The world is confronted almost daily by statements and assertions from Russia that are sometimes described euphemistically as the “Russian narrative” or sometimes more plainly as “untruths.” But they are, in all honesty, lies. Last Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin supposedly claimed on National Unity Day that “the so-called friends of Ukraine have pushed the situation to a point where it became dangerous for Russia and suicidal for the Ukrainian people.” He also insisted that Western policies were aimed at “destroying Russia.”
That is, of course, nonsense, as is much of what the Kremlin lord and his people have put out there since Feb. 24 to justify their illegal war in Ukraine. And what his propagandists are sending out into the world, including those disguised as media firms like “RT” (previously “Russia Today”) or “Sputnik.”
The worst of it is that even in Western countries, it seems that more and more people are being duped by these stories and believing the conspiracy theories that Russian officials are feeding us. It is obvious that the lies and deception are supposed to seed doubt here at home and give rise to disunity and division within and between our societies. That is war on another level, into the level of our heads.
So, if we are going to talk more in EU countries about increasing our defensive capabilities in the aftermath of the Ukraine war, we should simultaneously strengthen the capacity of our societies to recognize and combat misinformation, deception and lies, especially in so-called social media.
Because Western democracies are not immune to this evil. On the contrary. The most prominent example is former U.S. President Donald Trump, who managed to construct his own reality in which he was the most gifted president the country has ever seen. And there are others, too, like Jair Bolsonaro, who luckily lost in the recent election, or Viktor Orbán in Hungary, who is stirring up opposition to “Brussels” at home but will all too gladly dip his arms deep into EU funds.
But apparently, there is nowhere that reality and fact are as far apart as in Putin’s Russia. That is not new by any means. The Soviet nostalgist Putin is simply following what was then common practice and what he learned as a former intelligence officer. He seems willing to accept that it is inflicting great harm on his country. His distorted relationship with truth has become a key instrument of governance for him, to the extent that even at home in Russia, a lie is not permitted to be identified as such. The landlord who sits on what used to be the czar’s throne considers that betrayal.
And, in addition to his scorn, he has instituted draconian punishments for it. That is why, for instance, people who call the war in Ukraine what it is can count on multi-year prison sentences. It remains to be seen what that will do to Russian society. But it is clear what it means for us: We can no longer believe official announcements from Russia. At least not until they have been confirmed by credible sources.