The Media’s Ulterior Motives For Labeling Putin A Conspiracy Theorist
It isn’t meant to make Putin look any worse.
In Orson Welles’ legendary 1941 film Citizen Kane, a montage of breakfast conversations between Charles Foster Kane, the protagonist played by Welles himself, and Kane’s first wife Emily Monroe Norton Kane (Ruth Warrick) characterizes the decline of their marriage. The first conversation between Charles, the owner of the New York Inquirer, and his new wife, the niece of the fictional president of the United States, is full of flattery, and on Emily’s part the longing to spend more time with her media mogul husband. In the last, the pair sit silently, Charles reading the day’s copy of the Inquirer, Emily a copy of the rival Chronicle.
The last exchange the pair have around the breakfast table, right before the scene where the two have their heads buried in their chosen newspapers, is painfully brief.
Emily says, “Really, Charles, people will think—”
“—what I tell them to think,” Charles says with a scowl, and puts his teacup down with a rattle.
If only Kane’s character arc was simply a work of Welles and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz’s creative power. But their 1941 film has stood the test of time precisely because Kane, predominantly based on media titan William Randolph Hearst, and his desire for control, is not the work of pure imagination. It points to something inherent in the structure and people who declare themselves the stenographers of history.
Last week, the New York Times published an essay by Ilya Yablokov, a lecturer at the University of Sheffield, England on journalism and digital media and author of two books on conspiracy theories in Russian politics. “Vladimir Putin’s Russia is driven by conspiracy theories,” Yablokov asserts in the first line of the essay. The piece goes on to list five “conspiracy theories that Putin has weaponized.”
Three of the five conspiracies can largely be lumped together: the West wants to weaken Russia’s political, economic, and military influence with the ultimate aim of forcing Putin out of power.
To debunk this conspiracy, Yablokov first set out to prove that trepidation about Western intervention was a figment of Putin and the Russian media’s imagination. He shares an example from a national news conference in 2007, where a journalist asked Putin what he thought “about the former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s comment that Russia’s natural riches should be redistributed and controlled by America?” The remark was indeed fabricated, as Yablokov later suggests, but, in Yablokov’s own words, “Mr. Putin replied that such ideas were shared by ‘certain politicians’ but he didn’t know about the remark.”
That’s not exactly proof that the fictitious remark was a Putin plant.
Nonetheless, to make the anecdote stick, Yablokov creates a conspiracy about the conspiracy he aims to upend: that Putin reaped the benefits of his misinformation campaign against Albright last year—a full eleven years after the claim first surfaced. During a May 2021 speech, Yablokov says, Putin claimed that everyone “‘wants to bite us or bite off a piece of Russia’ because ‘it is unjust for Russia alone to possess the riches of a region like Siberia.’”
“An invented quote had become ‘fact,’ legitimizing Mr. Putin’s ever more hostile approach to the West,” Yablokov concludes.
But Yablokov, an author of two books about Russian politics, well knows that Washington policy makers, throughout the Cold War and after, have tried to find ways to minimize Russia’s domestic control over its natural resource deposits in Siberia to diminish its global influence. In the past, the U.S. government has encouraged American and Western energy companies to buy up natural resource rights in Russian Siberia to exert control over the Russian government.
After the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, for example, the U.S. government levied sanctions on Russia, which required Exxon to stop drilling in Siberia and the Russian Arctic.
As for NATO, Yablokov believes it’s nothing more than “a convenient boogeyman that animates the anti-Western element of Mr. Putin’s electorate.”
The Putin conspiracy here, Yablokov claims, is that since Euromaidan in 2014, “Putin and his subordinates propagated the notion that Ukraine was turning into a puppet state under the control of the United States.” Yablokov mentions Putin’s Feb. 21 speech, which laid out the Russian president’s view on Russia’s historical approach to Ukraine, and NATO’s increased interest in the Russian border state, but doesn’t make any attempt to refute Putin’s arguments. Readers are simply expected to believe it’s a conspiracy and Putin is unhinged. Lucky for Yablokov, this is the Times, so many readers likely already do.
Labeling the idea that NATO’s approach to Ukraine constitutes a threat to Russia as a Putin-fed conspiracy, however, isn’t meant to make Putin look any worse to Times readers than they likely already perceive him. It’s an attempt to slander and discredit realists and restrainers, the only real force in Washington attempting to break away from the liberal internationalists on the right and left, as Putin apologists or being somehow in league with Moscow—just as they did with President Donald Trump with the collusion hoax after the 2016 election.
Yablokov doesn’t even bother addressing any of the arguments about NATO policy or weapons transfers over the past decade to Ukraine. If you think NATO’s policy of expansion and intervention has led to many unintended consequences, one of which being escalation and alienation of Russia, then you believe what Putin believes. End of argument, so they think.
The third Putin conspiracy under the umbrella of Western antagonism towards Russia, Yablokov says, is an unfounded fear of Western-backed regime change in Russia:
Since at least 2004, Mr. Putin has been suspicious of domestic opposition, fearing a Ukrainian-style revolution. Fortress Russia, forever undermined by foreign enemies, became a feature of Kremlin propaganda. But it was the Maidan revolution that brought about a confluence in the Kremlin’s messaging: Not only were dissidents bringing discord to Russia, but they were also doing so under orders from the West. The aim was to turn Russia into a mess like Ukraine.
In this line of thinking, opposition forces were a fifth column infiltrating the otherwise pure motherland — and it led to the branding of activists, journalists and organizations as foreign agents.
Yet again, Yablokov gives absolutely zero effort to show that Putin’s fear of regime change is unfounded. Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were unavailable for comment.
But Lindsey Graham, a Republican Senator from South Carolina, has called repeatedly for regime change in Russia, first on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show in early March. Graham then doubled down on Twitter. “Is there a Brutus in Russia? Is there a more successful Colonel Stauffenberg in the Russian military? The only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take this guy out,” Graham tweeted. “You would be doing your country – and the world – a great service.”
In follow up tweets, Graham added, “The only people who can fix this are the Russian people. Easy to say, hard to do. Unless you want to live in darkness for the rest of your life, be isolated from the rest of the world in abject poverty, and live in darkness you need to step up to the plate.”
Another tweet from Graham said, “It is clear to me the world would be a better place if there was regime change in Russia. Putin is a war criminal who needs to go – at the hands of the Russian people – by any means possible.”
While others in Congress may have avoided invoking the now maligned phrase “r****e c****e,” they’ve supported policies that would render the same effect. Republican Reps. Adam Kinzinger, Brian Mast, and Maria Elvira Salazar, as well as Republican Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker and others, have come out in support of a U.S. or NATO imposed no-fly zone.
Enforcing a no-fly zone means direct aerial combat between Russian and U.S. or NATO pilots, and striking Russian air defense systems positioned both in Ukraine and Russia. War would ensue. Victory in such a war, if the human race doesn’t destroy itself in the process, would be Putin’s removal from power.
Though the White House has rejected Graham’s proposition for regime change, the Biden administration has determined to fight the Russians to the last Ukrainian, providing the Ukrainians billions of dollars in aid in just over two months of hostilities. “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said during a recent visit to Poland with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The fourth conspiracy peddled by Putin, Yablokov claims, is that “The global L.G.B.T.Q. movement is a plot against Russia,” a sentiment Putin “starkly captured” when the Russian president asserted that “children can play five or six gender roles,” in the West, which threatens Russia’s “core population.”
To use a term of art from regime-approved fact-checkers, the quote, from a brief interview with the Financial Times at the Osaka G20 summit in 2019, is “missing context.”
“I am not trying to insult anyone because we have been condemned for our alleged homophobia. But we have no problem with LGBT persons. God forbid, let them live as they wish,” Putin said, according to the Financial Times. “But some things do appear excessive to us. They claim now that children can play five or six gender roles.”
“Let everyone be happy, we have no problem with that,” Putin went on to tell the Financial Times. “But this must not be allowed to overshadow the culture, traditions and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population.”
Nevertheless, Yablokov says “anti-L.G.B.T.Q. scaremongering” has become a large component in the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, especially after the Russian government imprisoned members of the punk band Pussy Riot, whose music contains LGBT and anti-Putin messages, in 2012.
Yablokov’s framing of the Pussy Riot ordeal would have readers believe Putin sent his stooges after members of the punk band completely unprovoked. What he doesn’t mention, however, is that five of the group’s eleven members staged a protest performance inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior on Feb. 21, 2012 to show their disapproval of Orthodox Church leadership’s support for Putin’s presidential campaign. Three of the band members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were eventually convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and given a two-year prison sentence.
The end result of this propaganda effort, Yablokov says, citing a survey from the Moscow-based nongovernmental research organization Levada Center, is that “one-fifth of Russians surveyed said they wanted to ‘eliminate’ lesbian and gay people from Russian society.”
“Eliminate?” That’s genocidal rhetoric. And that is exactly what Yablokov wants Times readers to believe. But Ekaterina Kochergina, one of the Levada Center researchers that conducted the survey, said that the survey’s use of the word “eliminate” meant “to make something disappear from your reality,” and not through mass killings of Russian gay people.
Nonetheless, with this undertone of genocide, Yablokov says Putin is ratcheting up his anti-LGBT rhetoric with false claims, like teachers having a say on a child’s gender identity even if parents don’t agree.
Yablokov is referencing a speech Putin delivered at a Valdai Discussion Club meeting last October, where he said the following:
[There are] some truly monstrous things [that happen] when children are taught from an early age that a boy can easily become a girl and vice versa. That is, the teachers actually impose on them a choice we all supposedly have. They do so while shutting the parents out of the process and forcing the child to make decisions that can upend their entire life. They do not even bother to consult with child psychologists – is a child at this age even capable of making a decision of this kind? Calling a spade a spade, this verges on a crime against humanity, and it is being done in the name and under the banner of progress.
Those who follow @libsoftiktok on Twitter know that everything Putin says here is true. Radical leftists openly brag about this on social media. It’s not just fringe purple-haired kindergarten teachers, either. In some states, government and medical institutions legally collude to administer gender affirming care without parental approval.
The final Kremlin conspiracy to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Yobloko says, is that “Ukraine is preparing bioweapons to use against Russia.” Yobloko correctly points out that high-ranking Russian officials and members of the Russian media claimed that Russia had obtained intelligence about the existence of bioweapons in Ukraine during the early stages of the Russian invasion. The news quickly made its way to the United States, and members of the right, such as Fox News’ Tucker Carlson were smeared by the Times with a Russian collusion narrative of their own for even asking questions about U.S. funded biolabs in Ukraine.
“There was, of course, no credible evidence for anything of the sort,” Yablokov writes.
Try as Yablokov might to brush the claim aside with bad Hunter Biden jokes, the United States has invested more than $21 million in the construction and operation of various biolabs in Ukraine through the Biological Threat Reduction Program, which seeks to help former Soviet countries clean up installations from Soviet-era chemical and biological weapons programs. Some of these facilities handle toxins and pathogens as dangerous as anthrax and HIV.
By no means is this program a secret. The U.S. embassy in Kiev openly discloses this funding on its website. But if the sole purpose of the Biological Threat Reduction Program is to dismantle these Soviet-era programs, why did we keep these operations in Ukraine, a poor and unstable country, rather than destroy these materials or move them to a more secure location, especially when it seemed Russia’s invasion was imminent? Furthermore, why has Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland expressed concern that this research could end up in Russian hands?
These are all perfectly legitimate questions, but Yablokov makes no effort to address these questions.
But the point of this exercise is not to engage with these “conspiracies” on the merits—doing so would grant these conspiracies undue legitimacy by lending them the credibility of the Times.
The purpose of Yablokov’s piece, and others like it in the corporate media, is to wield institutional power in a way that creates a positive feedback loop that crowds out dissent.
Why is it a conspiracy theory? Because the Times says so. Why does the Times say so? Because it is a conspiracy theory. Repeat.
Its ease makes it a tempting tactic, especially for the lazy, uncritical, and untalented, of which the establishment is all three. And it’s effective, as long as you have enough credibility and institutional power to reduce all argumentation to superficial ethos. But the mediocrity that lends itself to this tactic has also squandered the establishment’s credibility overtime. Whether its claims of WMDs in Iraq or a stolen election in 2016, the public can no longer be expected to unquestioningly believe what the regime stenographers tell them. Still convinced of their own power, the establishment has grown frustrated. The Biden administration is creating a Department of Homeland Security outfit devoted to fighting disinformation.
In the “News On The March” obituary made upon Kane’s death, the narrator describes Kane as a man who “urged his country’s entry into one war, opposed participation in another,” and “swung the election to one American President at least.” If only our corporate media could find a war they oppose, maybe they could eclipse the infamy of Charles Foster Kane.