Welcome to the ‘looking-glass’ world of Putin’s Russia

Daniel Treisman

A band of mercenaries seizes a major city, shoots down multiple aircrafts and drives a column of tanks to within 125 miles of Moscow, with the declared aim of ousting the defense minister. The president quickly pardons them and says their billionaire commander can withdraw, untouched, to Belarus. An opposition politician leads peaceful protests and campaigns for honest elections. Branded a traitor and prosecuted for “extremism,” he now spends his days in a concrete punishment cell, denied even a pen and paper.
Welcome to the weird, through-the-looking-glass world of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where everything is its opposite and almost nothing is what it seems. That may hold as well for the still-murky fate of last month’s mutineer, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner group. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko initially confirmed his arrival at an airbase near Minsk on June 27. But then, on July 6, he said the mercenary kingpin was actually in St. Petersburg.
Even more bizarrely, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed to have no idea about the whereabouts of the man who had just shaken the regime to its core. The Kremlin had “neither the ability nor the desire” to track Prigozhin, he told journalists. In the latest mind-boggling twist, Peskov admitted on Monday that Prigozhin had actually met with Putin in the Kremlin on June 29, just days after his revolt, and that the president had offered the Wagner boss and his men “further options for deployment.” While Putin promised the rebel leader immunity, he would still be wise to watch his back. Others who have crossed the Kremlin later succumbed to rare poisons or suffered mysterious “accidents.” Prigozhin’s mutiny and its still-unfolding aftermath have laid bare how peculiarly mendacious Russia’s public life has become.
To make sense of Kremlin politics these days often seems to require a polygraph. When the jailed opposition leader, Alexey Navalny, first heard about Prigozhin’s rebellion, it seemed so implausible he assumed it was “a joke or an Internet meme.” Completely cut off from news in his punishment cell, he only learned of the mutiny from his lawyer in court.
All dictatorships traffic in contradictions. War is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength, as readers of Orwell know well. Putin’s sloganeers might add a few more paradoxes to the list. Lies are truth. Illusion is reality. In Russia today, spreading “false” information about the war – that is, reporting on it accurately – is punishable by up to 15 years in a penal colony. If, like the courageous pro-democracy campaigner Vladimir Kara-Murza, you also accuse Russian troops of war crimes, you risk getting an additional 10 – as the judge decided in Kara-Murza’s case.
Putin’s speeches create a mirror image of reality. As citizens in Rostov cheered the mutineers and booed the police, the president insisted that everyone was united behind him and the constitutional order. Later, he thanked the troops and security services for acting “in a firm and coordinated manner.” In fact, they hardly acted at all. Russia’s president is also adept at subterfuge. To conceal his whereabouts, he is said to have built exact replicas of his Kremlin office in multiple locations. When TV shows Putin in Moscow, he may just as well be in Sochi or Valdai. To avoid being tracked by flight radar, he has taken to travelling in a secret train carriage, according to a defector from his guard service. Amid all the lies, Prigozhin’s most subversive act may have been not his march on Moscow but his moment of truth in a video released just before it. In an impassioned rant, he accused the Russian authorities of cooking up a pretext for the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. “On February 24th, nothing extraordinary happened,” he said.
He was careful not to call Putin a liar. But – hardly better – he made him out to be a dupe, deceived by medal-hungry generals and rapacious oligarchs into starting an unnecessary war that has cost many tens of thousands of Russian lives. Worse yet for the Kremlin, Prigozhin’s claim – coming from a diehard nationalist – will seem quite believable to many Russians.
That may be one reason Putin did not, at first, use force against him. Rather than risk creating a martyr for hardliners, he seems to have decided to start by destroying the warlord’s credibility. Investigations and leaks have already begun, with pictures of Prigozhin’s lavish mansion appearing on state television. Equipped with gold bars, multiple passports, caches of weapons, a closet full of wigs and other disguises, the place is a model of gangster chic.
In this looking-glass world, the president has no time for politics. He rarely appears in public. Visitors must often quarantine for days before he will sit with them – and then, usually only at the end of one of his famous elongated tables. Isolated in his self-built echo chamber, he relies on reports from his security services – the same ones that predicted quick victory in Ukraine and failed to anticipate and prevent Prigozhin’s rebellion. It’s a sign of how badly Prigozhin rattled him that Putin briefly broke out of his comfort zone after the mutiny to telegraph that he was still in control. On a visit to Dagestan, he mingled in-person and posed for selfies with a crowd of presumably carefully vetted admirers, awkwardly kissing one teenage girl on the forehead. This was followed by a clearly scripted visit to the Kremlin by an eight-year-old girl, who joined the grandfatherly president in a bizarre phone call to the Russian finance minister. No one expects the new friendly Putin to last long. The real politician in Russia today, despite all obstacles, is Alexey Navalny. Even from jail, he has continued campaigning and commenting on events, doing interviews, and posting on social media via his lawyers.
With a mix of millennial humor and folksy irony, he reaches out to ordinary Russians with scenes from prison life. Watching prices soar last year in the prison store, he sympathized with pensioners on the outside struggling with inflation. Every holiday, he sends greetings to supporters, and he even appealed to French voters last year to reelect President Emmanuel Macron over the Putin-friendly Marine Le Pen. After the war started, Navalny offered a 15-point program for ending it and rebuilding a democratic Russia. And now, in between battling the prosecutors’ new charges, he has called for IT specialists, sociologists, donors and volunteers to sign up for a “long, stubborn, exhausting but fundamentally important campaign” to sway public opinion against the war. It remains to be seen whether this will prove more effective than Navalny’s previous campaigns while at liberty. But as reality begins to break through the Kremlin’s filter, the timing may finally be right.
Putin seems less and less able to grasp the challenges before him. After the 2014 invasion of Crimea, then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel described Putin as living in “another world.” An open question now is whether he can find the way back.