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Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been an utter failure. But you wouldn't know it

Russian propaganda works because it exploits a weakness in the West: we still tend to believe that language has something to do with truth

There is one word to describe Russia’s achievements since Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine: failure. Complete and disastrous failure.

Over five months, Russia failed to achieve a victory which it expected in days. It failed to seize Kyiv (or Kharkiv) and to overthrow Ukraine’s elected leadership. It failed to block the ports and to landlock the country. It had to retreat from over 40% of Ukrainian territory and start a war of positions on a frontline from which it is now incapable of launching a major attack.

Russian weapons proved to be the country’s most overrated production since Lysenko’s agricultural theories. Russia was never able to establish air control. Its S-400 antimissile system does not work at all. The much publicised Armata tank has not even been seen on the field. Russian high-value targets are sitting ducks to Western high precision artillery pieces operated by Ukraine, and Russian artillery lacks the precision needed to fire back.

If all this jars with the impression which the news bubble had given you about how the war is going, don’t be surprised. There is one aspect of the war where Russia has shown total mastery: its capacity to create lies and have them spread around, both by paid propagandist and by unwitting bystanders.

The first reason Russia has been so good at the war of internet narratives is quantitative. No other country invested as much on troll farms. Only two days ago, the Ukrainian SBU foiled a bot farm in Kyiv involving 200 servers for IP making and 5000 SIM cards. This was only one of hundreds of such operations all over the world. The internet is flooded with Russian disinformation. This ranges from lazy smear jobs – President Zelensky becomes a cowardly mafia boss, when he in fact heroically resisted U.S pressure to flee, and when all the Panama papers raised was that he may have a foreign bank account – to strategic misdirection: constantly redefining official Russian war goals by erasing the memory of the goals which failed.

Similarly, no other country invested as much, over many decades, in infiltrating its agents of influence among political and media circles. Some of these agents of influence – most famously Gerhard Schröder, a former Chancellor of Germany – are openly paid. Some were only wined and dined. Yet others are ideologically sympathetic. All end up repeating Russian lies and providing a global echo for these lies.

Russian propaganda succeeds because it exploits a fatal weakness in our societies. Westerners still tend to believe that language has something to do with truth. They understand (and practice) the art of lying, but tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the written or spoken word, especially when issued by officials or journalists.

Russians, however, know that the main function of language is to weaken the enemy. Watching Russian television almost daily since the invasion, I have seen reporting become a race towards the most outrageous fibs. The best liars – those who announce that a zoophile brothel opened in Denmark or that Europeans stopped taking showers and will die of poor hygiene – have become the greatest media stars.

Because of this cultural difference, most Westerners don't spend enough time making simple sanity checks. If we did, we could notice some pretty obvious truths. How can invading a country be justified as “protection against Nato aggression; when several immediate neighbours (Poland, Norway, the Baltic States) joined two decades ago without creating the slightest threats to Russia? How can that stand when your state-controlled media openly explains every day that the goal of the “special operation” is to wipe out Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian identity from the face of the earth?

In recent weeks, Russian troll farms and their Western parrots have flooded the media with warnings that cutting off Europe’s energy supply over the next winter would make Europe abandon the Ukrainian cause and welcome Russian domination in exchange for gas. Simple fact-checking, however, shows that Russian gas accounts for 40% of European gas consumption, or less than 10% of Europe’s energy supply. It has already been cut by 60% without any perceivable pain. 

Europe has already started replacing Russia by alternative suppliers – a process which might take over a year to be completed, but will be well engaged when winter sets in. At that point, additional measures may involve reducing room temperature by two degrees and turning off shop lights at night. Not quite the stuff of societal collapse and unconditional surrender.

Russia lies. Relentlessly and unashamedly. It has rebuilt what Cold War hands used to call “a wilderness of mirrors”, repurposing the Internet as the world’s largest echo chamber for a phantasmatic war machine. It would be ironic if Ukrainians managed to retake their country by military skill and courage while the West insists on preparing for an orderly surrender.