From Republic.ru, Oct. 12, 2020, https://republic.ru/posts/98096. Condensed text:
To the pensive outside observer who possesses basic critical thinking skills, the Kremlin’s position on the Navalny poisoning seems completely irrational. Not because the Kremlin denies its involvement in the poisoning, but because of how it [denies that fact] – by refusing to start an investigation, making public statements about how Navalny poisoned himself, [talking about] a global conspiracy among laboratories that found traces of Novichok in Navalny’s test samples, hinting that Novichok got into Navalny’s bloodstream when he was already in Germany, and so on.
However, this defense tactic only seems irrational. It would be irrational to an outside observer, but makes total sense for the Kremlin’s system of coordinates, especially given its specific political priorities. Everything looks a lot less insane if you understand what those priorities are, and put yourself in the place of those who are making decisions in the Kremlin about the forms and methods of denying the obvious and promoting the unbelievable in the Navalny case.
Here, the context is more important than the events. The Kremlin’s reaction to the incident needs to be taken together with its overall view of the global situation and its overall (general) action plan. Without going into details, it can be said that the Kremlin’s understanding of the global situation can be summed up in a simple formula: “The world is war.” Naturally, [the Kremlin’s] survival strategy is to win in this war. The main prerequisite for victory is to create an effective strategy to defend against hybrid wars (“color revolutions”) – and the central element of this strategy is the “new myth,” which can be used to govern the masses and prevent revolutions. The Kremlin is prepared to do anything to preserve this myth, including saying God knows what about the Navalny poisoning without missing a beat – big deal!
Saboteur’s manual: Don’t trust, don’t fear, don’t ask.
The Navalny case is actually a full-blown crisis situation for the Kremlin. The people who have been tasked with reducing tensions know about as much about what happened to Navalny as the general public. Regardless of whether [the poisoning] was the work of the regime or the overzealousness of [certain players] within the system, the number of people [who know what happened] is very small, and top presidential administration officials, as well as the Russian Foreign Ministry, are clearly not part of that group, so they are going off existing templates. Such situations are not exactly a novel occurrence for the Kremlin over the past several years, and the crisis management mechanisms have long been developed. So we didn’t exactly see anything new or extraordinary in the Navalny poisoning. Of the precedent-setting cases that the strategists used, three are worth mentioning: The Magnitsky case, the downed Malaysian Boeing and the Skripal case.1 . . .
A basic mix of these three “cover operations” shows that in the Navalny case, a fairly standard disinformation and disorientation campaign was launched against the general public, with the mafia-esque maxim of “Don’t trust, don’t fear, don’t ask.” [The Kremlin] didn’t bother coming up with an original solution. As always, the gist of the Kremlin’s strategy is to deny everything, including obvious facts; never seek compromise; always offer up an alternative version of events, no matter how outlandish; blame the victim; and attack your foe along all fronts. They didn’t come up with anything new in the Navalny case; rather, they went with an existing tactic – let’s call it “reaction No. 5.” The paradox is that the Kremlin actually has weighty political reasons for acting this way.
Everything for the myth, everything for victory.
To understand the Kremlin’s logic, you need to look at the world through its eyes. According to Kremlin officials, the world is in the first stage of World War III, which is unavoidable – its decisive stage is only a matter of time. Kremlin strategists arrived at this conclusion somewhere between 2007 and 2013 – the war in Ukraine was already the result of this new paradigm. In this war, Russia will have to play catch-up, since, according to the Kremlin elite, Russia lost the strategic initiative in the 1990s and surrendered all positions to the West. At the same time, the biggest threat to Russia [in the Kremlin’s eyes] is not direct external aggression (which the Kremlin intends to counter by focusing on nuclear weapons and threatening to deliver a preemptive strike at any moment), but hybrid wars, which the Kremlin primarily sees as “color revolution technologies,” and which are much more difficult to counter than a nuclear strike.
The Kremlin has developed several algorithms to protect it from this paranoid fear. The baseline scenario is to create a “protective ideological barrier” that makes it impossible [for outside actors] to influence the masses and manipulate people’s behavior by indoctrinating them with “foreign” values and behavioral trends. This sounds like “ideological inoculation” for the masses (the “deep people”) by creating and perpetuating a myth that would create resistance to liberal ideology. In this system of coordinates, liberal ideology is basically equated to a biological weapon (it is seen as something like a “toxic spiritual virus”).
The “color revolution” vaccine is to be introduced via cultural indoctrination, with the help of a neoimperialist myth – which according to Kremlin strategists, is supposed to supplant the worn-out but once quite effective communist myth. The Kremlin’s main task is to create and foster the neoimperialist myth, constantly upgrading it and protecting it from corrosion. The rest, including repressions and especially social and economic policymaking, is secondary and auxiliary. You need to always keep in mind that this regime survives not through repressions, but through exploiting the myth that arose on the wave of “the Crimean consensus.” The regime’s power lies not in the [Russian] National Guard, antiextremism task forces or an army of stool pigeons working for the resurrected [FSB] administration on protecting constitutional order, but in perpetuating the neoimperialist mythology. This is being done not so much through television as through the state’s expansive online brainwashing network.
Overall, this algorithm is completely in line with a neototalitarian state. The Kremlin is relegating the elite to the political periphery, scaring them with targeted repressions, and establishing a direct link with the masses (i.e., cutting out the middleman), focusing on controlling mass consciousness via creative myth generation. And no one is going to sacrifice such a strategically vital tool for the sake of propriety toward either the domestic elite or to their Western counterparts, including in the Navalny case.
The Kremlin has no intention of straying from the standard protocol, since it cannot allow even the slightest erosion of this myth in the eyes of the masses. Any shadow of a doubt, any reservation could become the chink in the armor that allows the poison of liberal thinking to seep through – which seems like a much greater evil than any [Western] sanctions or especially the grumbling of the half-suffocated [Russian] opposition. Yes, the Kremlin’s position of complete denial irritates the West (you can see this in the reactions of [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel and Macron, who are starting to lose their patience) and is being mocked in Russia (as indicated by a shift in the [Navalny poisoning] discussion). So what? The most important thing for the Kremlin is to keep the myth intact and prevent any sort of doubt: This means never allowing [people to think] that something went wrong. And it doesn’t matter whether Navalny’s poisoning was a successful or botched attempt. The masses must remain convinced that those who got poisoned had it coming.
Death of the myth – remembering the future.
As similar experience shows, we shouldn’t expect some major twist in the Navalny case in the near future. Of course, sanctions are a given – just as they were after Magnitsky’s death, the start of the war in Ukraine or the Skripals’ poisoning. But they won’t have much effect. Nor will they bring about a revolution in Russia ahead of schedule. In about six months, the subject will slip from the headlines. [Sanctions] will put a strain on the myth, but won’t break it.
The danger lies elsewhere: This strategy is clumsy and lacks flexibility, so it could tarnish the regime’s notion of a bright future. Historical experience, including in Russia, shows that there’s no such thing as an eternal myth. Like everything in nature, they erode. By betting on the myth’s invincibility, the regime will most likely lose sight of some other political parameters. And this creates a certain paradox: As the regime gets more audacious and aggressive in protecting its life-saving myth, it makes the elites who have been sidelined from politics angrier and more determined, which increases the odds that the looming revolution will be brutal.
The 20th century gave Russia two case studies in the collapse of an empire that resulted from collapsing mythology. In the early 20th century, the autocratic myth precluded almost any real reforms right until the revolution. Until the last moment, the regime tried to [use this myth] to keep the sprawling peasant masses from revolting. So when that myth collapsed in the blink of an eye, like a dam failing from an uncontrollable rush of water, Russia saw the bloodiest civil war [in its history]. By the end of the 20th century, the communist myth, which replaced the autocratic one, underwent very significant “opportunistic” changes. Its most aggressive elements were done away with under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, and its core was permeated with liberalism, which softened the ruling elites. As a result, we saw the fairly bloodless “velvet” revolution.
We can see from developments that followed the attempted poisoning of Navalny – as well as those that followed the death of Magnitsky, the Boeing crash or the Skripal poisoning – that it has been decided to preserve the myth at any cost. But the dialectics of history show that the more you tell others to go to hell, the shorter your own path there may turn out to be. This means that this cost now includes the possibility of a fairly harsh revolution – senseless and merciless, like all Russian rebellions. There is nothing else interesting in this exercise in lying, since it’s nothing new.