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The trick to understanding Kremlin propaganda

On October 1, formerly Western-friendly former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev warned that “halfwits” in positions of power in NATO countries were “actively pushing us to WWIII” by supporting an idea to send British soldiers to Ukraine as trainers and by calling for the provision to “ukrobanderovtsy” of air-launched cruise missiles capable of flying 500 kilometers.

Medvedev, whose social media rants over the past year have become the stuff of satire, is widely dismissed in most circles as an unserious source for those interested in figuring out what the Kremlin’s inner circle “really thinks.”

The problem is, the crazier-sounding half of Kremlin propaganda—the half that Medvedev, along with widely clipped RT head Margarita Simonyan and talk show host Vladimir Solovyov inhabit—is no less indicative of the conventional wisdom inside Putin’s inner circle than the more plausible sounding half of Kremlin propaganda is.

The secret to understanding Kremlin propaganda is to appreciate the fact that the less plausible sounding half isn’t actually any less true than the more plausible sounding half is—it is cut from the same cloth.

For example, a fairly negligible minority outside of Russia ever actually believed the Kremlin propaganda lines that the United States military has constructed a ring of biological and chemical weapons facilities around Russia’s borders, or that MI6 was behind the attempted poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury back in 2018, or that a Ukrainian fighter jet shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over the Donbas in 2014.

Like Medvedev’s rants, these absurdist narratives allow outside observers, along with many Russian citizens themselves, to take pride in the false belief that they are adept spotters of Kremlin propaganda, and so, therefore, Vladimir Putin‘s information warriors are too inept to fool them.

However, plenty of respected figures both in the West and in Russia have fallen for Kremlin narratives that appeared on their face to be true largely because, compared to the kind of fantasies noted above, they at least seemed plausible: that “NATO expansion” posed a military threat to a nuclear-armed superpower, that Putin and those around him are genuinely concerned about the geopolitical might of the state they have spent the past 23 years looting, that the next weapons system delivered to Ukraine might finally represent the Kremlin’s nuclear “red line,” or that the Russian leader—whether due to Covid isolation, incomplete information, or delusions of historical grandeur—somehow failed to understand that the Ukrainian nation he himself had been characterizing for years as an “anti-Russia” would not greet Russian tank crews as liberators on the streets of Kyiv.

If “Kremlin insiders” are repeating a narrative, that ought to be taken as a fairly strong indicator that the narrative is something they want you to believe they believe, rather than something that Putin “really” thinks in actual fact. Those false narratives succeed much more often than is widely appreciated.

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