Russia is using ever wilder lies to defend Assad and is in too deep to stop
There was a time when the Russians — or at least their rulers — were masterful liars. The lie would be well organised, backed up with apparently creditable research and internally consistent. Nowadays Moscow puts out any old rubbish, multiple alternatives to the truth and none showing much professional pride in the traditional trade of disinformation. As a former KGB man Vladimir Putin should be ashamed.
After territory controlled by rebels against the Russian-backed Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad was the target of a chemical weapons attack by that country’s own air force, Moscow simultaneously claimed that the attack had never happened — and the pictures seen across the globe were fake — and that the victims were in reality poisoned as a result of the Syrian air force hitting a rebel chemical weapons facility. Mutually exclusive lies: a shoddy day’s work.
Something similar happened at a previous moment of great embarrassment for the Kremlin in 2014. After Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine used a Buk anti-aircraft missile launcher to blow out of the sky hundreds of holidaymakers on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 Moscow rapidly produced not one alternative explanation but multiple fabrications.
RT — formerly the Russia Today television channel — put out that the carnage had been perpetrated by the Ukrainian government precisely in order to discredit the Moscow-backed rebels. Pravda tried the line that the Ukrainian government had itself brought the civilian flight down by mistake because it was actually trying to assassinate Putin in the belief — keep up at the back! — that the Russian leader’s personal plane was immediately alongside that Malaysian flight.
At the same time the Kremlin encouraged yet another theory, perhaps the weirdest of all: the bodies that had fallen to the ground from the disintegrating flight MH17 were not in fact victims of pro-Russian forces but bloodless corpses collected for this nefarious anti-Russian propaganda purpose from Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which had mysteriously disappeared months earlier.
Bizarre as this seems, the old Soviet department of agitation and propaganda — where Putin would have been trained as a KGB officer — was quite capable of dreaming up schemes of equivalent outlandishness. Perhaps the most elaborate was Operation Infektion, a disinformation campaign designed to spread the idea that the Aids virus had been created by the CIA in its biological weapons laboratories. Part of the idea was to kindle hostility at US military bases in areas where Aids had broken out among the local populations.
This was a highly successful disinformation campaign that spread across the globe rather like a virus itself. And that was before the internet age. Now such lies travel with a velocity reflecting the speed at which electrons travel through the information superhighway.
Moscow is no longer aiming to propagate communism. It is trying to destroy the idea of truth
This, according to the former Russian current affairs TV producer Peter Pomerantsev, helps explain what the Kremlin is doing. Pomerantsev argues that the old tactic of the single big lie is not appropriate. He claims that Moscow, which no longer has the Soviet aim of propagating communism, is now trying to destroy the idea of fact-based truth: everything is a conspiracy. This destabilises western liberal society — Putin’s enemy.
So the Kremlin employs many thousands in “web brigades” to create myriad fake identities in the West’s social media, all putting out opinions with the sole common factor of creating doubt about the legitimacy of the political system in those democracies (principally America).
There is a quantity of evidence that the Kremlin put its web brigades into action against Hillary Clinton during her battle for the presidency. As the epitome of the Washington elite she was certainly an ideal target and Moscow celebrated her defeat. Perhaps, in the wake of Donald Trump’s cruise missile attack against Syria, Putin might be wondering if this had been such a clever plan.
Still, you don’t have to be locked into the modern social media to get a flavour of conspiracy theories hatched or encouraged by the Kremlin. On Radio 4’s Today programme, no less, you could last Friday hear Nick Robinson interviewing a former British ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford (a more regular presence on RT than the BBC). Ford supported Russia’s claim that those convulsing with the deadly effects of nerve gas were the victims of chemicals stored by Assad’s opponents and insisted there were no western journalists in the area to substantiate the assertion that Assad had employed chemical weapons against his own people.
When Robinson pointed out to our former man in Damascus that The Guardian had got a reporter on the spot, who confirmed what had happened with his own eyes, Ford effortlessly switched to the line that it couldn’t have happened because “Assad is not mad”. This so-called argument was also advanced later in the programme by Crispin Blunt, chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee: he said his residual scepticism was based on the fact that such a chemical attack “doesn’t make any sense from the point of view of the Syrian government”.
We should expect this to be the main argument put by conspiracy theorists. In their world nothing is a mistake, although in the real one they happen all the time. For example, it was actually a mistake by the pro-Russian forces in Ukraine when they locked their missile launcher onto flight MH17: they misidentified it as a troop carrier.
In any case, there are reasons Assad might rationally have thought he could use chemical weapons with impunity. Only a few days earlier Rex Tillerson, Trump’s secretary of state, visited Turkey and declared that Assad’s future “will be decided by the Syrian people” — meaning Washington no longer demanded his departure. This has echoes of Saddam Hussein’s misinterpreting remarks by the then US ambassador to Baghdad, April Glaspie (“We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts”). Eight days later Saddam invaded Kuwait. Washington, however, did have an opinion.
Besides, Assad wants to make his internal enemies suffer as much as possible. Chemical weapons are good for that. This has been deeply embarrassing for his backer, Putin, who had achieved a diplomatic coup by forcing Assad to hand over his chemical weapons (although clearly not all) after an earlier use of them had seemed likely to bring the West into military conflict with Russia’s ally. But what can Putin do about this humiliation?
Far from being mad, Assad is entitled to believe the Kremlin is in too far to abandon him now. It will just have to carry on lying.