Yes Vladimir Putin had he ever bothered to read the reports of Evan Gershkovic – bet he didn’t, for reasons I’ll explain later – he may have given it a little more thought before slamming him in jail last week on a patently bogus espionage charge.
In December, Gershkovich, a journalist from The Wall Street Journaltogether with his colleagues Thomas Grove, Drew Hinshaw and Joe Parkinson, he presented what is surely one of the richest and most convincing explanations of why Putin’s war in Ukraine went so badly.
Conclusion: Putin has no independent sources of reliable information.
He refuses to read the news on the internet, fearing it will be used to spy on him.
Battlefield information is filtered – and masked – through layers of military bureaucracy and takes days to reach you.
Past military successes in Georgia and Crimea have made him overconfident, and the pandemic has turned him into a paranoid recluse.
On the eve of the invasion, neither his foreign minister nor his domestic policy chief knew of impending war.
And, like all-time despots, he only listens to those who tell him what he wants to hear.
One of them, the oligarch Viktor Medvedchukreported The Journal, “he assured Putin that Ukrainians considered themselves Russians and would greet invading soldiers with flowers.”
Putin is godfather to one of Medvedchuk’s daughters.
Foreign journalists play a vital, if sensitive, role in the information economy of repressive states.
Most of these regimes tightly monitor their press, making sure their citizens receive a politically expedient and carefully choreographed version of events.
Putin went further, manipulating not only how Russians understood the news, but also how foreigners interpreted it disinformation campaigns on social networks and on the Russia Today TV channel.
But repressive states also need foreign journalists, for at least two essentially contradictory reasons.
On the one hand, their presence in the country creates an illusion of openness, of having nothing to hide.
It is a form of propaganda.
At worst, this can lead to fundamentally misleading reporting, as foreign correspondents become willing or unwitting tools of the schemes they are supposed to cover.
Walter Duranty, the notorious Moscow correspondent of the New York Times in the 1930s, is an archetype:
At the height of Stalin’s collectivization campaign against Ukrainian peasants, in which up to 5 million people died of starvation, Duranty wrote, “Conditions are bad, but there is no famine.”
(The Times long ago disavowed his shameful coveralthough the Pulitzer Prize has never been revoked).
On the other hand, good and honest foreign journalists can also offer first-hand accounts of what really goes on inside the country, something an autocrat like Putin cannot easily achieve elsewhere.
State-controlled media are useless for uncovering facts.
Government statistics are manipulated to hide bad news.
Every bureaucracy, including the national intelligence service, has its own own agendas and prisms that distort reality.
Had the Russian president read Gershkovich’s report from last year, he might have read a story or two that he would have enjoyed, like last summer’s one about young Russians who were largely ignorant of the war.
(That was before a biased call sent many Russians fleeing Dubai, Bali, and even a remote Alaskan island.)
However, Putin would also learn, thanks to Gershkovich’s solo reporting in Belarus in the first days of the war, that the war It wasn’t going as planned”, contrary to what the Russian Defense Minister kept telling him.
He would discover the utter incompetence of his war machine, thanks to an inside story of a Russian paratrooper who participated in the invasion and then fled to France.
Would he have known that, despite last year’s windfall in energy revenues, the Russian economy is crumbling under Western sanctions, and that his old friend Oleg Deripaska warned:
“Next year there will be no money. We need foreign investors.”
These stories were written primarily for the benefit of readers in the West.
But a wiser autocrat than Putin would have guessed that he could have avoided costly miscalculations if only foreign media had been allowed to operate freely and fearlessly in Russia.
And while he probably wants to exchange Gershkovich (along with Paul Whelan and Marc Fogel, Russia’s other well-known American hostages) for some high-value Russian spies in the West, no prisoner exchange would really be worth more to him than the gift of accurate, reliable information. and impartial on real conditions in Russia.
It should be clear by now that Putin lives within a manufactured reality, a reality that can only hurt him in the long run, as the truth often finds its way, but poses grave risks for all others in the short term.
Diplomatic rebukes won’t burst his fancy bubble, but another shipment of Abrams tanks to Ukraine could.
As for Gershkovich, the best tribute we can pay him is to continue to tell the truth about Russia, despite the risks.
Putin has been trying to run a disinformation campaign in the West for decades.
Western news organizations can right their abuses with an information campaign about Russia, in Russian, for Russians.
They too deserve to benefit from the facts that Putin doesn’t want anyone – not even himself – to know.
c.2023 The New York Times Society
Mary Ortiz is a seasoned journalist with a passion for world events. As a writer for News Rebeat, she brings a fresh perspective to the latest global happenings and provides in-depth coverage that offers a deeper understanding of the world around us.