20 years under Putin: a timeline

At his last week’s press conference Vladimir Putin claimed that “political schizophrenia” has been developing in the U.S. These words were said in response to the question regarding the Washington Post’s breaking story that at an Oval Office meeting with Russian diplomats Donald Trump passed to them certain classified information on ISIS. Is it possible that given the current developments inside Russia itself, Vladimir Putin made a Freudian slip? IMR’s Olga Khvostunova weighs in.


Vladimir Putin at the press conference following his meeting with Italy's Paolo Gentiloni in Sochi. Photo: Mikhail Metzel / TASS.


Reality Show

Over the last weeks, the U.S. political environment has turned into a reality show where each day brings a new array of intrigues, scandals, and investigations. At the center of this show is Donald Trump, whose incompetence in the issues of domestic—and especially foreign—policy has grown more evident as the media delve deeper into his chaotic presidency. Through the efforts of not just Russian intelligence and Kremlin propaganda, but with the help of the U.S. media as well, the story of Russian interference in the U.S. elections has become one of the keynotes of Trump’s rule, turning his political act into what increasingly looks like a vaudeville.

Here is just a brief recap of the U.S. political developments over the past two weeks. First, Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey, who led one of several investigations into Russia’s meddling in the U.S. elections and into a potential collusion between members of the Trump campaign with Russian intelligence. Though Trump did not exceed the power of his office by firing Comey, the news of this unprecedented move caused a wave of shock, rattling the D.C. world at all levels, for the simple reason that it could not have come at a worse moment.

Second, as the details of the Comey firing rolled in from the media, a regular D.C. scandal started to rapidly snowball. For instance, according to the New York Times, in mid-February this year, Trump personally approached Comey with a request to stop the investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s links to foreign governments, including Russia. The contents of this conversation became known because, it turned out, Comey kept memos of all of his interactions with the president, which were consequently leaked to journalists. Trump is quoted as having said to Comey: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Evaluating these explosive revelations, a number of legal experts agreed that the very fact of such a request coming from the president of the United States can be viewed as an “obstruction of justice.” If the latter is proved, this could be the first step toward impeaching Trump.

Third, in the midst of the Comey firing scandal, Trump managed to make things even worse. Right at the time, he met with Russia’s minister of foreign affairs Sergei Lavrov and ambassador Sergei Kislyak (the latter being the very Russian diplomat with whom Michael Flynn held undisclosed phone calls, which eventually led to his resignation). As reported by the Washington Post, while welcoming his guests in the White House, Trump revealed that he was in possession of some highly classified intelligence passed on to him by a U.S. ally in the Middle East (it was later revealed that this ally was Israel). This news caused a great stir: not only had Trump broken this ally’s confidence and trust, while potentially jeopardizing Israeli agents inside ISIS, but he also did it to impress no other but the Kremlin at a time when just saying the word “Russia” causes a nervous reaction in the highly polarized political environment in the U.S.

The “Russia problem” has been haunting Trump since his nomination. As noted by Politico, Trump has been seething over the Russia investigation for months, but despite all his efforts to move on, to call the story “fake news” or a “hoax,” the matter only seems to get worse. Even if he has no connections to the Kremlin or Vladimir Putin, as he constantly claims in public and on Twitter, over the last few weeks Trump inadvertently did everything to suggest the opposite.

Which brings us back to Putin’s comment on “political schizophrenia.”


Manipulations of Meaning

The Russia theme has long been used by U.S. politicians to mobilize the public by appealing to vague subconscious fears of a former Cold War adversary. But it’s hard to imagine that the Kremlin, with all its shrewd pragmatism, in a sober mind and clear consciousness will secretly collaborate with such an unpredictable and incompetent person as Donald Trump. It is also hard to imagine that American democracy, with its unique system of checks and balances, its sophisticated government mechanisms, numerous interest and influence groups, can be so easily undermined or destabilized by hacking attacks or a smear propaganda campaign. In other words, it seems that at the center of the media hype surrounding Trump and Russia, there is little substance and a plenty of political manipulation, stereotypical thinking, and unclarified fear provoked by the U.S. president’s own impulsiveness and unpredictability.

However, Putin’s words on “political schizophrenia,” regardless of the fact that they may seem on point or smart to some observers, deserve separate analysis. The question is: at which moment in Russia’s political history did it become normal for the head of the country—a putative world power—to use abusive terms? Let me recall that in the same comment Putin also said that the situation in the U.S. has been “stirred up by either dumb or crooked people.” When were the norms of political discourse in Russia reduced to such a loutish, resentful tone? Was it when Putin’s infamous phrase, “We’ll waste them in the outhouse,” was uniformly accepted by the Russian people and  elites as a new standard of the political reality where there was no place for political correctness? And if not, why didn’t this issue cause public indignation later? 

Whatever the reason, as the bar of the public discourse hit rock bottom, any sign of genuine ethical or moral concerns evaporated from the narrative as well—from the ability to tell the truth to elementary respect for human dignity. A criminal, inhuman attitude has been legitimized—and it applies to everyone, especially those whom the Kremlin wanted to label as “Russia’s enemy”: Chechen terrorists, political opposition, independent media, NATO, the U.S. State Department, etc. Over the years of Putin’s rule, the circle of potential “enemies” has amassed to include almost the entire population of the country—essentially anyone who is capable of opposing the president or becoming a nuisance for his acolytes. Over the years, the Kremlin’s cynicism has poisoned the public consciousness to the core.

Analysis of the psychological effects that such words coming from the president may have on the public mind should be the topic of a separate article; here I’d like to focus just on the political underpinnings of the phrase. First, the words “political schizophrenia” clearly serve as a not-so-subtle sneer at the United States—the only country Putin deems as Russia’s dignified foe. But also at Trump, whom he likely views as a “useful idiot.” Can a lout refrain from ridiculing someone who has slipped on a banana peel? Especially if this someone is an eternally invincible enemy?

Second, Putin’s tongue-lashing of the United States served as an opportunity to gain a few political points with his target audience at home, where any show of anti-Americanism is a foolproof PR stunt. Putin played into his image of “one of the guys” who doesn’t shy away from pointing to what people believe to be “American idiocy.”

Finally, the phrase was intentionally provocative and served as easy bait for the Western media, which swallowed it whole and, as so many times before, dedicated headlines to Putin and his routine press-conference. (Does anyone remember that the press conference was about Putin’s meeting with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni?) One needs to hand it to the Kremlin that it effortlessly manipulates Western media by throwing an occasional “bait” and thus securing front page coverage. The close attention paid by the Western media to Putin’s persona sometimes borderlines on pure obsession, which, unfortunately, helps maintain the myth that the Russian president is someone with enormous power and influence—despite the fact that he rules a struggling country.


Existential Crisis

Putin’s main problem is that popular rhetoric and PR stunts will not help him resolve Russia’s domestic problems, which are emerging full blown. He may have secured victory in the 2018 presidential elections, but he will still have to face six difficult years in which course he will need to deal with the consequences of his destructive policies both at home and abroad. Decreasing household incomes, growing public distrust in the authorities, general public discontent with inefficient government, corruption that erodes the foundations of the Russian state, costly geopolitical adventurism—all these are signs that the Kremlin is in a deep political dead-end, while the nation finds itself in an existential crisis.

Last year, Donald Trump won the elections under the “America First” slogan. Even though it was largely criticized in some circles, the slogan still resonated across the United States, where, against the backdrop of rising inequality and the crisis of political representation, people have been questioning the need to spend enormous funds on maintaining the U.S. global leadership instead of solving domestic problems. Trump may not be a leader capable of solving these problems, but he was able to tap into the public mood.

With regard to Russia, which historically tends to compare itself with the U.S., a similar question arises: is it time for us to abandon the attempts at proving our greatness to the world and to focus on Russia first? Sure, Putin’s “rising from the knees” slogan as a unifying national idea worked well as post-Crimea annexation immediately boosted national pride for the majority of Russians. However, this compensatory schema, in which the emptiness of domestic politics is replaced by the illusion of international success, has been created and maintained with the help of the most blatant and shameless propaganda in Russia’s modern history. Sooner or later, like many other fabrications (remember “spiritual bonds”?), it will collapse under the pressure of reality. The Internet has not been banned yet in Russia; alternative information will seep through all the government filters into every home, slowly eroding propagandistic clichés.

Speculating on the regime’s perspectives, many policy experts often base their analysis on the assumption that people are rational economic agents driven by personal interests in security, prosperity, self-actualization, etc. Within the framework of such analyses, the argument is often put forward that the more questions Russians will have about the contents of their fridges, the more complaints they will have about TV propaganda. But perhaps, at the root of Russians’ willingness to believe the Kremlin’s propaganda lies a different idea—a chance to attain a higher meaning in life, something that helps them overcome the existential crisis that has plagued the country since the Soviet Union’s collapse and the turbulent 90s. Perhaps there is a sign that people are subconsciously reaching for those ethical and moral norms that they allowed to be wiped out from the discourse in the early 2000s. By offering them the idea of Russia “rising from the knees,” Putin played right into this demand, into the urge to feel proud for one’s country, to be part of something great.

However, by appealing to this demand, Putin manipulated the meaning and the terms. He gave people a misplaced sense of pride: the return of Crimea as the “restoration of historic justice,” not annexation; meddling in Western countries’ domestic politics as “Russia’s international comeback,” not conducting hybrid operations to undermine democratic order.

Why did his manipulation work? This question requires serious reflection. Perhaps it was due, as already mentioned above, to pervasive cynicism and the elimination of ethical and moral norms from the public discourse. When for over 17 years people are being assured by the state through all available communication channels that the end justifies the means, that corruption, cynicism, and hypocrisy are everywhere, that the West has it the same as Russia or even worse—should one be surprised by the results? And should one be really surprised by the recent absurd, chest-thumping slogans like “We Can Repeat It,” alluding to the Soviet troops entering Berlin at the end of WWII? Aren’t these the signs of political schizophrenia that Putin referred to, as if making a Freudian slip?



What can a thinking person do under the current circumstances?

In critical times, the search for genuine meaning can help overcome the sense of helplessness. Why not, for starters, ponder what will happen when this curtain of propaganda and national delusions that shield the average Russian citizen collapses? And I’m not talking about the fridge winning the battle over TV, as the issue is described in the Russian media. I’m referring to the collapse of the fake constructs of meaning imposed by the Kremlin on the Russian people at the peak of the country’s existential crisis. What will happen when these people realize that they have been lied to once again, that all the reasons for national pride are in fact an illusion, a zilch, a figment of the imagination of the Kremlin spin doctors? The consequences of the scales falling from Russian eyes are hard to predict. But it is highly probable that a new circle of existential crisis will entail. While this may not happen soon, today would be an opportune time to start thinking about the road to recovery.

The ideas of the rule of law, civic liberties, democracy and competitive economy are, no doubt, very important, as are concrete reform plans and the consistent development of civil society. But without a binding sense of meaning these ideas may not work. As history shows, at the peak of a crisis, the moment of truth for some countries is achieved by turning to eternal values, such as justice, dignity, repentance, altruism and freedom. At moments like this, a nation would realize that there is a way to atone for past mistakes, to enter human history as an example for future generations. This is what happened to Nazi Germany, which reinvented itself through national repentance. That happened in the United States when President Nixon was forced to resign under public pressure as a result of the Watergate investigation—a landmark achievement for U.S. journalism that is revered across the world.

These eternal values helped the Soviet people win World War II despite enormous human losses. It was these same values that re-emerged at the forefront of perestroika. In moments like these, the sense that a nation is on the right side of history, fighting for the highest ideals, unites and uplifts like nothing else. Can Russian citizens truly say today that they are on the right side of history? Or has political schizophrenia won over sanity permanently?