Russian media, well-known relays of Kremlin propaganda in European and Western societies, have recently had to cease their activities. This late decision, on which we can even question ourselves with regard to the principles and rules of democracy, did not in any case prevent a thorough work of propaganda and manipulation. It has been developing for years and has ended up permeating many minds, including and perhaps even especially in educated circles.
These points of support for the “Putinian” narrative, whether they are conscious or not, that are former fellow traveller, people motivated by financial interests or intellectuals plagued by myths, prove particularly valuable for Moscow in times of war in Ukraine. The scale of the war, its tragic and monstrous dimension, the risks that the conflict poses in the long term for our own freedoms and our independence, are likely – by opposing in some way the counter-discourse of reality – to limit the impact of such propaganda, often insidious, mediated.
The themes of this propaganda are not numerous and constitute a sort of breviary of formatted thought and a viaticum for evil. It is not useless to list them before responding to this argument:
1/ The West threatens Russia and its security?
2/ The answer to humiliation?
3/ The “genocidal” and “neo-Nazis” of Kiev?
4/ Defending the oppressed Russian populations?
5/ The degeneration of the West and Europe?
The West threatens Russia and its security?
This is the main accusation that has fuelled Moscow’s grievances against the West and NATO in particular for several years. It is true that NATO expanded in phases from 1999, when countries that were part of the Warsaw Pact joined, and that Russia remembered “commitments”, which were allegedly formulated to Mikhail Gorbachev during the reunification of Germany.
As a result, the former Russian President remains stigmatized in his own country because of his supposed weakness, while he still enjoys an incomparable aura abroad for having peacefully transformed the world of the Cold War.
It is therefore paradoxical that the expiatory victim of limitless Russian violence is a country that is still not in the Atlantic Alliance and is not ready to enter it. Since the annexation of Crimea and especially the armed and murderous tensions in Donbas, it has become impossible to integrate a country that is de facto at war. Article 5 of the Alliance Charter should then be applied to it, which provides for automatic assistance in the event of aggression.
In any case, the process of enlargement to Ukraine – as well as to Georgia – was frozen in 2008 at the Alliance Summit in Bucharest. The French President and the German Chancellor had then opposed such a prospect and at most had been kept in the final document, at the insistence of US President George Bush Jr., an “open door” intended to spare the future. In recent weeks, under the pressure of events and in a desire for conciliation, President Zelensky realized himself that it is impossible to consider this option.
If we take into account American armaments on European soil, a vast negotiation with Moscow cannot be ruled out thus relaunching the process of arms control. But the Russian obsidional complex must be tempered and Russia should also be concerned about the threat it poses to European countries.
The exclave of Kaliningrad, former East Prussia between Poland and Lithuania, is highly militarized and it should be ensured that hypersonic missiles are not implanted there. This would certainly bring back a debate of the kind that Europe had experienced with the euromissiles crisis in the 1980s. The Soviet Union hadelaunched a vast campaign against the implantation of cruise missiles and Pershing II rockets – which were never deployed – while these weapons were a response to the deployment of SS 20 missiles aimed at Europe by the USSR.
The thesis of humiliation?
The Dolchstoßlegende (theory of the stabbing in the back), spread by the extreme right of the Weimar Republic, was an attempt to exonerate the defeated Army in 1918 by attributing responsibility for the defeat to the civilian population at the back of the front, the Jews, the left-wing political forces and the revolutionaries embodied by Rosa Luxemburg.
Without being entirely on the same level, the “Legend of Humiliation” is the result of a long-term propaganda campaign, developed in Russia where it has been emphasized in recent years, roughly coinciding with the country’s current political regime. This theory generally does not resist facts even if perceptions, even if they are based on false assertions, must be taken into account as a form of reality.
The discourse on the threat of the West can be challenged in the light of the right of each sovereign state to set its political line and to choose its alliances. The language of humiliation is a more subtle language intended to guilt western opinions.
It continued in recent days to spread mezzo voce and to rise again by capillarity. It has long been the central argument of a former Minister of Foreign Affairs; intellectuals always convey the abstract image of a country judged solely on its cultural heritage, considerable it is true; a few members of the Académie française join them to claim a kind of monopoly of knowledge of a complex and mentally remote country.
The conclusion is always the same and can be summarized in simple terms: “what is happening in front of our eyes is not right, terrible even sometimes, but we have not done ourselves what was in our possibilities, multiple opportunities have been lost to integrate Russia and we are therefore ourselves guilty.”
This thesis reveals a great ignorance of the Russian chronology and realities since the end of the Soviet Union. The IMF opened its doors to Russia in 1992, it entered the Council of Europe in 1996, the G7 became a G8 in 1997, Washington provided significant support to Moscow during the 1998 rouble crisis. Even the doors of NATO were opened for Russia with the Partnership for Peace in 1994 and the establishment of a NATO-Russia Council in 2002.
Western interventions in Iraq, Kosovo and Libya have aroused deep resentment in the Kremlin, but in the end they have awakened the deep frustrations of a country that has never abandoned its own imperial ambitions, in the tsarist and Soviet tradition. Ukraine’s “uprising” in both 2004 and 2014 has been a supreme challenge to its authoritarian model.
In the end, we can consider that Russia has never found its place in post-Cold War Europe. How could it have been otherwise when his transition from the Soviet Union, from the early years under Boris Yeltsin – who even fired a cannon in October 1993 in Moscow on the parliamentary opposition – away from a democratic project never really developed after Mikhail Gorbachev? The two wars of Chechnya, the one of Yeltsin and even more of Putin – well before Crimea and Donbas – are indelible stains in the contemporary history of Russia. This one humiliated herself.
The “genocidal” and “neo-Nazis” of Kiev?
This theme was one of the very first – placed on an almost equal footing with the NATO threat argument – to justify, at least in the eyes of Russian opinion, the invasion of Ukraine.
This language of another time, concerning a country led by a President of Jewish origin, was taken up again in the cantonade, including by Minister Lavrov who accomplished his own decline there after a very long presence at the head of Foreign Affairs.
These words of unprecedented violence were repeated ad nauseam as long as the military project seemed to be an attempt to subjugate the whole of Ukraine and to drive out or eliminate the power in place in Kiev. The March 18 meeting in the Lujniki stadium in Moscow, to commemorate the anniversary of the referendum on the annexation of Crimea, was held under giant banners calling for “Peace without Nazism, for Russia”.
It was the flip-flop of the Russian army, at least temporarily, because of its inability to conquer Kiev, and its reorientation into theatres of operation in the east where new battles are going to be fought, that caused the use of these despicable terms to cease. The abominations of Bucha, in the tragic line of Oradour-sur-Glane or Katyn, clearly marked the camp in which genocidal and neo-Nazi orientations were lying. Alleged war crimes will be reviewed by the International Criminal Court. In any case, Ukraine’s war of aggression is an attack on civilization in the heart of the European continent.
The defense of oppressed Russian populations?
There is sometimes an ambiguity between “Russian”, “of Russian origin” and “Russian-speaking”. These terms are not identical and cover complex realities in the former USSR. Significant population movements, usually towards Russia, occurred at the end of the Soviet Union, for example from Central Asia. In a more limited number of cases, they went in the opposite direction.
Moscow has always paid great attention to these communities from the outside, both to defend their rights – which is not illegitimate – and to ensure soft power through culture and language.
The case of Ukraine is specific because of its linguistic and cultural proximity, which is not incompatible with the assertion of the nation on the Ukrainian side, which is now exacerbated. Thus, the number of mixed families on both sides is in the millions. All Ukrainians are Russian speakers and we know that President Zelensky is more comfortable in Russian than in his own national language and that he handles both in turn.
It is necessary to leave to the real specialists of Ukraine to speak about the realities of Donbas, today Russian irredentist lands with self-proclaimed independence. It seems clear that the Minsk agreements, promoted by Germany and France, have not been implemented as they should have, in terms of autonomy and recognition of the Russian language and culture for what concerns Kiev and the respect of Ukrainian sovereignty on the side of Moscow.
This question will certainly again be an important point of a future overall diplomatic settlement, if that proves possible. But it is important to note already that Ukrainians whose Russian language is the main language, for example in the south-eastern regions of Ukraine, have not rallied to the invader. Mariupol, a martyred city, is a Russian-speaking city and so is Odessa.
The degeneration of the West and Europe?
This thought has long been propagated and imposed in the minds of Russian decision-makers. The latter have often noted a relative weakness in the reactions of the outside world to their “big pushes“, whether it be Crimea or even Belarus, which they observe and monitor closely.
This type of calculation was clearly wrong. In addition to providing material support to Ukraine, including with military equipment, the scope of sanctions was unprecedented in scope and differed from previous measures, which equally punished the countries that adopted the list.
After having “revived” NATO, the Russian President has succeeded in giving a “boost” to a Europe which certainly needed it the most and which we hope will have lasting effects. If the possibility of joining NATO is no longer relevant, as President Zelensky himself acknowledged, a European perspective is open to Ukraine, which is fighting for its survival as a state and a nation and for the freedom of the entire continent.
The Pavlovian reflex of resorting to the breviary of the perfect “Putinian” must be fought. It is not a question of trying to influence Russian opinions, which are out of reach and which, in the best of cases, will need a long reeducation. It also seems that support for Vladimir Putin has increased significantly in the first weeks of the war in Ukraine to a figure of approval above 80%. The purpose of sanctions is not to weigh on such opinions but to weaken a country’s ability to export its intrinsic violence.