Russian President Vladimir Putin is everything but stupid. He seems to enjoy playing the role of a naïve charlatan who constantly gets fooled by his Western and Ukrainian partners. But how sustainable is such a propaganda narrative?
By Nikola Mikovic
It became clear long ago that Russia never had any red lines. Its leader does not know the goals of his so-called special military operation in Ukraine. Putin, reportedly living in a bunker, continues demonstrating his incompetence daily. Indeed, the Russian President seems to have lost touch with reality.
During his meeting with Russian military bloggers on June 13, Putin clearly showed that he was unfamiliar with Ukraine’s situation. He used Russia’s Defense Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov’s rhetoric to report how the Ukrainian Armed Forces lost “dozens” of tanks and infantry vehicles in the first days of its counter-offensive.
The problem is that Konashenkov proved to be an extremely unreliable figure. For instance, in June last year, he reported that Russia destroyed 3,800 Ukrainian armoured vehicles, even though that significantly exceeds their number not only at the beginning of the war (2,416 according to Russian estimates) but also taking into account possible Western supplies during the war (about 700).
Putin takes Konashenkov seriously or simply uses such a propaganda approach to create an illusion that Russia is winning the war. If the Russian President lives in an “information vacuum” and does not even use the Internet. Something Gleb Karakulov, a former engineer and captain in the Presidential Communications Directorate of the Federal Guard Service, recently confirmed.
In a way, it is perfectly understandable why he glorified Colonel-General Alexander Lapin’s shameful PR actions in Russia’s Belgorod region. After Ukraine-backed armed insurgents launched attacks in Belgorod on May 23, Lapin was filmed in the area acting as a traffic warden. The internet was full of mems of Lapin making a fool out of himself. But Putin seems to have taken his gestures seriously.
“There was a moment when Colonel General Lapin personally walked along with the soldiers with service weapons”, Putin told military bloggers.
None of them, however, was brave enough to ask Putin why Lapin did not prevent Ukraine from capturing parts of Russia’s Belgorod region. But a few days later, Putin stressed that if Ukraine continued attacking Russian territory, Moscow would “consider creating a sanitary cordon on Ukrainian territory”. “Consider creating” does not mean Russia will create such a zone.
Thus, Putin’s phrase seems to be another empty threat that no Ukraine and the West policymakers take seriously.
Given that the Russian leader repeatedly rules out a severe response to what he describes as Ukrainian provocations – namely the shelling of Belgorod, as well as the recent drone attack on the Kremlin – the West will almost certainly interpret such a restraint policy as another sign of Russian weakness. As a result, Russia will continue suffering humiliation and defeat.
Putin, however, claims that Russia can retaliate and "destroy any building in the centre of Kyiv" but does not do that "for several reasons". Yet, he refuses to reveal those reasons. Still, he gave us some hints.
“The attacks on Russian territory are intended to provoke Moscow to retaliate, so that others can point fingers at us and say: ‘look how evil they are’, and to point this out to all our partners", Putin stressed on June 16.
In other words, Russia will continue tolerating Ukrainian attacks in order not to look evil in its partners' eyes. Such a policy will undoubtedly lead to more Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory. Unlike Moscow, Kyiv is determined to fight until victory. Russia, for its part, is still determining its goals in Ukraine. Putin said that new waves of mobilisation in Russia “depend on what Moscow wants”.
Almost 16 months after the war launched, the Kremlin still does not know what it wants.
Judging by Putin’s statements, Moscow wants to reach a deal with Ukraine and the West almost at any cost. According to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, just days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Kremlin negotiated the lease of Crimea and the Donbas with Kyiv.
The alleged draft proposal spoke of leasing the Ukrainian territory for 15 years. If true, that means that Moscow, despite its rhetoric about Crimea and the Donbas being part of Russia, was ready to trade with what it sees as its territory.
Putin claims that the Kremlin managed to reach a deal with Ukraine on the Eastern European nation’s permanent neutrality, with one of the conditions being that Russia withdraws all troops from the north of Ukraine, including Kyiv.
“After our withdrawal, Ukrainian authorities, by the orders of Washington, threw this treaty into the dustbin of history and declared victory”, Putin stressed.
In other words, Ukraine “deceived” him again. Russia withdrew its troops from the Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy regions, and Ukrainian leadership did not implement its part of the deal. But despite that, Putin continued making various arrangements with Kyiv. And every time, he accused his Ukrainian partners of “deceiving” him.
Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
Since everything about Putin is a PR stunt, he is likely deliberately portraying himself as a “good but naïve” leader. Significant parts of the Russian audience still buy such a narrative. But sooner or later, the Russian society will have to face reality. Inevitable military defeats will undoubtedly lead to the destabilisation of the Putin regime.
In the long term, Russia will have to go through the process of “de-Putinization” of the country. Waking up and realising that Putin’s whole system was based on lies and deception will be painful for many Russians.