But those who have been paying close attention to Russia under its leader Vladimir Putin knew better than to take their word for it. Even as oil prices dropped and stock markets climbed in response to signs of a potential breakthrough, President Joe Biden sounded skeptical, saying, “We’ll see if they follow through what they’re suggesting.”
Within hours, Russian shells and missiles started slamming buildings in Chernihiv and in the outskirts of Kyiv. Chernihiv Major Vladyslav Atroshenko, describing a “colossal attack” on the city, said, “This is yet another confirmation that Russia always lies.”
That truth is the first casualty of war has become a cliché. But it didn’t take a war for Putin’s Russia to launch a stream of falsehoods and disinformation. The disappointments started decades ago and they never stopped. The war allowed the world to see it deployed in real time.
How do you negotiate with an interlocutor who lies routinely, repeatedly and without compunction? How do you negotiate with a regime that has a decades-long track record of breaking its international commitments? Among the many broken promises is the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, when Russia, in exchange for Ukraine’s agreement to hand over the nuclear weapons it held from the Soviet era, vowed to respect Ukraine’s borders, sovereignty and independence. And in Russia’s 1997 “Founding Act” agreement with NATO, it promised not only to commit to democracy and the rule of law, but to refrain “from the threat or use of force…against any other state, its sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence.”
Ukrainians say the current negotiations are nothing but a “smokescreen” to allow battered Russian forces to regroup. Many observers agree.
Now, US intelligence claims Putin has been misled by his generals about the extent of Russia’s losses. If Putin himself is now the victim of disinformation from members of his inner circle of him at this crucial moment, it would be a sublime case of poetic justice: The world’s leading practitioner of tactical gaslighting, hoisted on his own petard!
Putin built an empire of lies from the early days of his rise to power. Putin used the still-murky origins of the Moscow apartment bombings in 1999 as a pretext to pulverize Chechnya and paint himself as the muscular defender of the Russian people, just in time to win his first presidential election. Over the next two decades, Putin would leave a visible trail of lies and deception: the mysterious deaths of his most prominent rivals; the poisonings of critics; the fabricated charges against his now-imprisoned challengers of him; the interference in elections in the US and other democracies. And, as happens with highly personalized autocracies, his tactics have been replicated by those surrounding him and carrying out his orders.
Even more troubling, Putin’s successful monopolization of power in Russia turned him into an icon of would-be strongmen around the world, as populists with autocratic tendencies replicate his disinformation campaigns to seek and retain power. It’s no coincidence that former US President Donald Trump, who has lavished Putin with praise and just this week asked for his help yet again, spent four years in office lying to the public, and is still lying about losing the 2020 election almost 18 months after the results were settled.
In Russia, the war against Ukraine — which Russian law prohibits journalists from calling a “war” — was launched from a runway of lies: Putin and his aides incessantly denied Russia would invade, while absurdly claiming that Ukraine is run by Nazis who threaten Russia. Since the war started, the lying has continued unabated, with ever more preposterous accusations, while the gaslighting has become increasingly transparent.
The operating principle, “believe what I say, not what you see,” was in full force when Putin’s spokesman Dimitry Peskov told CNN that Russia has only attacked military targets, even though the entire world has seen the bombed apartments and civilian targets, which include schools and hospitals which endanger children.
Russian citizens are being told that Ukraine is developing biological weapons, even though the US and its allies have warned that Russia could be using this as an excuse to launch its own biological or chemical attacks. Russia has also suggested Ukraine wants nuclear weapons, even though the Kremlin itself has suggested it might resort to using them.
A friend in Russia just told me she doesn’t believe anything anyone says, on either side. That’s what happens when you swim in an ocean of lies.
How, then, do you negotiate with a government that cannot be believed; one that cannot be trusted to keep its word, to abide by its commitments?
No matter how this war ends and how the lines might be drawn, Russia will still stand on the other side of the border. That’s Ukraine’s reality. One day, Putin will no longer hold power. But for now, the fact is that this war will not be settled at the negotiating table, even if both sides eventually come to an agreement.
The outline of that final agreement will be to a large extent the product of what happens on the battlefield. To succeed at the negotiating table, Ukraine, with the West’s help, must prevail in its military campaign and gain enough leverage that the undeniable reality will overshadow Putin’s fabrications.
Putin will lie to his people and to the world about how the war unfolded. The Russian people may not learn the truth until he is gone, but for Ukrainians enduring Russia’s assault, and for Russian soldiers and those dying to defend Putin’s empire of lies, already the truth is all too clear.