Putin’s Thanksgiving Day charade

While Americans enjoy the delights and sounds of the 96th Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, Russian President Vladimir Putin is busy trying to pull off a malevolent charade of his own in Moscow. Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine is rapidly unraveling and he is running for cover. After nine months of deadly combat, defeats and retreats in addition to harsh Western economic sanctions, Putin has nothing to show for it except 100,000-plus Russian casualties, 8,047 pieces of military hardware destroyed, damaged, abandoned or captured, and hideously, in gross violation of the Geneva Convention, more than 40,000 non-combatant dead civilians.

If you look at Putin’s official calendar, you wouldn’t know that he is an active wartime president and that both he and Russia are losing the war in Ukraine. Instead, Putin’s calendar reads more like that of a small-town mayor running for re-election: Delivering greetings to a Russian youth symphony orchestra. Christening the new Ural and Yakutia nuclear-powered icebreakers. Launching a new turkey breeding center in the Tyumen Region. Hyping the 12th International ATOMEXPO in Sochi and recognizing the opening of the 17th Vladimir Menshov International Film Festival.

Balderdash.

The carefully scripted message the Kremlin is trying to project is simple: Everything in Ukraine is going as planned, freeing up the “Supreme Leader” to focus on addressing and accomplishing the people’s work. Putin is following the age-old political mantra that “if you are explaining, you are losing.” Never mind, of course, that Russia is losing in every way possible.

If only reality mirrored Putin’s fantasy world. It doesn’t. No amount of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” Kremlin myopia will prevent the Russian public from ultimately seeing through Putin’s charade of lies and misdirection. Not when recently mobilized soldiers being shipped to the front lines in Luhansk Oblast are purportedly being issued military clothing stripped off dead or wounded soldiers who fought before them. Not when there are reports of the remains of Russian soldiers, uniforms and equipment being burned and buried in the landfills of Kherson.

Putin’s performative art is fooling no one, except those needing to be willingly fooled or misled in Russia. Even guest commentators on Russian state-controlled media are beginning to openly question Putin’s official line that all the defeats in Ukraine are in reality masking Russian victories in the making. Half-heartedly, Putin’s top propagandist Vladimir Solovyov, endeavoring to keep up the pretense, laments, according to Russian media expert Julia Davis, that “it would be strange not to use [nuclear weapons]; otherwise, why did we even make them?”

Solovyov’s unspoken admission in even raising the threat of using nukes is that the conventional military gig is up in Ukraine. Other analysts, according to Davis, pushed back scathingly against Solovyov, noting that threatening to “wipe out Kyiv or Kharkiv off the face of the earth” would be “criminal.” Sanity, at least for now, is slowly creeping into Russia’s nightly talk shows once again, wielding battlefield truths in the face of Putin’s lies and charades.

If this gradual awakening of conscience can be sustained, today will truly be a global day of Thanksgiving. State-organized propaganda only works when others willingly buy into misdirection or are deceived into blindly believing it. Once those two disinformation avenues are foreclosed, then the emperor — or in Putin’s case, the equivalent of a modern-day czar — is fully exposed and, equally importantly, highly vulnerable. Charades only work until you are unmasked.

We are nearing that point; however, we are not yet there. Putin is still dangerous and still has military options — including help from Belarus. Men who willingly commit war crimes and crimes against humanity, including those tragically uncovered in Kherson, do not yield power easily. 

They do, however, become desperate and prone to error — often to the extent of contradicting themselves publicly. Those signs are present. By example, Putin, now largely ostracized from the global stage, was reduced to unveiling a statue of Fidel Castro in Moscow, alongside Miguel Díaz-Canel y Bermúdez, the first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba. This, despite Putin’s repeated condemnations of communist Soviet leaders for giving away Ukraine, Poland, and the rest of eastern Europe.

Globally, the walls are closing in on Putin and Russia. China and India, finally, may be seeing past Putin’s charade, no doubt for self-interested reasons — China vis-à-vis its future designs in Taiwan, and India vis-à-vis its need for global trade with the West. Regardless, their pushback against Putin at the recent G20 summit in Indonesia was significant in that they are further boxing in Russia on a global stage that has had enough of his adventurism in Ukraine. 

Domestically, the Kremlin walls are also rapidly closing in on Putin and his regime. Even members of Putin’s inner circle, including the Wagner Group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, are vocalizing criticism of “Russia’s war machine.” For now, they remain outwardly loyal to Putin. 

However, their criticisms of the Russian Defense Ministry and Putin’s close ally and friend, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, are gaining currency among Russia’s milbloggers on Telegram and siloviki. In time, whether by design or the need to stop himself from being pushed out a window, Prigozhin may find himself, uncomfortably, being touted as Putin’s successor — if not Putin’s Brutus.

Enough already of Putin’s charade. The act has grown tired. In film director Stanley Donen’s 1963 classic, “Charade,” no one is who they seem to be other than the film’s heroine, Reggie Lampert, played by Audrey Hepburn. Not even the movie’s other hero, Peter Joshua, played by Cary Grant. Putin is likely no longer sure of who he needs to be either, in order to survive. 

For now, at least, on this Thanksgiving Day in America, Putin, about 5,000 miles away in Moscow, is trying to pretend he is anything other than what he is: a failed Russian leader and a war criminal deserving of a date at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. 

Mark Toth is a retired economist, historian and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing, and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg, and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL

Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.  

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