Absolute ends with limited means: Putin’s self-deception

1 May, 10:58 AM
Vladimir Putin (Photo:Courtesy)

Vladimir Putin (Photo:Courtesy)

It is 50 years since I read Hannah Arendt’s essay on ‘Lying in Politics’. The essay was prompted by the unauthorized release of the Pentagon Papers, a classified documentary history of US policy-making in the Vietnam War. 

What shocked many at the time was the evidence that while Lyndon Johnson’s administration continued to tell the American people that its strategy was working, despite the accumulating casualties, top officials knew it was failing. Much of the commentary surrounding the release of the papers, including Arendt’s, turned on the role of deception and self-deception.

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One passage in this essay stuck with me and influenced my subsequent efforts to understand how political leaders end up making such poor choices about military power. This is the passage.

‘Oddly enough, the only person likely to be an ideal victim of complete manipulation is the President of the United States. Because of the immensity of his job, he must surround himself with advisers, the “National Security Managers” as they have recently been called by Richard J. Barnet, who “exercise their power chiefly by filtering the information that reaches the President and by interpreting the outside world for him.”  The President, one is tempted to argue, allegedly the most powerful man of the most powerful country, is the only person in this country whose range of choices can be predetermined.’

I recalled the passage when considering how Vladimir Putin came to decide on his calamitous war against Ukraine. The key insight was that someone so powerful could also be so badly informed. That was the case with Lyndon Johnson in the mid-1960s. Could it also be the case for Putin in 2022?

How Not To Choose

As Johnson took the decisions that led the US into the Vietnam quagmire he was aware that he might be getting drawn into an unwinnable conflict. Despite this, he was fearful that his domestic policy agenda could be jeopardised if he ‘lost’ another country to communism, and was persuaded by confident advisers that with a well-honed intervention this could be avoided. Much of Arendt’s essay is devoted to a critique of the policy managers who formulated the options presented to the president.

These options always came in threes, with two outliers to be rejected and a third comfortably in the middle offering the most desirable outcome at a manageable cost. The outcome, Ardent observed, was far more contingent than the supporting ‘facts’ allowed, while the proposed action was apt to lead to alternative, and far less desirable, outcomes.

This is a familiar feature of all policy advocacy so it would be surprising if it were absent from the Kremlin. Putin’s decision-making does not, however, appear to have been constrained by the options presented to him by his advisors. This war was his choice and one that he appears to have discussed with a few advisors before his fateful decision.

During the Covid years, Putin isolated himself from unnecessary human contact. He does not surf the internet or scan social media. He surrounds himself with courtiers and sycophants who reinforce his worst instincts rather than challenge them. The frightening glimpse we were given into the workings of his Security Council a few days before the war, as powerful figures in the Russian system checked themselves to make sure that they were saying what the boss wanted them to hear, confirmed the point.

Because so few were consulted about his plans for conquering Ukraine few had an opportunity to ask about its prospect for success, let alone challenge the rationale that described Ukraine as an artificial and incoherent country, led astray by a neo-Nazi leadership ready to do NATO’s bidding, and prone to a rampant Russophobia. Putin is now reportedly furious with his spies at the Federal Security Service (FSB) for misleading him as to the extent to which Ukraine was ripe for the picking.

It was nonetheless his responsibility to check his strategic instincts before acting upon them. And there were experts at hand who might have warned about the risks, even if there appear to have been few with a detailed knowledge of Ukraine, who could have told him that this was a country that valued its independence and would not relinquish it without a tough fight. (US policy-making in the 1960s was also hampered by a failure to appreciate the role of nationalism in the Viet Cong’s appeal).

The hierarchical nature of the system would also discourage any attempt to provide candid assessments of Russia’s battle-readiness and operational performance. This is another similarity with Vietnam: Arendt noted how phony internal progress reports about the state of the war played down setbacks and exaggerated positive developments. 

Framing the War

Arendt deplored the way that policies on Vietnam were marketed by the national security managers with little regard for their realism. In Putin’s Russia this disregard for reality has been taken to a whole new level. He requires a continuing effort to construct a narrative about events that must support the interests of the state before bothering with the truth.

This must compete with what Putin is convinced is a comparable effort by the West to undermine Russia. This has been identified as a feature of Russian strategy for some time, reflected in numerous information campaigns launched against unfriendly countries, often on social media. It has also long been apparent that these campaigns tend to be far more effective with domestic than foreign audiences (although they can be well received where the anti-Western feeling is already strong).

These campaigns have also become more desperate of late. They were never subtle but are now often superficial and absurd, with every disobliging fact immediately denied. It has become routine to claim that when anything bad happens to Ukrainians they have done it to themselves, as a ‘false flag’, and that when matters do not go Russia’s way this is not because of Ukrainian fighting spirit and tactical competence but because of NATO’s help.

At times the Russia media figures tasked with fighting this narrative war get caught up with its inherent contradictions, as when they demanded vengeance for the sinking of the Black Sea flagship Moskva, and then had to remind themselves of the official line that it was the victim of an onboard fire.

It can seem as if this is so transparently a game that both domestic and foreign audiences can learn to discount the fakery. Yet that is to understate the importance of the narrative wars. This requires looking beyond the farfetched stories used to explain away shameful or embarrassing aspects of Russian military behavior, or concerns about the reach of Russian propaganda, which is limited and concentrating instead on how Putin is framing the underlying confrontation for his people.

However much this framing may depend on mythology and delusion it has deep roots, from well before Putin’s time, and is apt to go unchallenged in a tightly controlled system that has shut down dissident voices.

The framing starts with nostalgia for the old Soviet Union. The fond memories do not extend to communism, which has now been rejected, but instead to the unified country forged by the Bolsheviks out of disparate nationalities and how this unity was demonstrated in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

That lost unity is now mourned, for without it Russia has become more vulnerable. The problem with a strengthened NATO even closer to Russia’s border is in part because it represents a military threat but, more importantly, because it is an ideological one. The West’s decadent liberalism poses a civilizational challenge, from the promotion of gay rights (which seems to make Russian ideologists particularly incensed) to its persistent subversion of the authority of any state that opposes it. 

The cult of the Great Patriotic War, a time of both heroism and sacrifice, is at the heart of this framing. There is now a constant harking back to the glory days of this conflict along with a yearning for the Soviet Union’s reconstitution. Hence the talk of bringing together Russia and Ukraine and Belarus, and even poor Moldova which is desperately trying to stay clear of the current conflict, into a new entity that will once again challenge Western dominance. This is linked to the second key aspect of the framing, which is that Russia must be a great power or it is nothing.

This framing, and the accompanying attacks on Ukrainian society and economy, means that Russia now presents its war aims in terms of prevailing in a clash of civilizations. This makes it even harder than before to identify what sort of peace settlement could be reached between the two belligerents. The stakes are now much higher than who has influence in the Donbas but are about Russia’s status as a great power, and whether it gets the respect it deserves.

Arendt noted that part of the deception with Vietnam was how the objectives shifted from fighting in order to defeat communism to fighting simply in order to avoid having to admit defeat, so preserving a reputation of invincible power. It is notable how many experts trying to design peace deals for the current war fixate on a need to help Putin ‘save face’, a theme of the Pentagon Papers and perhaps a legacy of the misguided strategic thinking of that time. Richard Nixon spoke in 1971 of his determination that the US not be seen as a ‘pitiful, helpless giant.’ Putin will share the sentiment about Russia.

Expectations Versus Reality

One feature of a great power mentality is the assumption that deep down the state has sufficient reserves of strength to get its way, that one way or the other it will be able to engineer a result that fulfills its national purpose. It is a mentality that makes losing unimaginable and rules out apologies for any misbehavior. There is always something that can be done. And here we come to Putin’s problem.

Absolute war aims along with the surrounding rhetoric and the celebration of ‘Z’ as the war’s symbol, may help push the country into greater enthusiasm for the conflict and toleration of even more sacrifices. There is anecdotal and polling evidence to suggest that is what is currently happening. But they create expectations that cannot be met.

The main achievement so far has been to inflict terrible destruction and death in Ukraine, which also seems to give satisfaction to some Russian commentators (when they are not claiming this is self-inflicted), but not much by way of sustainable territorial gains.

So here is the tension at the heart of Russian strategy. The war has been given the highest stakes but these are inconsistent with the more limited military objectives prudently adopted after the initial failure to take Kyiv. As the Russian military focuses hard on the Donbas the Russian media demands a more complete victory, one that will eliminate Ukraine as a viable state and take advantage of the war to turn Russia once again into a larger and more self-sufficient power that can take on the West.

Yet, on the early evidence, there is no reason to believe that Putin’s forces will fare significantly better in this second phase of the war than in the first. The new offensive appears more methodical but it is being launched with a tired and depleted army with almost everything available being thrown into the fight. Most seriously for Moscow, Ukraine now really is being backed by most NATO countries, with the US resupply effort being stepped up significantly over the past week.

It also appears that the Ukrainian air force is, at last, starting to get new aircraft. Moscow’s past claims about NATO support, which were exaggerated, now look like turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Should Moscow need to explain to the Russian people why the war has turned out so badly this will provide a ready-made explanation? Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu returned to the public view to explain that NATO support was the reason why the special military operation to ‘liberate’ the Donbas was taking longer than hoped.

An attempt to hold on to what they can of the Donbas and incorporate it into Russia, while having left the rest of Ukraine badly damaged, may be offered as some solace. Where they have the opportunity, Russian forces are implementing a repressive and uncompromising occupation, with deportations of hostile civilians, executions of civic leaders, staged referendums on joining Russia, the introduction of the ruble as a currency, and plans to mandate teachers to Russify the school curriculum.

But there is a long way to go before even this more limited objective can be achieved, even supposing that once so liberated the Donbas will settle down into a contented part of Russia. If this effort flounders, with more heavy losses of troops and equipment, leaving Russia’s military effectively defeated, others around the world will have drawn their own conclusions about Russia’s greatness. Those dependent upon Russian power will be considering their own options.

Putin has yet to admit that his war was at all misconceived and can not achieve the goals he set.

He is looking to protect his position in Moscow while insisting that the country can cope with sanctions and international denunciations. Yet in the end, he still depends on the ability of his army to deliver and at some point he may have to confront the possibility that it may not.

We cannot ignore that the thing that makes Russia stand out from other large countries that have invested heavily in their military might is its nuclear arsenal. Putin draws attention to this often enough. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has insisted that Russia has no plans to use nuclear weapons, though with the ominous caveat ‘at this stage’. The nuclear arsenal has served to deter NATO countries from getting directly involved in the war, and that is probably all that Moscow requires. It certainly offers no help in a military campaign to take the Donbas (presumably Putin is aware of the possibility of radioactive fallout blowing across Russia).

Still, in this tension between absolute objectives, few actual achievements, and heavy costs, without significant gains from the current offensive, something will have to give. Putin is not obliged to escalate. The excuses are in place should he decide to look for an exit while he might be able to sustain a niggling, dispiriting war of attrition over time rather than accept failure.

The framing of the war as a continuation of the one fought against the Nazis explains the importance of ‘Victory Day’ on 9 May, and why he would dearly have loved another victory to celebrate for the annual parade, but it is not an absolute deadline. He might also be tempted to offer a cease-fire while there are still some gains to show for the war and hope that those in the West anxious to get the war over will put pressure on Kyiv to accept.

Putin launched a war based on a narrative constructed out of potent symbols, deep-seated grievances, historical myths, and claims about Ukraine that were falsified as soon as they were tested. This was deception on a grand scale, but most of all it was self-deception for he was the one responsible for the narrative, most convinced by its potency, and ready and able to act upon it.

To quote Arendt’s essay again:

‘lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear …. whereas reality has the disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected for which we were not prepared.’

This story was first published by the Substack. NV is republishing it with permission from the author. 

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