Is Russian Politics Still Virtual?
Putin’s “Conservative Values Project” and then his 2014 invasion of Ukraine followed the logic of political technology. They were a smokescreen, a diversion, and belated overkill—new and much more radical causes to mobilize the population.
It is ten years now since my book Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World first described the strange world of Russian “political technology.” I tried to show in its pages how politics in Russia had been replaced by performance art; and how an eclectic mix of Tsarist “police parties” and Soviet special operations had been spiced up with a grab-bag of ideas from Western post-modern philosophy. Although partially-digested ideas like the “society of the spectacle,” the replacement of the authentic by recycling and quotation, or the displacement of a single truth by multiple narratives, were much traduced in their new Russian forms.
Western analysis of Russia, on the other hand, was then trapped in outdated and mundane concepts like “transition,” and had failed to grasp the significance of a whole alternative world with a bizarre vocabulary of its own (e.g. clones, carousels and administrative resources) indicating much more radical perversions of the political process than were common in the West. Though in fact, political technology was already mature and at the end of its first life-cycle by 2005. In the end, I wanted to get the book out quickly, because the truth seemed so obvious.
In the 1990s, Russian political technologists often belonged to rival camps or sold themselves to the highest bidder. By 2005 the Kremlin had established a monopoly of power—not to rein in the manipulators or, as Putin once promised, to “destroy the oligarchs as a class,” but to establish its monopoly on manipulation. The system became increasingly personified by one man, the master manipulator Vladislav Surkov. Peter Pomerantsev is fond of the metaphor (and meta-reality) of Surkov’s Kremlin office “desk with phones bearing the names of all the ‘independent’ party leaders, calling and directing them at any moment, day or night.” Every politician was an actor, taking their script from Surkov.
So what has happened since 2005? In one sense, a Kremlin monopoly has streamlined if not reduced the amount of manipulation. The abolition of direct local elections meant political technologists had less work to do.
However, even though it is centrally directed, political technology has only spread and developed more malevolent forms in the last ten years. First, demand now matches supply. The system is so embedded, everyone knows how it works; the Kremlin did not need to go out looking for the small nationalist proxies that have fronted operations in Crimea and the Donbas since 2014, they would have offered themselves for sale.
Second, in the 1990s and early 2000s the Kremlin mainly manipulated politicians and political parties. In the second half of the 2000s it expanded into NGOs. The political technologists explained away the colored revolutions in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004 as NGO-fronted special operations backed by foreign services, basically the USA (it is always useful to look in the mirror of Russian myth-making—what they claim about others is normally more true of themselves). So the Kremlin now also has a lavishly funded system of what we would call GONGOs, including special purpose groups like Nashi. Putin even boasted that “this year  we have almost tripled the funding of these organizations”— which isn’t quite the Western understanding of the words “non-governmental.”
Third, there was a sharp change in the climate. Russian political technologists began openly talking about “counter-revolutionary technology.” Those at times almost comic opera enemies of the 1990s and early 2000s (Communist revanchists, Chechens, oligarchs) were now replaced by a much more toxic combination of domestic fifth columns and their foreign backers. Moreover, whereas 1990s campaigns were one-offs, this theme is now constantly recycled, no matter how stale it seems to get. In fact, to mask the staleness, the level of hysteria goes up a notch in every campaign.
Fourth, another consequence of the colored revolutions was that Russia sought to develop its own soft power and neighborhood policy, to compete with what it thought the West was doing. But, characteristically, it misinterpreted the West’s modus operandi. The EU assumes its model has natural powers of attraction and spreads it via the rulebook, the acquis communautaire. Russian Neighborhood Policy is basically political technology abroad, either via the extension of Russian GONGOs like Russkii mir or cut-out organizations like the anti-EU group Ukrainian Choice, funded by Viktor Medvedchuk, whose daughter has Putin for a godfather.
Despite the sudden popularity of Western terminology in Russian analysis, bribery, covert action and subverting neighboring political systems is not “soft power.” There is a better term in, of all places, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which is grubaya syla—coarse power.
Fifth, Russia moved into PR in the late 2000s. Interestingly, it soon found that crude propaganda only had a limited effect. What works in Russia might work in Ukraine, though the Kremlin has frequently misstepped by assuming the two countries are the same. But it won’t work in Germany or France. The web-based ProRussia. TV, launched in France in 2012, too obviously living up to its name, was replaced two years later by TV Libertés. Russia Today was soon rebranded as RT. Its motto is not “Love Russia” or “Believe Everything We Say,” but “Question More.” Its programming is cleverly embedded in local preoccupations and individualized by country.
This is the one area, in other words, where Russian political technology operates in different ways at home and abroad. Russia does not yet operate fronts and puppets west of the former USSR, though it is half-way there, with increasing evidence of Russia funding extreme right, extreme left, regional nationalist and environmental protest groups throughout the EU.
Sixth is the buzzword of 2014, “hybrid war,” which is only the latest offshoot of political technology. The blizzard of Russian propaganda against Ukraine did not come out of nowhere. Even its most outlandish tropes, such as the threat of “Ukrainian fascism,” first appeared in Russian-run Ukrainian campaigns in 2004. The use of cut-outs and proxy forces has simply moved from the political to the military arena. The favorite tactic of cloning, that is copying what your enemy does to promote moral relativism and confuse agency, has simply spread (rather than was invented) in 2014, most notably when Russia copied the genuine demonstrations on Kiev’s Maidan with fake “people’s mayors” acclaimed at Putingi (pro-Putin meetings or mitingi ) in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine.
So Russian politics is even more virtual than it was before. Political technology is the life-blood of the system, not a discardable technique. And like all addictions, it has needed higher and higher doses to have the same effect. But the political technology system has also begun to show its age; it has become more toxic as the impact of its more prosaic methods has grown blunt.
Which explains the temporary hubris that almost tripped up the Kremlin in 2011–12. The regime got lazy. It basically forgot to launch a grand narrative or dramaturgiia for the 2011 Duma elections. In the absence of distraction, the system stood revealed, and the demonstrators in Moscow thought they were the leading edge of an Emperor’s clothes effect. If they pointed out the truth behind the myth, the system would simply collapse.
It didn’t, but only because of the extraordinary effort the Kremlin put into persuading its “conservative majority” not to listen to the demonstrators, characterizing them as radically alien and “other.” In other words, first Putin’s Conservative Values Project and then his 2014 invasion of Ukraine followed the logic of political technology. They were a smokescreen, a diversion, and belated overkill—new and much more radical causes to mobilize the population. But they were also a means of regaining control over the message and isolating slogans like “Putin is a thief” into an alternative reality.
Otherwise, Russian leaders would find it difficult to remain in the close cycle of myth that has replaced genuine discourse and debate. We don’t know if they really believe what they say; even if they say the same things in private about American conspiracies and fascist Ukrainians. As Stephen Kotkin has written, the Soviet elite’s private conversations were the same as their public discourse, because of the power of ideology. However, modern Russia is more like George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell finished his novel with the protagonist Winston Smith declaring his belief that “2 + 2 = 5.” Not because of Big Brother’s surveillance; Winston is unobserved. He has come to believe whatever he is told; he is trapped in the circle—which is where Russia’s leaders are now.
Despite 2+2 obviously not making 5, Peter Pomerantsev is only partly correct with his eloquent claim that: “At the core of [Russia’s] strategy is the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth. This notion allows the Kremlin to replace facts with disinformation. […] The aim was to distract people from the evidence… and to muddy the water to a point where the audience simply gave up on the search for truth.” I’m not so sure. Credibility matters to political technology, if only in the sense that everyone has to stay on-message. Or if not, as in 2012, the narrative must be protected against those who would proclaim an alternative truth. The Kremlin must convince the conservative Russian majority, if not the whole population, and it must convince itself. The point of propaganda is indeed to confuse key facts, but Russia’s actions in east Ukraine have also been constrained by the need to stay within the general narrative of a Ukrainian “civil war,” of Russian “non-involvement,” and of Slavic solidarity against outsider threats of fascism and American hegemony.
Western policy-makers need to understand that Russia’s actions are guided by the myth- making process of political technology. That is why “realist” prescriptions for dealing with Russia are so far off the mark. We cannot base our actions in soothing Russian “humiliation” or fear of fascism, as if these were established facts. They are the product of a propaganda state. Take a look at the bikers’ rally in Sevastopol shown on prime-time Russian TV in August, with Ukrainians goose-stepping in swastika formation. It’s not just mad; it is an affront to any rational outsider trying to understand the belief-system within which it actually makes sense. The dramaturgia has developed a logic of its own, one that long ago lost touch with reality or real-world consequences.
Russia is not sleep-walking into disaster; it is marching at high-speed, while drugged up to the eyeballs. So Russia cannot be stopped by sanctions alone. Only a collective restoration of reality will do. Which will require something more than in 2012; not just the partial disengagement of a minority from the propaganda state (and many of the 2012 protestors are now born-again nationalist supporters of Putin), but the dismantling of that state itself. Russia’s misadventure in Ukraine must fail; but failure will spawn new myths unless the nature of the misadventure is exposed. And a good place to start would be for the West to abandon its complicity in a false narrative saying this is all about objective Russian “national interests”, or, worse, that it is somehow our fault.
Share this on social media
Support Aspen Institute
The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.