One of the stickiest challenges for Western governments has been how to deal with, or even understand, a Russian leadership that lies insistently and incessantly, even when it doesn’t need to.
Amid the current crisis over Ukraine, the Kremlin has made the situation both simpler and more confounding. On the one hand, the Russian leadership is stating its most important security concerns and demands more clearly and publicly than ever before. President Vladimir Putin has demanded formal guarantees that there will be no enlargement of NATO to the states of the former Soviet Union and no threatening military presence in Ukraine or elsewhere in eastern Europe.
On the other hand, the Kremlin continues to mask its intentions in a torrent of falsehoods. Senior Russian officials claim that Russian military forces pose no threat to Ukraine while inventing apparent pretexts for a potential invasion—such as accusing Ukrainians of “genocide” and claiming that U.S. military contractors are deploying chemical weapons to the Donbas. The thuggish nature of the Kremlin’s demands and threats undercuts the hand of any Western officials who might want to engage with Moscow. What is the point of talking with a counterpart who has such blatant disregard for the truth?
The Kremlin, for its part, appears to expect that its messages and motivations are clear enough. It doesn’t seem terribly bothered that its reliance on brazen lies leads interlocutors to doubt that anything it says can be trusted. Still, knowing what Moscow is trying to communicate with its various uses and abuses of the truth is important as the West contends with the very real threat of a large-scale Russian military operation in Ukraine. Like it or not, Western policymakers simply do not have the luxury of throwing up their hands and tuning out everything the Kremlin is saying.
Remembering That The Kremlin Expects Others To See Through Its Lies
The Russian leadership’s frequent resorting to transparent lies, known in Russian as vranyo, has been widely analyzed. The Kremlin lies even though it either expects or doesn’t care that others see through such deception. It lies to deflect blame for outrages in which its role has been exposed, such as the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine in July 2014, the poisoning of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the city of Salisbury in the UK in March 2018, or the assassination attempt on opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Russia in August 2020. Russian officials lie to deflect blame from their allies and proxies too, like when they insisted that evidence of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons was utter nonsense and blamed Assad’s opponents instead.
The Kremlin also uses transparent lies to project brazenness at home and abroad. The lies enhance its powers of intimidation and demonstrate that Moscow sets its own rules. The attempted killing of the Skripals sent unmistakable messages to other would-be Russian intelligence service renegades and members of the elite. Trying to kill Navalny with an advanced nerve agent and then absurdly blaming Germany conveyed disdain both for Germany and for other aspiring opponents of the Russian leadership: not only can the regime kill you, it will mock you when it tries to.
Similarly, transparent lying is a way for the Kremlin to troll Western elites and turn the tables on them for supposed hypocrisy, policy mistakes, and attempts to impose their values on others. On such occasions, the Kremlin appears to be inviting its domestic supporters and foreign sympathizers to join in on the joke. At the height of the recent migrant crisis that Belarus created at its border with Poland, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov trolled European elites, blaming them—not Belarus—for starting the crisis and for supposedly being hypocritical in how they handle migrants and apply European values. Putin later echoed those points, probably envisioning that they would resonate not just at home but among anti-EU and anti-immigrant audiences in the West as well.
Deciphering the Kremlin’s Half-Lies, Half-Truths
The Kremlin also expects foreign governments to be able to see through its lies when they are used in pursuit of underlying strategic goals. On those occasions, half of what the Russian leadership says is a lie, and the other half is the “truth” in a sense—that is, it indicates the goal that Moscow is seeking. Knowing which is which is not always as easy as the regime thinks.
The Kremlin has used the half-lie, half-truth formulation most prominently in the context of Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine. It uses the same approach on the subject of Russia’s interference in U.S. elections and Russia’s testing and deployment of a ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Each of its falsehoods is connected to a goal that references to all three were included in its December 2021 proposed draft treaty containing its key demands of the United States (see text box 1).
Text Box 1: Notable Kremlin Falsehoods
To some degree, the Kremlin’s falsehoods about eastern Ukraine, electoral interference, and INF Treaty violations are all intended to deflect blame—whether anyone believes them or not—and to warn or remind the West that Moscow has leverage if its offer of a bargain is rejected or ignored.
|Lie: Russian forces are neither fighting nor supporting armed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian citizens are fighting a civil conflict on their own against Kyiv.||Underlying Strategic Goal: Russian-supplied fighters and weapons will be no more and the violence will stop, as soon as Kyiv negotiates directly with those “citizens,” grants the Russian-controlled territories special status, and decentralizes the country.|
|Lie: The Russian state did not interfere in the U.S. presidential election in 2016. At most, patriotic Russian hackers may have acted on their own.||Underlying Strategic Goal: The Kremlin is willing to stop the interference if the United States exchanges guarantees that it will not interfere in Russia’s domestic affairs and if Washington reaches a deal with Moscow on cybersecurity.|
|Lie: Russia did not violate the INF Treaty by testing and deploying the ground-launched cruise missile that NATO calls the SSC-8, and that Russia calls the 9M729. The missile is INF-compliant.||Underlying Strategic Goal: Given that the United States believes that the missile violates the INF Treaty, Russia offers not to deploy it in the European theater and to allow inspections of sites in Kaliningrad in exchange for being allowed to inspect U.S. missile defense sites in Europe.|
- Eastern Ukraine: The Kremlin’s argument for Ukraine is probably the best understood of the three examples because Moscow forced its terms on Ukraine in the the February 2015 Minsk II agreement and is increasingly applying military and diplomatic pressure now to get what it wants. For the Kremlin, the fiction that ordinary Ukrainian “miners and tractor drivers” alone—supposedly without personnel and equipment supplied by the Russian military and security services—have kept the Ukrainian army from retaking the Donbas is key to the deal it is offering: force Kyiv to grant Moscow’s so-called separatists both autonomy and a veto over the country’s orientation, especially its potential membership in NATO, and only then will they stop fighting. Amid its transparent nonsense about miners and tractor drivers, Moscow thinks it’s been crystal clear that Ukraine has to make the first move.
- Election interference: The Kremlin has consistently, and disingenuously, denied that any state-sanctioned interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election took place ever since charges of Moscow’s involvement in the leaking of hacked material were first aired in mid-2016. Russian officials have insisted that there is no proof of Russian state interference, even in the face of U.S. Department of Justice indictments of named Russian military intelligence officers that include ample detail. By mid-2017, the Kremlin began to use U.S. concerns about election interference as leverage to get something it has long wanted: a vow that the United States will not interfere in Russian domestic politics and a mutual agreement to limit cyber activity against each other. Russian officials cite a 1933 U.S.-Soviet agreement on mutual noninterference as a precedent to be resurrected. In the preamble to its draft treaty, the Kremlin enshrined noninterference as a principle of U.S.-Russia relations.
- INF Treaty: Russian officials have consistently, and falsely, claimed that the SSC-8 (9M729) missile does not violate the INF Treaty’s ban on ground-launched cruise or ballistic missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. They wrongly insist that the missile’s range is just short of 500 kilometers. Nonetheless, Moscow defied the treaty’s limits after complaining for years that, whereas the United States faced no missile threat from Mexico and Canada, Russia was surrounded by countries such as China, Iran, and Pakistan that were unconstrained by the INF Treaty.
The Kremlin no doubt wanted the United States to remain bound by the INF Treaty in part because of its long-standing concern that the U.S. military could convert missile defense sites in Romania and Poland into offensive positions within range of Russia. After the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty in 2019, the Kremlin offered a moratorium on intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe, backed up by mutual inspections, even as it continued to insist that Russia had not cheated on the treaty. In the intervening two years, Russian officials have repeatedly expressed irritation that the United States has ignored or rejected their offer. Yet they are not giving up and have inserted a clause on the moratorium in their draft treaty.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently stated that the Russians’ moratorium offer was “not credible” in light of Russia’s deceitfulness over the SSC-8, demonstrating once again that deception typically sets back rather than advances Russia’s strategic goals with Western counterparts.
Learning From When Russia Isn’t Deceitful
The Kremlin’s recent rhetoric has emphasized that NATO enlargement and membership for Ukraine are “red lines.” By publicizing its ultimatum-like draft treaty, the Russian leadership is experimenting with a less deceptive approach to achieve its goals. This blunter approach, however, is not entirely new. When Putin and his subordinates want something that they consider strategically important, and which they think they can obtain with minimal subterfuge, they can be consistent and nondeceptive. They also indicate, with less specificity, that they will use countermeasures if their terms are not met.
Moscow’s response to U.S. missile defense capabilities is one example. For two decades, Putin has criticized the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. At first, he swallowed hard and called the withdrawal simply a “mistake.” As Russian capabilities improved and relations with the United States worsened, however, he brought up the withdrawal repeatedly as a core grievance. He warned of an arms race and unspecified countermeasures to defeat U.S. missile defense deployments. When he finally unveiled an assortment of new advanced weapons systems designed in part to neutralize U.S. missile defense in 2018, he made a point of reminding the United States of those earlier warnings: “. . . [N]o one was listening to us before. Listen up now.”
Putin has been similarly clear about his opposition to NATO’s enlargement to Ukraine and Georgia. He struck a memorably defiant tone on the subject in his February 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference. Russia’s short war with Georgia in August 2008 represented Putin’s way of linking rhetorical gestures with real world consequences. The same pattern recurred following the February 2014 revolution in Ukraine. Notwithstanding all his deceitfulness surrounding the seizure of Crimea in 2014, Putin’s claim after the fact that he had acted to prevent NATO from potentially taking over Russia‘s naval base in Sevastopol was consistent with what he had said about NATO in Munich and what he had done in Georgia.
The fact that Putin has been so consistent about stopping Ukraine from becoming a Western-allied security threat and the way he went to war in 2014 to stop that from happening makes it harder to read his recent military moves as a mere bluff. Rather, they are further confirmation that he almost certainly will not let the issue go.
Could Anyone Take a Deal Wrapped in a Lie?
Few in the West are eager to take Putin up on his bargains, especially when they’re accompanied by falsehoods so brazen that they come across as blackmail. Even if Western governments could compromise on key positions—closing NATO’s open door for Ukraine, for instance, or refraining from criticizing human rights violations within Russia—Putin’s duplicitous packaging fosters an assumption that he is merely testing his interlocutors for signs of weakness and has no intention of fulfilling his end of the bargain.
Yet alongside Putin the deceiver there is also Putin the dealmaker. He and his spokespeople believe that the terms they’re offering are clear and that it should be self-evident to the West that they are willing to trade away things they don’t need—like violence by so-called separatists or medium-range missiles in Europe—in return for something they really want, like a non-aligned Ukraine or verifiable limits on missile defense.
Putin’s recent public statements indicate that he may see space for reaching an understanding short of all-or-nothing outcomes. His repeated references to a hypothetical threat of U.S. hypersonic missiles being deployed on Ukrainian territory, for instance, suggest once again that limiting nearby deployments of offensive missiles, and systems capable of launching them, is a top priority for him.
The problem with any deal probably would not be the seriousness of Putin’s intent to bargain but rather the divergence between his expectations and reality. Even if Putin somehow managed to put in place the formal arrangements for the federalized, neutral Ukraine he seeks, many Ukrainians would not go along quietly and Russian-backed violence probably would resume. As for the agreement with the United States on mutual noninterference that the Russian leadership says it deeply wants, whenever independent Western actors—including the media, NGOs, or lawmakers—subsequently challenged or criticized the Russian regime in the future, it’s likely that Kremlin-backed influence actors would dial up their own activities against the United States.
The lack of trust would cut both ways. Many in the West would be ready to walk away from an agreement on mutual restraint in cyberspace, for instance, the first time a Russian criminal group attacked a key Western firm with ransomware. And reasonably so, thanks to Moscow’s routine use of deniable proxies. The 1933 U.S.-Soviet noninterference agreement, in fact, fell apart when the Soviet Union didn’t stop meddling in the United States.
With his embrace of falsehoods and deception, Putin has dug himself a hole. Few are willing to bargain with a serial deceiver. But the costs of ignoring his offers and seeking to deter him through punitive measures alone are potentially high too. If he does not get the deal he seeks, or at least a counteroffer that he thinks addresses his interests, he will continue to use or ratchet up his leverage until he either gets what he wants or sees that the West is willing to out-escalate him. As Putin has shown when he is telling the truth, he doesn’t threaten countermeasures idly.
The author is a paid employee of the U.S. government and conducted this research under a government-funded fellowship at an external institution. All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the U.S. government. This does not constitute an official release of U.S. government information. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. government authentication of information or endorsement of the author’s views.