Putin Is ‘High Off His Own Propaganda Supply’

jane coaston

Today on “The Argument,” has Putin’s propaganda machine been overestimated?

I’m Jane Coaston, and I’ve thought a lot — a lot — about propaganda. Back in college, I wrote a history thesis on Nazi propaganda before and after the Battle of Stalingrad.

Nazi propaganda was intended to show both German greatness and Germany’s vulnerability, its inherent need to strike out against those who would do it wrong. Invading Poland? Had to happen. Murdering millions? A self-defense mechanism. Of course, none of this was true. But an entire ministry existed within the German government to tell the German people that not only was it true, but anyone telling them otherwise was an enemy.

Well, now it’s 2022. And the idea of propaganda — what it is, what it isn’t and why that matters — seems increasingly important to me as Russia’s war in Ukraine continues. And weirdly, even though propaganda has changed a bit since 1943, the propaganda used in this war sounds awfully familiar. The Russian government keeps using terms like “denazification” to justify its invasion of Ukraine. One American academic even argued that the war reminds him specifically of Stalingrad, the very battle I spent years of my life and many cans of Monster obsessing over.

Now, the goal of some propaganda isn’t just to change your minds, it’s to overwhelm your brain. And propaganda can be and is used by anyone. The Ukrainian government is using propaganda to try and garner Western support. The Russian government is using propaganda to try and misinform its own populace.

So what does all of this mean for us as we try to figure out what is and isn’t happening in Ukraine? Someone who might know is Peter Pomerantsev. He’s a Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins University. And as the author of the 2019 book “This Is Not Propaganda,” he’s also thought a lot about how information and misinformation can be wielded against us. So I thought I’d talk to him about Ukraine, Russia, propaganda, and how we can know what we know.

Hi, Peter.

peter pomerantsev

Hi, Jane.

jane coaston

So I have a lot of questions, and my effort is going to be not to go on long tangents about Soviet propaganda.

So to start out, you left the Soviet Union when you were a toddler. You were brought to England, and people referred to you as the Russian. But you had no memory of it. So what types of propaganda did you experience even tangentially, or how did your parents think about the propaganda they were exposed to?

peter pomerantsev

So I suppose if you’re going to go that far back into my childhood, I think something happens if you’re an immigrant or, you know, essentially a refugee child — a very privileged refugee. But my parents were arrested by the K.G.B. and then exiled in 1978. And we became political refugees.

But the point is, when you grow up learning a foreign language — and I remember learning English when I was four — what happens is you become very aware of how language forms you, not how you’re expressing yourself through the language. But the language itself has all these tropes and categories that define how you look at the world socially, but almost your feelings.

So I suppose if you’re thinking very deeply about propaganda, freedom, that search for when you know that your thoughts are your own or when they’re being formed by others, then I suppose part of it is about that. I suppose I’m very sensitized, having grown up learning languages at a very young age and sort of having to crawl into these cultures, like the English culture, that language, movies, et cetera, et cetera, really form our worldviews. So maybe that’s where it starts.

But really, it’s much simpler than that. In 2001, I went and worked in Russia for 10 years, including in the sort of very, very, very rapidly expanding Russian entertainment TV industry. And actually, my first book, “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” which was about, you know, this propaganda state that Putin was creating in the 2000s.

jane coaston

And that’s a quote from Hannah Arendt, correct?

peter pomerantsev

So I’ve got to be honest, when I wrote it, I didn’t have that in mind. I was actually thinking more like “Assassin’s Creed,” but fine. But later, it was pointed out to me that it’s actually Arendt. I was thinking a little bit Dostoevsky, a little bit “Assassin’s Creed” when I went for it.

But then actually, right after this, I’m going to be teaching a class at Johns Hopkins, where I work, about Hannah Arendt. And we’re going to be talking about precisely this. And in many ways, the world that she describes in the Soviet Union and in Nazi Germany, where people have stopped believing in any kind of factuality, where they’re so corroded by cynicism, all that’s left is conspiracy theories and this kind of emotional connection to the leader, that is definitely a large part of the world that I was trying to describe in today’s Russia.

And we’ve got to be very careful when we make parallels between Putin and Hitler and Nazism. But you know definitely, the psychological mechanisms and propaganda tricks that Putin uses are right out of the Nazi playbook. It’s a very different system politically. But in terms of the kind of underlying psychological mechanisms, they’re very similar.

jane coaston

I want to get into a definition of propaganda. The scholar Garth Jowett defines propaganda as a form of communication that attempts to achieve a response that furthers desired intent of the propagandist. And if we think about propaganda like that, the entire goal of propaganda is to make people think the thing that the propagandist wants them to think.

So I’m curious, to you, how you think about the way the word propaganda is used. Because the Ukrainian government would never call what it’s tweeting or sharing propaganda. And the Russian government would never call it that. Why do you think that propaganda becomes something that we want to claim that we are not doing, but our opposition is?

peter pomerantsev

OK, so firstly, in Eastern Europe, they have a very different concept of propaganda. It’s completely normal. It’s fine to say you’re a propagandist. Actually, what the Russians will say that what you’re doing is propaganda, that media doesn’t exist, that democratic communication is a myth.

So no, it’s completely open. You say I’m a propagandist, and that’s a profession. It’s a focus of pride — that’s my job, to spread the Communist faith, or to spread my message. So no, that’s actually one of our cultural quirks.

But you’re quite right. I mean, look, this is a term that has become so contested that it’s almost pointless. I’d rather we actually talked specifically about types of communication, their value systems and their aims. And then we can have a more productive discussion. Because what happens is everyone says, you’re propaganda. No, you’re propaganda. And that’s it.

But you’re quite right. Look, there’s one way of looking at it in sort of the academic thinking on propaganda, which really sees it as neutral. It’s any type of mass persuasion, which you define it very well, answers primarily the needs of the person doing it. So therefore, slightly different to education, which in theory is meant to be for the benefit of the receiver, not the person pushing it. But of course, look, in America, you’re in a world now where even education has become contested that way.

So that isn’t a moral or immoral case. The only moral bit is whether the cause is just or not. So you can be doing propaganda for civil rights. That’s a good propaganda. That’s a very neutral way of looking at it.

And that’s fine, but not usually the way we use it. Usually, it’s used in a slightly different way, that it means something manipulative, that the person doing it is keeping something from the person receiving it, that there’s something deceptive about it. And in that sense, they’re always lowering the kind of democratic potential of the person who’s being propagandized.

It’s the opposite of maybe collaborative or democratic communication where you can try to persuade someone of something passionately, vehemently, but you’re trying to engage them as an equal. You know, here’s my case, here’s what I think. What do you think?

So I think maybe the latter one, for our conversation, might be more useful. And that’s a really, really good starting point. What kind of conversation does the communication inspire? Does it open up a conversation where we can all take part in it as equals? Or is it doing something that actually takes away, I don’t know, your right to a share in reality?

jane coaston

It seems as if right now, what we’re seeing from the Russian government, both internally and externally — and I want to break that down a little bit later — is multiple stories are being told to the Russian people. And so many of them bring them into a shared reality, but they keep everyone else out. The Times had a really interesting piece about people who are in Ukraine who are calling their Russian relatives, and the Russian relatives are like, nothing is happening. You’re lying, this isn’t happening. So it’s as if they are in one shared reality, and Ukraine is in a different shared reality, and never the twain shall meet.

So what’s Putin’s strategy here? Is the goal to keep everyone in Russia on board? Or is it to make people so isolated in one reality that even if they started to ask questions, it would just be too overwhelming, and they’d just tune out?

peter pomerantsev

I think it’s very important when we think about propaganda — let’s use that controversial word — to think both about the supply side and the demand side. So Putin has many aims, largely to control things at home. But he uses many tools for that. Propaganda is one of them, censorship is another.

The last vestiges of independent media have been taken off air. A lot of celebrities who had talk shows who stood up against the war have been canceled, literally. And when you do that, you’re not just trying to persuade people, as in this stuff about a reality, you’re sending a message. You’re sending a very, very clear message, and one that Russian people understand.

We’re now entering full dictatorship. You get 15 years for protesting. You get five — or is it 15 years for using the word “war.” So that is propaganda as signaling. You’re not trying to persuade, you’re trying to say, these are the rules of the game. If you say anything, this is the punishment. You all know what you have to do.

People in Russia know this from the Soviet Union. You have to pretend you’re agreeing with this just to survive. So let’s think about that first, you know. If this was just about persuasion, well, then he wouldn’t have to do all these other repressive measures as well.

The other one, of course, is one of an emotional comfort. You know, Russians don’t want to feel like they’re the bad guys. Nobody wants to feel like they’re the bad guy. And it takes a lot of guts to say, my country is doing a terrible thing.

And people will go to really quite ambitious lengths to make themselves feel less bad about what’s going on. It’s very interesting that the propaganda line the Kremlin is going for more than others for the moment is, we were given no choice. We had to do this.

Not this stuff about Nazis in the Second World War, which might work with some and not with others, just we were given no choice. Now, that’s great. That makes a person feel they can’t do anything about it. So it’s OK to feel powerless.

It’s a conspiratorial idiom that the Kremlin uses all the time, basically telling people, look, guys, you don’t understand the world. The world is full of dark, unfathomable geopolitical conspiracies. You don’t understand it. Leave it to us. We’re going to take care of you in this messed up world.

So I’d say those two things are really in play when we hear about these horrific personal stories of people phoning up and unable to get through to their parents. But if you look at the polling, and the polling is very weird in Russia, half of the people support the war. That’s not very good for a dictatorship. So there’s a lot of cracks in the Kremlin matrix.

jane coaston

I’m curious, you mentioned something in the book that I couldn’t stop thinking about. You mentioned something about how Putin’s effort is to simulate global influence, is to appear to be more powerful than perhaps the Russian government actually is. And my colleague Farhad Manjoo wrote a piece about Putin.

And he wrote that what we’re seeing is perhaps the unraveling of the myth of Putin’s mastery over global discourse. Would you think that in some ways, the idea that Putin or the government could be listening to everything you say or paying so much attention to you — is that also propaganda, in a way?

peter pomerantsev

Yes, and it always has been. But look, it’s worth going back a few steps. In the 1990s, the Kremlin, as in centralized power in Russia, was very weak. Governors and oligarchs are kind of taking control of the country.

And what Yeltsin, which is Putin’s predecessor who appointed him, kind of worked out was that they could simulate power through television. So they take over television in ‘96 and start creating this image of a powerful Kremlin. And then when Putin gets into power, that’s centralized completely. And the whole project of Putin is to create the sense that there is no alternative to Putin, and to use media to make the Kremlin holy and full of sacral power again. So it’s all about giving that sense.

And Putin’s foreign adventures were always very controlled, to show, wow, look, we went into Syria, killed lots of people. No one did anything. We went into the Crimea. Look how strong we are. No one dared to mess with us.

That’s why everybody thought he wouldn’t do this full on World War II-style invasion of Ukraine. That’s not his style. He’s ruthless, very calculating, and in a sense, quite reserved.

He may have been getting high off his own propaganda supply. He seems to have believed the propaganda that the army was very strong. It’s not. They have some brilliant special operations guys. They don’t actually have, you know, masses of well-disciplined soldiers, as we’re seeing.

He seems to have really thought that Ukrainians don’t exist as a nation and would roll over. And they definitely exist as a nation. So it’s quite a banal tale of propagandists believing their own nonsense. And that may have been what’s happening to Putin.

And he’s undermined much more than that. The Russian system has largely, under Putin, not actually been a totalitarian one. It’s basically a pyramid of corrupt mutual interests where the overall ideology is very, very woolly and shaky. But everyone has a vested interest to be part of it, and can then get on with their own lives, can get on with their holidays to Turkey and their mortgages and whatever. You just have to once a week say, oh, yes, I love Putin, and you get on with it.

Now he’s getting rid of everybody’s motivation. By destroying the economy very consciously, everybody’s motivation has disappeared. And it’s unclear whether he has that totalitarian mind control. So we’ll see — he’s trying to flip into a new sort of system. Whether he manages that, I don’t know.

jane coaston

Yeah, I keep thinking about how so much of what we think we know about Putin and Russia is what either we are afraid of or what we might be projecting onto him based on — people keep talking about his role in the K.G.B. and the history of the Soviet Union. And I’m always curious about where that comes from.

But I want to know where are and aren’t Russian citizens getting these messages? And how should we be thinking about that?

peter pomerantsev

Well, firstly, we have to acknowledge our responsibility in it. The propaganda on Russian state .V. has, for many years, really been out of the Nazi playbook. You create the good Russian people or the good Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian folk, the people. And anyone who disagrees with that deserves to be destroyed. They’re called vermin.

When Putin says Ukraine doesn’t exist like a real country, he is OK-ing mass murder. And this has been going on for a while. This is not new.

The thing is, you’ll see these political talk shows where all these things are pushed very strategically, with a lot of intentionality and a lot of consistency. And then there’ll be a pause in the advertising, and we’ll see adverts for Western chewing gum and Western cars and Western fast food. We have funded this for many, many, many years.

Also, look, political talk shows are popular. Much more popular are Western reality and scripted entertainment formats. That’s what the Russians buy. That’s why the audiences come, and then they stay for the, you know, murderous war propaganda. So we’ve been complicit in it.

And then we also normalized it. If you’re a Russian, and you see the Russian version of “Strictly Come Dancing” — I think it’s called “Dancing With the Stars” in Russia. By the way, Zelensky won the version of that in Ukraine, just for the record.

jane coaston

He was great.

peter pomerantsev

Pretty impressive. So you see that, and then after that, you have the Kremlin’s attack dog attacking ethnic minorities in Russia, attacking the L.G.B.T. community. That’s right next to entertainment shows and ads for Western products. So if you’re Russian, you’re like, well, this must be OK. You know, look, we have all this Western stuff.

So we’ve really been kind of reinforcing and normalizing this whole propaganda package for many, many, many decades now. Sorry, that was my rant.

jane coaston

No, no, no, it was a good rant. You mentioned that about 50 percent of citizens are supportive of the war based on Russian polling, which again, as you mentioned, is weird. The Washington Post has it at 5 percent.

I’m curious to hear from you, why do you think it’s failing? If there had not been sanctions, if the ruble were not in freefall, do you think that the perspective of Russian citizens would be different?

peter pomerantsev

I don’t think they managed to get their ducks in a row. I mean, it takes time to prime audiences to a very, very specific narrative. It’s very hard to do it in two days. You want to build it up and build it up. So I think that’s number one.

Number two, it’s Ukraine. It’s really hard to persuade Russians that Ukraine really is a threat to Russia. I mean, you can say that it’s the West who are using Ukraine as a puppet, but that’s pretty abstract.

And thirdly, look, Russian propaganda under Putin is actually not about mobilizing people. It’s largely about making people passive with the use of conspiratorial propaganda, with this use of disinformation to just confuse the hell out of people. It’s all about keeping the population passive.

And again, look, it speaks to the sunsets of Putinism. There’s the classic thing — somebody who’s been in charge 22 years, not receiving any good information, no checks and balances, and they lose their touch. So the idea is, look at it from the point of view of the dictator.

You used to be able to just shut people off from all information. Literally, people in the Soviet Union had a couple of T.V. channels. And to tune in to foreign news, you had to get a shortwave radio, adapt it, and then sort of twiddle the dial to the BBC or Radio Free Europe.

Nowadays, even with firewalls in China, but certainly in Russia until recently, you couldn’t do that. People will have access to information. So what you do instead is instead of squeezing the information space, you overload it with so much stuff and also so much cynicism that people just get confused. And in that murky darkness, they turn to stuff which resonates emotionally.

And look, that sets up a real dilemma philosophically and legally. Because in our kind of doctrine of freedom of expression, we never talk about overload of information as a problem. We shape our arguments around the idea of censorship versus free speech, which is still a huge issue in many, many places. But here, you’re seeing something else happen. It’s not just in Russia. We see it in the Philippines and Mexico — I mean, all sorts of places.

And it’s a real challenge because there’s nothing in the First Amendment or the Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights, which is the one about freedom of speech — there’s nothing in there about disinformation or too much information or noise. And so I don’t think we’ve really got our heads around how we start dealing with this different type of censorship. We don’t really have a way into addressing this.

jane coaston

We’ll keep covering the ongoing events in Ukraine on the show. In the meantime, keep sending me your thoughts and any of the conversations you’re having with family and friends. You can leave a voicemail at 347-915-4324.

You were mentioning a little bit — thinking about the messaging of the sunset of the Putin regime, so to speak. If there is a difference between propaganda and just straight up lying, and you know, the idea of using special military operation instead of war, the idea of liberating Ukrainians, how do you think about where to draw that line? Is there a line? How should we think about that?

peter pomerantsev

Look, let’s go in a bit of a tangent. Is that OK? Can I do that? Can I tangent?

jane coaston

Oh, I love tangents.

peter pomerantsev

Let’s tangent. What I’ve noticed is that people in the West have started using a term that the Russians like a lot, called information war. Look, when the Russians talk about information war, it’s not just about kind of military information operations. That’s a very, very specific way of using disinformation on a battlefield to take a city.

When the Russians talk about information war, it’s actually a pseudo ideology. It’s a way of explaining history. It’s something that emerges in the 1990s. And the argument by a bunch of kind of slightly eccentric but increasingly powerful academics was that we lost the Cold War not because of our dire economics or our poor political record or our terrible human rights, but because of an information war from the West.

The West spread these ideas, which were weapons like free speech and universal values, in order to destroy our system. They used a fifth column of economic reformers who were specially implanted. So look, this is kind of a very conspiratorial pseudo ideology that explains everything that happens in the world as the product of creepy manipulation.

It’s basically an ideology that says that democratic communication, as in people debating and arguing and coming to conclusions and having their own volition, that doesn’t exist. People are pawns to be moved around Psyop’s chessboard. So that’s what they do. That’s their treatment of information.

And look, it’s an ideology that basically means democracy is a myth and cannot exist. Because if all language, if all communication is just manipulation, the idea of a public sphere where we debate, decide, make policies, win or lose elections becomes impossible. In a world of information war, only dictatorship can be a legitimate form of power. Now, that’s what the Russians do.

What the Ukrainians are doing is a million and one Psyops on the battlefield, the million and one usual things of let’s talk up our victories and not talk about our defeats. That’s what all militaries do during a war to keep morale up. I don’t think there’s anything new about that. Is everything true? I would definitely double-check anything the Ukrainian military puts out. That’s normal.

But Zelensky’s doing the opposite. He’s kind of saying things as he sees them and trying to be — well, he’s being as much himself as I think we’ve seen a leader be for a long time. And the appeals he’s making are very genuine appeals.

And he’s trying to reach out to us as human beings. And we can answer him as human beings. So I’d be very careful relativizing these different kind of approaches to communication and the kind of worldviews that they represent.

jane coaston

So I do want to talk about the role that history is playing here. Because one area is Putin’s repeated assertion that his actions are an attempt at denazification. And you mentioned in the book the role of the Great Patriotic War and Nazis play a massive role in not just this Ukrainian conflict, but the 2014 Revolution, which is parsed as being neofascist and U.S.-pushed.

And you have a line that I really liked, which is that there’s this endless World War II against eternally returning fascists. You have two countries that both experienced the same horrors of the war on the Eastern Front, two countries that both know what happened at Leningrad and at Stalingrad. Both lost millions of people.

How do you think that that messaging going back and forth of, no, these are the Nazis. No, these are the Nazis. What is that trying to tell us? What does that mean?

peter pomerantsev

So definitely in Russia, the Second World War has become kind of the central religion of life in a way that it actually wasn’t necessarily before, largely because everything else has kind of gone as a source of pride. So that’s sort of become very much religious sort of experience, with sacrifice and nobleness and all those sorts of things. Look, when Russians use the term Nazi or fascist, they’re not using it in any academic sense. I mean, if you’d ask people to define Nazism or fascism, that they wouldn’t be able to. They’ll just say the enemy, it’s the enemy.

So it’s just sort of like a label you put on everything that you don’t like, and everything that you define yourself against, and everything that needs to be wiped out. But I suppose you’re also — by saying that Ukraine is occupied by Nazis, what you’re saying is that Ukrainians are now not part of that holy tradition. And therefore it’s OK to murder them. Because you’re quite right, the answer will be, but hold on, we both fought Nazis together. How can we be on different sides now? But what you’re sort of saying is that the Ukrainians have betrayed that. They’ve left that holy religion, and therefore they may be destroyed.

But listen, I’m not sure that bit of propaganda is working as efficiently as the Kremlin might hope. I mean, my sense is they’re going for other types as well. Because it’s just a bit weird calling Ukrainians Nazis.

jane coaston

I want to get to a conversation about journalism and the role that journalists can play here. Now it feels as if, even within American politics, there are as many realities as there are people, and that what facts mean can be really hard, or what they should mean, especially when facts, to quote Talking Heads, don’t do what you want them to.

So how can journalists, how can people whose job it is to tell people what’s happening, how can they respond to the fact that people are getting a lot of information, they are very overwhelmed, and people generally want to hear what they want to hear?

peter pomerantsev

Yeah, I think one of the great myths that maybe many journalists operated in on the level of assumption without really interrogating was the myth of a marketplace of ideas, that the best information would somehow rise to the top through some sort of theory of rational choice. We’ve actually known that to be nonsense for a long time. We’ve kind of all worked with that assumption. I will do the great piece, and I’ll put it out there, and I’ll hold truth to power that way. But suddenly, what if the powerful don’t care about the truth? What if they just shrug? And what if their followers don’t care about the truth, either?

I’m starting to think a lot more carefully about why would people want facts? I thought that Talking Heads quote was great. I’m going to use that for my students.

Why would somebody want facts when you’re quite right, all the research we have from social psychology shows that people will reject facts if they challenge their identity? So how do we do that? How do we manage to talk to people in a way that they can put aside some of their kind of biases and actually engage with reality? And that’s a very, very challenging question, not one I think journalists have spent a lot of time thinking about, but one that I think that we really need to.

One clue that I found is, I think the idea of facts in political discourse are deeply connected to the idea of a future. So even Donald Trump becomes very rational when he’s building a bridge. Suddenly, he won’t be post-truthy at all. He’ll be very, very, very specific. You’ve got to count budgets, you’ve got to count how much do things weigh, or else the thing will fall down.

And also in politics, if you’re saying here is my plan for the future, suddenly, facts start mattering again. Because you can debate how you’re going to get there. I mean, in the book, the argument that I make is that change in the 21st century — in the 20th century, you had two ideologies, Communism and Democratic capitalism, that were deeply Enlightenment-driven and were both claims about the future. So telling the truth in them mattered in principle.

Everybody lied, but the idea of evidence was important. Because each side was saying, here’s our version of the truth. Here’s our version of the future. And here’s proof of the facts that we’re getting there.

So I think it’s about that. If we can, in our articles and in our media, think about solutions a little bit more, not just describe situations but sort of push the conversation towards, well, what are we going to do about it, then suddenly, I think the more factual bit of people’s brains starts operating.

jane coaston

Do you have any predictions or thoughts about what comes next for Putin in the information space? You’ve spent a long time living in Russia and thinking about Russian politics and how Russian media works. What do you think his next moves will be, or how he’ll react?

peter pomerantsev

So look, the Putin that we know from before would cut his losses, claim victory, annex part of the country, and then try to sort of manipulate his way back to economic recovery. He might just be in a different place now. He’s going to escalate. And that means starting to play the nuclear card.

His mind is there already. He’s thinking about it. He’s obsessing with it. What form that takes, I’m making no predictions.

But he sees things getting to a logjam, he might well escalate. You know, he’s always been very keen on narrative escalation dominance. While we’re fussing about sanctions, he’s like, what about the nuclear card? What do you think about that?

We don’t like thinking about it. It’s very unpleasant for us. It’s sort of a taboo subject for us. He’s there already.

So I think he’s going to start playing that card. And whether that’s threatening or using tactical nukes — that’s a tiny nuclear explosion — or exploding something over the Baltic Sea, which is something the Russians exercise all the time, I don’t know. I really don’t know. But if he needs to escalate, the place you take it to is nuclear.

But look, let’s listen to his propaganda now. Why should we try to imagine things? Listen to what he’s saying.

His obsession isn’t just with Ukraine, which he’s clearly obsessed with in really unhealthy, misogynistic ways. His obsession is with America. His propaganda goes on and on and on about this idea that America secretly controls London, Berlin, Warsaw, obviously Kyiv. He’s obsessed with you guys.

You guys are the thing that he kind of wants to be, wants love from, defines himself against. I mean, he’s like this weird stalker going around the world upsetting. It’s you guys that he wants to get at, I think, wants to humiliate, wants to embarrass, and wants to show the world that you guys are a busted flush.

So he’ll be looking for ways to show that. He’s going to use that over Ukraine. He said, ha, America said it would defend Ukraine. I’ve killed its president. I’ve laid its cities to rubble. America’s promises are nothing.

And then he’ll start challenging America’s next big promise, which is to defend Eastern Europe. No one’s tested NATO. No one’s tried to find its weak points. How do you get underneath Article 5, which is the pledge that an attack on one is an attack on all?

So look, his obsession is with you guys. So whatever he does, his main aim is Washington.

jane coaston

And on that comforting note, seeing that I live in Washington and I like it here, Peter Pomerantsev, thank you so much. I really love the book as much as one can love a book that makes one feel bad inside. Thank you so much for your time.

peter pomerantsev

I live in Washington as well, so I’m as scared as you are.

jane coaston

Peter Pomerantsev is a Senior Fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, where he co-directs the Arena Initiative. If you want to learn more about the state of propaganda and disinformation in Russia and beyond, I recommend Peter’s latest book, “This Is Not Propaganda,” and his other book, “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible” from 2014. You should also check out my colleague Farhad Manjoo’s recent piece, “Putin No Longer Seems Like a Master of Disinformation” from New York Times Opinion.

And if you’re really interested in propaganda and how you create the many out of an individual, I would recommend Siegfried Kracauer’s “The Mass Ornament: The Weimar Essays.” Originally written in the 1920s and 1930s and then edited by the author in 1963, Siegfried Kracauer wrote a lot about how propaganda tends to have a similar look, a similar sound and specifically about how propaganda films by the Nazis and other fascists tended to have a very similar feel. You can find links to all of these in our episode notes.

“The Argument” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett, Elisa Gutierrez and Vishakha Darbha, edited by Alison Bruzek and Anabel Bacon, with original music and sound design by Isaac Jones, engineering and mixing by Pat McCusker, fact-checking by Kate Sinclair and Mary Marge Locker, audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks this week to Kristina Samulewski.

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