When belief ceases to matter


As violence increases around Russian-held areas of eastern Ukraine,[1] and the propaganda war intensifies, I’m thinking it is important to remember that sometimes, propaganda is not meant to be believed.

Do not misunderstand: The propagandist would certainly prefer that you believe their propaganda. But if indeed, Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine,[2] despite the Biden administration’s apparently skillful use of intelligence releases to counter Putin’s propaganda,[3] we may have reached the limits of that strategy.

Putin may now have decided to dispense with credibility in favor of pretense, to an impose a “truth” made authoritative through brute physical force. In the end, no one is prepared to stop him; rather they have all assured their domestic constituencies that they will not intervene militarily to stop Putin from invading.[4] And so, just as no one believes that Crimea is Russian territory, but Putin occupied and annexed it anyway, Putin may now do whatever it is he intends in the rest of Ukraine.

Ultimately, war reduces to a contest between elites over which of them will control which territories, and control the people and the resources within those territories. And violence reduces to brutal persuasion. From the rest of us, it is compliance that is required, not belief.

  1. [1]Julia Ioffe, “Putin’s Quasi War Begins,” Puck News, February 18, 2022, https://puck.news/putins-quasi-war-begins/; Reuters, “Ukraine says Russian-backed artillery strike hits kindergarten, no injuries,” February 17, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/ukraine-says-russian-backed-artillery-strike-hits-kindergarten-no-injuries-2022-02-17/
  2. [2]Maegan Vazquez et al., “Biden says he’s now convinced Putin has decided to invade Ukraine, but leaves door open for diplomacy,” Cable News Network, February 18, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/02/18/politics/joe-biden-russia-ukraine/index.html
  3. [3]Jon Allsop, “The one person who knows what Putin is thinking,” Columbia Journalism Review, February 14, 2022, https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/putin_ukraine_state_media.php; Jon Allsop, “A week of whiplash and the need for cool heads over Russia and Ukraine,” Columbia Journalism Review, February 18, 2022, https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/russia_ukraine_invasion_whiplash.php; Julia Ioffe, “Putin on the Brink… of What, Exactly?” Puck News, February 15, 2022, https://puck.news/putin-on-the-brink/; Julia Ioffe, “Putin’s Quasi War Begins,” Puck News, February 18, 2022, https://puck.news/putins-quasi-war-begins/
  4. [4]Julia Ioffe, “Inside the Biden-Putin Chess Match,” Puck News, January 25, 2022, https://puck.news/inside-the-biden-putin-chess-match/; Andrew Roth and Julian Borger, “US says it will send troops to eastern Europe if Russia invades Ukraine,” Guardian, December 6, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/06/us-says-it-will-send-troops-to-eastern-europe-if-russia-invades-ukraine; Nahal Toosi to Global Insider list, “A thin line between love and war,” Politico, February 14, 2022, https://www.politico.com/newsletters/global-insider/2022/02/14/a-thin-line-between-love-and-war-00008565

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