(My latest in the National Post)
We can complain all we want about lying politicians in our own country, but last week Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stepped up and showed us how it’s really done: without batting an eye, he told a press conference that Russia had never violated the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the agreement that guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity (including Crimea) in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons.
“If you’re talking about the Budapest Memorandum, we have not violated it,” he told a journalist. “It contains only one obligation — not to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine.”
There’s a few big problems with that statement, least of which is the fact that there are actually six obligations in the Budapest Memorandum, and the first of them is “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”
Even worse was the Russian embassy in the U.K.’s ham-handed attempt to broadcast Lavrov’s bold new interpretation on Twitter. It provided a link to the text of the Budapest Memorandum itself with all six obligations, including the ones Russia has clearly violated — right there for everyone to see.
In the words of American diplomat Steven Pifer, who helped negotiate the Budapest Memorandum, “what does it say about the mendacity of Russian diplomacy and its contempt for international opinion when the foreign minister says something that can be proven wrong with less than 30 seconds of Google fact-checking?”
The answer: it says that, when it comes to the Kremlin, we’re dealing with a way of lying we’re not used to seeing. It’s a black-knight-from-Monty-Python-esque style of lying that makes dealing with Putin and company on issues like Ukraine and Syria such a nightmare.
Yes, our politicians lie, but they tend to be a bit more crafty about it. They lie by omission: they’ll answer part of a question; they’ll fudge a number or base a figure on something that doesn’t make any sense. Our politicians don’t often stand up and tell us something we all know is a total lie.
Why? Because, believe it or not, our politicians actually have some respect for us. They know we can go online and check the veracity of something before they’ve even finished their speech. They know we have a media that, for all its faults, will gleefully call them out on it. When they lie, they want us all to believe it.
Russian politicians, on the other hand, aren’t interested in concepts like respect or believability. It doesn’t matter if you actually cut Putin’s arm off. He doesn’t care that you can see it right there on the ground. “’Tis but a scratch,” he’ll say. He won’t budge. And he’ll insist it’s a flesh wound until, like his admission of Russian soldiers in Crimea, he quietly admits that, yeah, you did actually cut it off. But then he’ll go one step further and deny ever denying that you cut it off.
It’s a kind of mental gymnastics that drives Russia-watchers like me up the wall, and it extends to Russia’s echo-chamber state media. Russia’s Channel One fabricated a now-infamous story of a young boy apparently being crucified on a bulletin board in a town square by the Ukrainian army. They also told Germany’s large Russian-speaking diaspora that a young Russian-German girl was kidnapped and raped by migrants in Berlin, even though it’s since come out that she was hiding from her parents. The TV station Zvezda has even made up quotes from Western journalists to lend credibility to fake pro-Kremlin stories.
It’s hard for us to grasp the ridiculousness of all this, but that’s because these lies really aren’t designed to convince anyone. If these lies convince just a few nutters or populist politicians in Europe to mouth off and shift the debate Moscow’s way, then they’ve succeeded. But as we in the West finally begin to pay more attention to the Kremlin’s antics, we’re starting to catch on.