Since Vladimir Putin has had his hand in Russian politics, he has peddled in conspiratorial thinking to help himself gain support and power within his country and the world. Russia has regained its podium on the global stage by being a thorn in the side of democratic countries across the world. Upset over the United States’ role in the fall of the Soviet Union’s power, Putin has directed much of his propaganda against the United States and its allies. This abuse of power serves as a dangerous example of the deadly implications that conspiracy theories can bring. As I explore Putin’s timeline of events, a pattern of using NATO as a boogeyman will start to become clear.1 Putin realizes that the United States and NATO allies are a threat to his own power, and he uses the alliance as the proverbial ‘bad guy’ to help himself turn the Russian citizens’ attention elsewhere. In a sense he becomes their protector against an international order that wants to eliminate Russia from the world stage. Therefore, Putin has dangerously used conspiracy theories to gain and maintain power within Russia and to create pretenses for the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
Starting around 2004, Putin warned that the United States’ and its NATO allies not only served as an external but also an internal threat to the Russian Federation and the people of the state. Putin feared a revolution, like the one that took place in Ukraine, when they sought independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and then in 2004 when Ukrainian citizens protested political corruption in the country’s elections.2 Although Putin’s true intentions are unknown, he may have actually feared a revolution that could have disrupted his power within the country, or he could have used this claim to stoke fictional fears within the Russian population to see a gain in his own support and diminish his people’s views about the United States. However, his use of propaganda was used to gain and maintain his own power whether he truly feared a revolution or just used it to lie and fearmonger to raise his own support.
The State media in Russia has been used to Putin’s advantage in the telling and spread of conspiracy theories. In 2007, a Russian State reporter asked Putin about his opinion of the American Secretary of State saying that Russia’s resources should be controlled by the United States and redistributed among their citizens. Putin responded that he was not familiar with the statement they were referring to but called the quote alarming for the security of the Russian Nation. The quote referred to by the Russian journalist is non-existent on the record but was determined to be true by Russian intelligence agents who were ‘able to read the mind’ of the United States Secretary of State. Here Putin was able to use the Russian State Media to deliver a fake quote and question that helped to serve his own narrative. This lie was circulated again as recently as 2021 when Putin claimed, “[Everyone] wants to bite us or bite off a piece of Russia.”3 This demonstrates that one small lie told many years ago can become a fictious fact that is used to maintain Putin’s narrative. Therefore, this demonstrates that the Russian media is used to create and convey Putin’s lies that help him sustain and gain power within Russia.
Recently Ukraine has been a common target for Putin’s conspiracy theories, Putin has claimed that Ukraine has become a military base for the NATO alliance. In addition to housing the NATO militaries, Putin claims that the West have taken control of the Ukrainian government, and Russia will be next.4 In addition, Putin has stoked fear that the United States are building bioweapons within Ukrainian borders that will be used to kill the Russian people and destroy their nation.5 On February 24th, 2022, the rhetoric took a dangerous and drastic escalation after Putin decided to invade Ukraine’s territory in a move that plunged Europe into war that has been unseen since the second world war. Due to the snowball effect, all of Putin’s conspiracy theories have conjoined, justifying his attack as a move to protect Russia from the West. Therefore, Putin’s lies, and conspiracy theories were dangerous and allowed him to declare war on his Ukrainian neighbors based on unfounded and outright false pretenses.6
Throughout his time in power, Putin has always used conspiratorial thought and fear-based tactics to scare his people into believing his lies about the West and their intentions. The frequent targets of Putin’s lies have been the United States, NATO, and Ukraine since he became a prominent figure in Russian politics in 2004. Since then, he has been building and expanding on his conspiracy theories, creating a snowball effect as lies begin to build up. Therefore, throughout his time in power, Putin has used lies and conspiracy theories to maintain power and set the stage for the invasion of Ukraine.
1 Dettmer, Jamie “For Putin, All Conspiracy Theories Lead to the West” VOA News https://www.voanews.com/a/europe_putin-all-conspiracy-theories-lead-west/6177966.html
2, 3, 4, 5 Yablokov, Ilya “The Five Conspiracy Theories That Putin Has Weaponized” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/25/opinion/putin-russia-conspiracy-theories.html
6 The Daily Digest “Putin is using these 5 conspiracy theories to justify the invasion of Ukraine” msn https://www.msn.com/en-za/news/other/putin-is-using-these-5-conspiracy-theories-to-justify-the-invasion-of-ukraine/ss-AAZM6V2
Ana Sophia Sleeman
I think you make interesting points throughout this article, and offer great insight regarding Putin’s rise of power. Overall, conspiracy theories can be a powerful tool for political leaders who seek to consolidate their power and control public opinion as they often involve the idea that a small group of powerful individuals or organizations are secretly controlling events and manipulating people for their own gain.
Political leaders, such as Putin, who promote conspiracy theories can use them to deflect criticism, create mistrust and confusion, and manipulate public opinion. Furthermore, the spread of disinformation is a strong and dangerous tool for those who seek to undermine democracy as it can be used to manipulate public opinion, interfere in elections, and suppress the rights and freedoms of political opponents. I also believe that Putin’s lies, and conspiracy theories were created to somewhat justify his actions on declaring war on his Ukrainian neighbors. Putin’s irrational and extreme behavior is a clear example of how the spread of disinformation and propaganda is a real threat to democracy on a global basis.
I think this is a great analysis of one tool that Putin has used in shaping Russian public opinion, and I wonder about its global applicability. Many of the examples you provided drew parallels to the ways in which the United States used the possibility of WMDs in Iraq as a pretext for invasion, and the ways in which many global leaders used conspiratorial rhetoric during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to fuel anger against China and boost nationalist credibility. Clearly uniting against a common enemy is an effective political tactic, and this tactic is frequently exploited by the creation of conspiracies and misinformation. Given the global prevalence of conspiratorial rhetoric in politics across all regime types I am curious if it is a symptom of authoritarianism, a precursor to authoritarianism, or simply a political tactic that can be used by anyone. I would personally argue the latter, but I am intrigued in particular by the ways in which authoritarianism and conspiratorial rhetoric play off of each other. Putin spoke to Russian media, which he clearly has great influence over, to boost his conspiratorial rhetoric, and I am certain he would take actions against media that fact-checked him. In this respect I see conspiratorial thinking and control over media as cyclical, with conspiratorial rhetoric justifying state power over the media and the media broadcasting that justification.
Western governments have repeatedly charged Russia with engaging in imperialist expansionism, nuclear espionage, the militancy of food, energy, and the winter, as well as a number of other hostilities that put the welfare of millions of people in danger, as the length of the conflict in Ukraine approaches nine months. But a counternarrative that is gaining ground in Moscow asserts that the West actually wants to make life miserable for the average person. An urban legend from the final years of the Soviet Union is known as “the golden billion.”. It asserts that a cabal of 1 billion global elites is plotting to amass all of the world’s wealth and resources while leaving the rest of the population to suffer and go hungry.
President Vladimir Putin and other top Kremlin figures are increasingly supporting the theory, which has been a fringe theory in Russia for years, as a weapon against the West amid a breakdown in relations over the conflict in Ukraine.
For the uneducated and the weak, conspiracy theories are, in my opinion, a last resort. Whether they were shouting in the streets or using the internet, outsiders who thought ominous, enigmatic forces were in control of world events were easily identifiable. Inside the palaces of power, they were more knowledgeable. As British civil servants like to say, when something goes wrong, it was typically “a cock-up, not a conspiracy.”.
However, conspiracy theorists are now found in boardrooms instead of on the streets. They have been chosen to lead many countries, including Turkey and Brazil, as presidents. There are conspiracies against Donald Trump, who is gearing up for his political comeback in the US. The most dangerous conspiracy theorist of them all is Vladimir Putin, who is presently posing a nuclear war threat to the entire world.
He was full of conspiratorial notions in his speech last week, which announced the illegitimate annexation of a portion of Ukraine. According to Putin, the entire west “wants us to be a colony; they do not want us to be free. “. dot . They’re trying to rob us. In the past, Putin and his closest advisers have made passing references to the “golden billion” hoax. This theory holds that the west intends to split up Russia and take its resources because it believes that there are only enough resources in the world to support a billion people. He claimed last week that “satanism” had replaced religion in western countries.
More and more evidence points to the fact that Putin actually believes in many of the conspiracies he promotes. He’s been driven by a profoundly conspiratorial worldview for years, which influences his behavior. He has repeatedly insisted that the “colour revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia weren’t truly democratic uprisings, but rather were manufactured “coups” by western intelligence services.
One particular threat comes from Putin. He is not, however, the only president who holds conspiracies to be true. Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, who may lose the election, is advancing the idea that a significant leftist plot is under way to steal the vote from him. He also agrees with the wild theory that the Covid-19 virus was produced in a laboratory. I’m curious to know if conspiratorial rhetoric is a precursor to authoritarianism, a sign of authoritarianism, or just an ongoing political tactic given how prevalent it is in politics worldwide under all types of regimes. I personally would support the latter, but what fascinates me most is the interaction between conspiratorial rhetoric and authoritarianism. Putin spoke to the Russian media, over which he obviously has considerable control, in order to support his conspiracies. He would undoubtedly retaliate against any media outlet that challenged his assertions. As a result, I believe there is a cyclical relationship between conspiracy theories and media censorship, with conspiracy theories serving as justifications for governmental control of the media while media outlets broadcast those justifications.