After news came from Kiev on Tuesday that a Russian journalist critical of Vladimir Putin had been shot dead, it did not take long for the Kremlin’s denial machinery to shift into high gear. Another case of Russophobia, cried government officials and their media acolytes, anticipating that Russia would be blamed. An attempt to mar the World Cup soccer tournament; a typical example of Ukraine’s “bloody crimes and total impunity.”
The reality turned out to be a bit more complicated when the journalist, Arkady Babchenko, appeared at a news conference the next day very much alive, and Ukrainian security services announced that his “murder” had been a sting operation to foil a plot by Russian security services to kill him. Ukrainian authorities certainly must explain why they felt it necessary to compromise journalistic integrity to stage this bizarre episode; they have doubtless supplied fodder to conspiracy theorists and cynical denouncers of “fake news” everywhere. One thing is certain: The Kremlin will seize on this official deceit to show the lengths to which its enemies will go to tarnish Russia.
That has been Russia’s reaction to all accusations of foul play, whether it’s the well-documented charges by the Netherlands, Australia and other nations that it was responsible for downing a Malaysian jetliner over Ukraine in 2014, killing 298; or the British accusation that Russia was most likely behind the poisoning of a double agent and his daughter in England; or the charge by American intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the presidential campaign.
Each such accusation is met by a barrage of official denials on state television and mockery on social media. In the official version Russia is always the victim of a dastardly and demeaning Western campaign; it was the Ukrainians who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 to make Russia look bad; it was the British who poisoned Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, and when she gave an interview to Reuters, it was obvious she was coerced.
This is not so different from the response of President Trump to the mounting evidence that aides and advisers to his campaign had numerous questionable contacts with Russian representatives seeking to aid his election. He claims it’s all a sinister plot by agents of the “deep state” or former President Barack Obama to plant “spies” to undercut his campaign. Such instinctive denials were a fixture of the Soviet Union, where the Communist Party treated any questioning of its infallibility as a crime. Speaking the truth was dangerous. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s impassioned essay “Live Not by Lies” appeared the day before he was exiled in 1974; Mikhail Gorbachev’s most radical reform was “glasnost,” or openness. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, bluster and lying have been restored to primacy.
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There is virtually no chance that Russia will acknowledge any plot against Mr. Babchenko, any attack on Mr. Skripal, or any role in the downing of the jetliner, no matter how clear the evidence. What Russia gains by this is another question. The Kremlin may fool most of its people most of the time, but abroad, its feigned indignation is ever less credible — though not necessarily with President Trump, who famously declared that he believed Mr. Putin when he said he didn’t meddle in American elections.
Mr. Putin, a veteran of the K.G.B., may believe that lying in defense of Russian honor is justified. But every new burst of denial and obfuscation only makes him and his Kremlin look more deceitful and dishonorable.