The western press is giving Putin what he wants

Is Putin playing with the western press?

19 February 2022

9:00 AM

19 February 2022

9:00 AM

Why does Vladimir Putin need Russia Today and Sputnik News when the western media are doing such a great job on his behalf? Throughout his two decades in power, Putin has yearned for international respect. Failing that, he’ll settle for fear. And what more satisfying outcome could there be for a serial sabre-rattler like Putin to have his bluff finally taken seriously?

For weeks, British papers and TV have been filled with images of scary Russian tanks, warships and artillery blasting away — mostly provided, if you check the photo credits, by Russia’s Ministry of Defence. Since November, the US and British governments have been issuing increasingly strident warnings that Putin is preparing an imminent and massive attack on Ukraine. All that time, Putin and his veteran foreign minister Sergey Lavrov have been emphatically denying that they will do any such thing. The Kremlin has made no threats or issued any demands on Ukraine itself. It doesn’t have to, because the West is doing such an eloquent job of broadcasting the reality of Russian military might for them.

It’s a perfectly executed information-war pincer movement. The Kremlin poses as a sober diplomatic grown-up, voicing what it regards as legitimate security concerns. Meanwhile the West — and particularly the western media — lathers itself into a state of near-hysteria over how dangerous, unpredictable, aggressive and deadly Putin’s Kremlin could be.

Vladimir Lenin reportedly spoke of ‘useful idiots’ among western leftists who unwittingly helped the cause of revolution. But as Putin has learned, enemies can be useful idiots too. In the British press, the Daily Mail splashed with ‘Frantic 48 hours to save Europe from war’, and its incomparably skilful graphics department has provided a steady diet of History Channel-style maps covered in large red arrows illustrating possible invasion routes for the armchair strategists among its readers. On the other side of the political spectrum, the Guardian has led the paper for a fortnight with news of ‘growing tensions’ on the border.

Is this all made-up nonsense? Obviously not — the deployment of 130,000 Russian troops to the Ukrainian border is clearly both threatening and newsworthy. And when the White House, Downing Street and presumably all the press’s security sources issue unprecedentedly specific and emphatic warnings that a Russian invasion is imminent, the media has a clear duty to report it.

But the press also has a duty to be sceptical, not merely to parrot the government’s line. For Joe Biden and Boris Johnson’s administrations, the Ukraine crisis has come as a godsend, allowing both leaders to talk tough and threaten the world’s most notorious international bogeyman with terrible consequences if he chooses to invade.

And talk is cheap. The more they big up the likelihood of invasion, the heftier the political credit they will reap when it doesn’t happen. In Washington and London, the political incentives to conflate Putin’s capabilities with his intentions —essentially, to cry wolf — are overwhelmingly strong.

A free press, by contrast, exists to compare official claims with realities reported by their correspondents both on the ground and in the corridors of power. And on that there has been a serious failure.

No observer can claim to know Putin’s mind. But there has, historically, been one very clear indicator of his intentions, and that’s the messaging put out by a vast and lavishly funded media machine that is obsessively micromanaged by the Kremlin’s spin doctors. Recent polls indicate that 66 per cent of Russians under 25 — the potential conscripts who would be called on to fight a war — have a ‘positive’ or ‘very positive’ attitude to Ukraine. Such is the influence of Russian state media that they probably could swing public opinion towards war, but it would be an extremely hard sell. And that case is not being made. On Monday — two days before the supposed ‘D-Day’ of 16 February — Russian Channel 1 TV news led with extensive coverage of the Winter Olympics, with some reporting on western war hysteria third on the bill. It certainly doesn’t look like the messaging of a regime preparing to launch a third world war.

Then there’s the striking lack of alarm in Kiev, both in the government and among most ordinary Ukrainians. President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly said that the threat from Russia has not, in his estimation, increased appreciably from this time last year. When the US announced 16 February as a date for an ‘imminent’ invasion, Zelensky asked for clarification. His own spooks had no such information. Then he proclaimed the day a new national holiday, urging citizens to put out more flags. A senior officer in Ukraine’s SBU intelligence service sent out a meme showing Mr Bean standing on a roadside, checking his watch and then taking a nap. The caption was: ‘Waiting for the Russian invasion.’

To the Guardian’s credit, its estimable correspondent Shaun Walker — a rock–solid reporter with over a decade’s experience in Russia and Ukraine — has filed stories indicating life continues as normal in Kiev and quoting security officials’ frustration and scepticism over western predictions of invasion. Yet that actual reporting has not apparently altered the overall editorial message that war is imminent. The Mail group, too, has run some invasion-sceptic pieces by the Daily Mail’s Stephen Glover and Mail on Sunday’s Peter Hitchens, but its pages are full of images of Ukrainian grandmothers learning to handle Kalashnikovs.

News editors naturally splash on the eye-catching, the dramatic, the scary. That’s normal — that’s why it’s called ‘news’. The herd instinct of the UK, US and European press to treat Putin’s military build-up as an invasion, rather than a grand bluff, is also entirely understandable when western governments, analysts and security experts all seem to be singing from the same songbook.

But that’s the difference between a bluff and a gesture. Like Richard Nixon’s ‘madman theory’, in order to make a threat effective it has to be believable. And this time, Putin has succeeded where previous military exercises and even invasions have failed — finally, he is being taken seriously. The Kremlin’s supply of very long tables is being strained to its limit by the number of western leaders beating a path to Putin’s door. It’s sad, though, to see Putin proved right — to get the West’s attention requires a massive show of military force. Put enough heavy metal in the field and the West will do an excellent job of frightening itself.

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