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The news bubble around Vladimir Putin

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Pavel Golovkin/AP

(Read caption) Russian pride was on display at a Moscow rally March 18 in support of Crimea joining Russia.

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The other day on the RT website you could browse through a photo gallery of baby polar bears at Munich’s zoo, click on a “Larry King Now” video featuring the suspendered TV icon chatting with “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan, and get a rundown on the news. There was a follow-up on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a report on Japan’s Fukushima nuclear complex, and a lot about Kosovo

Why Kosovo? It wasn’t a subject most other news outlets were focusing on. But RT, the news operation formerly known as Russia Today (and examined in-depth in our March 31 issue by Fred Weir and Sabra Ayres), is a Russian version of that Manhattan-centric New Yorker cartoon with Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans in the foreground and the United States on the far horizon.  

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RT isn’t unique in having a nationalistic point of view. CCTV, backed by the Chinese government, follows a similar formula. So, in differing degrees, do Al Jazeera, Iran’s Press TV, the Voice of America, and the BBC. But through RT you can see the world as Vladimir Putin and his advisers see it. 

Kosovo, one RT commentator recently argued, was NATO using violence to engineer the separation of an ethnic enclave from a sovereign state. Compare that with the relatively peaceful “preemptive” secession of Crimea. NATO is aggressive and expansionist in the RT scheme of things, and rightists, fascists, and anti-Russian elements are stirring throughout EuropeA Monitor cover story considers the implications of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Ukraine, Kosovo, Germany, and the trauma of invasions by Napoleon and Hitler, Tatars and Mongols are in the forefront of Russia’s historical memory.Mr. Putin’s media have tapped into that. What started as a slant on the news to justify Russian foreign policy, however, may have infected the Russian leader’s worldview.

That’s the analysis of Madeleine Albright, who was secretary of State during the Kosovo war. She speaks Russian, has met Putin, and, as the daughter of a twice-exiled Czech diplomat (first from the Nazis and then communists), has an abiding interest in Eastern Europe. 

We spoke recently following a lecture she delivered at Principia College in Elsah, Ill. Putin is rewriting world history, Dr. Albright says. “He sees himself as helping Russians regain some sense of honor. They were an empire. He has identified himself with the glory of the Russian past.” But what he omits from his worldview is that after the fall of the Soviet Union, the US worked to shore up Russia and other nations that emerged, aided them financially, and brought them into the international system. Albright herself told then-President Boris Yeltsin that Russia would be welcome as a member of NATO. 

Putin is also rewriting Eastern Europe’s history. Crimea and Kosovo are “not even vaguely similar,” she says, citing the documented record of Serbian “ethnic cleansing,” the eight years of negotiations that attempted to keep Kosovo part of Serbia, United Nations-supervised elections, and the 105 countries that have recognized Kosovo’s independence. 

The Russian leader has built a new Russian media to project his version of history. But the stories we tell to persuade others often succeed only in persuading ourselves. As Albright puts it, Putin is likely “living in a parallel universe of the propaganda that he himself has perpetrated.” 

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John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.


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