Putin is now Russia’s chief deceiver

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The story of the fake villages erected by Count Grigory Potemkin to impress his lover, Empress Catherine II, was first published by Georg von Helbig, a Saxon diplomat whose biography of Potemkin came out in the last years of the Eighteenth century. Helbig did not accompany Catherine on her journey south, through territory claimed by Potemkin for the Russian Empire – to a part of present-day Ukraine near Kherson that saw some of the heaviest fighting of the war. launched by Vladimir Putin. But Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II and a number of other European dignitaries traveled with Catherine, and they didn’t note any of these fake Potemkin villages, so there’s no credible evidence to back up the story. On the other hand, there is also no conclusive proof that this is false.

Either way, the powerful image created by von Helbig, probably from St. Petersburg rumors of the time, provided one of the most popular explanations for why Putin’s war in Ukraine has followed its current plodding course – and why the Russian economy seems to be weathering unprecedented Western sanctions so happily. In the contemporary interpretation of the myth, Putin is both Catherine, the receiver of the illusion, and Potemkin, its chief creator. Yet six months into the snail’s pace invasion, it is no longer possible for him to play both roles.

Last week, Russian investigative firm Histories reported, citing unnamed sources close to the Russian General Staff, that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had fallen out of favor with Putin because he had lulled the dictator into believing that the invasion would be a blitzkrieg. Assured by Shoigu that Russia’s professional military core would quickly crush Ukrainian resistance and that Russia possessed enough state-of-the-art weaponry to create shock and awe, Putin reportedly ordered Russian generals early in the war not to damage Ukraine’s infrastructure, such as bridges. : It would soon be Russian, after all. Now that the rose-colored glasses have fallen off, Histories reported, Putin no longer relies on Shoigu for front-line information, preferring to deal directly with military commanders on the ground.

Russian nationalist commentators such as Igor Girkin (Strelkov), Viktor Alksnis and Andrey Morozov, who have called for general mobilization to win the war, seem to share the view of liberal Histories journalists that Putin was duped by Shoigu and other senior officers. , if not the idea that Shoigu has lost Putin’s confidence.

Shoigu, Strelkov recently wrote on his Telegram channel, would be “the first and most important head to roll” for all the overly optimistic stories he told Putin about miracle weapons and army supply levels. Russian. He continued:

But does our marvelous minister want such an end? I doubt. So I’m pretty sure he’ll drag this out to the end, reporting to the President that with a little more effort, the enemy would crumble and beg for peace.

Disgraced or not, the defense minister continued to inflate Russia’s image as a powerful military power, using the same methods as before the invasion of Ukraine. This month he held a major expo called Army 2022 to push Russian weapons to buyers in the developing world. It included an international “tank biathlon” event, won by a Russian crew – a boastful display that contrasted sharply with the multiple images of turrets ripped off by Russian tanks in Ukraine.

And what about Putin? He performed with Shoigu and greeted the expo attendees with one of the blandest speeches he’s given all year.

Along the same lines, Putin presents a consistently optimistic front on the economy. He told a government meeting in July that the West’s “economic blitzkrieg” against Russia had “failed”.

This seems to correspond, more or less, to the forecasts of international financial institutions: the IMF forecasts a contraction of 6% in the country’s real gross domestic product this year, while the World Bank forecasts a fall in nominal output of 8.9%. – dark figures but far from an economic implosion. Yet, to create and maintain this impression, the Russian government had to stop issuing previously regular economic releases, especially those dealing with foreign trade and the performance of import-dependent industries. At the same time, a government-sanctioned pause in financial reporting by banks and companies makes it difficult to use anything other than official data to estimate domestic consumption. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Steven Tian of the Yale School of Management argue that Russia’s economy is collapsing in slow motion and the carefully selected data released by the government is nothing but a Potemkin village. Their arguments, set out in a July working paper, are compelling enough if one is willing to draw in-depth conclusions from the snippets of available non-government data – like the oft-cited collapse in car sales or the sharp drop in sales consumers online, both cross-border and purely national. But the lack of open and reliable official data is perhaps the best argument in favor of Sonnenfeld: if the economic situation were anything but terrible, there would be no reason to withhold truthful information.

It must be accepted as a fact that the invasion is going badly and that Russia’s economic difficulties are more serious than the official data show. Yet Putin is actively cooperating in the construction of Potemkin’s Russian military and economic villages. This can mean one of two things: either he is still misinformed and unaware that the invasion of Ukraine was a terrible decision in every way, or knowing full well that things will not go as planned, he just grits his teeth and pretends they are.

In April, the Biden White House adopted the first option.

“We believe he is misinformed by his advisers about the poor performance of the Russian military and how the Russian economy is crippled by sanctions,” the White House communications director said in April. Kate Bedingfield. “The senior advisers are too scared to tell him the truth.”

Now, at the end of August, with the Russian military stuck in both eastern and southern Ukraine and no end to the economic pain in sight, it would take an effort at ” Goodbye Lenin!”, the 2003 German film in which a son harbors an increasingly elaborate illusion for the sake of his ailing mother that the Berlin Wall has not fallen and Communism is still alive. To suggest that a deception on this scale is underway would be to assume that Putin is no longer in charge and that some sort of self-destructive junta is in charge, trying to lose the war for Russia and presenting the aging dictator as a puppet. eternally optimistic.

University of California political scientist Daniel Treisman argued that dictators often make mistakes because they “often isolate themselves in echo chambers, excluding dissenting opinions.” But he also pointed to pride as a major source of autocratic mistakes. Facts themselves rarely determine decisions, especially on topics as emotional as the subjugation of Ukraine is for Putin. Even if he has all the relevant information – which he should now – he can still refuse to admit that he underestimated the challenges of attacking the neighboring country. It’s also possible that he doesn’t see how he could retreat and cling to more than power – in fact, his whole worldview, in which the Western-dictated world order must stand. collapse. It’s inconceivable for the former athlete and one of the most successful autocrats of his generation that he could just give up trying.

Whatever his reasons, if he was ever Catherine II of Potemkin Village history – a monarch happy to receive only good news and never peek behind false facades – now he is Potemkin, consciously working to create a mirage for Russians and Russia’s enemies alike. With one important difference: People looking at his cardboard castle, whether ordinary Russians, foreigners, or would-be historians, are unlikely to be as forgiving of him as Catherine always was of Potemkin.

More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Can Switzerland remain neutral in the face of Putin’s fascism? : Andreas Kluth

• Biden, Putin, Xi? Good turnout at the G-20, but not enough: Clara Ferreira Marques

• More acute Israeli-Palestinian conflicts are a sign of the worst to come: Hussein Ibish

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky, former Europe columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team. He recently published Russian translations of “1984” by George Orwell and “The Trial” by Franz Kafka.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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