Staunton, March 21 – Vladimir Putin and the world have crossed a dangerous threshold: The Kremlin leader no longer cares whether his lies about Ukraine or anything else are plausible because he sees that both his own subjects and many in the West are prepared to accept whatever he says as one version among many rather than declare that he is lying.
In an interview given to Viktor Ogiyenko of “Novoye vremya,” Liliya Shevtsova, a Russian commentator now at the Brookings Institution, says that “Russia has reached the point when the rhetorical declarations of her leaders do not even pretend” that what they are saying appears to be true (nv.ua/publications/putin-priznal-svoyu-rol-v-anneksii-kryma-potomu-chto-reshil-pereyti-k-bolee-zhestkoy-modeli-sderzhivaniya-zapada-rossiyskiy-politolog-39847.html).
But Putin’s lying points to some deeper truths about where he and his country are at, Shevtsova suggests, and his particular lies must be examined not for their truth value but for what they conceal and also for what they reveal about him and his plans for the future, however unpalatable those may be.
“If one considers any of Putin’s declarations over the past year, they are convincing evidence that [his] words do not have significance,” she says. And anyone who tries to use them directly as the basis for making decisions is fooling himself and uselessly engaging in “a waste of time.”
Instead, Shevtsova says, Putin’s words need to be understood in the context of the situation in which Russia is located today. “Putin has driven himself and Russia into a corner, and to escape from his situation without loss of face is very complicated.” One has the sense that he understands that and is seeking some way, even a false one, to suggest he can.
Viewed from that perspective, she continues, Putin’s declarations about his personal and direct responsibility for the Crimean Anschluss have the following meaning: First of all, Putin is saying that “Ukraine does not have the right to national self-determination and national identity because his basic message was that Russians and Ukrainians are a single people.”
At the same time, however, Putin spoke about the need for “the normalization of inter-state relations,” but his understanding of that is very different from that of normal people speaking honestly. Consequently, this is the latest “smoke screen” which on the one hand doesn’t mean anything but on the other points to something really tragic.
“The Kremlin,” she says, “having been driven into a corner, is attempting to preserve its continuity without knowing how to save face.”
It is too soon to give a definitive answer to why Putin spoke so openly about his role in seizing Crimea, Shevtsova says, but it appears that this represents a turning point “in the Kremlin’s searching for a new myth, a new idea for the consolidation of Russia and a new idea for the legitimation of his power,” one detached from morality and international law.
Over the past year, Shevtsova says, “the Kremlin had attempted to preserve the model of hybridness, that is, neither peace nor war” because that policy allowed the West and international organizations “which did not want a confrontation” a way out, by acting on Putin’s words and not on the reality on the ground.
“To a large extent, the crisis around Ukraine and the hybrid war in Ukraine was the result of the duplicitous nature of the positions and the withering of the line between fiction and reality and between myth and reality,” she says. By his acknowledgement, Putin “returned us from myth to reality.”
In that sense, Putin’s words on this occasion are “positive” because they end the “illusory” situation in which people had been acting. “We now have a complete recognition of the politician of what has really happened. And this forces Westerners, the Russian elite, and the Ukrainian elite to think in a new format.”
Apparently having concluded that the old myths were no longer working, “the Kremlin has decided” to adopt a much tougher line and use nuclear blackmail. The West is finally seeing through the duplicity of “hybrid” war. To be sure, “the West has not been able to find an adequate policy toward Russia, but at the same time, it won’t end sanctions.”
Consequently, Putin’s acknowledgements about Crimea were addressed in the first instance to the West, although they too were duplicitous because the doctrine of mutually assured destruction remains in place. There is no need to put these weapons on that footing; they are already there.
What Putin is saying through his half-truths is that he is searching for a “much harsher mobilization on the basis of confrontation” with a new enemy, something that will justify his actions and in his mind at least his lies as well.