On March 18, the popular leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin, will be reelected to another six-year term as president. This is both a plain statement of fact and a complete falsehood. In American political parlance, this statement can be taken literally, but not seriously.
The conundrum is due to the weakness of language and how we allow even the simplest words to be manipulated and distorted. That simple sentence about Putin and the Russian presidential election on March 18 is wrong in every possible way aside from the date and Putin’s name.
Before we unpack the many fictions in that statement, let us begin with what will happen, literally, on March 18 in Russia. Many people will go to polling stations and cast votes for different candidates. Putin and the other candidates will be shown on television dropping their paper ballots into boxes and smiling as the cameras flash. Vladimir Putin will receive a healthy majority of the vote, likely around the 64 percent he got in 2012. He will appear on television to thank the Russian people for their continued support and for returning him to the presidency for another six years. The Russian press will report on the world leaders who call to congratulate Putin on his victory, a cohort likely to include the president of the United States of America.
That very last part leans into speculation, I admit, although it would be ungrateful of Donald Trump not to send a kind word to Putin, who invested far more time and effort on Trump’s election than he has on his own. In fact, the Kremlin has worked harder to promote the other candidates in the Russian election than to advertise the incumbent, so desperate are they to pump up turnout among a demoralized citizenry that is well aware that Putin isn’t going anywhere after 18 years in power.
But let us turn to the first lie in that opening sentence, that Putin is being elected on March 18. There is no real selection taking place. When I retired from professional chess in 2005 to join the Russian pro-democracy movement against Putin, I was frequently asked how my chess experience might help me in politics. My answer was that it wouldn’t help much at all, because in chess we had fixed rules and uncertain results, while in Russian politics it was exactly the opposite. That is even truer today, when the rules are whatever the Kremlin decides that day, and the results have been known for years. The domain name “putin2018.ru” was registered in 2010, during the Obama administration’s infamous “Reset” with Russia and its dreams of Dmitry Medvedev liberalization. Putin2024.ru, putin2030.ru, and putin36.ru have also been locked up, in case you were wondering.
Putin will continue in power as if by birthright, and calling this an election soils the meaning of a word that should be treasured. Yet the media of the free world persist in referring to “elections” in dictatorships like Putin’s Russia because they have no vocabulary to call it anything else—a predicament undemocratic regimes exploit very well. Even calling Putin a “president” is at best inaccurate and abominable propaganda at worst. A president is “the elected head of a republican state” according to my dictionary, while Putin isn’t elected and Russia isn’t a republic. He may have been a president when he first came to power in 2000, that I will grant. But since 2012, when he returned to the presidency, unconstitutionally, after allowing Medvedev to warm the chair for four years while ceding none of his power, there has been no doubt at all that Putin should simply be called a dictator.
Let’s move on to the next major lie in my opening statement, the idea of Putin’s popularity in Russia. I could not begin to count the number of times I’ve been forced to address this myth, the persistence of which I again attribute to our lack of language to describe modern dictatorships. Terms like “polls” and “popularity” as applied to politicians in the free world have very different meanings in authoritarian regimes. I’m fond of asking in response to questions about Putin’s “popularity” if a restaurant is popular if it’s the only one in town and every other restaurant was burned to the ground.
This is not to say that a dictator or his policies cannot have popular support. The problem is defining what support means after 18 years of a personality cult and 24/7 propaganda that portrays Putin as a demigod protecting Russia from deadly enemies without and within. A year of fake news trolling and half-baked social media memes had half of America and its vaunted media running in circles in 2016. Imagine what it does to a population when that’s all there is, every hour, every day, for nearly two decades.
The same definition issue arises with the word “election.” In a free society, the day of the vote is the culmination of a long democratic process that depends on equal access to an unfettered media, fair conditions, debates, etc., none of which have existed in Russia for nearly 20 years. Postulating that Putin would win anyway even if the March 18 election were honest is a meaningless exercise. If he and his policies were truly popular, in the real sense of the word, he wouldn’t need to spend so much time and effort dominating the media, eliminating rivals, and rigging elections large and small. Persecuting bloggers and arresting a single protester standing in the town square with an anti-Putin sign does not strike me as the behavior of a ruler who believes in his own popularity.
As for polling, when an anonymous caller reaches a Russian at home to ask his opinion of the man who controls every aspect of the Russian police state, it would take great courage to report anything less than enthusiastic support. It is a testament to the bravery of many of my countrymen that Putin does not yet receive the 99 percent approval scores that Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi enjoyed up until the minute they no longer had the power of life and death over their own citizens.
With even his nominal opponents openly conceding that Putin will rule for as long as he pleases, the Kremlin has become obsessed with turnout this year. Empty polling stations make it more difficult to keep up the charade of democracy. So this year a wider selection of opponents has been allowed to appear on the ballot. Most previous elections followed a formula of including one Communist and one Nationalist candidate to frame Putin as the moderate protecting Russia and the world from these dangerous extremes. It says quite a bit about how tired this tactic has become that the Nationalist being trotted out, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, first ran for president against Yeltsin in 1991. The longtime Communist, Gennady Zyuganov, has at least finally ceded his role to a successor.
The Communist bogeyman wasn’t just a prop back in 1996, when many liberals, including me, made the profound mistake of supporting Boris Yeltsin against Zyuganov to the point of turning a blind eye to Yeltsin’s abuse of power to win the election. He did lasting damage to Russia’s democratic institutions. Russians were still in shock after the collapse of the USSR, and our new country was foundering thanks to rampant corruption and the first Chechen war. Russians had been under the illusion that democracy would lead directly to a better standard of living, as if ballot boxes were ATMs. The free Russian press—yes, one existed for a while, yellow and raucous as it was—enjoyed blasting Yeltsin as a lackey of our former archenemy, America. Many Russians were starting to wonder if a return to communism would really be so bad.
Yeltsin was anything but a firm hand, but the reformers had known all along that the advertised benefits of liberalization would take a while. Handing the fragile Russian state over to the Communists while the ink was not dry on our new constitution was a terrifying thought to anyone who hoped to see Russia finally join the community of free and stable nations.
Yeltsin was saved in 1996, at the high cost of failing to build up the strong democratic institutions the country desperately needed. Four years later, a leader far more ruthless and anti-democratic came along, and Putin found it all too easy to bend and break these feeble institutions. It’s still unfathomable that Russia went from joyously celebrating the end of totalitarianism to electing a KGB lieutenant-colonel in just nine years. Never take your liberty for granted, and be careful whom you vote for because it may be the last election you’ll ever have.
In 2012, oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov was added to Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky to spice up the election theater a bit. Prokhorov was even allowed to make some muted criticisms of Putin’s record. He collected a meager 8 percent, barely outstripping the clownish Zhirinovsky, and quietly returned to his normal duties of draining capital out of Russia and owning the Brooklyn Nets.
That 2012 presidential election took place in the shadow of the largest Russian political protests of the post-Soviet era. Starting in December 2011, hundreds of thousands took to frozen streets across the country to protest parliamentary elections that were corrupt even by Putin’s low standards. Anger over the particularly blatant vote-rigging reached its peak on December 24, when 120,000 people gathered at Sakharov Prospect in Moscow to protest “the party of crooks and thieves,” as opposition leader Alexei Navalny had dubbed Putin’s United Russia, under the banners of “For Fair Elections” and “Russia Without Putin.” Here were speakers—I was one—who, unlike the Kremlin-sponsored candidates for president, were not shy about putting the blame on Putin. For the first time since I helped launch the relatively sparse Dissenters’ Marches in 2005, it looked like there might be enough popular disgust to change the Kremlin’s power calculations.
“I see enough people here to take the Kremlin or White House,” said Navalny—referring to a Russian government building, not the home of the American president. “But we are a peaceful force—we won’t do that, for now.”
It is easy to say in hindsight that this was our opportunity to risk all. Had we set up a camp that day, would the people have supported us in demanding new elections? Had we marched to Red Square, would a million Muscovites have come out to join us in demanding Putin’s exit? We’ll never know. In chess, we say that the player with the initiative is obliged to attack, otherwise the initiative will be lost and the counterattack will likely be decisive. In December 2011, we had the initiative, but we did not attack. Putin did not make the same mistake.
Protests continued well into 2012, but the crucial momentum had been lost. A series of draconian laws were passed to crack down on dissent. Prison sentences for civil disobedience went from days to years. Police attacked the “March of Millions” in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square a day ahead of Putin’s inauguration on May 7—the Kremlin quickly labeling the rally “riots by extremists aimed at destabilizing the country.” Afterward, instead of merely targeting the organizers as usual, dozens of Bolotnaya protesters were arrested and prosecuted. The homes and businesses of opposition leaders and their families were raided, resulting in political show trials not seen since Soviet days. Putin’s gloves were off. By spring 2013, I understood that I could not return safely to Russia, and I joined my wife and daughter permanently in New York. In February 2015, the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in front of the Kremlin.
The implicit, or even explicit, offer made by authoritarians is stability in exchange for liberty. High oil prices allowed Putin to keep this bargain for a while, aided by an international community that lost interest in promoting liberty as soon as the Berlin Wall fell. Putin was welcomed by the G7 as an equal while destroying democracy and civil society at home. Imagine how difficult it was for us in Russia to attack Putin’s regime as undemocratic while he was being embraced by the leaders of the free world. Even Putin’s invasion of neighboring Georgia in August 2008 resulted in no censure or sanction. He was rewarded by Obama and Hillary Clinton’s reset a few months later, confirming to him that a move into Ukraine would also go unchallenged.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2014 and soon announced the annexation of Crimea. This time the United States and the rest of the West did respond, but by then Russia was a very different place. Putin had consolidated power beyond any challenge at home, building up the military, the security forces, and the propaganda machine he was about to unleash on the world. Energy prices had plummeted, and Putin needed some way to justify his eternal hold on power. And so he made the fateful turn that every dictatorship eventually must when it needs enemies more than allies.
The vile anti-American and anti-E.U. rhetoric in the Russian media reached new levels of hatred and fear-mongering. Only recently have Americans and Europeans seen up close how much damage these toxic disinformation campaigns can do even in small doses, but Russians have been immersed in them for years. Every channel, every paper, every online forum and social platform—it’s a barrage, a flood of poison.
This isn’t the old Communist scheme of heavy-handed state censorship and official party lines. (The old joke about the two main Soviet papers, Pravda (“Truth”) and Izvestia (“News”), was “There’s no news in the Truth and no truth in the News!”) Nor is it the labor-intensive “Great Firewall of China” model of real-time censorship and high-tech filtering. Befitting Putin’s KGB roots, he instead built an alternate reality of propaganda, one in which there are hundreds of sources and opinions that all may contain elements of fact and fiction while always making sure to keep the larger truths well hidden—and reinforcing support for Putin above all.
The clearest example of this method in action was the Kremlin’s response to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014. It didn’t take long to determine that MH17 was downed by a Russian-operated BUK antiaircraft missile battery inside Ukrainian territory. If you have any doubts about this at all, it is testament to how effective the Kremlin disinformation campaign has been at sowing doubt. By this point, we have everything from radio intercepts to visual identification of the actual BUK battery being moved back and forth across the Ukrainian border.
Issuing denials and attacking all the evidence was only a small part of the Russian response. Most of the effort instead went into churning out alternative scenarios about what had happened to MH17. There were no fewer than a dozen separate conspiracy theories spread by the Russian media and their agents, ranging from saying that the BUK missile was Ukrainian to blaming the CIA or Israel. One evening on Russian television, one channel had a documentary soberly explaining how a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet had done the deed, while at the same time another channel was demonstrating, with equal gravity, exactly how a Ukrainian missile battery had shot it down.
There are an infinite number of ways to lie and only one truth. Propaganda today is not a wall, not a dike holding back information from reaching the people. It is a flood, overwhelming our critical thinking. The concept is not to promote a particular narrative or agenda but to create doubt and to make people believe that the truth is unknowable. There are no Russian forces in Ukraine. Russia didn’t meddle in the U.S. election. The popular Vladimir Putin was reelected on March 18, 2018.
That is what you’ll hear, over and over, after Russia’s election without selection. This year’s “Prokhorov model” of an alternative candidate is the socialite and television personality Ksenia Sobchak. She has done more campaigning abroad than in Russia. The daughter of Putin’s one-time boss, former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, she is allowed to talk tough about Russia’s problems while stopping short of criticizing Putin himself, who is rumored to be her godfather. There’s also Grigory Yavlinsky, who has been the loyal liberal opposition, alternately added to and removed from the ballot like a puppet on a string, for decades. They are the antique decorations of democracy, the props in the production. The charade must go on.
Alexei Navalny remains a legitimate opposition figure but has been banned from the election. He is now calling for the boycott we needed six years ago.
Last week’s attempted assassination with a nerve agent of a former Russian spy in England reminds us that Putin is willing to poison bodies in the free world, not only minds. Why would he do this? Why would he call attention to his murderous ways now? Well, I’ll turn that around and ask instead, why wouldn’t he? Dictators don’t ask “Why,” they ask “Why not?” Putin killed FSB whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko with a radioactive isotope in the center of London in 2006, and what price did he pay? Three British prime ministers collaborated in hushing up the investigation in order not to offend Putin and shut down the countless billions in Russian cash that has flooded Britain in the last decades. After 18 years in power, Putin believes he can buy or bully his way out of anything. Will anyone prove him wrong?
Putin will push until he is pushed back. This will only take will from the West, and the methods exist. Putin cannot afford a geopolitical defeat that would make him look weak in front of his cronies in Russia. Targeted sanctions like the Magnitsky Act can force Putin’s gang to choose between their loyalty to him and their riches abroad. Isolation and deterrence work, and they are more likely to avoid war than the current track of appeasement. Like any bully, Putin only picks fights that he is sure he can win. History tells us that sooner or later, he will become so overconfident, so accustomed to his opponents folding their cards against his weak hand, that he will overstep, potentially resulting in a catastrophe on a global scale.
Russia’s election spectacle on March 18 isn’t only a domestic distraction. It provides Putin’s defenders in the free world with rhetorical ammunition, as do the approval polls and fake controversies over the fake opposition candidates. There is no form of democratic process or opposition in Putin’s Russia. Pretending otherwise makes you complicit in his propaganda. Stop calling them elections. Stop calling Putin a president. Stop calling to congratulate him on his victories. Let us begin the fight against Putin’s lies with the fundamental truth about what he really is.
Garry Kasparov is the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation and the author of Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard