Rumours that resonate

By Edward Lucas

(A version of this article first appeared on the CEPA website)

Speculation about Putin’s fate highlights his weakness

Heard the latest about Zelensky? That amid military setbacks and growing political problems, the Ukrainian president is preparing a hurried escape to a foreign bolthole?

No, me neither. In the days after Russia’s onslaught, rumours did circulate on social media that Volodymyr Zelensky was in a bunker in Warsaw, rather than leading the country’s resistance from his headquarters. But these stories were too implausible to gain any traction. Zelensky was quite evidently in Kyiv. By contrast, it is widely believed that he replied “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition”, when the United States administration offered him emergency evacuation. That may not be 100% accurate, but it rings so true that it is readily repeated. 

Whereas Zelensky’s reputation is bulletproof, Vladimir Putin’s grip on power is looking shaky. Stories about that gain a receptive audience too. The latest concerns the supposed “Operation Noah’s Ark”, under which the Russian leader will escape a coup by being spirited away to safety, probably in South America. The source is Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter now living in Israel. His post on Telegram gives some tantalising details: China was the first choice, but the authorities in Beijing showed little enthusiasm. Venezuela is now the preferred destination, and Igor Sechin, head of the Rosneft state oil company (who has close ties with the Venezuelan regime), is in charge of the arrangements. Another Telegram channel, General SVR, which claims to be the work of dissenting insiders in Russia’s foreign intelligence service, has produced a string of intimate scatological details about the Russian leader’s supposedly ailing health. 

I have no idea if any of this is true. What we do know is that Putin has cut back his public appearances, cancelling his annual press conference and end-of-year ice hockey match, and postponing his state-of-the-nation speech. Brief footage of a meeting with generals, which supposedly took place on Friday, was uploaded late and contained no details that would have identified the real time and location. Against that background, rumours about his physical and political weakness seem entirely plausible. 

The sources may be concerned insiders, or mischievous pranksters. But I think I sense the ghostly hand of Sefton Delmer. All but forgotten in modern Britain, Delmer masterminded our “black propaganda” radio broadcasts to Nazi Germany during the Second World War. His genius was to set up stations that broadcast authentic-sounding Hitlerite propaganda laced with devastating slivers of disinformation that subtly highlighted Nazi atrocities, exaggerated the scope of the resistance movement, and publicised real or invented battlefield setbacks.

Delmer’s books are long out of print. Anyone searching for a seasonal gift should snap up a copy of Black Boomerang, currently available for £200/$250/€230. But I would not be at all surprised if Ukrainians or their friends were applying his dark arts by spreading information that seems to come from the heart of the Putin system. The anonymity of the Telegram messaging app makes it particularly useful in this respect. It is quite plausible that canny, hard-bitten SVR officers are fully aware of the disastrous effects of Putin’s policy. Similarly, FSB staffers are quite likely to be worrying about the country’s internal stability as the unpopularity of the war bites deep into public opinion. Most of all, military critics may see battlefield disaster spelling doom for the integrity of the armed forces. All have good reason to make their views known, and little grounds to fear the consequences. 

And that creates the opportunity for Delmer’s successors. Even invented material that chimes with these views will be believed — and may create exactly the dismay that it purports to reflect.