Observers of Vladimir Putin are surprised at how confident he appears as his war against Ukraine, planned as a three-day essay in regime change, extends into a chapter of disasters.
There could be many explanations: the KGB training which has endowed Putin with extraordinary self-control; some form of medication that puts him in a parallel universe; or the problem that afflicts ageing dictators – the yes-men around him have learnt never to tell the boss how bad things are.
I have another idea. Having studied how Stalin outfoxed his World War II allies, Churchill and Roosevelt, and manipulated the Anglo-American media, I believe Putin’s confidence comes from the feeling that he has Stalin’s hand on his shoulder. The marshal who led the USSR to victory in 1945 is guiding his 21st century protégé along the same path.
Under Putin, the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians refer to World War II, has acquired cult status, a touchstone of patriotism and loyalty to the regime. Two wartime lessons are remembered in the Kremlin. From a position of near-defeat in 1941, Stalin mobilized the whole Soviet population to die in their millions to turn the tide of battle and defeat the German armies. At the same time, he exerted ruthless control of the narrative of the war on the Eastern Front which helped to hide from the Allies his ambition to dominate half of post-war Europe.
Hard-bitten British and American war correspondents fought each other for a posting to Moscow in 1941 to cover the titanic battles that would decide the future of the war in Europe. Instead, they found themselves corralled in the faded luxury of the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. They never saw the front line or heard a shot fired in anger, and thanks to rigid censorship rarely cabled a word that was not copied from the Soviet press. The result was that reports from the Eastern Front served only to hide the truth about Stalin’s thirst for territorial expansion while burnishing his wartime image as the amiable Uncle Joe.
The story of Stalin’s successful wartime propaganda campaign is told in my new book, The Red Hotel: The Untold Story of Disinformation War. This episode has remained untold for so many years because it reflects poorly on many of the journalists in Moscow and their editors. In the 1930s, the New York Times Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty did Stalin’s bidding by dismissing the Ukrainian famine as foreign propaganda. More than three million were to die in the Communist Party’s campaign against the Ukrainian peasantry. During the war, the Moscow press corps’ leading Stalin apologist was Ralph Parker, correspondent of the London Times, whose advocacy of Kremlin talking points was energetically endorsed by the paper’s assistant editor, the historian E H Carr.
So feeble was the journalists’ pushback against Stalin’s dictatorship that it fell to the reporters’ Soviet translators, exasperated at the lies they were being told, to whisper the truth – at huge risk to themselves and their families. Not surprisingly, some of these brave women ended up in the Gulag after the war.
History does not repeat itself, and the differences between the newspaper-led world of the 1940s and today’s digital media environment are huge. Putin has spent more than 20 years in power transferring control of the printed and broadcast media into the hands of the Russian state or Kremlin-affiliated businesses. This is not quite the same as Stalin’s monopoly of the media in Soviet times, but it comes close. Today the Moscow foreign press corps is constrained by the policing of language about the war and the threat of imprisonment on trumped-up charges of espionage, as in the case of Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was arrested on March 30 and is awaiting trial in a Moscow prison.
This is not to suggest that Putin is intent on bringing back the USSR. While Stalin’s methods are the model, his playbook is an awkward mixture of misremembered tsarist history and cherry-picked elements of the communist USSR.
Putin believes that liberal democracies are weak while history proves, in his view, that Russia has the stamina for a long conflict. According to this logic, Europeans will not have the stomach for a long test of strength with Russia. As for the United States, currently Ukraine’s armorer-in-chief, Putin can pin his hopes on the 2024 presidential election when a more isolationist candidate may be elected.
For that to happen, the propaganda war may prove as decisive as the battles on the ground.
Looking back to 1941-45, the aim of Stalin’s muzzling of the US and British press in the Metropol Hotel was to remove from public debate among the Allies any topic which might jeopardize the continued supplies of American Lend-Lease war materiel — the tanks, trucks, aircraft and raw materials that kept the Red Army fighting and on the move, and which have now been largely airbrushed from Putin’s version of history. This worked perfectly. Stalin got so many six-wheel Studebaker trucks that the Red Army outperformed the Germans in logistics. What’s more, Stalin was able to describe himself as a peace-loving man, and his intention to “bolshevise” half of Europe remained hidden.
Today the goal is the opposite: Putin needs to dissuade America from sending US arms supplies to Ukraine. He can do this by sowing doubt among US policymakers and opinion formers about the merits of backing Ukraine against its powerful neighbor. The target of this influence operation will be politicians and opinion formers in the United States. The means, among others, will be propaganda outlets such as the state broadcaster RT as well as manipulation of social media.
There is some doubt whether Russia’s previous influence operations have had a decisive influence on foreign elections, but that is beside the point. In this case, it is not necessary to deliver a totally convincing argument. It may be sufficient to sow enough confusion in the minds of Americans that no one is sure what to think, and the argument for supporting Ukraine just falls away.
Alan Philps is the author of The Red Hotel, published in the UK by Headline and to be released in the US and Canada by Pegasus on July 4. He served as a Moscow correspondent for Reuters and the Daily Telegraph. He has been the foreign editor of the Daily Telegraph and Editor of The World Today, the Chatham House magazine.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.