“Let him speak,” Oliver Stone told CNN in defending his four hour documentary on Vladimir Putin, during which the acclaimed American director frequently seemed to avoid obvious follow-up questions. Stone’s reticence on some matters was so glaringly obvious that some commentators began suggesting the movie would be used to kick off Putin’s campaign for his 2018 run, given that Stone’s film would be broadcast on national state TV all across Russia.
And Putin did speak, at length, largely unchallenged. For most Russia watchers, he didn’t reveal anything particularly new, or even interesting. But there was one important moment in Stone’s film that was more revealing about the real nature of Putin’s regime than hours of aggressive questioning could likely have surfaced.
Starting at 49:10 in Part 3 of the series, Putin appears to be proudly showing Stone a video of what are purported to be Russian air strikes in Syria. (Skip to 0:08 in the teaser, here.)
It turns out that the actual footage was from American Apache helicopters hitting Taliban fighters in Afghanistan in 2009. The footage featured audio of pilots speaking Russian. That, too, was tracked down: it’s from a video of Ukrainian pilots (speaking Russian) fighting over Donetsk, in Eastern Ukraine. The video Putin showed to Stone—footage of an American strike, with audio of Ukrainian pilots—was actually uploaded to YouTube in March of last year. The proud author of the video has already jokingly changed its title, renaming it to “A bombshell video!!! Putin personally downloaded it!”
Funny, but far from the truth. Vladimir Putin is a notorious luddite. Despite what Stone’s documentary shows, Putin doesn’t have a smartphone. He doesn’t use email, he doesn’t have any social network accounts—indeed, he does not appear to use the Internet at all. Of course, it might be that it’s all just misdirection, and that at night the Russian President is busy hacking the DNC, all while cutting propaganda videos in his spare time. But in truth, it’s literally almost impossible to conceive of Putin actually downloading the video himself.
Asked about the bizarre screwup, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that there was any mistake, and said that the video had been provided to Putin by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. “This is part of a report to the President,” Peskov argued. “The Minister gave this to the President.”
Oliver Stone was also asked about the video. His answer had all the macho swagger of the dictators with whom Stone sympathizes: “Are you gonna start with this blogging bullshit?” he asked. “The bloggers say this, the bloggers say that, we’re gonna be in here all day.” But he went on to ask a very fair question: Why would Vladimir Putin lie if Russians have achieved “so much success” in Syria?
Indeed, why would he? And did Putin lie knowingly, or did he literally not know what he was showing Stone? In other words, was the Russian Commander in Chief, the leader of a formidable nuclear power, actively dissembling, or was he misled by his own generals?
Lying comes easily to Vladimir Putin. Maybe it’s sociopathic, or maybe his spy training has just made it second nature. He lies deliberately all the time, and is never ashamed of doing so, especially on camera. The most memorable recent example of such lying had to do with Crimea. In March 2014, asked by a journalist if there were Russian military forces in Crimea, Putin replied that the “little green men” were local self-defense forces, and that their Russian uniforms might have been bought in a military surplus store. A month later, Putin said that “Of course, our military stood behind the self-defense forces in Crimea.” By November 2014, Putin was boasting: “Yes, of course, I’m not hiding it, it is a fact. We have never hidden that our military, let’s put it bluntly, blocked Ukrainian forces stationed in Crimea.” By March 2015, the Kremlin released a documentary on the anniversary of the operation that features Putin describing the details of the Crimea annexation operation—dates, exact times, etc.
With Crimea, however, Putin had every reason to lie, at least at first. Initially, confusion was of paramount importance; the world was caught completely flat-footed, and the less world leaders knew, the better. As time went on, the Russian President was most probably trying to maintain plausible deniability, in hopes of escaping retribution from the international community, as he did in Georgia in 2008. And after the international sanctions were put firmly in place, he saw no further benefit from dissembling, and began to openly boast about the annexation.
So why show Stone fake footage, especially since there should be plenty of real footage of Russian operations in Syria? Lying like this is borderline silly, and serves no purpose.
Perhaps we have to take Peskov at his word, and assume that what really happened is that Russia’s Defense Minister provided his President with the fake video. Perhaps some thoughtless subordinate included it in a report, and it passed unnoticed all the way to Shoigu, and on to Putin. Maybe it was just deep incompetence and carelessness at work. But the very fact that it got all the way to the top like this, and surfaced embarrassingly in international media, shows a more troubling reality of Putin’s centralized and yet disconnected management style: the Russian President lives in a bubble.
Putin gets his understanding of the outside world in large part from a set of briefings tucked away in special folders. These briefing papers are ultimately the work of the various state bureaucracies, including daily reports from the various intelligence services, filtered through the President’s own personal bureaucratic machine, the Presidential Administration. (Putin also gets briefed in person by various officials, but that access, too, is mediated through his personal bureaucracy. And the frequency of his contacts with other officials ebbs and flows, ultimately depending on Putin’s preferences and mood.)
Having a “gatekeeper” bureaucracy to the chief executive is not in any way unusual in governments. But given Russia’s extreme, almost monarchical personalization of power in the role of the President, this leads to all sorts of cronyism and preferential treatment. I personally know how at least once, Peskov, who is in charge of compiling news clippings for his boss, did a favor for a friend and put a news item reported by a state-owned news agency on top of the President’s reading pile.
Of course, Putin to some extent understands the failings of the system he has built for himself. He certainly doesn’t trust his own media to report objective facts, for example. The privately-owned TV-Dozhd channel recently reported that reporters employed by the main state-owned TV station in Russia’s regions are obliged to write up special weekly reports on the local problems and concerns they see on the ground. Those reports are not for broadcast, but are instead sent to the Presidential Administration directly.
And these news reports are important for Putin, as he doesn’t even fully believe any of his competing intelligence agencies. As Mark Galeotti noted in an ECFR report from last year:
Given that Putin is notoriously suspicious of being led by his officials, there is also an imperative to cite multiple sources, and thus a highly-classified cable from an agency may be juxtaposed with, and implicitly given similar weight to, a newspaper report or a paper from a think-tank (which, as will be discussed below, may well have been written to order).
What’s notable in all of this, however, is that when Putin tries to get an alternative conduit for information, he still relies on the system itself to provide it, rather then reading opposition or foreign newspapers or think tank reports. And he still remains captive to his various courtiers and close associates, who organize his information flow.
Peskov is not the only one who has power over what Putin sees or doesn’t. Indeed, he is at the end of the day just a (highly paid) clerk. A more important gatekeeper is the head of the Presidential Administration. This used to be Putin’s close friend of 17 years, Sergey Ivanov, a man who has long held paranoid and aggrieved views about the West. Ivanov was forced into a strange kind of retirement last year, and was replaced by the much younger Anton Vaino, a largely faceless bureaucrat wholly beholden to the President, with his own set of colorful theories about how the world works.
Then there is the close circle of advisors that Putin generally trusts and listens to, among them people like his Defense Minister, Sergey Shoigu, who appears to have embarrassed his boss by slipping a fake YouTube clip into his briefing. He is also known to listen to his former director of the FSB and current head of the Security Council Nikolay Patrushev, a man who has said in public that a psychic had told him of Madeline Albright’s plans to take Siberia away from Russia.
Cut off from objective reality by a firewall he has built himself, Vladimir Putin is always in danger of being profoundly misinformed. The artificial world he inhabits is constructed for him by his subordinates with various agendas and ideas about reality. On the one hand, the subordinates have an interest in the system working as well as possible, and in thus getting the best possible information to the man in charge. On the other, there are countervailing forces: temptations to cronyism and doing favors for one’s friends, fears of “bringing bad news to the tsar’s table”, and even opportunities for outright manipulation.
A number of important questions thus arise: Does Vladimir Putin know the real state of the country’s economy? Does Vladimir Putin know his real approval ratings? Does Vladimir Putin know the real capabilities of the Russian Army? A funny little episode about a YouTube clip conceals a much deeper rot in the system.