By Andreas Kluth
LET NO ONE say that Angela Merkel isn’t onto Vladimir Putin’s dirty tricks and cynicism. As a former East German, the chancellor speaks Russian just as the Russian president, a former KGB officer stationed in Dresden, is fluent in German. They’ve known each other for decades. She still recalls vividly his attempt during a visit in 2007 to intimidate her, a known cynophobe, by letting his black Labrador Koni sniff her.
So as the worldly-wise leader of a country that’s often naively Russophile, Merkel’s done her best over the years to call Putin out. When he seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and then instigated the fighting in its eastern Donbas region, she took the West’s lead in condemning the breach and containing the crisis.
When Russia kept feeding the West, including Germany, disinformation and fake news, she let him know that she didn’t like it, but kept up the dialogue. After a Russian cyberattack on the Bundestag and her own e-mail account, Merkel called such methods “outrageous.” And after a gangland-style execution last summer of a Chechen who had fought against Russian forces — in a Berlin park in broad daylight — Merkel demanded Russian answers but received none.
And then, this month, came the poisoning of Alexey Navalny, the most prominent figure in Russia’s remaining opposition movement. Merkel’s reaction has been stronger than that of any other Western leader. She’s had Navalny airlifted out of Russia and brought to a clinic in Berlin, where she’s put guards around his bed.
But now, with Navalny still in a coma, all sides are reverting to the usual script. The doctors in Berlin have confirmed that they found a cholinesterase inhibitor in Navalny — though there’s no proof of course that Putin had anything to do with getting this nerve agent into his body. Merkel and her foreign minister, Heiko Maas, immediately and “urgently” demanded that Russia investigate this poisoning “in a completely transparent way.”
On cue, a Kremlin spokesperson feigned astonishment that “our German colleagues are in such a hurry in using the word poisoning.” The speaker of the lower house of Russia’s parliament suggested the whole episode may be just another “provocation by Germany and other members of the EU aimed at creating more allegations against our country.” And everything goes on as usual.
In these recurring charades between the West and Russia, and in particular between Merkel and Putin, everybody knows the game, and yet everybody feels the need to keep playing it. It’s like a nightmare from which there is no waking up, as in George Orwell’s 1984. Like the Ministry of Truth in the novel, Putin’s Kremlin can insist that “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength” — and get away with it.
The getting away with it is the point. Neither Putin nor anybody who works for him seriously pretends, or actually wants to convince skeptics, that they’re telling the truth. The point instead, as for Big Brother, is to display the naked power that allows them to abolish truth with impunity.
“The Kremlin intimidates others by showing that it is in control of defining ‘reality’,” as Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born British author, has been pointing out since 2014. “If nothing is true, then anything is possible. We are left with the sense that we don’t know what Putin will do next — that he’s unpredictable and thus dangerous. We’re rendered stunned, spun, and flummoxed by the Kremlin’s weaponization of absurdity and unreality.”
For these purposes it’s moot whether Putin is acting out of a sense of strength or vulnerability. Unlike Big Brother, he hasn’t yet squashed all opposition. In Russia’s far east, people are demonstrating. In next-door Belarus, citizens are rebelling against the dictatorship of his geopolitical buddy, Alexander Lukashenko.
But Putin knows he can disturb any “narrative” that doesn’t suit him. Nobody knows where next he will cause mischief, and even massive human suffering — in Syria or Libya, in the Baltic, on the streets of Berlin or in Belarus. Any potential enemy will fear being the next Navalny.
The game, in short, is asymmetrical. Thanks to her biography of growing up in a communist regime and hating it, Merkel values truth and freedom, and she understands that “the West” only lives as an idea, one that couldn’t survive the abolition of reality. Thanks to his biography of serving as a KGB officer in a communist regime — and pining for it — Putin has no scruples. That gives him the edge in matters of life and death. And both leaders know it.