“Russia is becoming a modern democratic state,” a fresh-faced Vladimir Putin said at his first inauguration in 2000, beside the glistening gold domes of the Kremlin. “The path to a free society was not simple and easy. In our history, there have been tragic, and bright pages. The construction of a democratic state is far from complete, but much has already been done.”

Watching sternly over his shoulder was the grey spectre of Boris Yeltsin, the puffy-eyed, heavy-drinking Soviet bruiser who had stood aside for a peaceful transition of power, the first in hundreds of years of Russian history. The message was clear. The days of despotic Tsars, of brutal Bolsheviks and of uncaring, faceless Communist bureaucrats were over – and something new was taking its place.

Few, though, could have been eyeing the ascendent President more closely than those in the West. After decades locked behind the Iron Curtain and on the tail of just a few years of chaotic, corrupt, casino capitalism, the idea that the world’s largest country might be on the verge of becoming “normal” was tremendously appealing to politicians and potential investors. Cleaning up the state, bringing law and order, and avoiding the mistakes of the past were all on the agenda for Putin, and foreign capital and foreign capitals would be there to help him do it. This was a man to be taken seriously.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and it’s impossible to imagine the veteran Russian president, himself now puffy-eyed and visibly run down, standing in the back and watching a successor take the reins. Whatever bright green shoots of democracy had started to poke through in the early years of his time in office have now been trampled down and, after years of playing the role of the stable, cautious, diplomatic leader, Putin has decided to stake his entire record on a bloody and ill-considered attempt to conquer Ukraine.

On Thursday, he took a rare audience with the public he insists is on his side, sitting awkwardly on a chair – a good few meters away from the tiny crowd of “patriotic youth groups” – at an exhibition of Second World War memorabilia. Russia, he said, is once again facing a German-led onslaught from the West, fighting those who are ideological heirs to Hitler. “The most important thing,” when it comes to wars, Putin told the assembled group of uniformed young people, “is the truth. And credibility! It’s our most important weapon.”

But that, of course, isn’t quite what he said. Instead, while the embattled president was trying to conjure up the near-mythical spirit of what Russians call “the Great Patriotic War” for which millions of their grandparents and great grandparents gave their lives, he insisted still on calling his misadventure in Eastern Europe a “special military operation.”

How can an existential battle for the future of the country, against the forces of the West that apparently want to destroy it, not be a war but an operation? And why would the state punish people with fines and imprisonment for suggesting otherwise? Why would Moscow, if it were facing an unholy crusade from European countries, still sell oil, gas and electricity to them? And if every inch of land occupied in Ukraine is part of an ancient homeland that has to be protected at all costs, why has the Kremlin stopped drafting young conscripts to go and fight over it?

These are questions it seems Putin has no answers for, and none of the members of his media entourage are going to push him for the truth. His narrative has become so patently ridiculous, so divorced from reality, that it’s hard not to conclude that, despite his protestations otherwise, he has given up on maintaining credibility abroad.

Bragging that Moscow still has “many friends” overseas, he neglected to mention that hopes of unlimited support from Asian nations like China and India have fallen flat. Beijing has consistently refused to be sucked into talk of a global war between East and West, and the country’s diplomats have repeatedly issued veiled warnings that talk of an existential battle are dangerous and wrong. New Delhi has gone as far as to openly push for peace. Besides a few conspiratorial rogue states, and a handful of African nations, Russia’s own version of imperialism dressed up as anti-imperialism has failed to win friends and influence people.

In the West, Putin has lost all of his purchase. Having threatened to freeze Europe by cutting off energy supplies, the continent called his bluff and has now almost totally divested from Moscow’s oil and gas. Apocalyptic predictions of a winter crisis by and large fell short, and it’s hard to see what leverage he now has left. Russian state media is banned in most Western nations, its companies and banks are shut out of the financial markets, and its exports are being replaced. Putin’s diplomats are effective pariahs, stuck talking to countries like Turkey, where they’re greeted with smiles and handshakes but leave without securing any concessions, while Ankara continues to send military equipment and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. If credibility is their secret weapon, the Russian arsenals are bare.

Now, many Russians are also realising that Putin doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth. “The fact he keeps calling it a special operation is such a joke,” says one junior official in Moscow. “He won’t ever admit he misjudged it, even though things have changed so much. He can’t admit he’s wrong.”

In a now-viral video published by German broadcaster DW last week, Moscow residents were stopped in the street and asked whether they supported Berlin’s decision to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. “I very much welcome it because I want a Ukrainian victory,” says one young man. “If the tanks help in solving the issue,” one middle-aged Russian woman says, “then great. The conflict must be ended.” At least two of the interviewees are now under investigation.

In the Soviet era, in the days of the Second World War, Putin’s predecessors had an iron-clad grip on the “truth” they wanted their people to see. Control over the media, over the education system and the instruments of the state was more than enough to write history in the way they saw fit. But, today, with information freely available, beamed onto mobile phones through Telegram and other social apps from opposition channels, and with banned sites easily accessed via VPN, it’s far harder to dictate what reality really is. Russians, by and large, know their country is at war – and if the Kremlin is lying about that, what else is it lying about?

While many young people have fled overseas, and many more will never risk seeing the inside of a police station to make their opposition to the conflict heard, there are deep rumblings within Russian society. Their President was once seen as an immutable source of power, capable of bringing together oligarchs, generals, rival warlords and silencing the opposition. Losing his authority is unlikely to not have consequences for long, and those competing forces could easily be unleashed once again.

As Russia doubles down on its invasion, pushing yet more conscripts and prisoners onto the frontlines, the government’s reputation at home and abroad has rarely been in such a precarious place. Putin is right to see “truth” and “credibility” as the best weapons available in a war – but somewhere in his mind is surely the realisation that he is losing that battle as well.

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