Russian propaganda excels at shifting the blame for every one of the country’s problems—even those caused by bad luck, devastating mismanagement, or natural causes—on to the purported main source of all disasters in the world, the United States. In the first hours after the deadly shooting in a college in Kerch, Crimea, last Wednesday (October 17), state-owned TV channels started to circulate conspiracy theories about terrorists dispatched by Ukraine and sponsored by the US (Moscow Echo, October 18). The murderous teenager turned out to be a fan of the Moscow-backed Donbas rebels, so President Vladimir Putin ended up refraining from making further such accusations against Washington in his traditional Valdai Club appearance the following day. But the Russian leader nevertheless still asserted that “it all started with the tragic events in the United States” (Kremlin.ru, October 18). Such insinuations fit the pattern of earlier absurd accusations of US astronauts deliberately drilling a hole in the International Space Station (RIA Novosti, October 3). Russia’s anti-American campaign has been in full swing this autumn as a chain of setbacks has befallen Putin’s policies. But the desired effect has been elusive. Opinion polls show that a third of Russians dare to express a positive attitude toward the US, while the 54 percent who hold a negative opinion represent a serious drop from the peak of 80 percent that was registered in early 2015 (Levada.ru, October 16).
The crisis that hit at the heart of Putin’s quasi-imperial project is the departure of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the supervision of the Moscow Patriarchate, and Putin conveyed a special meeting of his Security Council to work out an appropriate response to this challenge (Grani.ru, October 18; see EDM, October 16). The decision to break all relations with the Constantinople Patriarchate, universally recognized as the main authority in the Orthodox World, was justified by ascribing to it the same “Russophobic” attitude that Russian propaganda regularly presents as the main driver of US policy (Carnegie.ru, October 16). Moscow officials are entirely unwilling to admit that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine made the traditional unity of their two Orthodox Churches impossible, particularly since the deeply corrupt leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate blessed the annexation of Crimea (Novaya Gazeta, October 17). And opposition blogger Alexei Navalny, officially ostracized as an agent of US influence, recently exposed similarly brazen levels of corruption linked to close Putin ally and head of the Russian National Guard, Viktor Zolotov (Republic.ru, October 19).
The search for hostile US interference has now begun in every region where last month’s local elections did not go according to the Kremlin’s script. But these types of investigations make little sense when it comes to explaining away the brewing discontent in the North Caucasus, in particular recent street rallies in Ingushetia (Caucasian Knot, October 16). Cuts in federal subsidies are the main underlying cause for this escalating unrest, and the unchecked violence of the paramilitary gangs owned by Ramzan Kadyrov, the maverick leader of the neighboring Republic of Chechnya, add to the anxiety and anger (Novaya Gazeta, October 16; see EDM, September 27). Putin tries to justify his decision on intervention in the Syrian war by the necessity to prevent the spread of terrorism allegedly fostered by US policies in the Middle East (Kommersant, October 19). At the same time, however, the intervention is presently on pause as Turkey has assumed control over Idlib province and Israel has made clear that Russian air defenses will not stop it from destroying local Iranian assets. Stuck in a shifting quagmire, Moscow keeps blaming Washington for preventing the “legitimate” regime of Bashar al-Assad from establishing full control over the devastated country (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 18).
In fact, the main instrument of US pressure on Russia is the sanctions policy. And many among Putin’s elites are worried about the sustained pattern of the tightening of this regime every month (RBC, October 18). It is difficult for the propaganda machine to blame the Western sanctions for Russia’s deepening economic problems because Putin keeps denying their impact (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 10). Yet, his denial departs so far from the reality of stagnant macro-indicators and falling incomes that Putin’s confident stance conveys the impression that he is not informed, or does not want to be, about economic policymaking. Impressions matter in the behavior of many economic actors, and fears about the lack of leadership determine the remarkably swift erosion of consumer confidence (Moscow Echo, October 16). While people search for safety by (as is traditional) purchasing and stashing US dollars, investors flee to less volatile environments, aggravating the chronic shortage of long-term investments in Russia (Forbes.ru, October 15).
Expanding sanctions, therefore, have not had the effect of mobilizing the affected populace around the defiant leader, particularly since the fortunes of his loyal lieutenants are still burgeoning (Kommersant, October 18). Russians also increasingly perceive sanctions as an inevitable response from the West to the spectacular fiascos of Russian special services, which Putin tries in vain to ignore or justify as settling scores with traitors (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, October 15). But revelations of poor planning and awkward executions of clandestine operations have debunked the carefully maintained myth about the superior professionalism of Russian special services, and this has damaged Putin’s own reputation as a proud graduate of the KGB cadre system (Novaya Gazeta, October 9). Russian military intelligence (GRU) used to be perceived as the best trained and most disciplined of the special services; but now—to the barely hidden satisfaction of its domestic competitors—it has become a subject to ridicule (Riddle.io, October 16). Hunts for Western spies are a traditional genre in Russian propaganda. However, Moscow presently cannot produce anything resembling evidence of hostile sabotage or externally sponsored terrorist attacks in Russia.
This inability to weave a convincing narrative on malign Western manipulation inside Russia this autumn supplants the laboriously painted image of a “besieged fortress” with one of disorganized self-plundering. Each new local disaster or human tragedy adds to the pattern of protracted failure of the corrupt system of power, which cannot even communicate with the frustrated masses. Putin’s recent performances, including the tired Valdai “circus,” are an odd mixture of arrogant rejection of any suspicions that things are going in a wrong direction coupled with outbursts of irritation over presumed attempts to question his leadership. Confronting the West should be helping him consolidate his grasp on power. However, runaway corruption in his court is making this grasp inept and untenable.