Breaking Putin’s Rhetorical Code

KYIV POST

By Theo Horesh. Published April 29.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech at a meeting of advisory council of the Russian parliament in Saint Petersburg on April 27, 2022. (Photo by Alexey DANICHEV / SPUTNIK / AFP)

Photo by AFP

Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot announce to the world what he is really doing in Ukraine, because even some of his biggest supporters would find it unacceptable. So, he obscures the truth through an elaborate series of lies. Yet, the lies are encoded and can be exposed, and the better we get at decoding them, the more we can undermine his power. In this way, combatting Russian propaganda means breaking the code through which it is conveyed and exposing Putin’s lies to the world.

Let’s start with perhaps his most basic rhetorical tactic.

Putin commonly accuses his victims of his own crimes to deflect attention from his real objectives. Hence, he accuses the Jewish Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky of being a Nazi while behaving curiously like Hitler; and he speaks of denazification in Ukraine when Russia is arguably the most fascist state in the world.

Like Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, Russia is ruled by an authoritarian strongman with a cult of personality, who hypnotizes his followers through the endless repetition of lies. Russia is similarly dependent on extralegal militias, which it uses to indoctrinate the youth and to police protests. The militias played a major role in fighting in the Donbas and were used to police Crimea in 2014 when Putin sent a biker gang funded by the state to patrol the streets. Finally, Russia is a revanchist state, which means it seeks to win back former imperial possessions to reclaim its former greatness.

In this way, Putin’s claim that Ukraine needs to be de-nazified helps obscure his own fascism by blaming it on its victims.

Putin employed the same rhetorical tactic when he spoke of Ukraine’s fictional genocide of Russian speakers just before the invasion. After all, it was Putin who demolished the predominantly Russian-speaking city of Mariupol and risked the lives of millions of people by bombing Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, which has long been a major source of power to the partially-Russian Donbas. In so doing, he played “Russian roulette” with the lives of his 150,000 troops stationed in Ukraine but also every single Russian speaker he claimed to be protecting.

Of course, Putin’s genocide of Ukrainians has been more direct.

His deportation of Ukrainian residents of Mariupol to the far east of Russia – where families are separated and they are forced to sign temporary contracts enslaving them to the state – is a crime against humanity that is a common mark of genocide. Similarly, his ghettoization of Mariupol involves a series of strictures making entry almost impossible and passage through the city a dangerous obstacle course requiring special papers. The process is eerily reminiscent of Hitler’s ghettoization of Jews. But it is probably the mass rapes, bombardment of hospitals, and the targeting of civilian shelters that is most evocative of the ghosts of genocide past.

The Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder observes that the purpose of Putin’s lies is to disarm opponents. It is hard to know how to respond to someone claiming that the victim is actually the perpetrator and is carrying out all their very same crimes, for instance. But he also points out that Putin’s rhetorical tactic renders words like fascism and genocide meaningless, and it facilitates Putin’s disinformation campaigns which cannot succeed without a general mistrust of the truth.

This may sound somewhat abstract, but it is readily apparent in online debates, where Putin’s apologists typically premise their arguments on a mistrust for “mainstream media,” by which they mean well-edited professional journalism. As Snyder points out, Putin’s endless lies pollute the public sphere, making it more difficult to separate fact from fiction. And it is all the more difficult when people who have been lied to endlessly no longer believe that the truth can be grasped.

The same thing happened in my own country under former President Donald Trump, who told more than 30,000 falsehoods over the course of his four-year presidency, according to the Washington Post’s Fact Check. Trump’s lies made it almost impossible to have a rational discussion about national issues. Yet, they also made it difficult to reach his supporters, who used his lies to repress the knowledge of what they were supporting.

Most people seek to rationalize their own worst offenses, blaming them on others, and downplaying their significance. We can see this at work among Russians and their supporters abroad, who make up stories about what’s happening in Ukraine. They may know the truth in their heart of hearts, but they project what they are doing onto their victims in an effort to placate their consciences.

Putin is doing something more sinister to his supporters as well. The more people are forced to defend his lies, the more committed they become to his illusions, like the famed child soldiers who are forced to kill their parents and can no longer go back to their villages. It is a form of mass hypnosis which, coupled with the closure of all sources of independent media in Russia, makes it possible for a whole society to rejoice as it is being taken over a cliff.

Ukrainians have become legendary for their verbal jousting with friends and family in Russia.

Yet, there are far fewer online where a war is being waged for the hearts and minds of the world, and exposing these rhetorical tactics may be the most powerful weapon in the arsenal. Learning how to wield it means recognizing the rhetorical tactics that are being deployed and crafting the language needed to expose the lies. It is a process that takes practice, but carrying it out may be the most neglected front in the war.

Theo Horesh is a democracy advocate currently residing in the United Kingdom and the author of four books, including “The Fascism This Time: And the Global Future of Democracy” and his newly revised “The Holocausts We All Deny.”

The views in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Kyiv Post.

3 comments

  1. Some very memorable quotes in this superb article, which is written in blood from the sword of truth :

    “Putin commonly accuses his victims of his own crimes to deflect attention from his real objectives. Hence, he accuses the Jewish Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky of being a Nazi while behaving curiously like Hitler; and he speaks of denazification in Ukraine when Russia is arguably the most fascist state in the world.”

    And :

    “Putin’s claim that Ukraine needs to be de-nazified helps obscure his own fascism by blaming it on its victims.”

    And finally :

    “His deportation of Ukrainian residents of Mariupol to the far east of Russia – where families are separated and they are forced to sign temporary contracts enslaving them to the state – is a crime against humanity that is a common mark of genocide. Similarly, his ghettoization of Mariupol involves a series of strictures making entry almost impossible and passage through the city a dangerous obstacle course requiring special papers. The process is eerily reminiscent of Hitler’s ghettoization of Jews. But it is probably the mass rapes, bombardment of hospitals, and the targeting of civilian shelters that is most evocative of the ghosts of genocide past.”

    God bless holy Ukraine and protect her from degenerates and savages.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Frank’s code regarding Putler’s rhetoric is simple: before listening or reading what this cow paddy says or writes, I watch how my grass grows.

    Liked by 3 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.