TIME Foreign Policy

Tit-for-Tat: Putin’s Maddening Propaganda Trick

Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with participants of youth polaris expedition to the Nord Pole on April 22, 2014 in Moscow, Russia

How the Russian leader is driving U.S. officials crazy with his "I know you are but what am I?" technique. How do you negotiate with someone who denies the truth?

By now Vladimir Putin’s flair for propaganda is well known. But as the Ukraine crisis continues to unfold, the former KGB agent’s particular brand of disinformation is coming into clear focus. The method is simple. Whenever he’s accused of something, Putin retorts: That’s what you’re doing, not me.

Start with the original protests in Kiev, against the government of then-President Viktor Yanukovych. While the protesters were a largely middle-class, educated group resisting authoritarian rule, the Kremlin cast them as the real tyrants—”fascists” staging an illegal coup. Even after Yanukovych’s goons and snipers murdered dozens of protesters, pro-Kremlin news outlets like RT depicted the Maidan activists as a group of brutal thugs.

After Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March, Washington said he was violating international law. The Russian leader quickly flipped the accusation, accusing America of breaking international law during military actions in the Balkans, Libya, Iraq and elsewhere. “Our Western partners led by the United States prefer to proceed not from international law, but the law of might in their practical policies,” he snickered.

When pro-Russian militants seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine last month, Washington accused Putin using covert agents to foment the rebellion. Putin not only denies the charge, he says that’s what Washington did by allegedly engineering the original protests in Kiev. Taking the charge a step further, Yanukovych, now living across the border in Russia, charges that when CIA director John Brennan visited Kiev in April, he conveyed orders for Ukraine’s military to attack Russians in the east.

Think you have a deal with Putin? Think again. Two weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry brokered an agreement with Moscow, Kiev and the European Union to make pro-Russian militants leave occupied buildings in eastern Ukraine in exchange for amnesty, among other provisions. Or so he thought. Within hours, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov added a surprise twist, insisting that the deal also required the protesters still camped out in Kiev’s central square to decamp. But that was never part of the agreement, according to the State Department. The deal quickly fell apart.

That leads us to the present moment. The U.S. has called for Putin to withdraw the 40,000 Russian troops now threatening Ukraine along its eastern border. Naturally, Putin is calling the Ukrainians as the warmongers. “They have gone completely mad: bringing in tanks, armoured vehicles… and cannons,” he said in a public appearance last month. “What do they intend to do with cannons? Have they completely gone mad?”

On Thursday, Putin achieved perfect info-warfare symmetry on this point. Amid continued calls for Russia’s army to stand down, the Kremlin released a statement saying that Ukraine is the side that should demobilize forces—from its own territory. Putin “emphasized that it was imperative today to withdraw all military units from the southeastern regions [of Ukraine],” the Kremlin said in a statement.

Putin’s Orwellian style seems to be driving U.S. officials to frustration. Last week, Kerry fumed over the Russian president’s “fantasy” version of reality. Outlets like RT are “devoted to this effort to propagandize and to distort” the truth, he said, adding: “No amount of propaganda will hide the truth,” Kerry declared.

At his Friday press conference with German chancellor Angela Merkel, President Obama groused about Putin’s disinformation. “There has just not been … honesty and credibility about the situation there,” Obama said.

Putin is no doubt unimpressed. Speaking a couple of weeks earlier, he had dismissed complaints among dissidents at home about his control of information.

“Some people believe that whatever they say is the ultimate truth, and there’s no way that things can be any different,” Putin said. “So when they get something in response, it causes a strong emotional reaction.” As always with Putin, the fault lies with someone else.

TIME National Security

Report: Russia Withheld Intelligence on Boston Bombing Suspect

Tamerlan Tsamaev at a boxing event in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2009.
Glenn DePriest—Getty Images Tamerlan Tsamaev at a boxing event in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2009.

An unreleased government report shows Russian authorities didn't tell U.S. officials about an intercepted call between Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his mother about Islamic jihad until after the attack on the Boston Marathon, which might have put him under greater scrutiny

Russia did not share some intelligence that could have subjected one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects to greater scrutiny before the attacks, according to an unreleased government review.

The New York Times, citing unnamed sources, reports that the review claims Russia told the FBI of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s radicalization during a trip to the country but declined to share additional data, including information from an intercepted phone conversation he had with his mother about Islamic Jihad, prior to the attack.

Law enforcement in the U.S. considered Tsarnaev more of a threat to Russia at the time, though it’s unclear the extent to which the additional information could have helped them prevent the attack.

The government report, which also finds some faults in the FBI investigation before the attack, was compiled by the inspector general of the Office of the Intelligence Community, which has oversight over the disparate federal agencies. Congress will be briefed on the report Thursday, and some findings are expected to be released to the public on Tuesday, the attack’s one year anniversary.

Authorities believe the suspected brothers attacked alone in the bombings that killed three people and wounded 264. Tsarnaev was killed evading police days after the attack. His younger brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty to 30 federal charges, some of which carry the death penalty, and his trial is slated to begin in November.


TIME U.S.-Russia Relations

Miley Cyrus Could Be Silenced By Russia Sanctions Flap

Miley Cyrus performs at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, March 18, 2014.
Kathleen Flynn—The Times-Picayune/Landov Miley Cyrus performs at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, March 18, 2014.

Planned concerts by the pop singer and Justin Timberlake in Helsinki could be at risk for cancelation, as concert promoter Live Nation may be forbidden from doing business with a venue owned by Russians blacklisted by the U.S. after the Kremlin annexed Crimea

Miley Cyrus and Justin Timberlake risk having concerts canceled in Finland, after Russian venue owners were sanctioned by the U.S. following the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea.

Concert promoter Live Nation could potentially be blocked from completing any financial transactions with the Hartwall Arena in Helsinki unless it gets permission from the U.S. Treasury, the Guardian reports. The three Russians that each have a stake in the venue were blacklisted by the U.S. government in response to the Kremlin’s annexation of the Crimea.

The blacklisted include Gennady Timchenko, co-founder of the oil trader Guvnor, and two brothers, Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, both businessmen with strong links to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The American singers are due to perform there in May and June. However the legality of their shows depends on whether all the financial transactions involved took place before the sanctions were imposed. Roman Rotenberg, the son of one of the sanctioned trio, hit out at the news.

“Why should the Finnish people suffer? The shows are sold out,” he said.



TIME U.S.-Russia Relations

Obama on Russia: ‘This Is Not Another Cold War’

In a speech in Belgium, President Obama said that the Ukraine crisis is not the start of a global power struggle between the U.S. and Russia. But letting Russia get away with its annexation of Crimea would send a dangerous message to the world

President Barack Obama on Wednesday called on Europe and the U.S. to stand firm against Russia’s annexation of Crimea, warning that a failure to push back against Russia’s “illegal” action would undermine a century of international progress.

Delivering remarks on the U.S.-European relationship at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels on the third day of his international trip, Obama framed the Ukraine crisis as a conflict between self-determination and might. But he rejected the notion that recent events are the beginning of another global struggle.

“This is not another Cold War that we’re entering into,” he said in his 36-minute address. “After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology. The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia. In fact, for more than 60 years we have come together in NATO not to claim other lands but to keep nations free.”

“Russia’s leadership is challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident, that in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force, that international law matters, that people and nations can make their own decisions about their future,” he continued, emphasizing that there is no military solution to the situation in Crimea.

Obama acknowledged that both in Europe and the U.S., many may doubt the impact of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, but cautioned that “casual indifference” would send a dangerous message to the world.

“To be honest, if we define our interests narrowly, if we applied a coldhearted calculus, we might decide to look the other way,” Obama said. “But that kind of casual indifference would ignore the lessons that are written in the cemeteries of this continent.”

Over the course of his foreign trip, Obama has worked to marshal European allies to embrace the prospect of sanctioning the Russian economy if its government doesn’t change course — an action that could cost the global economy as well as Russia. Earlier on Wednesday, Obama and E.U. leaders met to discuss the potential for additional sanctions, with the E.U. pledging to move with the U.S. if Russia further escalates the situation in Ukraine.

Addressing Russia’s comparison of its move on Ukraine with U.S. actions in Iraq, Obama defended the U.S.’s handling of that war, saying that even though he did not support it, it was completely different.

“Even in Iraq, America sought to work within the international system,” Obama said. “We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain. Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people in a fully sovereign Iraqi state that can make decisions about its own future.”

TIME russia

We Don’t Owe Russia More ‘Respect’

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with ministers from the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (Rosfinmonitoring) to discuss the fight against money laundering on March 4, 2014 in Moscow, Russia.
Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with ministers from the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (Rosfinmonitoring) to discuss the fight against money laundering on March 4, 2014 in Moscow.

Contrary to what some believe, we did not "humiliate" Russia after Communism. In fact, America did quite the opposite.

As Russia’s bizarre non-invasion invasion of Ukraine continues to rattle the world, a familiar theme has emerged in some of the commentary: that Western powers, especially the United States, bear at least partial blame for inciting Russian bellicosity by kicking their Cold War foe when it was down. New York University Slavic scholar Stephen F. Cohen, a frequent Russia expert on TV, makes this claim in the left-wing magazine, The Nation; across the Atlantic, he is seconded by conservative Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens. Even some pundits with little sympathy for the Kremlin’s actions, such as the New York Times’s Tom Friedman, claim that reckless U.S. policies, above all NATO’s eastward expansion, helped generate the current crisis.

Did we create a monster by humiliating Russia after the collapse of Communism? Is the answer — as advised by foreign policy “realists,” including anti-interventionist conservatives such as Sen. Rand Paul — to avoid antagonizing the Russian state, treat it with more respect, and recognize its “sphere of influence” in nearby countries? A look at the facts suggests that whatever mistakes the West may have made in the post-Cold War years, Russia’s grievances are less about actual wrongs than about paranoid insecurities and outsized imperial ambitions — a mindset Vladimir Putin harbors himself, but also deftly exploits in the Russian public to shore up his power. And rewarding these attitudes with more “respect” can only take Russia further down a road dangerous to itself and the world.

After the demise of the Soviet empire in 1991, there certainly was a widespread view that the West had won the Cold War. But it was also generally presumed to be a victory over Communism, not Russians — who were widely seen as an oppressed people newly liberated from the totalitarian yoke. In the early 1990s, the United States eagerly embraced Russia’s fledgling democracy, its new status as a partner and ally symbolized by the cordial relationship between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin; Clinton’s first trip abroad as President, in April 1993, included a meeting with Yeltsin in Vancouver.

“Russia wasn’t even treated as an equal partner but as a favored child who was petted and given treats,” the late Elena Bonner, an icon of Soviet-era human rights activism and widow of the great physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, told me a few years ago, discussing an earlier round of laments about Russia’s wrongs at the hands of the West. (Then as now, the chorus of sympathy came in response to a Russian military adventure in a former Soviet republic trying to break away from its “sphere of influence” — Georgia.)

The “treats” were quite meaty: Western aid to Russia from 1992 to 1997 alone totaled $55 billion — not counting private charity and business investment. (In 1995, when the CIA submitted a report to the White House detailing Russian corruption that included aid money being pocketed by high-level officials, Vice President Al Gore reportedly rejected it and sent the document back with a crude epithet scrawled across the cover.) In a move that had more to do with political respect than economic reality, Russia was included in the annual forum for leaders of the world’s top economies — first in an informal “G7+1” arrangement, then, from 1998 onward, as a full member of the G8.

What about the alleged insult and injury of NATO expansion, which is also said to break a promise given to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990? The real story is far more complex. For one, Mark Kramer, director of Harvard’s Cold War Studies Project, make a fairly conclusive case in a 2009 article in The Wilson Quarterly that the non-expansion pledge is a myth (the 1990 negotiations concerned only the military status of the Eastern part of Germany after reunification). Ira L. Straus, founder and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO, has pointed out that when the admission of former Eastern bloc countries to NATO first came up for serious consideration in 1993, it was with a view to more extensive engagement with Russia — and its possible membership in the alliance down the road.

Due to lingering mistrust on both sides, Russia’s leadership often questioned the sincerity of NATO’s inclusive intentions when former Soviet satellites such as Poland were given priority in admission — while the West often interpreted Russia’s opposition to fast-track admission for those countries as blanket opposition to NATO expansion. In fact, both Yeltsin and Putin at different times voiced interest in NATO membership for Russia, and Straus is critical of the West for not being more receptive to these overtures. Nonetheless, his own accounts in a 1997 paper and a lengthy 2003 article leave little doubt that Russian attitudes — suspicion of the West, reluctance to commit to NATO’s strategic agenda, and resentment at being invited to join NATO’s membership plan on the same terms as other countries — were a big part of the problem.

Notably, Russia was included in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994 and in the NATO-Russia Council in 2002; both provided a framework not only for military cooperation (and Western assistance to Russia in such areas as job training for decommissioned officers) but for a NATO obligation to consult Russia about possible threats to its security.

The prospect of Georgia and Ukraine membership in NATO is often said to stoke Russia’s fear of “encirclement” by hostile entities, provoking an understandably aggressive reaction. But fear of what, exactly? In October 2008, not long after the war in Georgia, retired Russian general Vladimir Dvorkin, formerly a top-level arms negotiator, published a fascinating column on the independent Russian website EJ.ru (“The Daily Journal”). Dvorkin pointed out the obvious: given Russia’s nuclear arsenal, a military attack on Russia by NATO forces is unthinkable no matter how many of its neighbors join NATO. The real danger to Russia, he warned, is “civilizational isolation” if it fails to modernize its economy and liberalize its political system and finds itself surrounded by neighbors integrated into the democratic capitalist West.

For Dvorkin, the solution to was to embrace modernization and freedom. Not so for Putin, who is keenly aware of the threat of such “encirclement” — and, crucially, of its effect at home. It is worth recalling that Moscow’s sharp anti-Western, anti-American turn in the mid-2000s came after the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine, where peaceful demonstrations against rigged elections brought down authoritarian pro-Kremlin regimes. It wasn’t just the loss of allies that mattered but the power of example: today the Maidan, tomorrow Red Square.

Putin’s response was to blame these revolutions on American perfidy, with George Soros and George W. Bush implicated in the same conspiracy. In the lingo of the Russian political establishment, “orange” — the color worn by Ukraine’s pro-democracy protesters — acquired the meaning of “foreign-backed subversive” and became a standard epithet to smear the liberal opposition. In 2011-2012, it was widely used as a slur against Russia’s own protesters who turned out to denounce rampant election fraud and Putin’s cynical gambit to return to the presidency after using his obedient “heir” Dmitry Medvedev to get around the constitutional two-term limit.

In his third term, Putin has been more blatant than ever in his use of nationalist and anti-Western rhetoric to prop up an authoritarian kleptocracy. In doing so, he taps into a real sentiment among Russians — 78 percent of whom completely or mostly agree that Russia should reclaim its status as a “great empire.” Yet this sentiment is more nuanced than appears at first glance. The share of those who “completely” support empire restoration has dropped from 59 percent in 1999 to 40 percent in 2011. And, in a 2012 poll, Russians overwhelmingly preferred (by 78 to 22 percent) to see Russia as a country with a comfortable standard of living in which individual well-being is paramount than a great military power in which the prestige of the state comes first. Russians are not inherently anti-liberal or democracy-averse; but when the state controls virtually all of the mass media, it has a great deal of power to cultivate society’s most illiberal attitudes.

Behind those attitudes is the very real national humiliation many Russians felt after the collapse of Communism. But, as Bonner told me in 2008, it was hardly the West’s fault: “Russia humiliated itself. It spent 70-plus years building Communism, and reaped the results.” A wise leadership would help Russia come to terms with this reality. Instead, Putin has worked to channel popular discontent into resentment of the West while promoting pride in the Soviet-era past and using imperial dreams to salve the nation’s bruised ego.

Of course the United States should not seek out confrontation with Russia. But a respectful relationship should not include recognizing Russia’s “right” to bully its former colonies so that it can maintain a zone of friendly “buffer states.” Losing its buffer against democracy could be the best thing to happen to Russia as well as its neighbors.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She is also the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood (Ticknor & Fields, 1989). You can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63.

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