Reviews | Putin now seems to believe in conspiracy theories

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is driven by conspiracy theories.

For two decades, journalists and officials, together with the Kremlin, have been blithely spreading misinformation. As far-fetched or fanciful – that the CIA was plotting to oust Mr. Putin from power, for example – these stories had an obvious purpose: to strengthen the regime and secure public support for its actions. Regardless of the personal opinions of members of the political establishment, it seemed clear that theories played no role in political calculations. These were stories designed to make sense of what the regime, for its own ends, was doing.

No more. Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine two months ago, the gap between conspiracy theory and state policy has narrowed to a vanishing point. Conspiratorial thinking has gripped the whole country, from top to bottom, and now seems to be driving Kremlin decisions. And Mr Putin – who previously kept his distance from conspiracy theories, leaving their dissemination to state media and second-tier politicians – is its main promoter.

It’s impossible to know what’s on Mr. Putin’s head, of course. But judging by his belligerent and impassioned speeches before the invasion and since, he can believe the conspiracy theories he repeats. Here are five of the most widespread theories the president has endorsed, with growing fervor, over the past decade. Together they tell the story of a regime that is disintegrating in a quagmire of misinformation, paranoia and lies, at a terrible cost to Ukraine and the rest of the world.

In 2007, at his annual national press conference, Mr. Putin was asked strange question. What did he think of former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s comment that Russia’s natural wealth should be redistributed and controlled by America? Mr Putin replied that such ideas were shared by “some politicians”, but he was unaware of the remark.

This is because it was entirely made up. Journalists from Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a state-owned newspaper, had made up the quote on the grounds that Russian intelligence was able to read Ms. Albright’s mind. For years, there seemed to be no mention of it. Then in 2015, the Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, Nikolai Patrushev, repeated it. He reports serenely that she had said that Russia should not control Siberia or its Far East – and that was why America was involved in Ukraine, where Russia was busy fomenting conflict in the eastern part of the country. At the time, it was as if Mr. Putin’s colleague had lost track.

But in May 2021, Mr Putin showed that the theory had not been forgotten. Everyone, the the president said, “wants to bite us or bite off a piece of Russia” because “it is unfair that Russia alone possesses the riches of a region like Siberia”. A made-up quote had become “fact,” legitimizing Mr. Putin’s increasingly hostile approach to the West.

NATO is Mr. Putin’s worst nightmare: its military operations in Serbia, Iraq and Libya have sown fears that Russia could be the next target of the military alliance. He’s also a handy boogeyman who drives the anti-Western element of Mr. Putin’s electorate. In its rhetoric, NATO is synonymous with the United States, the military hand of “the collective westwhich will suffocate Russia whenever it becomes weak.

So it makes sense that NATO is the subject of some of the regime’s most persistent conspiracy theories, which see the organization’s hand behind popular uprisings around the world. Since 2014, they have focused on Ukraine. Since the Maidan revolution in Ukraine that year, in which the Ukrainians forced the ousting of Russia’s friend Viktor Yanukovych, Mr Putin and his subordinates have propagated the idea that Ukraine was turning into a puppet state under the control of the United States. In a long try published in July 2021, Mr. Putin fully expressed this theory, saying that Ukraine was completely controlled by the West and that NATO was militarizing the country.

His speech on the 21st of February, a few days before the invasion, confirmed that NATO activities in Ukraine – dragging the country into the orbit of the West – were, for Mr Putin, the main reason for the aggression of the Russia. Basically, NATO was what divided the Russians and the Ukrainians, who otherwise, according to him, were one people. It is Western military activity that has turned Ukraine anti-Russian, harboring enemies aiming for Russian humiliation.

NATO and the West are not only threatening Russia externally. They also cause problems indoors. Since at least 2004, Mr. Putin has been wary of domestic opposition, fearing a Ukrainian-style revolution. Fortress Russia, forever undermined by foreign enemies, has become a feature of Kremlin propaganda. But it was the Maidan revolution that caused a confluence in the Kremlin’s messages: not only were dissidents sowing discord in Russia, but they were also doing so under orders from the West. The goal was to turn Russia into a mess like Ukraine.

In this line of thinking, opposition forces were a fifth column infiltrating the otherwise pure homeland – and this led to the stigmatization of activists, journalists and organizations as foreign agents. Although Mr Putin could never bring himself to utter the name of his fiercest critic, Alexei Navalny, Mr Putin said Mr Navalny was a CIA officer whose investigative work used “materials from the United States special services.” Even the poisoning of Mr. Navalny in August 2020 was, according to the president, a terrain perpetrated to blacken Mr. Putin’s reputation.

The elimination of domestic opposition – ruthlessly undertaken by the Kremlin in recent years – can now be seen as a precondition for invading Ukraine. Since the start of the war, the last vestiges of independent media have been shut down and hundreds of thousands of people have fled Russia. Any criticism of the war can land Russians in prison for 15 years and earn them the title of traitor, working nefariously in the service of Russia’s Western enemies. In a sign that dissent’s association with foreign enemies is now complete, Mr Putin’s supporters have taken the initiative mark the doors opposition activists.

This claim – clearly illustrated by Mr Putin’s statement that in the West “children can play five or six gender roles”, threatening Russia’s “hard core” – has been brewing for a decade. A 2012 criminal case against Pussy Riot, an anarchic punk band critical of the regime, was the tipping point. The Kremlin sought to portray the group and its supporters as a collection of sexually subversive provocateurs whose aim was to destroy the Russian Orthodox Church and traditional values. Complaints have spread to foreign non-governmental organizations and LGBTQ activists, accused of corrupting Russians from a young age. Soon, anti-LGBTQ alarmism became a major part of Kremlin policy.

It has been remarkably effective: In 2020, a fifth of Russians surveyed said they wanted to “eliminate” lesbians and gays from Russian society. They were responding to a propaganda campaign, run by state media, claiming that LGBTQ rights were a Western invention, with the potential to shatter Russian social stability. Mr Putin, in unveiling his party’s manifesto ahead of the 2021 parliamentary elections, went a step further – saying that when Westerners weren’t trying to abolish the concept of gender altogether, they were allowing teachers to schools to decide the fate of a child. sex, regardless of the will of the parents. It was, he says, a crime against humanity.

Western progressive attitudes toward sexual diversity ended up playing a role in Ukraine’s war effort. In March, Patriarch Cyril, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, claimed the invasion was necessary to protect Russian-speakers in Ukraine from a West that insists that anyone participating in its Club of Nations stage a gay pride march. Alleged predations of LGBTQ rights had to be fought with just force.

The most recent of the Kremlin’s major hoaxes, this conspiracy theory has flourished since the start of the war – although it echoes Mr Putin’s words in 2017, when he Western experts accused to collect biological material from Russians for scientific experiments.

During the second week of the war, pro-regime bloggers and then high-ranking politicians, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, claimed that Russian intelligence had obtained evidence that America and the Ukraine were developing biological weapons – in the form of sick bats and birds – to spread viruses in Russia. The Ministry of Defense suggested that it had unearthed documents who confirmed the collaboration.

To add ballast to the claim, state media repeated a remark made by Tucker-Carlson, a Fox News host, that the White House was involved in biological warfare against Russia in Ukraine. There was, of course, no credible evidence for anything like that. But the story spread across Russia, and the Kremlin even called a UN Security Council meeting to discuss. After all, Biden hunter probably funded it.

These five conspiracy theories, and many more, have found their way into wartime Russia. They are used to justify the war in Ukraine, both by ordinary citizens and by the Kremlin. Moreover, conspiracy theories have become a means of dismissing the mounting evidence of Russian atrocities – which are instead presented as foreign shenanigans. Bucha’s crimes, for example, were immediately blamed on Ukrainians, who apparently staged the photos or killed innocent people to create the Russian military. Hollywood, meanwhile, would work hard to produce mass poisoning scenes to further discredit Russia. The CIA weaves its web.

From word battles on talk shows and online, conspiracy theories have effectively turned into a weapon that kills real people. It’s quite scary. But the most frightening thing is that Mr. Putin, waging war without restraint, seems to believe them.

Ilya Yablokov (@ilya_yablokov) is a lecturer in journalism and digital media at the University of Sheffield in England, author of “Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet World” and co-author of “Russia Today and Conspiracy Theories: People, Power, Policy on RT.

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