No lie too great

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Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

“The tongue can conceal the truth, but the eyes never!” says a character in “The Master and Margarita,” Mikhail Bulgakov’s grimly satirical Stalin-era novel blending fantasy and reality.

But in the real world, the eyes can all too often deceive — especially when the lies are spoken by expert dissemblers.

According to the Bulgakov character, when asked a question: “It takes just a second to get yourself under control, you know just what you have to say to hide the truth, and you speak very convincingly, and nothing in your face twitches to give you away. But the truth, alas, has been disturbed by the question, and it rises up from the depths of your soul to flicker in your eyes and all is lost.”

But not if you are one of the Kremlin’s bold-faced officials and spokespeople.

In Moscow in 2019, I questioned foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova about Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group. Our exchange occurred just hours after news had broken of around two dozen Wagner mercenaries being killed in Libya — and I pressed her about whether the Kremlin endorsed their presence in North Africa.

“I have no detailed information about what soldiers you are talking about,” she said, without any facial tic or optical quiver. I followed up by asking if the Kremlin should prevent Russian veterans from apparently undertaking “freelance” foreign military adventures. She said there was nothing the Kremlin could do. “We have no laws to stop this,” Zakharova lamented, throwing her arms out to punctuate legal impotence.

Coincidentally, of course, the Wagner Group only fights on the side of Kremlin allies — whether they be Libyan wannabe strongman Khalifa Haftar, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, or Guinea’s former repressive ruler Alpha Conde.

Wagner fighters first emerged among the so-called little green men in Ukraine’s Donbas in 2014 after the ouster of Vladimir Putin’s satrap Viktor Yanukovych. Wagner fighters are in eastern Ukraine now assisting in a war the Kremlin claims to be about the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine — even though the Kremlin-directed mercenary group is named after the call sign used by Dmitry Utkin, a retired Russian Special Forces commander and an aficionado of Nazi history and culture.

In Africa, Wagner mercenaries have been battling insurgencies and propping up autocrats, especially in countries where they can help Russia secure or maintain significant mining concessions or in nations where the Kremlin has arms deals or security cooperation agreements. The Russian aluminum company Rusal sources a third of the bauxite it imports from Guinea.

Wagner mercenaries have been accused of mounting vicious attacks on artisanal gold mines along the lawless border between Sudan and the Central African Republic.

This week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov toured Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Republic of Congo. Unsurprisingly he made no mention of the Wagner Group or their participation in repression and subjugation on behalf of autocrats — nor from what I can see was he asked by any local journalists about the Russian mercenaries.

Not that it would have mattered. American short story writer Ambrose Bierce defined diplomacy as “the patriotic art of lying for one’s country.” And Lavrov is a Bierce-type diplomat par excellence. No lie is too great. The slaughter of civilians in Bucha? A “fake attack” aimed at discrediting Moscow. The 2014 downing over eastern Ukraine of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17? No Russian involvement whatsoever. Chemical warfare in Syria? Staged by the White Helmets.

There has always been an air of duplicity and deception about diplomacy. Envoys and ambassadors are tasked, among other missions, with burnishing their countries’ reputations, defending them, making them look good. But there’s a difference between shading the truth and the relentless, mendacious, unabashed distortions Putin and his officials, like Lavrov, firehose around to confuse and evade and roil.

On his tour of African states, Lavrov trotted out the well-worn anti-Western, anti-colonial narrative that Putin’s Kremlin lifted from the playbook of past Soviet propagandists. They, of course, would also place anti-Western conspiracy theories in African newspapers banking on them getting picked up in friendly international media — as happened with the lie about AIDS originating in an American lab.

True to form, Lavrov highlighted during his African stops Russia’s role in backing the continent’s anti-colonial struggles and national liberation movements — while ignoring the mayhem and murder his ‘little green men” have been committing in Sudan and the Republic of Congo.

The EUvsDisinfo project run by the European External Action Service recently argued that “Lavrov recycles tired old lies, but there is hardly anyone left to listen.” But alas, that isn’t accurate. The legacy of Western colonialism gives Putin’s propagandists an advantage when waging the information war.

Macky Sall, the president of Senegal, a West-tilted nation, warned European leaders in May that Russia’s narratives and attempts to obscure facts through disinformation, misinformation and propaganda about the war in Ukraine risk gaining traction in Africa — especially so when it comes to Western sanctions exacerbating a food and fertilizer crisis on the African continent. Analysts at the Brookings Institution, a think tank, warned last month that “Russia’s narratives about its invasion of Ukraine are lingering in Africa.”

They added: “The information spaces in Africa and other regions of the Global South like India and China have been heavily targeted by Russian disinformation and propaganda campaign.”

Western leaders belatedly have started to try to highlight the similarities between Ukraine’s struggle to be the master of its own destiny — free from interference by an imperial, aggressive power — with the struggles of African and Asian nations to escape colonialism. But the efforts aren’t joined up and casual, and are just not competitive with the rapid and continuous, repetitive and adaptable Russian disinformation.

It can be no coincidence that Russia decided to sign a grain deal with Ukraine on the eve of Lavrov’s Africa trip, giving him an alibi about the food crisis.

The Western message isn’t getting through against Russia’s artful scratching at old grievances and exploiting of old tensions. Certainly, it isn’t working with Uganda’s leader, Yoweri Museveni. At a joint press conference with Lavrov in Entebbe on Tuesday, Museveni praised Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, for having supported African anti-colonial movements for over 100 years.

He said he didn’t understand Western calls for Africa to “automatically” adopt an anti-Russian stance, noting Uganda couldn’t turn against countries that never caused it any harm, while forgiving Western colonial oppressors of the past. “We want to trade with Russia and we want to trade with all the countries of the world. We don’t believe in being enemies of somebody’s enemy,” he added.

Meanwhile, the West struggles to counter the lies and distortions. As Mark Twain noted: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”