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If Vladimir Putin had ever bothered to read Evan Gershkovich’s reporting — it’s a safe bet he didn’t, for reasons I’ll explain below — he might have thought a little harder before throwing him into prison last week on transparently bogus espionage charges.
In December, Gershkovich, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, along with his colleagues Thomas Grove, Drew Hinshaw and Joe Parkinson, delivered what is surely one of the most richly reported and convincing explanations of why Putin’s war in Ukraine has gone so badly.
The long and short of it: Putin has no independent sources of reliable information. He refuses to read news stories on the internet, fearing it might be used to spy on him. Battlefield information is filtered — and laundered — through layers of military bureaucracy and takes days to reach him. Past military successes in Georgia and Crimea made him overconfident, and the pandemic turned him into a paranoid recluse. On the eve of the invasion, neither his foreign minister nor his domestic-policy chief was aware of the war about to come.
And, like despots through the ages, he listens only to people who tell him what he wants to hear. One of them, the oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, The Journal reported, “assured Mr. Putin that Ukrainians saw themselves as Russian, and would welcome the invading soldiers with flowers.” Putin is godfather to one of Medvedchuk’s daughters.
Foreign reporters play a vital but delicate role in the information economy of repressive states. Most of these regimes tightly control their own press, ensuring their citizens are given a politically convenient and carefully choreographed version of events. Putin took things further, manipulating not only how Russians understand the news but also how those abroad did as well, through social-media disinformation campaigns and the slickly produced Russia Today TV channel.
But repressive states also need foreign reporters, for at least two, essentially contradictory, reasons.
On the one hand, their presence in the country creates an illusion of openness, of having nothing to hide. It’s a form of propaganda.
At its worst, this can lead to fundamentally misleading reporting, as foreign correspondents become witting or unwitting tools of the regimes they are supposed to cover. Walter Duranty, the infamous Times correspondent in Moscow during the 1930s, is an archetype: At the height of Stalin’s collectivization campaign against Ukrainian farmers, in which as many as five million people were starved to death, Duranty wrote, “Conditions are bad, but there is no famine.” (The Times long ago repudiated his shameful coverage, though his Pulitzer Prize has never been revoked.)
On the other hand, good and honest foreign reporters can also offer unvarnished accounts of what’s really happening inside the country — something that an autocrat like Putin can’t easily obtain elsewhere. State-controlled media is of no use in getting facts. Government statistics are massaged to hide bad news. Every bureaucracy, including the domestic intelligence services, has its own agendas and reality-distorting prisms.
These stories were written mainly for the benefit of readers in the West. But a wiser autocrat than Putin would have intuited that he might have avoided some costly miscalculations if only foreign media were allowed to operate freely and without fear in Russia. And while he probably wishes to trade Gershkovich (along with Paul Whelan and Marc Fogel, Russia’s other known American hostages) for some high-value Russian spies in the West, no prisoner swap would actually be worth more to him than the gift of accurate, reliable, unbiased information about real conditions in Russia.
By now it should be clear that Putin is living inside a manufactured reality — one that can only harm him in the long term, since truth usually finds a way through, but that poses sharp risks to everyone else in the short term. Diplomatic remonstrations won’t puncture his fantasy bubble, but another tranche of Abrams tanks to Ukraine might.
As for Gershkovich, the most fitting tribute we can pay him is to continue to report the truth about Russia, despite the risks. Putin has sought to wage a disinformation campaign in the West for decades. Western news organizations can repay his abuses with an information campaign about Russia, in Russian, for Russians. They, too, deserve to have the benefit of facts Putin wants nobody — including even himself — to know.