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Kremlin's strategy: distortion of reality - ISW

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Photo: Kremlin's strategy: distortion of reality  - ISW. Source: Collage The Gaze \ by Leonid Lukashenko
Photo: Kremlin's strategy: distortion of reality - ISW. Source: Collage The Gaze \ by Leonid Lukashenko

Russia cannot defeat Ukraine or the West - and will likely lose - if the West mobilizes its resources to resist the Kremlin. The West’s existing and latent capability dwarfs that of Russia. The combined gross domestic product (GDP) of NATO countries, non-NATO European Union states, and our Asian allies is over $63 trillion. The Russian GDP is on the close order of $1.9 trillion. Iran and North Korea add little in terms of material support. China is enabling Russia, but it is not mobilized on behalf of Russia and is unlikely to do so. If we lean in and surge, Russia loses.


The Kremlin’s principal effort is to force the United States to accept and reason from Russian premises to decisions that advance Russia’s interests, not ours. The Kremlin is not arguing with us. It is trying to enforce assertions about Russia’s manufactured portrayal of reality as the basis for our own discussions, and then allow us to reason to conclusions pre-determined by the Kremlin. Accepting Russia’s premises and reasoning from them may proceed in a formally logical way but is certainly not rational, since it is divorced from actual reality and from our interests. Soviet mathematician Vladimir Lefebvre defined this process as “reflexive control”– a way of transmitting bases for decision-making to an opponent so that they freely come to a pre-determined decision.


A key example: Putin takes the false assertion that discussions of Ukraine’s NATO accession posed a clear and imminent danger to Russia along with the false assertion that Ukraine is not a real country and builds them into a false conclusion that he was justified in launching a war of conquest. Another assertion: Russia has the right to a self-defined sphere of influence, and, therefore, a right to do whatever it wants to those within this sphere – including invading, killing, raping, and ethnic cleansing – with no repercussions. The degree to which Western discourse includes serious consideration of these falsehoods marks the success of long-running Russian information operations.


Some sincerely accept the Kremlin’s false predicates and resulting conclusions. Others may accept the predicates but stop short of leaping to conclusions that any of these arguments justify the Kremlin’s invasion and atrocities. Many can see past the Kremlin’s manipulations and recognize that Russia’s war is an unprovoked war of conquest, however.


The Kremlin then targets this last category on a different level of reasoning – the predicates that inform our will to do something about Russia’s war and the lengths to which we are willing to go. The Kremlin targets our perceptions of costs, priorities, risks, upsides, alignment with our values, and effects of our own actions. Two main categories of false assertions that the Kremlin is trying to enforce in this respect are that: a) Ukraine cannot win this war; supporting Ukraine is a distraction from ‘real’ US problems; Ukraine will be forced to settle; the United States is at risk of being stuck in another “forever” war; and

b) the risks in helping Ukraine defend itself, let alone win, are higher than the risks of failure in Ukraine for the United States - it is too costly, too risky, and that Ukraine is not worth it.

ISW and many others have thoroughly debunked these assertions, yet they remain pervasive in US discussions about opposing Russia.


The Russian goal is to have us freely reason to a conclusion that Russia’s prevailing in Ukraine is inevitable and that we must stay on the sidelines — and Moscow is succeeding far too well in this effort.


It is important to emphasize that by no means all who oppose continuing or expanding support for Ukraine are doing so as the result of Russian reflexive control measures. The point, however, is that Americans must recognize the enormous effort the Kremlin is putting into these and other assertions in order to create a picture of reality that, taken in its totality, is false — Russia had no right to invade Ukraine, has no rights to control Ukraine, was not provoked into such an invasion, will not inevitably win, will not inevitably escalate to fighting a full-scale war against NATO, and helping Ukraine liberate its strategic territories as the only viable path to a durable peace remains the most prudent course of action to secure US interests.


The Kremlin is also flooding Western discourse with false and irrelevant narratives, forcing us to expend energy, time, and decision bandwidth on irrelevancies rather than solutions. It is not an accident that the Western debate often becomes impaled on arguing about basic well-established facts about this war. This phenomenon is not merely a function of Western knowledge gaps or short memory. It is also a result of the Kremlin’s effort to saturate the Western debate with its assertions. A key example is a myth about Russia protecting Russian speakers in Ukraine.

Russia has obliterated predominantly Russian-speaking cities in Ukraine, killing, torturing, forcefully deporting, and forcing to flee many Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Russia harmed the very people in the name of whom it waged the war. Despite this well documented reality, discussions about letting Putin keep “Russian-speaking provinces” to stop the war persist in Western debate.

These discussions proceed from a false premise that Russia’s war aimed to protect Russian speakers to a false conclusion that ceding portions of Ukraine that have Russian speakers can resolve the war and is, furthermore, reasonable or justifiable. Many other basic facts are in question daily as the Kremlin floods the Western debate with its narratives. Putin deliberately chose to focus his interview with an American media personality on historical justifications for the war.

Putin is retroactively creating casus belli by twisting a historic narrative on the record. The history of Kievan Rus is as irrelevant to the current war as the history of the Roman Empire was to World War II. Every country in the world has a historical basis to claim rights to some or all of the territory of its neighbors. The world avoids a Hobbesian war of all against all by rejecting the validity of such arguments. Yet the Kremlin’s constant driving of them continues to divert Western discussions about what to do now into these historical irrelevancies.

The Kremlin also forces the West to dedicate energy to an equally irrelevant discussion about whether Ukraine has the “right” to be a state or a nation. No country with a seat in the United Nations and recognized by the overwhelming majority of states in the world has an obligation to prove its right to exist no matter how small or ethnically like another state it might be. This principle is central to the current world order, and its destruction would open the floodgates of war around the world, as predators used such reasoning to justify attacks on would-be prey. But the flood of false Russian narratives forces us to engage in such irrelevancies rather than focusing on war-winning strategies and our interests.


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