“Throughout its history, Russia has never attacked anyone,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said just over a fortnight ago. “Having been through so many ourselves, we’re the last country that would resort to war.”
It was a ridiculous claim – and even more ridiculous in hindsight – but he wasn’t alone in making it. For weeks, Moscow’s top officials had consistently denied their country had any aggressive intentions against Ukraine, despite stationing more than 100,000 troops on the border. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova even went as far as to mock Western intelligence reports that an invasion could be imminent, demanding MI6 and the CIA reveal the dates “so diplomats can book a holiday.”
With the Russian armed forces now locked into a bloody and brutal campaign to subjugate the neighbouring nation, it is clear those denials were false. That means either that there was a sophisticated and convincing ploy to catch the world unawares, or that Moscow’s most prominent spokespeople were genuinely kept out of the loop when it came to Putin’s plans for an offensive. Given the apparent lack of preparation to prevent Western sanctions crippling everything from finance to the economy, it appears it was the latter.
But Kremlin insiders weren’t the only ones taken by surprise when Russian rockets began raining down on Ukrainian cities and military installations. Both the country’s domestic journalists and foreign correspondents had long been rolling their eyes at claims a major war was about to break out. I was among them, cautioning in an article for The Spectator that spy agencies’ reports could have been designed to dupe NATO into making diplomatic concessions. “Given the West has regularly accused Russia of engaging in sophisticated disinformation campaigns,” I wrote, “the idea that its plans for Ukraine having miraculously found their way to Langley and Vauxhall might be too good to be true must have crossed the minds of case officers.”
Far more accomplished reporters went far further. “I admit, I have not seen the intelligence,” TIME Magazine’s Simon Shuster wrote around the same time. “But there’s never been a time when my understanding of Russia — my 15 years of reporting on Russia and Ukraine — has been so at odds with what the US government says about Russia and Ukraine.”
The opinion was so common that it became the only acceptable one. We sent round tweets and articles alleging a war could be on the cards, timed for the end of the Beijing Olympics, mocking their seemingly less sophisticated analysis. “It’s crazy,” one friend wrote. “These people haven’t got a clue.”
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Just a week later, I opened a text from the same friend. “F*** me, he’s invaded,” and then, ten minutes later, “I can’t believe it.” Nor could I.
Not everyone got it as wrong. I had gone to the city of Rostov-on-Don, just 50 miles from the border with the Donbass, on the day before the invasion. At a pub in the bustling city centre, as locals celebrated Defender of the Fatherland Day – a national holiday – one reporter for Moscow’s top business newspaper said his friend, notorious nationalist journalist and online commentator, Oleg Kashin, thought an attack was more likely.
In a brief video call that night, we asked Kashin – who is based in London – whether there would be a war. “Yes,” he replied. “And it won’t just be tanks in Kyiv – they’ll be in Lviv too.” The idea of an assault on the Western Ukrainian city, close to the Polish border, was unimaginable to all those who weren’t imagining it already.
I spoke to Kashin again this week to find out why his apocalyptic predictions came true just hours after he made them. “I fucked up too,” he says. While he was swept up in the rhetoric, “I really believed war was impossible because it would be suicide for Putin, and now I’m very frustrated. This is the end of Russia – I thought he wanted to make it great but he chose to destroy it.”
At the same time, he adds, “all the ‘demshiza’ authors were right.” The term is a portmanteau of the words “democratic” and “schizophrenia,” often levelled by right wing activists at those they say saw the Kremlin as so malign and evil that they had lost touch with reality. “For the last 20 years I thought they were alarmists and paranoiacs, but now they are in the right. I hope they are just like a broken clock showing the right time twice a day. I was sure Putin was cynical, but rational. Now he has gone crazy.”
This, it seems, is a common theme. Those who wrote up the most accurate predictions of what ultimately happened were often based outside the country. Defense editors and news reporters in Fleet Street filed their copy, while their Moscow correspondents rolled their eyes.
The reason why these denials from Zakharova and Peskov were so effective were because there was a sense among ordinary Russians that they had always been unfairly maligned. Western intelligence was written off as hysteria because we had all heard these claims so often before. Undoubtedly, even Moscow’s mouthpieces were drinking their own Kool-Aid.
Those of us who lived there also doubted the invasion was going to go ahead because there had been so little preparation of the public. Until the week beforehand, the idea that Putin was being forced to fight an existential battle for the future of the Russian people, as he claims, was precisely nowhere in the general discourse – not in the news, not coming from top Kremlin officials and not in the public conscience. “I’ve stopped reading your writing recently,” one Russian friend told me over dinner in a central Moscow restaurant. “All you Westerners are obsessed with this idea there will be war with Ukraine but look around,” she said, pointing at the other tables. “We’re the only ones talking about this.”
Now, the fact no pretext was created to send their sons into battle, from which many will never return, has left many ordinary people furious. Few understand why the decision was made and virtually everyone I know is in a state of shock that it was. Of course, there will always be a segment of the population who believe whatever Putin does is right, but with economic collapse threatening millions of jobs and more and more coffins coming back from across the border, it is clear that the Russian President vastly overestimated how many would blindly go along with him without the need for much convincing. Fearing coronavirus and reportedly in isolation for almost two years now, while the public went back to normal life, is it any wonder he is out of touch?
Putin might be disconnected, but he isn’t the only one. “There’s a massive group-think among Western journalists in Moscow,” one British financial researcher and long-time resident of the Russian capital says. “They tend to look down on other ‘expats’ because they think they only hang out with other foreigners and don’t have a clue what’s really going on in the country. But journalists are exactly the same – they write pieces for each other, and the only people who read them are each other. A lot of their articles are very similar, and there’s this bubble of ideas that isn’t necessarily reflective of what’s going on.“
“Some of them haven’t been doing this for very long, and are either new here or are former English teachers or whatever. So very few rebel against that group-think because it’s not helpful for getting your next job if you decide to go out on a limb and criticise other journalists or point out when they get things wrong. As a result, everyone just agrees with each other all the time,” he adds.
While I and many others were likely guilty of this, another factor comes to mind. We genuinely hoped Russia wasn’t capable of launching an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The country we knew was one of friendly people, rich culture and possibilities for the future – marrying our partners, buying houses in the countryside, becoming part of a place we loved. Nobody was under any illusions about its problems, but it was home and it seemed humane and safe and normal. Now, like most of my friends, I have left and have no idea when I might be able to go back. For Ukrainians living under siege, the price of Putin’s war is far, far higher.