Jamie Dettmer is Opinion Writer at POLITICO Europe.
“The tongue can hide the truth, but the eyes never! says a character in “The Master and Margarita,” Mikhail Bulgakov’s grimly satirical Stalin-era novel, mixing fantasy and reality.
But in the real world, the eyes can too often deceive, especially when the lies are told by expert concealers.
According to Bulgakov’s character, when asked a question: “It only takes a second to control you, you know exactly what you have to say to hide the truth, and you speak very convincingly, and nothing on your face trembles to give you away.But the truth, alas, has been marred by the question, and it rises from the depths of your soul to twinkle in your eyes and all is lost.
But not if you are one of the bold Kremlin officials and spokespersons.
In Moscow in 2019, I asked Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova about the Russian paramilitary group Wagner. Our exchange took place just hours after news broke of the deaths of around two dozen Wagner mercenaries in Libya – and I pressed her to find out if the Kremlin approved of their presence in North Africa.
“I don’t have any detailed information about the soldiers you’re talking about,” she said, without a facial twitch or optical tremor. I went on to ask whether the Kremlin should prevent Russian veterans from undertaking seemingly “independent” foreign military adventures. She said the Kremlin couldn’t do anything. “We don’t have any laws to stop this,” Zakharova lamented, throwing up her arms to punctuate legal helplessness.
Coincidentally, of course, the Wagner Group only fights alongside Kremlin allies – be it Libyan aspirant Khalifa Haftar, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad or former repressive Guinean leader Alpha Conde.
Wagner’s fighters first emerged among Ukraine’s so-called Donbass little green men in 2014 after the ousting of Vladimir Putin’s satrap, Viktor Yanukovych. Wagner’s fighters are in eastern Ukraine and are now engaged in a war the Kremlin claims is about the ‘denazification’ of Ukraine – even though the Kremlin-led mercenary group is named after the call sign used by Dmitry Utkin, a retired Russian special forces. commander and passionate about Nazi history and culture.
In Africa, Wagner’s mercenaries have fought insurgencies and supported autocrats, especially in countries where they can help Russia obtain or maintain major mining concessions or in countries where the Kremlin has entered into mining deals. armament or security cooperation. The Russian aluminum company Rusal sources one-third of the bauxite it imports from Guinea.
Wagner’s mercenaries have been accused of staging vicious attacks on artisanal gold mines along the lawless border between Sudan and the Central African Republic.
This week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Republic of Congo. Unsurprisingly, he made no mention of the Wagner group or his involvement in repression and subjugation on behalf of the autocrats – and from what I can see no local reporters asked him about the Russian mercenaries.
Not that it would have mattered. American short story writer Ambrose Bierce defined diplomacy as “the patriotic art of lying for one’s country”. And Lavrov is a quintessential Bierce-type diplomat. No lie is too big. The massacre of civilians in Bucha? A “false attack” aimed at discrediting Moscow. The 2014 crash over eastern Ukraine of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17? No Russian involvement. Chemical warfare in Syria? Staging of the White Helmets.
There has always been an air of duplicity and deception in diplomacy. Emissaries and ambassadors are responsible, among other missions, for restoring the reputation of their country, defending it and making it look good. But there is a difference between obscuring the truth and the relentless, deceitful and brazen distortions that Putin and his officials, like Lavrov, use to confuse, evade and agitate.
While touring African states, Lavrov told the well-worn anti-Western, anti-colonial narrative that Putin’s Kremlin pulled from the playbook of former Soviet propagandists. Of course, they would also place anti-Western conspiracy theories in African newspapers betting on their pick-up in friendly international media – as happened with the AIDS lie from an American lab.
True to form, Lavrov underscored during his stops in Africa Russia’s role in supporting the continent’s anti-colonial struggles and national liberation movements – while ignoring the chaos and murder his “little men Greens” have committed in Sudan and the Republic of Congo.
The EUvsDisinfo project run by the European External Action Service recently argued that “Lavrov recycles tired old lies, but there’s hardly anyone left to listen.” But alas, this is not correct. The legacy of Western colonialism gives Putin’s propagandists an edge in information warfare.
Macky Sall, the president of Senegal, a west-leaning nation, warned European leaders in May that Russian narratives and attempts to obfuscate the facts through disinformation, misinformation and propaganda about the war in Ukraine were in danger of gaining ground in Africa – especially with regard to Western sanctions exacerbating a food and fertilizer crisis on the African continent. Analysts at the Brookings Institution, a think tank, warned last month that “Russia’s narratives of its invasion of Ukraine persist in Africa.”
They added, “News spaces in Africa and other southern regions like India and China have been heavily targeted by the Russian disinformation and propaganda campaign.”
Western leaders have belatedly begun to try to point out the similarities between Ukraine’s struggle to be masters of its own destiny – free from interference by an aggressive imperial power – with the struggles of African and Asian nations to escape colonialism. But the efforts are not joint and occasional, and simply not competitive with fast-paced, continuous, repetitive and adaptable Russian disinformation.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Russia decided to sign a grain deal with Ukraine on the eve of Lavrov’s trip to Africa, giving him an alibi for the food crisis.
The Western message is failing to be heard in the face of Russia’s shrewd attacks on old grievances and the exploitation of old tensions. Admittedly, this does not work with the Ugandan leader, Yoweri Museveni. At a joint press conference with Lavrov in Entebbe on Tuesday, Museveni praised Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, for supporting African anti-colonial movements for more than 100 years.
He said he did not understand Western calls for Africa to “automatically” adopt an anti-Russian stance, noting that Uganda could not turn against countries that had never harmed it, just by forgiving the Western colonial oppressors of the past. “We want to trade with Russia and we want to trade with all countries in the world. We don’t believe in being enemies of someone’s enemy,” he added.
Meanwhile, the West struggles to counter the lies and distortions. As Mark Twain noted, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth puts on its shoes.”