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Putin’s World: Why Russia’s Showdown with the West Will Worsen

I grew up hating America. I lived in the Soviet Union and was a child of the cold war. That hate went away in 1989, though, when the Berlin Wall fell and the cold war ended. By the time I left Russia in 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed, America was a country that Russians looked up to and wanted to emulate.

Twenty-three years later, a new version of cold war is back, though we Americans haven’t realized it yet. But I am getting ahead of myself.

After Russia invaded Crimea and staged its referendum, I thought Vladimir Putin’s foreign excursions were over. Taking back Crimea violated plenty of international laws, but let’s be honest. Though major powers like the U.S. and Russia write the international laws, they are not really expected to abide by those laws if they find them not to be in their best interests. Those laws are for everyone else. I am not condoning such behavior, but I can clearly see how Russians could justify taking Crimea back — after all, it used to belong to Russia.

I was perplexed by how the Russian people could possibly support and not be outraged by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But I live in Denver, and I read mostly U.S. and European newspapers. I wanted to see what was going on in Russia and Ukraine from the Russian perspective, so I went on a seven-day news diet: I watched only Russian TV — Channel One Russia, the state-owned broadcaster, which I hadn’t seen in more than 20 years — and read Pravda, the Russian newspaper whose name means "Truth." Here is what I learned:

  • If Russia did not reclaim Crimea, once the new, illegitimate government came to power in Ukraine, the Russian navy would have been kicked out and the U.S. navy would have started using Crimean ports as navy bases.
  • There are no Russian troops in Ukraine, nor were there ever any there. If any Russian soldiers were found there (and there were), those soldiers were on leave. They went to Ukraine to support their Russian brothers and sisters who are being abused by Ukrainian nationalists. (They may have borrowed a tank or two, or a highly specialized Russian-made missile system that is capable of shooting down planes, but for some reason those details are not mentioned much in the Russian media.) On November 12, NATO reported that Russian tanks had entered Ukraine. The Russian government vehemently denied it, blaming NATO for being anti-Russian.
  • Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was not downed by Russia or separatists. It was shot down by an air-to-air missile fired by Ukraine or a NATO plane engaged in military exercises in Ukraine at the time. The U.S. has the satellite imagery but is afraid of the truth and chooses not to share it with the world.
  • Ukraine was destabilized by the U.S., which spent $5 billion on this project. As proof, TV news showed a video of Senator John McCain giving a speech to antigovernment protesters in Kiev’s Maidan Square. It was followed by a video of Vice President Joe Biden visiting Ukraine during the tumult. I wasn’t sure what his role was, but it was implied that he had something to do with the unrest.
  • Speaking of Joe Biden, I learned that his son just joined the board of Ukraine’s largest natural gas company, which will benefit significantly from a destabilized Ukraine.
  • Ukraine is a zoo of a country, deeply corrupt and overrun by Russian-haters and neo-Nazis (Banderovtsi — Ukrainian nationalists who were responsible for killing Russians and Jews during World War II).
  • Candidates for the recent parliamentary election in Ukraine included Darth Vader (not kidding), as well as a gay ex-prostitute who claims to be a working man’s man but lives in a multimillion-dollar mansion.

I have to confess, it is hard not to develop a lot of self-doubt about your previously held views when you watch Russian TV for a week. But then you have to remind yourself that Putin’s Russia doesn’t have a free press. The free press that briefly existed after the Soviet Union collapsed is gone — Putin killed it. The government controls most TV channels, radio and newspapers. What Russians see on TV, read in print and listen to on the radio is direct propaganda from the Kremlin.

Before I go further, let’s visit the definition of propaganda with the help of the Oxford English Dictionary: "The systematic dissemination of information, especially in a biased or misleading way, in order to promote a political cause or point of view."

I always thought of the Internet as an unstoppable democratic force that would always let the truth slip out through the cracks in even the most determined wall of propaganda. I was wrong. After watching Russian TV, you would not want to read the Western press, because you’d be convinced it was lying. More important, Russian TV is so potent that you would not even want to watch anything else, because you would be convinced that you were in possession of indisputable facts.

Russian’s propaganda works by forcing your right brain (the emotional one) to overpower your left brain (the logical one), while clogging all your logical filters. Here is an example: Russian TV shows footage of schools in eastern Ukraine bombed by the Ukrainian army. Anyone’s heart would bleed, seeing these gruesome images. It is impossible not to feel hatred toward people who would perpetrate such an atrocity on their own population. It was explained to viewers that the Ukrainian army continued its offensive despite a cease-fire agreement.

Of course if you watched Ukrainian TV, you would have seen similar images of death and despair on the other side. In fact, if you read Ukrainian newspapers, you will learn that the Ukrainian army is fighting a well-armed army, not rebels with Molotovs and handguns, but an organized force fully armed by the Russian army.

What viewers were not shown was that the cease-fire had been broken before the fighting resumed. The fact that Putin helped to instigate this war was never mentioned. Facts are not something Russian TV is concerned about. As emotional images and a lot of disinformation pump up your right brain, it overpowers the left, which capitulates and stops questioning the information presented.

What I also learned is that you don’t have to lie to lie. Let me give you an example. I could not figure out how the Russian media came up with the $5 billion that "America spent destabilizing Ukraine." But then I found a video of a U.S. undersecretary of State giving an 8.5-minute speech; at the 7.5-minute mark, she said, "Since Ukrainian independence in 1991 … [the U.S. has] invested more than $5 billion to help Ukraine." The $5 billion figure was correct. However, it was not given to Ukraine in three months to destabilize a democratically elected, corrupt pro-Russian government but over the course of 23 years. Yes, you don’t have to lie to lie; you just have to omit important facts — something Russian TV is very good at.

Another example of a right-brain attack on the left brain is "the rise of neo-Nazism in Ukraine." Most lies are built around kernels of truth, and this one is no different. Ukraine was home to the Banderovtsi, Ukrainian nationalists who were responsible for killing tens of thousands of Jews and Russians during World War II.

Putin justified the invasion of Crimea by claiming that he was protecting the Russian population from neo-Nazis. Russian TV creates the impression that the whole of Ukraine is overrun by Nazis. As my father puts it, "Ukrainians who lived side by side with Russians did not just become Nazis overnight."

Though there may be some neo-Nazis in Ukraine, the current government is liberal and pro-Western. Svoboda — the party whose members are known for their neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic rhetoric — did not get even 5 percent of the votes in the October election, the minimum needed to gain a significant presence in parliament. Meanwhile the TV goes on showing images of Nazis killing Russians and Jews during World War II and drawing parallels between Nazi Germany and Ukraine today.

What also makes things more difficult in Russia is that, unlike Americans, who by default don’t trust their politicians — yes, even their presidents — Russians still have the czarist mentality that idolizes its leaders. Stalin was able to cultivate this to an enormous degree — most Russians thought of him as a father figure. My father was 20 when Stalin died in 1953, and he told me that he, like everyone around him, cried.

I keep thinking about what Lord Acton said: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The Putin we scorn today was not always like this; he did a lot of good things during his first term. The two that stand out the most are getting rid of the organized crime that was killing Russia and instituting a pro-business flat tax system. The amount of power Russians give their presidents, however, will, with time, change the blood flow to anyone’s head. Come to think of it, even Mother Teresa would not have stood a chance in Russia.

A few weeks ago Putin turned 62, and thousands of people took to the streets to celebrate his birthday. (Most Americans, including this one, don’t even know the month of Barack Obama’s birthday.)

In my misspent youth, I took a marketing class at the University of Colorado. I remember very little from that class except this: For your message to be remembered, a consumer has to hear it at least six times. Putin’s propaganda folks must have taken the same class, because Russian citizens get to hear how great their president is at least six times a day.

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Leave a Comment    (25)

  • POST

Nice article, only one thing I have to disagree about. And that is the history of Crimea. Crimea being a part of Russia, or something that should belong to Russia is often used as an excuse for the illegal annexation. But in fact Russia has no busniess there. On youtube I found a nice video, explaning the history of Crimea:

Apr 02 2015 at 6:45 AM EST

Dimitri Visser

The arrogance of NATO is at peak, West are simple uncivilised burglars out to rob the nations of their resources, A game they happily played for very many centuries. It needs to stop. Does the world really need WEST?. Is there any reason for this robbery to continue?
Those are the two questions to be asked

If west goes on with this interference in and around Russia, The best way Russia need to respond is by arming every country in the east with Nuclear weapons and ICBMS which will ensure that in event of any conflict. The west will not have anything to further exploit, That is the only way for peace.

Mar 02 2015 at 11:36 AM EST


Dear Vitaly,
Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. I've had a longstanding interest in Soviet and post Soviet since I studied Russian at Cornell and subsequently 6 visits to the USSR, but none since. Your essay hit the nail right on the head! I had planned to visit St Petersburg after a medical meeting in Helsinki, but thought that the anti American feeling was so strong that I went to Riga and Tallinn, both of which I previously had visited, Riga in Soviet times and Tallinn in post Soviet times. Karen Dawisha will be speaking here at OSU in March about her book "Putin's Kleptocracy" Let's talk by phone. My OSU # is 614 292 2177.Regards, Rolf Barth

Feb 21 2015 at 9:40 AM EST

Rolf Barth

In my view, while west were playing its game in Ukraine trying to dismiss Yanukovich, Russia remained silent, but there was another game, a game to find a reason to take back Crimea. Indeed, such decisions are not done in hurry in 1-2 months, it has been planned, possibly, several years before and west just trying to pursue its goals helped to justify such an action. And after West reached its goal but realized that was in other’s game it has started to blame Putin for everything, including Malaysian aircraft (one should notice that after blaming no 100% evidence was provided yet). Demonizing and comparing to Hitler - isn't it a propaganda and anti-Russian sentiments? Just the same thing as anti-Americanism in Russia.

yes, Russian TV is not the best media to shape the whole picture (why you read Pravda? this is definitely not in top of Russian newspapers) but people may easily have access to BBC, DW and CNN (unfortunately stopped broadcasting), those who don't speak foreign languages still may easily read such popular aggregators of top world press translated to Russian like Inosmi and Inopressa, just have a look at.

Nov 24 2014 at 8:50 AM EST


"Inna" has it taped. This is an piece of undocumented, unmitigated crap. One need not be any kind of a fan of Putin to see that. It also shows an ignorance of history (both recent and earlier) that takes one's breath away. Katsenelson is entitled to his opinions, sure - since we defend the right to ignorant and egregious fulminations - but his claims to factuality and inside information don't pass the laugh test.

Nov 23 2014 at 7:59 AM EST

Mikael Marlies Karlsson

None of Putin's antics surprise me. he is a gangster of the first order. Privately he and his bankers would agree. how much has he amassed? Billions? Possibly hundreds of Billions.

Look into his eyes. they are the eyes of a cobra. They have watched men die....slowly. There is no mercy there, none.

Nov 20 2014 at 4:47 PM EST

L. Sheddy

Good point of view. Thank you for writing it. Best explanation I have seen on why Russian people buy the nutty propaganda so effectively.

In one major point I have a very different view. Crimea was not Rheinland 1936. But Georgia 2008 was Rheinland 1936.

Today Russia is more like Germany 1938 marching towards Sudetenland. It was still quite stoppable at that time, but everybody chose not to fight. Today Ukraine has proven they remember the history. They have started to fight back. If the rest of the Europe and West wanted to avoid large war with Russia, they would help Ukraine to stand it's ground.

Nov 20 2014 at 11:55 AM EST


John Mouldin. I am just so surprised that you can associate yourself with this wanker and his point of view ..

his comments are distorted and so off the mark he appears to being used as propaganda by western media controlled by big business Wall Street types.

Read the free press and get a better perspective of what actually is going on in the real world.

If The Colder War is similar to the above bull shit then it is not worth reading.

Nov 20 2014 at 10:23 AM EST


So true. I have a similar developments in my life as Anatole. I moved abroad (not USA though) with my parents from Moscow in 1991 and I'm 40 now. EVERY major conclusion made by Anatole I made miself. That's what make Anatole writing so bright and smart :))..

Nov 20 2014 at 3:43 AM EST


- Opinions are presented as facts (e.g. America was a country that Russians looked up to and wanted to emulate). I believe you are entitled to your own opinions but you are not entitled to your own facts. Happy to elaborate on this.
- Biased selection of information sources – all conclusions “from Russian perspective” are based on the two media sources closest to the Kremlin. This cannot be considered as decent attempt to see what is going on from Russian perspective. Not dissimilar to learning about what is going on in the US economy from Alan Greenspan only.
- Disrespect to “most Russians”. [For most of them, their lives are better now: No more lines for toilet paper, and the stores are full of food.] Of course you have all the rights to portrait "most Russians" as unsophisticated animals - you are now on a totally different stage of evolution
- Wide usage of double standards.
I am far from being a Putin's supporter, but despite it may be convenient to put all the blame on one person, it is always important to remember that it takes two to tango. Your analysis is totally one-sided though and therefore it cannot be considered seriously... I think it is not analysis at all but rather an emotional outburst.

Nov 19 2014 at 11:04 PM EST


Thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking article. I saw a recent list of the most powerful people in the world featured in Forbes magazine. The panel believes the most powerful person in the world is Vladimir Putin.

Nov 19 2014 at 6:37 PM EST

Mary Glass

Great article! If you have not done so already, I would suggest you find a copy of The Colder War, by Marin Katusa.

Nov 19 2014 at 5:12 PM EST

Kemp Hanley

This is an outstandingly good article.

Nov 19 2014 at 2:09 PM EST

John Boyko

Well done, Vitaliy. Putin seized power and will go to any lengths, I believe, to hold on to it. Hence the propaganda.

Nov 19 2014 at 11:39 AM EST


Fine article, Mr. Katsenelson. I've been reading Winston Churchill's "The Gathering Storm" and the parallels between Hitler's actions and those of Putin - encouraged by the Western democracies' tepid responses - are unsettling, to say the least.

Nov 19 2014 at 9:13 AM EST

Jason Gardner

I loved to read your article., you understand, I'm from Austria, a country , you have probably heard of in the Sowjet Union.
What is your background , you are originally from Russia or from the Ukraine,...?

Nov 19 2014 at 6:00 AM EST

Hubert Gantz

--Pravda reminds me of Fox, or vice versa.
--One big difference between 2014 and 1936, is that the other "Great Power"--England at the time--would not back France in 1936. We seem to be pushing Germany into being harder on Russia.
--IF NATO started airstrikes in the Ukraine only, this would up Russian casualties, but risk greater confrontation.

Nov 18 2014 at 11:27 PM EST


This analysis of Putin's motivations and behaviour stands head and shoulders above current coverage of the topic. Kudos to the author for providing historical context for evaluating events to date, and more importantly, providing a foundation for useful speculation around what Putin is likely do next.

Nov 18 2014 at 10:22 PM EST

Gerry Bliss

!00% agree with your comment .

Nov 18 2014 at 9:10 PM EST


This is the most balanced essay on the Russo-American relationship I've seen in months. We need wider perspective and understanding not hate filled rhetoric if we are to survive in a world with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Nov 18 2014 at 5:08 PM EST

thank you

The author makes several interesting points and quite frankly baseless assumptions. I also grew up in the Soviet Union in the 80's and emigrated to the US in the 90's, so I have an understanding for Soviet-style propaganda employed by V. Putin and his government. I am also well aware of the subtle ways US government shapes public opinion. Perception management is an art our government knows all too well. Yes, Russia took back Crimea, that used to be theirs and was "gifted" to Ukraine by Khruschev in the 60's. Yes, Russia is supporting eastern Ukraine, just like the US is supporting the Maidan government. The author claims that there no neo-fascist forces in the "new" "democratic" Ukraine, but he fails to discuss or even mention the events in Odessa where over a 100 people were burned alive in a building by a crowd of "pro-Ukrainian" "peaceful" demonstrators. The situation in Ukraine is not as black-and-white as this opinion peace paints it. Just like Vietnam, Afghanistan, Angola, and numerous other places around the world where USA and USSR (and now RF) are butting heads, the innocent people on the ground get hurt. Russia and America will never be friends or partners. These two opposing forces will continue to polarize the world. In the mean time, the real world superpower, China, will continue to grow and will eventually take over.

Nov 18 2014 at 3:04 PM EST

Alex Birman

Excellent Piece, an enjoyable / scary read

Nov 17 2014 at 3:09 PM EST

Jeremy B

I don't think "we"are ignoring Putin at all. Unlike, after 1936, the current economic sanctions are damaging Russia's economy, and causing many of the top oligarchs to quietly express their resentment of what Putin is doing.
Iran's economy is a basket case because of economic sanctions, and the same can and will be done to Russia, if Putin does not back down.

Putin has backed himself into a corner, and will suffer the consequences.

Most Russians will suffer as economic sanctions are tightened, and the glut of oil is a major plus for the west.

As Russia's economy collapses, its people will start to realize that Putin's policies are to blame.

It may take a few years, but Putin's will slowly lose power, and eventually be blamed for driving Russia's economy into a ditch.

Nov 17 2014 at 12:53 PM EST

Ken Luskin

The fabric of Humankind is being ripped to pieces. Too many hands are pulling in too many different directions.
Some of these hands are well visible others instead are not visible at all.
Some pull in the name of everyone and some instead want each knot in that fabric to be aligned with all the other knots. There are also those who want to offer that fabric to a Tailor to turn it into a religious toga.
Today, the survival of that fabric is at risk.
As soon as possible the focus of the public opinion must change and unify those people who want to save the whole fabric against those who instead for selfish motives are about to destroy it. Today like never before in history technology offers the means to do it.
It will be useless to apply bandages and wait out the sorts of a mortal wound. After one trick of the tail pulled on 9/11, it will take a well planned, gradual and progressive change with an end game in sight visible for everyone.
Even before introducing new laws Humanity must be able to look in the mirror and establish new values that this time won’t be corrupted or dictated by the “value” of money.

“Circle of Equality”
At the foundation of a long lasting social system it must be set a priority of values and, in a system of values, Reason is at the center of the “Circle of the Stronger”.
Imagine, running along the perimeter of a strange circle: the mouse killed by the cat, the cat killed by the lion, the lion killed by the man, the man killed by the bacteria, the bacteria killed by the white cells of the mouse. The survival of each one depends on the survival of those on their sides and that of the entire Circle.
Above all written laws there must be one Mutual Trust that every action will always satisfy the needs of the Circle well before those of any Individual.

Nov 16 2014 at 11:19 PM EST


The insight of this article from both views is absolutely amazing. If you ran for president I would vote for you. Great work!!!!

Nov 16 2014 at 10:22 PM EST