Everyone keeps saying ‘Putin lies’ – but does he?

As Ben Wallace points out, in Kremlin utterances, there is often a tiny grain of truth, a speck of sand amongst a desert of lies

Putin has 'small man syndrome', says Ben Wallace

“Putin doesn’t lie.” It was a striking claim from the defence secretary Ben Wallace yesterday morning, and one perhaps guaranteed to have you choking on your porridge. Recent history, after all, is littered with Russian lies.

Two weeks after Russia invaded its neighbour, the Russian foreign minister insisted “we did not attack Ukraine’’. It was as unbelievable as the suggestion by the two Salisbury poisoning suspects that they’d come to England’s cathedral city to see its “famous 123m spire”. And yet Wallace was trying to make an extremely valid point.

“One of the lessons of the last 10 to 15 years is people have underestimated Vladimir Putin. They have ignored what he has said publicly and they have done so at their peril. He wrote in July last year what he was going to do effectively in Ukraine. People thought he was just posturing. There is a sort of phrase that often goes round that ‘Putin doesn’t lie’. Putin has said lots of threats; he often carries them out,” he told the BBC Today programme.

Putin’s essay, published in July 2021 and entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, appeared, at the time, to be a rather boring history lesson about shared ancestry. “Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians were all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe,” the president wrote.

Read on, though, and his argument that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia” looks more like a chilling vision of the future. “Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people,” he continued.

In Kremlin utterances, there is often a tiny grain of truth, a speck of sand amongst a desert of lies. That makes the larger untruths particularly hard to combat. I thought about this when I was invited in to interview Russia’s ambassador to the UK, Andrei Kelin, this week (just a fortnight after being “banned” by Moscow, along with 28 other British journalists).

Just before I went to the embassy, Russia’s Defence Ministry offered an “explanation” for the missile attack on the shopping mall in Kremenchuk, suggesting that a “high-precision air attack” had been aimed at taking out “hangars where armament and munitions were stored”. Those weapons had exploded, causing a fire in the nearby shopping centre, the ministry expounded.

It sounded far-fetched, and subsequent evidence has indeed debunked the claim. But in the hours after the attack, satellite images showing a factory a few hundred metres from the shopping centre, which could in theory have been used to store weapons, momentarily appeared to lend a shred of plausibility to the Russian theory. The Ukrainians have since said that the KredMash factory housed a company producing equipment to repair and maintain roads.

In the propaganda war, Moscow has one other trump card it likes to play. After I’d pushed back on Kelin’s Kremlin line/lie on Kremenchuk, he conceded that the shopping mall attack – described as a “war crime” by G7 leaders – could have been “collateral damage”. Remember that very phrase from the Iraq war? Civilians were killed by the US and UK allies then, too. And the Russians won’t ever let us forget it.

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The most reliable bulwark against wrongdoing by governments the world over is independent, well-resourced journalism. Russia’s ambassador explained that British journalists had been banned by Moscow for not giving the “correct information”. For exposing the lies, in other words.

In Russia, ordinary citizens can’t see the appalling atrocities carried out on the orders of their president. Novaya Gazeta, the only major independent news outlet in Russia, closed at the end of March, so Russians wanting to see uncensored information have to use encrypted Telegram chats or Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

We can see the news in all its horrors, and so we can make up our own minds about the lies and half truths. And rather than censor the Russians, refusing to try and interview them as some have suggested to me, we need – as Ben Wallace suggested – to listen to the warnings and the threats, to expose the lies and misinformation, and respond accordingly.

Cathy Newman is presenter and investigations editor of ‘Channel 4 News’

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