Vladimir Putin’s Russia is driven by conspiracy theories.
For two decades, journalists and officials, in concert with the Kremlin, have merrily spread disinformation. However far-fetched or fantastical — that the C.I.A. was plotting to oust Mr. Putin from power, for example — these tales served an obvious purpose: to bolster the regime and guarantee public support for its actions. Whatever the personal views of members of the political establishment, it seemed clear that the theories played no role in political calculations. They were stories designed to make sense of what the regime, for its own purposes, was doing.
Not anymore. Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two months ago, the gap between conspiracy theory and state policy has closed to a vanishing point. Conspiratorial thinking has taken complete hold of the country, from top to bottom, and now seems to be the motivating force behind the Kremlin’s decisions. And Mr. Putin — who previously kept his distance from conspiracy theories, leaving their circulation to state media and second-rank politicians — is their chief promoter.
It is impossible to know what is inside Mr. Putin’s head, of course. But to judge from his bellicose and impassioned speeches before the invasion and since then, he may believe the conspiracy theories he repeats. Here are five of the most prevalent theories that the president has endorsed, with increasing fervor, over the past decade. Together, they tell a story of a regime disintegrating into a morass of misinformation, paranoia and mendacity, at a terrible cost to Ukraine and the rest of the world.
The West wants to carve up Russia’s territory
In 2007, at his annual national news conference, Mr. Putin was asked a strange question. What did he think about the former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s comment that Russia’s natural riches should be redistributed and controlled by America? Mr. Putin replied that such ideas were shared by “certain politicians” but he didn’t know about the remark.
That’s because it was entirely made up. Journalists at Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a state-owned newspaper, had invented the quote on the grounds that Russian intelligence was able to read Ms. Albright’s mind. For years, there appeared to be no mention of it. Then in 2015, the secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, repeated it. He reported serenely that she had said Russia should not control Siberia or its Far East — and that’s why America was involved in Ukraine, where Russia was busy fomenting a conflict in the eastern part of the country. At the time it felt as though Mr. Putin’s colleague had lost the plot.
But in May 2021, Mr. Putin showed that the theory hadn’t been forgotten. Everyone, the president declared, “wants to bite us or bite off a piece of Russia” because “it is unjust for Russia alone to possess the riches of a region like Siberia.” An invented quote had become “fact,” legitimizing Mr. Putin’s ever more hostile approach to the West.
NATO has turned Ukraine into a military camp
NATO is Mr. Putin’s worst nightmare: Its military operations in Serbia, Iraq and Libya have planted the fear that Russia will be the military alliance’s next target. It’s also a convenient boogeyman that animates the anti-Western element of Mr. Putin’s electorate. In his rhetoric, NATO is synonymous with the United States, the military hand of “the collective West” that will suffocate Russia whenever it becomes weak.
So it makes sense that NATO is the subject of some of the regime’s most persistent conspiracy theories, which see the organization’s hand behind popular uprisings around the world. Since 2014, they have focused on Ukraine. Since Ukraine’s Maidan revolution that year, in which Ukrainians forced the ouster of the Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovych, Mr. Putin and his subordinates propagated the notion that Ukraine was turning into a puppet state under the control of the United States. In a long essay published in July 2021, Mr. Putin gave fullest expression to this theory, claiming that Ukraine was fully controlled by the West and that NATO was militarizing the country.
His speech on Feb. 21, just days before the invasion, confirmed that NATO’s activities in Ukraine — dragging the country into the West’s orbit — were, for Mr. Putin, the chief reason for Russia’s aggression. Crucially, NATO was what divided Russians and Ukrainians, who otherwise, in his view, were one people. It was Western military activity that had turned Ukraine into an anti-Russia, harboring enemies aiming at Russian humiliation.
The opposition wants to destroy Russia from within — and is backed by the West
NATO and the West menace Russia not just externally. They also cause trouble within. Since at least 2004, Mr. Putin has been suspicious of domestic opposition, fearing a Ukrainian-style revolution. Fortress Russia, forever undermined by foreign enemies, became a feature of Kremlin propaganda. But it was the Maidan revolution that brought about a confluence in the Kremlin’s messaging: Not only were dissidents bringing discord to Russia, but they were also doing so under orders from the West. The aim was to turn Russia into a mess like Ukraine.
In this line of thinking, opposition forces were a fifth column infiltrating the otherwise pure motherland — and it led to the branding of activists, journalists and organizations as foreign agents. Though Mr. Putin could never bring himself to utter the name of his fiercest critic, Alexei Navalny, Mr. Putin stated that Mr. Navalny was a C.I.A. agent whose investigative work used “materials from the U.S. special services.” Even Mr. Navalny’s poisoning in August 2020 was, according to the president, a plot perpetrated to blacken Mr. Putin’s reputation.
The clearing away of domestic opposition — ruthlessly undertaken by the Kremlin in recent years — can now be seen as a prerequisite for the invasion of Ukraine. Since the war began, the last vestiges of independent media have been closed down, and hundreds of thousands of people have fled Russia. Any criticism of the war can land Russians in prison for 15 years and earn them the title of traitor, working nefariously in the service of Russia’s Western enemies. In a sign that the association of dissent with foreign enemies is now complete, Mr. Putin’s supporters have taken to marking the doors of opposition activists.
The global L.G.B.T.Q. movement is a plot against Russia
This claim — starkly captured by Mr. Putin’s statement that in the West, “children can play five or six gender roles,” threatening Russia’s “core population” — has been brewing for a decade. A criminal case in 2012 against Pussy Riot, an anarchic punk band critical of the regime, was the tipping point. The Kremlin sought to portray the band and its followers as a set of sexually subversive provocateurs whose aim was to destroy the Russian Orthodox Church and traditional values. The complaints spread to foreign nongovernmental organizations and L.G.B.T.Q. activists, accused of corrupting Russians from infancy. Soon, anti-L.G.B.T.Q. scaremongering became a major plank of Kremlin policy.
It was remarkably effective: By 2020, one-fifth of Russians surveyed said they wanted to “eliminate” lesbian and gay people from Russian society. They were responding to a propaganda campaign, undertaken by state media, claiming that L.G.B.T.Q. rights were an invention of the West, with the potential to shatter Russian social stability. Mr. Putin, unveiling his party’s manifesto ahead of 2021’s parliamentary elections, took things a step further — claiming that when people in the West weren’t trying to outright abolish the concept of gender, they were allowing teachers in schools to decide on a child’s gender, irrespective of parental wishes. It was, he said, a crime against humanity.
The West’s progressive attitudes to sexual diversity eventually played into the Ukrainian war effort. In March, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, claimed the invasion was necessary to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine from a West that insists any entrant to its club of nations host a gay pride march. The supposed predations of L.G.B.T.Q. rights had to be met with righteous force.
Ukraine is preparing bioweapons to use against Russia
The newest of the Kremlin’s major hoaxes, this conspiracy theory has flourished since the start of the war — though it echoes Mr. Putin’s remarks in 2017, when he accused Western experts of collecting biological material from Russians for scientific experiments.
In the second week of the war, regime-friendly bloggers and then top-ranking politicians, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, claimed that Russian intelligence had obtained evidence that America and Ukraine were developing biological weapons — in the form of disease-ridden bats and birds — to spread viruses in Russia. The Ministry of Defense suggested it had unearthed documents that confirmed the collaboration.
To add ballast to the claim, state media repeated a remark made by Tucker Carlson, a Fox News host, that the White House was involved in biowarfare against Russia in Ukraine. There was, of course, no credible evidence for anything of the sort. But the story spread across Russia, and the Kremlin even convened a U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss it. After all, Hunter Biden was probably financing it.
All five of these conspiracy theories, and many more, have found their place in wartime Russia. They are used to justify the war in Ukraine, both by ordinary citizens and by the Kremlin. What’s more, conspiracy theories have become a way to reject mounting evidence of Russian atrocities — which are recast instead as foreign skulduggery. The crimes at Bucha, for example, were immediately blamed on the Ukrainians, who apparently either staged the photos or killed innocent people to set up the Russian Army. Hollywood, meanwhile, is believed to be working hard to produce scenes of mass poisoning to further discredit Russia. The C.I.A. is spinning its web.
From battles of words on talk shows and online, conspiracy theories have effectively turned into a weapon that kills real people. That’s scary enough. But the most frightening thing is that Mr. Putin, waging war without restraint, seems to believe them.
Ilya Yablokov (@ilya_yablokov) is a lecturer in journalism and digital media at the University of Sheffield in England, the author of “Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet World” and a co-author of “Russia Today and Conspiracy Theories: People, Power, Politics on RT.”
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