? (


            As Kirillova points out, Russia in what must be record time “has been transformed into a country of victorious propaganda,” one in which “any event in this country is considered only from the point of view of how it can be perverted and used for propagandistic goals and where the idea of objective truth was irretrievably lost long ago.”


            It would be one thing if the rulers were  aware that their propaganda was not true, but what is “the most horrific thing” Kirillova suggests is that it appears that in Russia today, Putin and his entourage “believe in their own lies” and are no longer interested in the relationship between reality and what they are doing.


            In support of her contention, Kirillova points to the case of Aleksandr Sytin, an analyst who was forced out of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies (RISI) for questioning that Kremlin think tank’s increasingly Orthodox and imperialist positions about the world (


            Sytin “precisely describes all the misconceptions, stupidities and openly unprofessional calculations of the RISI analysts which led in the final analysis to a series of catastrophic failures in Russian foreign policy,” Kirillova says, and the former RISI staffer says that they were rooted in the nature of the power vertical that Putin had worked so hard to put in place.


            Many have described the way in which Putin’s power vertical has allowed the Russian president to ensure that his decisions will be implemented by all his subordinates, but few before Sytin have pointed to the way in which that same vertical guarantees that he will seldom hear any arguments that challenge his own fixed ideas.


            Those close to the Kremlin leader know what Putin wants to hear and what he doesn’t, and they will promote the former and freeze out the latter, thus intentionally or not reinforcing any mistaken views he has by ensuring that he is not presented with any information that might call his views into question.


            From one perspective, of course, that is a risk in all bureaucratic hierarchies: many rise because they figure out quickly what those above them want to hear; but when it becomes as widespread and ramified as Sytin suggests it is in Putin’s Russia, that absence of the feedback of facts can become a serious even fatal problem.


            Russian spies like those arrested in New York may be gathering information that could challenge the views of the Kremlin leader but those in the hierarchy above them may make sure it never reaches him. Or the situation may have become so serious that the spies are seeking the wrong kind of information, themselves already victims of Putin’s victorious propaganda.


            That makes Kirillova’s question important even if it has at present no certain answer.


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