Recent American intelligence assessments have concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin might not know all the relevant facts about his war in Ukraine because his advisers are too afraid to tell him the truth. This view reflects a standard misconception about dictatorships, namely that those around the leader fear giving their boss any bad news. As a result, they often sugarcoat a sticky situation, hoping to please their mercurial tyrant.
But that’s not exactly what tends to happen. Rather than giving Putin only good news, his underlings more likely are engaged in numerous types of information sabotage: delaying, manipulating, withholding or even outright fabricating facts. That’s because information flows differently in violent dictatorships, where more than just careers are on the line.
In a book I wrote about decision-making inside Nazi Germany, What Hitler Knew, I found that Adolph Hitler’s advisers often did the opposite of what we might expect. Instead of being extra cautious, they actually took surprising risks by suppressing or waylaying crucial data. They tried to manipulate Hitler through use of the only real weapon at their disposal: information. They did this during Hitler’s infamous march of troops into the Rhineland in 1936 (a pivotal turning point in the lead-up to World War II).
Some of them tried and failed to prevent Germany’s pact with the Soviet Union, which enabled the Germans to invade Poland, sparking World War II. And there were many other examples of advisers exerting extreme information control. Had their subterfuge been discovered, they could have been in mortal danger. So why did they take such deadly gambles? Why didn’t they just tell Hitler what he wanted to know, or simply show him only the rosy view?
In a country where surveillance becomes the norm, and opposition to the leader means imprisonment or death, advisers learn to protect themselves however they can. Though the risks of distorting information are high, the risks of not doing so can often be higher. In 1934, some German officials and others suspected of disloyalty were shot across their desks in the infamous “night of the long knives.”
Even a former German chancellor, Kurt von Schleicher, was shot to death in his home by the security forces who visited him at night. When his wife tried to save him, they killed her as well. The incident made the cost of falling from favor soberingly real. Information control offered at least a hope of safeguarding not just your position, but also your life. When their gambles paid off, Hitler’s advisers were able to make themselves more valuable to the Führer, and often at the expense of their rivals within the regime.
The same dynamic occurred in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. As I wrote in a subsequent book, “Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions,” U.S. forces unearthed no weapons of mass destruction, but ample evidence of mass deception. High-ranking Iraqi officials were so afraid of falling out of favor with Saddam that they took extreme measures to subvert normal information channels, knowing they were constantly under observation.
In one instance, an army commander conducted official meetings inside the walled garden of a private home, as it was the only place where he believed he could coordinate military operations without being spied on and interfered with by his own government. In another instance, a commander had to run reconnaissance flights over the battlefield just to learn where his fellow Iraqi units were located. The generals were so fearful of government surveillance that all semblance of sensible information flows had broken down.
Russia under Putin has become a frightening place for anyone deemed to be disloyal. The internal security service is estimated to employ hundreds of thousands, possibly exceeding the number employed at the height of the Soviet Union’s surveillance state. Protestors have been arrested, beaten and jailed. Merely calling the war in Ukraine a war is now punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The regime’s most threatening foes have been gunned down in public, injected with radioactive chemicals and attacked with nerve agents.
In spite of his miraculous survival, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s treatment is typical of what lies in store for other Russians who challenge the country’s chief. A recent Levada poll found that 83% of Russians support Putin, but given not only the tightly controlled state media but also the fear of retribution, the 17% who say they do not approve of the president must be either wildly reckless or breathtakingly brave.
Within such a climate of fear, we cannot assume that Putin is receiving all of the information he seeks. And that matters not just for the conduct of the war, but also for the prospects of peace. In Hitler’s case, his advisers sometimes blocked signals from foreign governments who were trying to signal a desired change in relations. Sometimes the advisers (mainly the old-school, aristocratic diplomats) genuinely sought to thwart Hitler’s more reckless aims. Others, in contrast, egged the Führer on, making themselves appear bolder and therefore more appealing to their aggressive leader. In Putin’s case, we simply cannot know all of his advisers’ agendas or the machinations that might be hindering the free flow of vital information.
Because of these twisted dynamics, foreign leaders and their intelligence services must realize that Putin’s underlings might be doing much more than just not giving him bad news; they might be feeding him false news. They might equally be shielding him from good news, for any number of reasons opaque to outsiders. They might be sabotaging the information flow to strike a blow against a rival within the regime. They might want to convince Putin to change course or bend his policies in a more peaceful or aggressive direction. Or they might control information simply because they believe it will help protect their power, their financial well-being or even their personal safety.
We simply cannot always know what Putin doesn’t know, and that is one of the gravest dangers in this crisis. It is not just the accurate information about the war that his subordinates might distort. Without a direct channel to the Russian president, there is also the risk that foreign signals might not reach him as intended.
We think of dictators as strong men, all-powerful tyrants, whose advisers tremble in their rush to obey. But the truth is that dictators are especially weak, victims of the fearful climate that they, themselves have created.
The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Naval Postgraduate School, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.