Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Putin's Propaganda Blunder

I am a known Putin admirer, and on the discussion boards I have been accused of being his bot and/or his bootlicker. Well, let them say what they will. I like Vladimir Vladimirovch when he is smart and down-to-brass-tacks which is most of the time. I don't like the stupid, manipulative banter in politics which is what is currently being served in the West twenty-four seven. Putin is a welcome relief from that.  He talks common sense and that is why he comes across loud and clear - across languages (though I still have some Russian). On the other hand, while I admire the Russian president,  I don't idolize him. He is human and makes mistakes like all of us.  I hope he will not make another mistake of the sort he made last month. 

         Masha Gessen is one of the Moscow journalists who was not killed or maimed for being critical of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, even though she was a lesbian activist in Moscow and spread the most ridiculous tale about his corruption, an alleged selfie called Putin Black Sea Palace.  But a miracle happened. When she was sacked by a popular  magazine for ignoring one of  Putin's public relations stunts, she received a personal call from him with an invitation to visit him in the Kremlin. What transpired during her interview with the Russian president is certainly worth the read. That Masha has a hostile animus toward Vladimir Vladimovich I think is obvious. Other than the late Zbig Brzezinski, I can't think of anyone who would describe Putin as shallow, self-involved, not terribly perceptive, and apparently very poorly informed.  Strangely, or perhaps not, from what I have seen, this would be how I would describe Masha Gessen, who has since moved to the U.S. and milks her Putin envy and Kremlin twenty-minute expertise for all it is worthDo not get me wrong; I am not saying that Masha is not bright - she is - but like some women on the public scene she suffers from the Hillary Complex, that is, a hopelessly exaggerated view of her own importance and abilities. If she really knew Putin's habits she would have known he comes always prepared for interviews and certainly knew everything that mattered about her and the effect the encounter would have on the perception of him when it gets out. So, Masha, you were played.

        I never thought I would agree with anything that Masha Gessen had to say about Vladimir Putin. But, we live in a strange world where strange things happen. So I do agree with her that the president wants to wage a rhetorical war with the U.S. without too many coffins. Naturally, I don't mean it as an exercise laced in Schadenfreude, and I certainly would not use the word coffin in the punchline.  It's a way too morbid way to make the point even if you are Alexei Balabanov and you have a scary tale to tell about a Russian soul warped by murderous Soviet authoritarianism. (His 2007 horror movie used a Soviet-era euphemism for a military coffin - "Cargo 200").  Nor do I see Putin as someone who wants to engage in war propaganda to collect brownie points on the nasty Russian right, to wit, among the village butchers and pub brawlers, where, Gessen apparently believes, lie Putin's natural political affinities. All that aside, her bottom point is valid. Putin has unadvisedly engaged in goading the West as a way to compensate perhaps for what Russia can deliver on the battlefield at the present time. I am speaking above all about the annual address to the Federal Assembly, he delivered on March 1st of this year.  This must be the strangest speech Vladimir Putin has ever delivered, or the strangest one I ever heard, at any rate. 

       I was aghast: I could not for the world of me understand why a leader of a nuclear superpower but a second-tier economy harassed for years by barrages of sanctions from the West would want to parade in public an array of new super-sophisticated offensive weapons. Who really needs to know this - if it is real ?  And, pardon me for being captain Obvious here, would not this be feeding into a known Putin stereotype ? Or say, give credence to the view that Russia is an "existential threat to the U.S."?  Hello?  And Putin would not just talk about the weapons systems but actually show clips of how these monstrous killers "against which there the West has no defense" work in animated simulation on a giant screen behind his rostrum.  The show had a distinct air of unreality. The introduction of each of the new weapons (and the ICBM known in the West as "Satan") was greeted by a loud applause in the audience. There was a cluster of nuclear vehicles descending on Florida (hmmm....) and cruise missiles deftly zigzagging around the U.S. defense system. Even Putin's closing punch line: "they did not want to listen to us before, but they will have to listen to us now" was a truly foolhardy optimism. All it did is recall the naïve Soviet propaganda faithfully tracking the progress of time to the inevitable final victory of communism in the world. These weapons are not a bluff, assured Putin his mesmerized audience, as though his saying he was not bluffing, assured also everyone  he was not misleading his audience about the state of readiness of these systems in the aggregate.   

      The most disconcerting aspect of Putin's speech was that, he, the former high-ranking intelligence officer and experienced statesman evidently did not take into account the most likely response in the West to his message. He should have known that the speech would be dismissed as, one, a way to bolster his domestic support among the pessimistic sort of patriots and the wilder, too-soft-on-the-West yahoos on the eve of election to get them to show up to vote, two, an unrealistic appraisal of the new weapons' system readiness, and three, and most importantly, as "threats" to the security of the West. I simply refuse to believe that the Russian president believed his low-budget large-screen demo would bring the West to the negotiating table.  And indeed, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu immediately denounced the speech as "bellicose" and "unprovoked", and repeated the ridiculous lie that the Polish and Rumanian ABM batteries are designed to protect against "ballistic missiles from outside of the Euro-Atlantic area", meaning Iran. The Russians have long known that these so-called defensive systems are in fact easily convertible to an offensive platform and their target is Russia and no-one else. 

     Worse still, within few days of the speech Britain cooked up the Skripal sorry saga in Salisbury and another chemical attack false flag in Douma. Russia's intelligence got wind of the latter, and threatened a vigorous response through the Chief of General Staff general Gerasimov in case a fake chemical assault should prompt a military response from the West. It is hard to run away from the impression that the missile attack on Syria, and pretty much everything else that has followed in Russia's relations with the West in the weeks since the address of the Russian president to the Duma, directly relates to the speech, and its implied threat that frankly resembled more a drunken sailor's bragging than the smart and indomitable Putin we have come to know and rely on.

     In several of my discussions on the Web I have been challenged for my perception that Putin meant to "threaten" the West. Naturally, it is in the eye of the beholder, and there though I consider myself Russia's friend, I am a Westerner. I grew up in Prague and have my own perception of the Russians lack of insight in grasping their own aggressive impulses. It was registered by professor T.G.Masaryk (later the first president of Czechoslovakia) who went to Yasnaya Polyana and reported later that Leo Tolstoy, the great apostle of peace and non-violence, regularly slapped his servants around silly. On the same subject, we even had a joke about a Soviet advisor in Africa who "solved" a problem in deciding whether a prisoner of his client army was a dangerous spy. He asked the prisoner to slap his face. The prisoner did and the advisor shot him dead. When the clients asked him why he shot the prisoner he said: 'bezopasnostj prezhde vsevo' (security above all!). They were perplexed: 'no, what we meant to ask is why you asked him to slap your face before shooting him?'  He replied: 'tovarishchi, my nikogda agressory'. (Comrades, we are never agressors!)  I recalled the old chestnut when I read about Nikki Haley's recent posturing: Russia will never be our friend. We'll slap them when we need to. Of course that speaks of a different problem, but by all means, let us stay away these slap fests. They do not add any value.

Staging propaganda events is perhaps necessary but they should be done intelligently. The March 1 speech was far from smart propaganda, unlike, say, inviting Masha Gessen to Kremlin for a tea and a friendly tête-à-tête. Putin was threatening and the sooner he realizes he made a mistake and paid for it by being taken down a peg or two in his international stature, and having Russia's economy further damaged, the better for all of us.

No comments: