20 years under Putin: a timeline

In recent weeks, the Kremlin has staged an elaborate diplomatic circus—from mid-December, when the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published its proposals for a new security architecture in Europe, through mid-January, when they were rejected by representatives of the United States and NATO. The abortive negotiations, however, can be seen as a success for Moscow: the West’s refusal to discuss the Kremlin’s ultimatum helped further propaganda messages at home and prepare TV audiences to accept Vladimir Putin’s next policy moves.


Vladimir Soloviov's late night talk show has been broadcast on the Russian state-own TV network, Rossiya-1, since 2012. Photo: YouTube.


The Situation

At the moment, Russian military troops are literally surrounding Ukraine. Though the Kremlin has suggested that this buildup is merely a response to the NATO threat to Russia, there is no talk in Western capitals of deploying offensive missile systems anywhere near Russia’s borders, no sign that Washington or Brussels is pushing Kyiv to seek a military solution to the Donbass conflict, and no plausible scenario in which Ukraine becomes a member of the North Atlantic alliance anytime soon. And yet, a recent Levada poll found that 50 percent of Russians blame “the USA and NATO countries” for the recent “sharpening of the situation in eastern Ukraine,” with only 4 percent citing Russia as the main culprit. This is likely a direct result of the fact that Russian state media have succeeded in creating a parallel reality—one in which an overwhelming majority of the Kremlin’s constituency has taken up residence.

With a few notable exceptions, mainstream Western journalists have largely gotten right the story of the recent Russian military buildup. British and American outlets were raising the alarm of Russian tank movements in early November 2021, weeks before many officials in the Ukrainian government had publicly acknowledged that any sort of problem might be developing. Biden administration spokespersons, likewise, repeatedly confirmed that unusual movements of Russian military equipment were taking place and lodged several direct requests for the Russian government to explain its intentions. Despite the Kremlin’s insistence that nothing out of the ordinary was underway, when the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published its unrealistic draft treaties in December, the larger Western world—again with a few notable exceptions—understood them for what they were: a ploy put forward with no expectation that they would ever be signed. 

Although the Russian draft treaties contained a handful of clauses that might have been acceptable to all sides—proposals to “not deploy land-based intermediate- and short-range missiles in areas allowing them to reach the territory of the other Parties,” for example—Moscow’s demand that NATO make a legal pledge never to further expand its membership was simply a nonstarter. After meeting with her Russian counterpart in Geneva on January 10, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman remained open to discussing missile defense and reciprocal limits on future military exercises, but she stated categorically that Washington would never agree to “slam the door shut on NATO’s open-door policy.” Then, on January 13, after two more rounds of talks, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov announced that he saw “no reason to negotiate further,” and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seconded that sentiment with his conclusion that “our patience has reached its end.”

Russian state media, at least, were treating the diplomatic process as a sincere effort to reach an agreement, leaving open the possibility that the Kremlin—even if its more extreme demands were not met—might yet opt to declare victory and go home claiming that it had successfully negotiated away the NATO threat. However, now that the Russian side has all but stated its intention to abandon the diplomatic process, it will be no less easy for the Kremlin to convince its domestic audience that Russia is only turning to force as a last resort after having been “provoked” into entering a fight it strenuously sought to avoid.


The Spin

With independent media all but nonexistent, most Russians rely on the state-controlled outlets, primarily television, which produce propaganda of the most dishonest, manipulative, intellectually vapid, and surprisingly effective sort. After over a decade of active propaganda efforts, even the most brazen statements seem to have lost their capacity to shock Russian viewers. They are simply what passes for everyday discourse on any of state TV’s various political talk shows—from 60 Minutes and Evening with Vladimir Solovyov on Rossiya-1, to Time Will Tell on First Channel, to Meeting Point on NTV.

In this popular medium, geopolitical intrigue becomes a Jerry Springer-style spectacle, as the assembled hosts and “experts” effortlessly flip back and forth between mutually contradictory positions. One minute, Ukraine is the European analogue of Afghanistan, an American “ally” soon to be abandoned when the going gets tough; the next minute, Ukraine is transformed into the rapidly militarizing “place d’armes” for NATO’s impending invasion of Russia. One minute, NATO has broken its promises to Kyiv and will never grant the post-Soviet state full membership, proving once and for all that the Western alliance is a paper tiger; the next minute, a few dozen Florida national guardsmen deployed as instructors in Western Ukraine present a clear and present danger to the security of the nuclear-armed Russian state. One minute, neo-Nazi Ukrainian partisans are preparing an American-backed guerilla war against a fictitious potential Russian incursion; the next minute, Ukrainians are a brotherly people who will meet any hypothetical liberating Russian tank crew with bread and salt. One minute, the Kremlin is not issuing any “ultimatums,” but is only respectfully requesting that its reasonable concerns regarding NATO non-expansion are heard out; the next minute, a failure to receive legally binding guarantees that Ukraine will never so much as participate in joint training exercises with any member of the North Atlantic alliance presents a direct physical threat necessitating a “military-technical response.” Consistency of argumentation is not a virtue when the only point to be made is: Russia is right, and anyone who says otherwise is wrong, no matter what the facts may be. 

And it’s not only about Ukraine. Such lively misinformation on a variety of topics has proven to be persuasive to the at-home audience. As a result, despite the existence of physical evidence of Russia’s implication in a number of criminal cases that gained international attention, only 14 percent of Russians, for example, believe that their government participated in an effort to deceive anti-doping watchdogs at the Sochi Olympics; 3 percent blame Russia’s special services for the Novichok poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England; a total of 5 percent hold Russia and/or its proxy forces in the Donbass responsible for the shootdown of passenger flight MH17. Interestingly, 15 percent agree that the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny was “an attempt by those in power to eliminate a political opponent”—a figure almost as high as the 19 percent who believe it was “a provocation by Western intelligence services,” though only half as large as the 30 percent who suspect the whole affair was simply “staged.”

Control over mass media gives the Kremlin’s current occupants incredible leeway to take actions that work directly against the interests of the Russian state and its population. As an example, by almost every measure the Russian intervention in Ukraine since 2014 has been an unmitigated failure: several hundred active duty Russian soldiers were killed in the fighting in August 2014 and January 2015, billions of rubles have been spent propping up the Russian puppet enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk, Western diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions have seen the exchange value of the Russian currency plummet, and within Ukraine itself support for NATO accession has risen from 34 to 54 percent.      

As Russia’s political regime becomes unsustainable, its neighbors that strive to become democracies face a growing threat. What exactly Russia is planning to do in and around Ukraine in the immediate future only one man can say for sure. When Vladimir Putin publishes articles questioning the legitimacy of Ukrainian statehood—when he parrots false narratives of “broken promises” and justifies the potential destruction of a militarily weaker neighbor by appealing to the implausible scenario of future NATO nuclear rocket deployments around Kharkiv—it is not clear if he is just being cynical or has taken up residence in Russian television’s dystopian fantasy world.  

In the real world, there is no rational reason for Russia to invade Ukraine. Yes, by every indication, a full-scale Russian military assault would quickly incapacitate Ukraine’s conventional armed forces, but even if Moscow succeeded in capturing and annexing further Ukrainian territory, the most lucrative “prize” the invading army could hope to gain is a few largely bombed-out cities populated by millions of openly hostile new subjects. A more limited “raiding” strategy from the Russian side would alleviate the need for the aggressor to pay for the cleanup of the mess it just made, but even a hit-and-run foreign adventure would still be sure to trigger further Western sanctions and would likely result in an increased NATO troop presence in Central and Eastern Europe—two consequences that the Kremlin claims it does not want.


* Michael Wasiura is a political analyst based in Moscow.