Thursday, March 3, 2022

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s resentful leader, takes the world to war

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Vladimir Putin, Russia’s resentful leader, takes the world to war 

Pent-up anger with the west and a fixation on Ukraine make him more aggressive and unpredictable than ever

© Joe Cummings  Max Seddon FEBRUARY 25 2022 620 

 Growing up in a communal apartment in Leningrad, a young Vladimir Putin liked to chase rats across the stairwell with sticks. One day, he spotted a particularly huge rat and drove it into a corner. Suddenly, it threw itself at him, trying to leap onto Putin’s head in its bid to escape. 

 The incident taught Russia’s president a lesson he carried for decades. “Everyone should keep this in mind. You should never drive anyone into a corner,” he said. 

 On Thursday, Putin ordered his army to attack Ukraine from the north, south and east in what could be the largest military operation in Europe since the end of the second world war. Despite months of western warnings about his plans for a brazen assault, Putin framed the invasion as a defensive operation — even going so far as to cite the relevant UN charter article — and claimed that Russia had “been left no chance to act otherwise”. 

 His war in Ukraine marks the culmination of a slide into a paranoid autocracy that earns comparison with Russia’s most brutal rulers. Already a distant figure before the pandemic, the lengths the former KGB officer takes to avoid coronavirus have limited his human contact. 

Western visitors are forced to sit around a comically huge table. Allies toast champagne from opposite ends of a massive carpet. Even Putin’s closest advisers are rarely allowed to come within 10 feet without weeks of quarantine and testing. 

 People who have known him for decades say this has deepened a pent-up resentment of the west and a fixation on Russia’s shared history with Ukraine — making him more aggressive and unpredictable than ever. “He’s even more isolated than Stalin,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, a former adviser. “In the last years of his life, Stalin didn’t come to the Kremlin and lived in his dacha, but the politburo came to see him and they talked and drank. 

Putin doesn’t have that. He’s as isolated as he can be. And in that situation rational issues become irrational.” 

 A romanticised ideal of serving his country drew Putin, now 69, to join KGB counter-intelligence in the late 1970s. Before long, however, he was confronted with the Soviet Union’s long, dreary slide into collapse. Deployed to Dresden in East Germany, he watched helplessly as communist regimes in eastern Europe fell while nationalist movements at home pushed Mikhail Gorbachev to open up the country. 

 One night shortly after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Putin emerged from KGB headquarters to face an angry mob, then asked a nearby Soviet unit for support. The answer haunted him for years. “‘We can do nothing without an order from Moscow. And Moscow is silent’,” he recalled. “I had the feeling the country was no more. It was clear the Union was sick with a deathly, incurable disease called the paralysis of power.” 

 Back in Russia, Putin left the KGB and quickly rose up the ranks as a trusted aide to Russia’s two most important democratic leaders — St Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak and Boris Yeltsin, its first president. Once Yeltsin unexpectedly named Putin his successor on New Year’s Eve in 1999, Putin strove to restore the power Russia had lost. 

At home, he launched a brutal campaign to subdue separatists in Chechnya, brought the media to heel and defanged the country’s oligarchs. But abroad, he initially sought to ally with the US, asking Bill Clinton if Russia could ever join Nato and offering his support for George W Bush’s war on terror after the 9/11 attacks. “He basically wanted to be like a vice-chairman of the board,” says Samuel Charap, a political scientist at the Rand Corporation. “You don’t have to . . . change your fisheries code to match what Brussels tell you — you get a seat at the big boys’ table.” 

 Putin’s entreaties fell on deaf ears, leaving him embittered at what he saw as the west’s refusal to take him seriously, according to a former senior Russian official. “It’s their fault. They should have supported us and integrated us into the world, but they worked against us.”

 Key turning points came in 2003 and 2004. Putin jailed Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then Russia’s richest man, while growing increasingly resentful of the US for the Iraq war, Nato’s expansion into eastern Europe and its support for “colour revolutions” in former Soviet states. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine, where protests overturned a Moscow-backed candidate’s fraudulent election victory, was a particularly sore point. 

 “The fear of losing the post-Soviet space to Nato expansion became tied up with the fear of losing his own power,” says Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Gradually, a revanchist side began to emerge. 

Former aides to Mikheil Saakashvili, the leader of the “colour revolution” in Georgia, suspected something was wrong when Putin complained about Tbilisi’s “museum of Russian occupation” at a meeting in 2007 and reminded him of fellow Georgians such as Stalin and Beria who had sat at the heights of Soviet power. Saakashvili joked: “Why don’t you open a museum of Georgian occupation in the Kremlin?” His aides gasped in horror at Putin’s stony reaction. 

 Putin’s resentment of the US and Nato came to the fore when Ukraine and Georgia applied to join the alliance in 2008. He warned Bush that Ukraine was “not even a real state”, according to a Russian account. Though Nato offered only a vague assurance the countries would eventually join the alliance, it was enough to prompt the then prime minister to launch a devastating five-day war against Georgia and send troops to occupy two breakaway border regions. 

 But the muted western reaction, followed by a US attempt to reset ties with Russia, meant Putin’s use of force “was not addressed decisively enough”, says Kadri Liik, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “And that created a situation where things got worse and worse and worse.” 

 Fears of western encroachment and domestic uprising became intertwined in Putin’s mind. In December 2011 he accused the US of “giving the signal” for protests preceding his return to the presidency, then described the 2014 revolution in Ukraine as an “armed coup”, prompting him to seize the Crimean peninsula. 

 This severely damaged Russia’s global standing but Putin’s approval ratings at home soared above 80 per cent. With little meaningful opposition, his appetite for adventurism grew — culminating in a 2015 military intervention that turned the tide of the Syrian civil war. 

 “Putin’s used to being lucky. That’s very dangerous for a gambler, because he starts believing fate is on his side,” Pavlovsky says. “When you play Russian roulette, you feel that God is on your side until the shot rings out.” 

 As Putin’s circle became more limited, the picture of the world he received became more distorted. He and his confidants would increasingly spout bizarre conspiracy theories that the west was bent on destroying Russia through everything from gay marriage to anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny.

 “You eventually end up in a trap, because your inner circle tries to only tell you good news and what fits your views. Imagine Putin discussing the war in Ukraine with his generals — they’ll rapturously cry, ‘Yes, we can!’ Nobody will resist,” 

Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the R.Politik analysis firm, says. Western countries found negotiating with an overconfident, isolated Putin impossible. Talks over the Donbas conflict, brokered by France and Germany, stalled. Ukraine then elected a new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who took a bolder stance against Putin: the former comedian demanded Nato admit Kyiv and had Putin’s closest ally there arrested. 

 “Russia’s political regime is this mafia-type state where letting insults drop means the leader loses his authority,” says Nikolai Petrov, a fellow at Chatham House. “There’s no way you can wipe that clean.” As the peace process deteriorated, Putin’s resentments of Ukraine and Nato spilled into the open. Last summer, he published 5,000 words casting aspersion on Ukraine’s right to exist in its current form and claiming the US was using it to threaten Moscow. 

 Then, as Russia began massing troops on the border, Putin told diplomats to maintain “a certain tension” with the west. His demands that Nato pledge never to admit Ukraine and roll back the alliance’s eastern expansion would have rewritten the post-cold war security order. 

 The west mounted last-minute diplomatic efforts. But when France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Olaf Scholz met Putin around the huge Kremlin table, they were subjected to historical rants by a man who struck them as almost totally at odds with the outside world, according to aides. Their missions were doomed to fail. A day after agreeing to a Macron-brokered summit with the US, Putin recognised the Donbas separatists’ independence in a rambling tirade in which he threatened to hold Ukraine responsible for any “ensuing bloodshed”. It was a clear attempt to prepare Russia’s population for war against the “brotherly nation” of Ukraine — whose very existence in its current form, he claimed, was an existential threat. 

 “At some point he didn’t think he had been driven into a corner so much as that he could get out of the corner. What did he have to be afraid of?” Stanovaya says. “He realised an aggressive, frightening Russia is an effective way to make the world start taking you seriously.”

fighting against elitism in the art world



This 27-Year-Old Started Her Own Gallery


Hannah Traore is fighting against elitism in the art world.

Photo: Kendall Bessent

Hannah Traore is the name on the door of Hannah Traore Gallery on the Lower East Side, a space devoted to “celebrating artists who have been historically marginalized.”

Traore, who grew up in Toronto to a Jewish mother and a Malian father, has worked as a curatorial intern at MoMA and Fotografiska. She is influenced by other Black women gallerists in the industry, like pioneering dealer Linda Good Bryant and Ebony Haynes, a director at mega-gallery David Zwirner who is soon to open a Zwirner off-shoot with an all-Black curatorial staff.

What about your early life put you on the path to this moment?
My mom put all of us into the arts in every way she could, when we were super young. I was in the dark room doing film photography in grade four in addition to throwing pottery. We all went to art camp, but we also constantly went to museums wherever we were in the world and in Toronto. On the weekends we would do arts and crafts like making paper and tie-dye shirts. In the same way that my mom infused art into our lives, my dad subconsciously influenced his culture into our lives. I’m extremely proud to be the daughter of a Malian immigrant, and I do feel like it informed my childhood really deeply.

What thrills you the most about being a gallerist?
Being able to give artists the platform that they deserve. That includes their autonomy, their creativity, and absolute genuine support. It’s also nice to be able to say when I believe in something and not have to ask someone for permission. For me, selling art is exciting for what it can do for my artists, as well as placing their work in collections or homes that will love living with the work.

Photo: Kendall Bessent

Biggest barrier of entry in the art world?
Elitism for sure, which is something I’m really striving to work against in the gallery. When I worked at MoMa they always talked about how they wanted to diversify their team and it’s like you gotta pay people more. You gotta do the work or else that’s not gonna happen.

Then there’s the fact that people don’t feel comfortable in those spaces, so why are they gonna try to work there? There are no corners in my gallery space. Part of the reason I wanted to incorporate soft curves was because I wanted it to feel warm. Subtle things to make people feel welcome to make people come in.

Tell me about your path to becoming a gallerist.
It became my dream after curating an exhibition in college for my senior thesis and realizing how much I loved working as a curator, but realizing that I couldn’t work as curator exactly as I wanted to in someone else’s space. I started off going back home to Toronto and being hired by one of my mentors, Kenneth Montague. He hired me to curate an exhibition at the Gladstone Galleries and that was my first job out of college. I jumped into a painting and sculpture curatorial internship at MoMa, which was wonderful. After that I moved on to Fotografiska in 2019 as their installation coordinator, which only lasted about three months because the pandemic hit. They asked me back once things settled a little bit, but at the same time my other mentor, Isolde Brielmaier, asked me to be her project manager. It was actually while I was working with her part-time that I was starting to work on my gallery.

Any failures you’ve experienced?
A really good example of a little failure would be making a list of your ideal artists for a show. And then half of those artists won’t even answer. And then a quarter of them will say no for whatever reason — they don’t know who I am yet, or they don’t have any work available, or whatever it is. At first when I’d reach out to someone and they would say no, I’d be devastated. What I learned from all of it is that everything will be fine.

Photo: Kendall Bessent

Let’s talk about the finances. How are you making it work?
I’m very intentional with every dollar. I didn’t have a business partner, but I definitely had business consultants helping me with the business plan. It was important to me to be extremely involved in every single process as I have never taken a business class in my entire life, so it felt like a crash course. My business consultants gave me incredible guidelines that I never would have thought of: How many works I need to sell at a show; how much each piece has to be, etc. It was really important to me to stick to a budget, but I gave myself a little bit more room for my first two exhibitions just because it was important to me to do them really, really right and make a splash. But moving forward, I think we’ll be a little tighter.

What is a routine or practice that makes you feel taken care of?
I love bookmaking, or book-binding, so if I’m feeling really stressed, I’ll bind a book.

Do you see art as investment or pleasure?
I think it’s both. In terms of my own collecting, I see it as pleasure, but I think it is one of the best investments you can make.

What advice would you give to someone starting to invest their money in art?
I do think that you should go with your gut. If you’re thinking about it as an investment — definitely do your research, but I would also say to choose something you love. If worse comes to worst and the art doesn’t appreciate overtime, at least you have something that you love and want to live with.

When you have the opportunity to splurge on yourself, what are you typically spending on?
It’s always gonna be food, that’s where I spend the most money. And I try to buy one piece of art a year. If someone gave me $20,000, I’d be buying art.

spot fake photographs of the war in Ukraine


Seven ways to spot fake photographs of the war in Ukraine

On Friday 25 February, Petro Poroshenko, a former Ukrainian president, tweeted from his official account a photo he claimed to be the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’. The image showed an MiG-29 fighter pilot in his cockpit, his visor concealing his face, his thumb raised to the camera.

On 27 February, the Ukrainian government’s official account followed up with a flashy, Twitter-optimised video lionising the ghost. Overlaid with a crunching soundtrack, the tightly edited clip purports to show footage of the anonymous pilot as he shot down six Russian military aircraft. The pilot did so, the clip claims, in the first 30 hours of the invasion.

Although the video briefly acknowledges the ghost’s exploits are unverified, the message remains clear. It ends with: “Ukrainians are grateful to this hero with brass balls who’s having Russian aircraft for breakfast. God speed and happy hunting.”

Shortly after, the Ukrainian ministry of defence chimed in, hailing: “The air avenger on the MiG-29, which is so often seen by Kyivites!”

Over the course of the weekend, this video and further apparent footage of the Ghost racked up multiple millions of views and hundreds of thousands of shares. But does the Ghost exist? And, even if he does, are his heroic exploits real?

The image Poroshenko shared, it turns out, appears to have been taken from a 2019 article about Ukrainian pilots testing new helmets whilst one of the most widely shared videos of the ghost came from a popular flight simulator game.

In 2013, a few months before Russia invaded Crimea, I created a photography series about a fictional Russian invasion of an Eastern European country. All the imagery was taken from a video game. The project was meant to explore how fake news operated. When I showed the project to a colleague—an experienced conflict photographer—he thought they were real photographs, taken in a war zone. I had to shelve the project; it didn’t feel responsible to critique disinformation whilst potentially adding to it.

It was an important lesson. Not all examples of misinformation are the work of malign actors or bots created in troll farms. Oftentimes, people are simply looking for a rousing story, and are keen to share one with their followers.

But spreading misattributed photographs and fake stories makes it harder to find and share important and verifiable photographs and video of events. Even in normal times, social media is constantly awash with spurious stories and misattributed imagery. But, during a conflict like the one in Ukraine, both the quantity and implications of misinformation increase massively.

And that presents us, the watching public, with a great challenge. But we can at least test whether the images we are about to share are truthful. Anything else is a disservice to the people of Ukraine.

Here are seven ways to help to verify what you are looking at:

1. Does it seem too good to be true?

Confirmation bias is the very human tendency to search for things that support what we believe. But confirmation bias is also the enemy of reliable online information, particularly in a conflict.

Stories like the Ghost of Kyiv appeal to what many of us want to believe; brave Ukrainian defenders valiantly fighting against overwhelming odds. But that desire to believe makes us vulnerable to sharing material without questioning their truth. The Ghost of Kyiv may exist, but misattributed photographs and video claiming to show him don’t necessarily prove it.

Be aware of content that cleaves too closely to your own beliefs, for it may have been packaged for you and targeted to reach you.

2. Trust your instincts and look closer if in doubt.

Focus on elements away from the main subject. Ask yourself if anything in the background or at the edges of the frame contradicts what the photograph or video claims to show. Often, small details reveal that an apparently honest document is not what it seems.

In one of the most widely shared Ghost of Kyiv videos, it seems there's little visible to judge. But we can still question certain details. One thing we can check is the shape of the plane in the footage, which on this occasion does appear to be an MiG-29, one of two fighter jet types operated by Ukraine. But, in other examples of disinformation, military hardware that has never operated in the nation state involved has nevertheless appeared in the footage.

Another feature we can inspect are the bare trees in the foreground; the branches are distinctly angular in a way real life-foliage tends not to be. Details like this should encourage further caution and examination.

As it turns out, this piece of video was produced in DCS, a popular flight simulator game, and was originally posted to YouTube as a tribute to the Ghost, before being repurposed and circulated online as genuine footage. The footage is purposely miscaptioned and therefore fabricated.

3. Do a reverse image search.

A reverse image search is a way of locating other online usages of the same image. This can be done through Google image search or with the Russian search engine Yandex. Plugins for browsers like Firefox are also available to make it as simple as right-clicking on a photograph.

When you do a search, you’re trying to work out whether this image has been used in other contexts. If the image has been used elsewhere, how has it been used?

It’s not uncommon to find 'war images' that are actually lifted from gaming sites or action movies or turn out to have been taken during a completely different conflict.

In the case of the Ghost of Kyiv, at least three of the photographs circulating online—including the one originally posted by Poroshenko—appear to come from a 2019 article about Ukrainian pilots testing new helmets.

While that doesn’t rule out the possibility that the same pilot who tested those helmets is also the Ghost, it seems unlikely. This sort of misattribution of images is often a hallmark of disinformation.

4. Look for signs of photomanipulation

Does anything in the photo suggest it might have been tampered with using image manipulation software?

Alongside the footage of the Ghost of Kyiv in flight, a photograph of a young man in combat fatigues began to circulate. This man, we are told, is the true identity of the famed Ghost in the skies. Close inspection shows unnaturally jagged lines around the edge of his neck, indicating his head has been cut from another photograph and superimposed with post-production software.

A reverse image search of the superimposed face results in images of an older man who looks uncannily like the man in the manipulated image. The new face belongs to an Argentinian lawyer called Pablo Abdon Torres. Torres is evidently aware of the apparent misuse of his image; he has named his Twitter account “El Fantasma de Kiev”.

The background of the 'portrait' of the Ghost of Kyiv is also traceable. It is from a photograph of a deceased Ukrainian soldier, Vitaliy Skakun Volodymyrovych, who reportedly died blowing up a bridge to prevent the Russian advance.

A portrait of a man in fatigues claiming to be the true identity of the Ghost of Kyiv, but has infact been taken from the archive of an Argentinian lawyer and superimposed.

5. Search for key names or terms in the accompanying text of the image.

Searching in Google and putting quote marks around your search term—for example “forename surname”—will then return exact matches, which can be helpful when looking for names.

In the example of the Ghost of Kyiv, "Vladmir Abdonov" has frequently been cited online as the real name of the pilot in question. Search for this name and you currently only get eight results—all references to the legend of the Ghost of Ukraine, and none older than a few hours. While it’s possible that the pilot has no presence online, it seems unlikely.

But there’s an important caveat to consider in any conflict—and that’s one of language. Ukraine, in this case, has a multitude of spoken languages and largely uses two alphabets—Cyrillic and Latin. That results in different possible spellings of names in Russian and Ukrainian. Google translate can be a useful tool here, particularly as it can translate entire websites, but it’s never going to be a replacement for actually speaking the language.

6. Be wary of low-quality imagery and video.

There’s a tendency to more readily believe low-quality material. In fact poor-quality content makes it harder to judge what you’re looking at.

The series of images I made depicting a Russian invasion of a fictional Eastern European country, which I mentioned above, were all produced in a video game. They fooled everyone who saw them. The experience illustrated how ready we are to take low quality imagery at face value.

Image of an invented Russian conflict taken from a video game © Lewis Bush, courtesy of the artist

7. Follow and support the work of factual organisations.

Credible organisations exist that are actively working to debunk misinformation online. Not only do they provide an important public service, but we can learn a great deal from their explanations of how they have debunked specific examples.

A few to follow include the Netherlands-based Bellingcat, who are currently compiling a list of debunked stories circulating on social media. Organisations like the British Centre for Information Resilience in the UK and the Kyiv Independent in Ukraine are also engaged in important work.

Follow and support these organisations to ensure a truthful and accurate understanding of the Ukrainian conflict as it continues to unfold.

• Lewis Bush is a photographer, researcher and academic. He is the leader of the MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography course at London College of Communication, University of the Arts, London, and a PhD student at London School of Economics, department of Media and Communications, where he is researching the impact of artificial intelligence on photojournalism. He runs online workshops on topics including online research and verification.