(First published Strategic Culture Foundation
The British newspaper the Sunday Times, relying on the usual unnamed Western intelligence sources (German this time they say, but as they’re unnamed, who knows?), has just re-animated the Navalniy poisoning story by informing us: “Revealed: Kremlin made a second attempt to poison Alexei Navalny in botched assassination: Russian spies tried to kill Putin’s fiercest critic with the deadly nerve agent novichok before he could be flown to Berlin, western intelligence sources reveal.” This story, picked up by other outlets, presents us with three possibilities. All three involve the word “stupidity” – a word that is becoming gravely inadequate to describe today’s reality. English needs a stronger word to cover this concept.
The simple facts are that Aleksey Navalniy fell sick on an internal flight in Russia on 20 August, the plane made an emergency landing in Omsk where he was taken to hospital, a couple of days later he was flown to a hospital in Germany – at Putin’s urging, we are told – from which he has been released apparently in good health.
And the Gadarene swine of the West rushed straight for the cliff. Poisoned by tea, or was it a water bottle? maybe his clothing. Cancel last! – cocktail the night before. Ignore all rumours about coke or diabetic shock – it’s gotta be Putin’s poison du jour, novichok (has he run out of polonium, mercury and dioxin?) and, what is more, by a variant “more malicious and deadly than all known offshoots of the Novichok family”. Russian doctors found no poison – but who would believe a Russian? Russia gave “no credible explanation” to the accusations. But how could any Russian ever say anything “credible” as Canada’s Globe and Mail wondered: “The Kremlin, predictably, says it didn’t poison Alexey Navalny. So what can the West do?” The West in general, and the European Union in particular, likes to boast about values among which is that “Everyone who has been charged shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.” But not if you’re Russia. Russia must answer questions demands UK, Europeans on OPCW, Merkel, NATO, When Russia was unable to prove its innocence, the EU sanctioned “guilty” Russian officials as did most of the West. That the story was the usual slipshod assemblage of orphic assertions was revealed when the opposition party Alternative für Deutschland forced German government spokesmen to answer its questions: it was “not aware” of many things.
And sillier still: Anders Åslund called Merkel and Navalniy “the two leaders of the free world” and, not to be outdone, John Brennan tweeted “Imagine prospects for world peace, prosperity, & security if Joe Biden were President of the United States & Alexei Navalny the President of Russia”.
Paul Robinson took the trouble to go through the Sunday Times story and discovered that only 100 words of 4,000 mentioned the second attack and they were erected on a flimsy foundation: “the underpants story is just what a single Russian scientist, unconnected to the case, happens to think“. But we can add unnamed scientist to the “unnamed intelligence sources”. Amusingly, the scriptwriters didn’t coordinate this latest twist with the hero of the story and Navalniy himself was quoted as calling the Sunday Times story “very strange”, adding that he was “really surprised” to hear it. On his side of the tale he was busy naming his attackers and Bellingcat, that reliable investigator who uncovers what Western intelligence agencies cannot, assured us that Navalniy had been tailed. But, having caught Bellingcat out on this howler three years ago, I don’t waste my time on him either – falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus.
In short, it’s all the same old stuff we’ve heard over and over again – Bellingcat, unnamed intelligence sources, evidence we can’t show you, changing facts, weird inconsistencies, amazing coincidences. I’ve been at this business for some time and I remember when Putin poisoned Karinna Moskalenko and I also remember when he didn’t; my trust in these stories departed a long time ago. And that is where the word “stupid” comes in. These stories invite considerations of stupidity. But who are the stupid ones? Putin & Co? The consumers of the stories? Or the story-makers themselves?
The first possibility is that Putin and his team are stupid. They decide to assassinate Navalniy (but why? He’s probably peaked in his effect – in the latest Levada poll he scores a couple of percentage points; a rating little changed in six years; in short, his ratings have never been much above the polling error.) And why now? Anyway, we’re supposed to believe that they decide that now is the moment and, rather than using something simple – a mugging or a car accident – they use novichok. Despite the fact that, as the western media has repeatedly told us, it had already failed in one assassination attempt. To make matters even stupider, the Germans solemnly told us this was a “a variant that the world did not know until this attack, but which is said to be more malicious and deadly than all known offshoots of the Novichok family… The fact that he is still alive… is only due to a chain of happy circumstances“, “Harder” was another word used. “Harder” than the Salisbury version; but, apparently, not “hard” enough to require decontamination teams, hazmat suits or even to make Navalniy sicker. But back to the story; after it had failed to kill him, rather than sending a couple of hitmen to the hospital with a pillow, they tried again with the same stuff. Some “expert” stupidly tweeted that it’s a “false narrative” to argue that if the Russian authorities had wanted to kill him he would be dead because the “false narrators” are wrongly assuming that Russian assassins are “omnipotent”. No, not “omnipotent”, just normally competent – and do remember that the people who buy the Navalniy poisoning story also believe that Putin has been routinely killing people and therefore ought to be pretty good at it. Anyway, we’re supposed to believe that when the second attempt failed – that’s three failures out of three – Putin let him go to Germany where all this could be revealed to the western media by “unnamed intelligence sources”. Are Putin and his team really that stupid? You would have to be pretty stupid to think that they are.
Which smoothly leads us to the second possibility which is that the purveyors of western news stories (emphasis should probably be put on the second word) think their customers are stupid enough to think that Putin & co are that stupid. The customers are supposed to swallow the notion that Putin wanted Navalniy dead, used something that would immediately be blamed on him, failed, tried again with the same thing, failed again and then said, ah… whatever… and let him go. Are the readers that stupid? Only very stupid people would think they were.
Which leads to the third possibility – it’s not Putin & Co who are stupid, it’s not the readers who are stupid, it’s the rather small number of people who control the western media who are so stupid that they think they can get away with this obviously idiotic story.
But, at that level, it’s probably not stupidity, although there is surely the stupidity engendered by arrogance enfolded in sycophancy. It’s probably really about power and control. What better proof of power can there be than to tell a lie and have everyone, knowing that it is a lie, repeat it? Washington had the MH17 shootdown on film, but don’t ask to see it. Russia invades Ukraine regularly, but the invaders can’t get past Donetsk airport. Brexit was a Russian plot until somebody sued and demanded to see the evidence. The Panama Papers were about Putin except that they didn’t mention him and therefore they must have been by Putin. Russia is simultaneously all-powerful and about to fall apart. Russian threatens the NATO border.
We’re actually seeing the process happening right in front of us now while we watch: with a straight face CNN told us that US elections were dangerously insecure in 2006, compromised in 2016 but watertight in 2020. Any moment we can expect the headline: “Putin’s election hackers spread conspiracy theories about election hacking”.
Most of these stories are dictated by “Western intelligence sources who cannot be identified” or by organisations with opaque ownership and that, rather than stupidity, gives us the clue about the purpose of these idiotic stories. It’s not the details that matter in propaganda, it’s the lasting impression. Long after the details – Litvinenko, Yushchenko, Skripal, Navalniy – are forgotten, people will remember that Putin poisons people he doesn’t like. Orwell knew: “the past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth”. Or we can take Captain Jedburgh’s point of view and make things so complicated that everyone has a theory but no one has the facts.
But that also works best with a helpful push from stupidity.