Putin the TV Puppet Master (Image: Zina Saunders)
The new doctrine on information security Vladimir Putin signed this week shows that the Kremlin leader is gearing up for a vastly expanded information war abroad and at home, one that has already brought him enormous benefits by distracting attention from Russia’s fundamental weaknesses and garnering him support for his authoritarian course.
The document represents a dramatic departure from its predecessor adopted in September 2000 which, as Yevgeny Ikhlov points out, now reads like “a proclamation by the opposition” while the new one is informed by “Soviet and chekist paranoia.”
What makes the new document most threatening is not its commitment to the use of information war against the West – that merely codifies what Putin has been doing – rather its treatment of all domestic opposition to the Kremlin leader as the result of the work of unnamed outside agitators who must be blocked and whose “agents” must be destroyed.
This linking of the two opens the way for still more repression within Russia in the name of fighting Western influences on issues like democracy and human rights and for an even more aggressive foreign policy, one that some Russian analysts are saying means that the country is under an attack that points to World War III and must defend itself.
As retired FSB Major General Aleksandr Mikhaylov puts it, war now “will begin not with nuclear strikes but above all with information attacks,” attacks Russia is already being subjected to by Western governments and that Putin has shown the way to blocking and turning back against the West.
The reason Putin has chosen to fight an information war in this way is not just because he understands how useful it can be in disordering his opponents abroad and justifying all kinds of repression at home but because, as Moscow commentator Aleksandr Nemets points out, he and his country now find themselves in a weak position on other measures.
In a Kasparov portal commentary, Nemets summarizes his findings that over the last 12 years, Russia has fallen behind the West according to almost all measures, leaving Putin with “ever less space for maneuver” domestically and abroad and prompting him to use propaganda to try to confuse and thus defeat his opponents:
- The US economy is now 14 times as large as the Russian one, and Russia’s economic potential continues to fall.
- Its population is declining, covered only by the influx of migrants, and its demographics is degrading, covered only by the Kremlin’s dishonesty and denial of demographic realities.
- Russia’s military force potential may have improved somewhat in the last few years, but it too has been declining, as evidenced by the increasing number of failures in its rocket launchers and the embarrassing saga of its single aircraft carrier and the loss of planes that it can no longer support.
- “It is [also] easy to draw the conclusion that the military-industrial potential of the Russian Federation is degrading” with much of is productive capacity now out of service, “the number of qualified workers and engineers significantly reduced, and technological discipline falling.”
“In short,” he writes, “whatever happens in ‘the outside world,’ the internal space for maneuver for Putin’s regime is becoming ever smaller. The degradation of the underlying potential in many sectors is unstoppable. How long will it be until the beginning of total chaos and disintegration.”
Some analysts, Nemets points out, suggest that “’everything will end in the course of the year.’” But perhaps, he suggests, it will take two or three. However that may be, “there can be no doubt about its final result” however rosy Putin paints the picture and however brilliantly he makes use of his propaganda war against the West and against domestic opponents.
There is an old saying among American lawyers that when the facts are against you, argue law; when the law is against you, argue facts; and when both are against you, raise your voice. Putin has just declared that he is going to raise his voice, something that will intimidate many at home and abroad but that will do nothing to change the underlying situation.
This is not to minimize what his propaganda war means in either place in the immediate future. Abroad, he will continue to succeed with Western elites who desperately want agreements with him however much he flouts international law and increases his repressions against domestic opponents who already are portrayed as foreign agents who must be destroyed.
But it does suggest that Putin’s bravado and lies should be seen for what they are rather than accepted as a description of reality. Indeed, the Kremlin leader’s only hope is that the West and most Russians will in fact accept this alternative version of reality and give him victories which he does not and must not win.
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