Vladimir Putin’s latest wheeze – the bizarre, half empty “humanitarian convoy” of nearly 300 hastily painted military trucks, which were trundling around southern Russia last week looking for the way into Ukraine – was seen by most commentators merely as a rather farcical sideshow to a conflict that has already seen more than its share of genuine tragedy.
Of course, the convoy is part of a much wider Kremlin campaign of deception and disinformation – the famed Maskirovka – along with the deadpan denials of the seemingly obvious by Putin and his cronies, and the hoary old tactic of accusing its opponents of its own misdeeds. No untruth, it seems, is too brazen or implausible to pass Moscow’s lips.
But, step away from the contemporary tragedy for a moment and you will see a rich tradition of Kremlin mendacity, some of which – with the benefit of hindsight – might be seen as darkly comic. In 1968, for instance, Soviet troops invading rebel Czechoslovakia were proclaimed to have been arriving “by invitation” of the Prague government, though no-one seems to have informed those same Czech ministers of their saviours’ arrival.
The early phase of World War Two, however – the now largely forgotten period of Nazi-Soviet collaboration – was perhaps the high-point of Soviet sophistry. When the Red Army invaded eastern Poland in mid-September 1939, for instance, the Polish ambassador in Moscow was called to the Kremlin and summarily informed that the country that he represented had ceased to exist. In truth, Poland fought on for another 3 weeks.
In addition, he learned that the Soviet invasion of his country had a “humanitarian” motive. The Red Army was not moving to seize land, perish the thought, it was marching to the aid of Soviet “brothers of the same blood” – Byelorussians and Ukrainians – supposedly marooned by Poland’s mythical collapse. The parallel to events in modern Ukraine could not be more obvious.
When Red Army troops then invaded Finland two months later, they also did so on the basis of a Kremlin fib. On 30 November, the Soviet border post at Mainila came under artillery fire, causing the deaths of four Red Army men. Moscow was duly outraged and declared war on the perfidious Finns… despite the fact that Finland had previously withdrawn its limited artillery pieces away from the front line, leaving Mainila within range only of Soviet guns. A classic ‘false-flag’ operation, the Mainila Incident came straight from the Kremlin playbook.
With war then underway in Finland, the Soviet deceptions continued. The “humanitarian” ruse was a favourite. When Red Army bombing of Finland was reported in the USSR by Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov as airdrops of food supplies to supposedly starving Finnish civilians, the Finns could only respond with ironic humour and ridicule. Soviet bombs were thus christened “Molotov Breadbaskets” by the Finns, and the humble petrol bombs with which they were valiantly battling Soviet tanks were dubbed “Molotov Cocktails”, as – it was said – a ‘drink to go with the food’. The name stuck.
A season later, in the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States, the Kremlin’s justifications had become faintly ridiculous. In Lithuania, for instance, the ‘last straw’ for Moscow was the alleged kidnap and murder of a Red Army officer named Butaev. The truth, however – long forgotten after the tanks had rolled – was that Butaev had deserted and shacked up with his Lithuanian girlfriend, and had then committed suicide rather than go back to the Red Army. Similarly convoluted stories, as well as the now-obligatory border provocations, accompanied Moscow’s occupations of Latvia and Estonia.
It is a truism that the first casualty of war is truth, but official, blatant mendacity on this scale still has the power to surprise even our own hardened, cynical age. Of course, lying was very much the spirit of the totalitarian age. Hitler was just as adept at it as Stalin was: every Mainila Incident had its Gleiwitz Incident (the excuse engineered by the SS for the invasion of Poland).
But what surprises us most, perhaps, is that this is still going on. The Soviet Union at least had the fig-leaf of its odious ideology to excuse its sometimes imaginative distortions of the truth; Mr Putin has no such defence. The Kremlin still seems to fib, obfuscate and dissemble, appearing to care little for the plausibility of their denials: the “humanitarian aid”, it seems, keeps on rolling.