Even in negotiations, Russians opt for the theatre of the absurd. We should not engage.
The war against Ukraine does not yet have a name. The Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak has proposed stealing and rebranding the Soviet term ‘Great Patriotic War'. Many call it ‘Putin’s war’.
In terms of decision-making, this is correct. In terms of personal responsibility and accountability for war crimes, this is correct. But naming the war after Putin alone is wishful thinking. There are broader causes.
This is really the War of the Big Lie. The Lie that Ukraine doesn’t exist. The Lie that Ukraine has no right to full sovereignty because it is a puppet state of the West. The Lie that A invaded B because C is to blame – the West, the expansion of NATO, the USA’s global hegemony.
Two-thirds of Russians believe the Big Lie, or at least think they have to say they have to believe it, which is itself one of the props of the Big Lie. Last December 50 percent blamed the escalation of tensions on the ‘USA, NATO countries’ and 16 percent blamed Ukraine. Four percent blamed Russia.
Putin’s approval ratings have gone up since the invasion began. The 71 percent support for the ‘special operation’ reported by pro-government pollsters may be implausible; but surveys of online discussions show a majority of comments back the official line/Lie. Online surveys by Aleksey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation in Moscow have showed some shift against the war since it began, but only amongst Moscow-based internet users.
We have treated Russia for too long in terms of realpolitik. Dialogue and Ostpolitik, it was argued, would calm Russia or at least fail to provoke it. But the failure to challenge and provoke only allowed Russia’s propaganda state to hyperstasise. Over a quarter of a century now, the Big Lie has developed a life of its own. It has infrastructure. And not just on state TV. The Kremlin has devised innovative ways of chasing the truth online to the margins. Russian propaganda is mature. It has characteristic genres. It is confident enough to be almost Baroque in its extremism; and to use the kind of language embracing threat and confrontation that the USSR, restrained by mutually assured destruction, did not use in the Cold War.
Do Russians therefore believe their own propaganda? It would be more exact to say that the regime operates with the logic of the sect. Using the language and tropes of the sect is a loyalty test. Only those who subscribe to the code are part of the sect. The sect also needs a virtual chorus: the general population signal their loyalty by providing an echo chamber.
Now is the time for all Russians to emancipate themselves from the Big Lie. Every propaganda trope, every doublethink only helps the regime. The regime still benefits from cultural collaboration and passive support. As Russia confronts its imagined enemies abroad, undermining Putin’s Big Lie at home is also vital for a different Russia in the long-term. The oligarchs are unlikely to rebel. As political scientist Olga Chyzh has argued, they are leaseholders; if they rebel, they will lose their businesses. There needs to be a general rebellion in favour of Truth.
This means three things. Before the current war it was difficult to just ignore Russia or to challenge every word that came out of their mouths as a lie. Not talking is difficult for diplomats. But we are now in a position where the logical thing to do is to stop talking to Russia; if Russians only talk propaganda. Politicians, diplomats and academics should stop the conversation. Cancel Putin. Even in negotiations, Russians opt for the theatre of the absurd; offering ‘humanitarian corridors’ to Russia or Belarus or claiming like Foreign Minister Lavrov that Russia “did not attack” Ukraine. The point is to dominate our conversation on Russian terms; so we should not engage.
We can talk if the Russians are actually talking; if there is a genuine dialogue. But Russia has been infecting our own discourse for too long. Even when we push back against the propaganda, we begin every conversation by talking about Nazis in Ukraine or Russophobia or Ukrainian history. We can now also clean up our own conversation.
There are innovative ideas to try and engage Russians with reality. Call Russia advocates phoning and talking to ordinary Russians. The research project “Do Russians Want War?” collects information on how the war on Ukraine is being perceived in Russia, including online debate, and engages critically with what Russians think. Ordinary Ukrainians contact their friends and relatives in Russia. While Russia pushes back against global platforms, Google has removed Russian state propaganda media from its news service. Other platforms, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, have made their posts less prominent.
Russia has retaliated by banning access to Facebook and Twitter, but it will be increasingly difficult to corral ordinary Russians in a narrow official media space. If Russia fails to subdue Ukraine, the dam might burst, and we should prepare for that moment. At the moment, we should widen as many cracks as we can. Time will help Ukraine.
Andrew Wilson is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).