The Tale of Putin’s Betrayal Betrayed | ukraine news
For Vladimir Putin, history is the history of Russia and the revival of the Russian idea – the idea that whenever a potential world conqueror arises, Russia is there to humiliate him. The appeal of this story to Russians is obvious and worn, told in schools, Orthodox churches, in literature and in song for generations.
The Russian idea, like all narratives, is crucial for its believers to make sense of the world. A narrative, according to a leading narratology textbook, is a “representation of a sequence of events, meaningfully temporally and causally connected”. Stories not only help make sense of the world and predict what will happen next – what we should expect and what we should approach with skepticism – but also how individuals play their part in human history more wide.
An effective leader commands a narrative to convince or compel their followers to sacrifice themselves for a greater cause. This of course gives the narratives themselves immense power, to the point that some end up directing the leader by closing his options.
This is the third piece in the series exploring a new framework for understanding how authoritarians use information to maintain power. The first dealt with the mathematical theory of communication, which divided the successful transmission of a message from a sender through a channel to the receiver. The second dealt with Iran’s inability to communicate its legitimacy to its religious and linguistic minorities. This article will examine how a message can be crafted in such a way that it will be faithfully reproduced by the recipient, and how this compelled Putin to act in Ukraine long before the first tanks crossed the border. It goes beyond the transmitter-channel-receiver, towards encoding and decoding.
Encoding (i.e. preparation before transmission) can be for secrecy, like encryption, or to save data, like when you compress a file. For encoding to work, the receiver must know how to decode. Without a decryption key or software to unzip the file, the results are just gibberish. Decoding takes work, and the better the instructions, or the simpler the message, the less work it takes.
Stories can be a decoding mechanism or a means of interpreting the world around us. Narratives are so crucial to our understanding of the world that a debate rages in narratology as to whether the world is even interpretable without the intermediary of narratives.
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A message consistent with the stories we already know is easily interpreted as a continuation of the causal chain of events in the story. Its level of surprise, the work required to decode it, is minimal. When a leader promotes a narrative, they are promoting a way to interpret the world and a set of instructions for decoding.
If – as many Russian propagandists suggest – the world is made up of cynical, power-hungry and self-serving nations engaged in zero-sum warfare, its adherents must, for example, exhibit mental energy and skepticism to interpret US funds for civil society and democracy promotion as altruistic. This, after all, flies in the face of the narrative. Its adherents, however, will readily accept that the funds are a fig leaf for regime change.
If your tool for interpreting world events is based on Russia’s messianic mission to counterbalance future world conquerors, it is very easy to accept that the United States will try to subvert Russian interests and very difficult to accept that the United States seeks peace and stability.
Political narratives help predict world events, both by setting expectations and seeing those expectations fulfilled.
For Putin, this tension between expectations set and met came to a head in December 2021. At that time, he said Ukrainian actions in Donbass “looked like genocide.” Once that was said, the disaster of an all-out war to destroy the Ukrainian state was unleashed. After all, Putin was the defender of the Russian people at home and abroad and the predestined liberator of the world from Western domination. How could he retreat? To dismiss the narratives would be to dismiss the foundation of Putin’s rule.
The successful enactment of a leader’s preferred narrative is crucial to their continued power. It ensures that the followers interpret events as the leader does: it provides the same instructions to “decode” the world. But the ability of stories to set expectations is only as strong as their delivery. Once the narrative check has been written, it must be cashed.
Ben Dubow is a nonresident researcher at CEPA and founder of Omelas, which specializes in data and analysis of how states manipulate the web.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the role of foreign policy in Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or of the Center for European Policy Analysis.
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CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the role of foreign policy in Europe and North America.