The one person who knows what Putin is thinking

A week ago, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, met with Emmanuel Macron, his French counterpart, at the Kremlin, where they sat at either end of a comically long table. It was the face-to-face that launched a thousand memes, as well as a flurry of news-analysis pieces. (“Putin’s massive table: powerplay or paranoia?”) The Kremlin later said that the long table had been necessary because Macron refused a Russian covid test. Reuters reported, citing two sources in Macron’s entourage, that the French president hadn’t wanted Putin to get hold of his DNA, but French officials insisted that scheduling constraints were the real issue. Other reporters were skeptical of the DNA story, too: “I don’t think that that was true at all,” Eleanor Beardsley, NPR’s Paris correspondent, told Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, on our podcast, The Kicker. An official told Beardsley over WhatsApp that they “weren’t worried that they were going to put a black bag over his head and put a chip in him,” Beardsley said.

The table furor was a specific example of a much broader recent media—and diplomatic—trend: using visual clues to parse Putin’s thinking as Russia amasses troops and military equipment on the border with Ukraine. This is not easy in general, nor in this specific sense. On Thursday, Putin sat much closer to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the president of Kazakhstan, a Russian ally; contrasted with the Macron meeting, this looked like a blatant metaphor for diplomatic favor, but Putin has also kept his physical distance from leaders with whom Russia is on relatively good terms, and is known to be very wary of covid. (Journalists attending his end-of-year press conference in December were required to show three negative PCR tests.) After a period of public silence since then, Putin has participated in a couple of pressers, including next to Macron, without ever giving too much away as to his intentions. Sergey Lavrov, Putin’s foreign minister, has done pressers too, and used them as an opportunity for posturing. Last week, he openly quarreled with Liz Truss, his British counterpart, before abruptly walking away from the podium.

Listen: Eleanor Beardsley on Putin and Biden summoning the Cold War

Reporters and analysts have also looked for clues as to Putin’s thinking in Russian state media. This, too, is a tricky task. According to an analysis of Web content by Semantic Visions, a Prague-based data firm, hostile Russian-media coverage of Ukraine spiked last year before declining again as 2021 turned to 2022; writing in early January, Bloomberg’s Marc Champion described that trend—which appeared to mirror what had happened prior to a partial Russian troop drawdown near the Ukrainian border last spring—as a “potential positive glimmer,” but cautioned that media coverage is just one indicator, and that it’s not clear to what extent the sources scraped by Semantic Visions reflected Putin’s thinking. A couple of weeks later, Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told Reuters that any “pause” in bellicose state-TV coverage “should not be seen as reassuring.” Editors, he said, “can switch back to hard propaganda of war any second and to explaining why it’s needed.”

A follow-up analysis by Semantic Visions found that as January progressed, hostile coverage ramped up again, albeit targeted more at the US and nato than Ukraine. The tenor of this coverage lent itself, again, to the interpretation that Putin was not preparing the Russian people for an imminent invasion; around the same time, Alexey Kovalev, an editor at the independent Russian news site Meduza, wrote that compared with 2014, when Putin went ahead with an invasion of Crimea, recent media rhetoric had been “notably more subdued.” There has, however, been no little anti-Ukraine propaganda. And again, things can change very quickly.

State-media coverage has often cast Russia as a victim, blaming US and nato aggression for the rise in tensions and accusing Western powers of inventing a “half mythological” Russian threat. Kremlin-aligned outlets have belittled Western politicians, including Truss, whose photo op in a fur hat (a none-too-subtle nod to Margaret Thatcher) was mocked by an official newspaper on the grounds that it wasn’t that cold out. Pro-Kremlin pundits have also criticized Western media coverage of rising tensions as “anti-Russian hysteria,” including a recent Bloomberg headline (published in error) claiming that Russia had just invaded Ukraine, and NBC’s coverage of the Ukrainian delegation during the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. At least one state TV channel brought up the heated recent exchange during which Matthew Lee, an Associated Press reporter, pressed Ned Price, a US State Department spokesperson, for evidence to back up his claim that Russia may soon fabricate a “propaganda video” as a pretext to invade. State TV has also shown clips of Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox, during which he has expressed skepticism of US support for Ukraine.

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Beyond state media, reporters are still closely monitoring US claims about Russian troop movements as well as other intelligence findings—such as the “propaganda video”—concerning Putin’s possible plans. Troop deployments can often be verified independently using commercial satellite imagery. As I’ve written before in this newsletter, other claims have been murkier, with US officials arguing that providing evidence to back them up could compromise intelligence sources. This terrain has continued to be very fraught. On Friday, Nick Schifrin, a defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, reported, citing official sources, that the US believes Putin has now decided to invade Ukraine, with numerous other outlets reporting (also per official sources) that this coming Wednesday could be Invasion Day. Some of the same officials, however, conceded that setting an apparent date could be part of a Russian disinformation effort—and Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters that while an invasion could happen “at any time,” it is not the US view that Putin has already made a decision. Appearing on a pair of Sunday shows yesterday, Sullivan made similar noises, saying that he was not “going to handicap what will happen.”

As I’ve also written before, US and other Western officials have been engaged in a preemptive information war against Russia; as Julian E. Barnes and Helene Cooper, of the New York Times, noted over the weekend, “after decades of getting schooled” by Putin on this front, the US “is trying to beat the master at his own game,” publishing intelligence assessments more quickly and aggressively than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis. This strategy demands heightened journalistic scrutiny not only because it is just that—a strategy, in furtherance of US interests—but because it isn’t clear what level of insight US officials actually have into Putin’s intentions. As Shaun Walker, who covers Eastern and Central Europe for The Guardian, put it on Friday, “either there will be an invasion and we’ll realise the US was right. Or there won’t be but in 20/50 years we’ll find out the CIA had insane intel capability in Moscow and really averted a war. Or it’s the most crazily irresponsible messaging imaginable. Feels 33/33/33 to me.”

Amid the long tables, tall state-media tales, and American intel, the only person who really knows what Putin is thinking is Putin himself; he has always been inscrutable, but he’s especially so right now, and the stakes are especially high. It all adds up to a disorienting situation for reporters. Some of the coverage I’ve consumed so far has laid out what we know and don’t, and the dynamics underpinning it all, as clearly as possible, but much of it feels awash in a choppy sea of conflicting claims and—as Beardsley and Pope discussed on The Kicker last week—Cold War–era vibes. “Just that room and that table were so cold and so huge,” Beardsley said, of Putin’s audience with Macron last week. “I mean, it was another century.”

Below, more on Russia:

  • Being careful around footage: In recent days, various US networks have broadcast videos showing Russian tanks rolling through fields; the videos are “the kinds of shots that Vladimir Putin wants everyone to see,” CNN’s Brian Stelter noted yesterday, making it “critical that newsrooms tell the audience what this is and where it came from.” Networks have typically attributed the footage to Russia’s defense ministry using onscreen labels, but critics including Mark Lukasiewicz, the dean of Hofstra University’s school of communication, feel that such disclosures could be more prominent. “Are subtle onscreen captions enough?” Lukasiewicz asks. “Shouldn’t we be told?”
  • Winning the war? Jack Detsch reports, for Foreign Policy, on new research by Omelas, a Washington-based internet-monitoring firm, finding that Russian state media “unleashed a tidal wave of disinformation at Spanish-language speakers” in the Western Hemisphere last month. Omelas found that “Russia’s state-backed outlets more than doubled the output of the second-most prolific publisher of Spanish-language content on Ukraine, the Venezuelan opposition paper El Nacional, and US-based outlets, led by Univision, CNN, and Telemundo, which published only 722 posts on the crisis.”
  • Press freedom: As I wrote last year, independent news organizations in Russia are living through a very difficult moment as Putin turns the screw on press freedom. Recently, Roskomnadzor, the Russian media regulator, wrote to numerous outlets demanding that they take down articles referencing journalistic investigations carried out by an anti-corruption group tied to Alexei Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition leader, on the basis that the group is now banned. Investigations conducted by the independent news site Proekt were also targeted. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has more.
  • Meanwhile, in Beijing: Earlier today, a panel of arbitrators ruled that Kamila Valieva, a fifteen-year-old Russian figure skater, can continue to compete at the Winter Olympics in Beijing despite recently failing a doping test, though Olympics officials confirmed that medals will not be handed out at any event in which Valieva places in the top three until her case is fully resolved. Duncan Mackay and Michael Pavitt, of the website Inside the Games, broke the news of Valieva’s positive doping test last week and subsequently received death threats and other abuse from inside Russia; meanwhile, Russian media figures confronted another British journalist who asked whether she had taken drugs.


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, listens to French President Emmanuel Macron during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 7, 2022. Macron traveled to Moscow in a bid to help defuse tensions amid a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine that fueled fears of an invasion. (Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)