18th March 2022 Belgrade, Serbia

Turning back the clock: the Kremlin’s war on truth

Novaya Gazeta

A Russian-British journalist friend, speaking on air this week, observed that ‘violence and propaganda go hand in hand’. He suggested that people accept propaganda and lies because of fear, and because the truth is too terrible to contemplate. Perhaps that helps explain the attempts of Russian representatives who had no part in the decision, to defend an indefensible war in Ukraine.



Putin’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine, judging by the comments of military analysts, has not gone to plan. Nor I suspect has its diplomacy – isolated and condemned at the UN by 141 states. Above all, the Kremlin’s bloody adventure is a human catastrophe for the people of Ukraine and the people of Russia. The terror inflicted upon Ukraine, and its people with indiscriminate of force against civilians amounts to war crimes.

The numbers are piling up.

Dozens of:

  • local and international radio and television stations stopping work in Russia because they have been closed down or because professional journalism is no longer possible;

Hundreds of:

  • journalists reportedly leaving Russia in fear of 15 years in prison for reporting that the Kremlin does not like;
  • international companies closing or suspending – Russian operations.

Thousands of:

  • Ukrainian civilians murdered
  • people arrested in Russia for protesting against the war;
  • Russian soldiers killed – young men sent under false pretences to attack an independent country;
  • civilian and military bereaved families

Millions of:

  • people on the move to escape death and destruction:
  • pounds, euros, and dollars worth of assets of Kremlin-linked individuals frozen or seized around the world.

(Hundreds of) billions of:

  • dollars wiped off the Russian stock market.

President Putin is trying to turn back the clock to the grim days of the Soviet Union. (One Russian oligarch has even suggested Putin risks taking the country back to 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution.)

After the human suffering, it is perhaps the fabrication, suppression of the truth, and the right to free expression within Russia that casts the darkest shadow. These rights are enshrined in many international agreements and commitments signed by the Russian Federation.

Three years ago, OSCE states, including the Russian Federation, negotiated an international agreement on the Safety of Journalists. They reaffirmed commitment to protect the freedom to seek, receive and impart information regardless of frontiers. They promised to ensure that laws would not limit the ability of journalists to perform their work independently and without undue interference.

Three years can be a long time in diplomacy. But I would not have predicted in 2018 that the Russian diplomats who helped negotiate that agreement might so quickly have to defend 15 year prison sentences for journalists whose reporting the Kremlin does not like.

The information clamp down is a reminder of reminder of the times when Bibles were smuggled in to the Soviet Union and the manuscripts of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn were smuggled out.

In place of freedom of expression and access to information, the Russian state is now resorting to increasingly outrageous fabrications and cynical disinformation – at home to hide the truth, and abroad to sow confusion and justify the unjustifiable.


The radio station I listened to every morning in Moscow (and which an insider told me was widely listened to by Kremlin officials) has fallen silent after 31 years.



It is shocking to look at newspapers published in the Russian Federation and see that there are no photographs of the the devastation and destruction that the rest of the world is seeing day by day. This takes Moscow back more than 35 years to pre-1986, when Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the transparency of ‘glasnost’.

Suppression of the truth and disinformation are not new tools for the Kremlin – remember the claims that Russian soldiers were ‘on holiday’ in Ukraine in 2014, the year Crimea was illegally annexed and Moscow fomented conflict in the Donbas, or that GRU assassins visited Salisbury to see its famous cathedral spire?

This week Moscow first denied, then confirmed, that it had sent military conscripts to Ukraine. For days after the invasion it denied that Russian soldiers had been killed, despite knowing the horrible reality that Mr Putin’s gruesome adventure will cost thousands of Ukrainian and Russian lives.

…..or 1984?

A 17th century British diplomat reportedly quipped that an ambassador was an honest man sent to lie abroad for his country. It’s a good line, though it does not reflect my experience.

This quote came to my mind again this week when listening to lines being delivered on behalf of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

I have great respect (and affection) for some of the Russian diplomats I have worked with. They are often people of significant experience and expertise.

I do not think Russian diplomats believe the nonsensical lines they are repeating about ‘demilitarising’ a country that is defending itself from an unprovoked invasion, or ‘denazifying’ a country with a democratically elected Jewish Head of State. I do not want to believe that they think an unjustified military onslaught can be represented as ‘defending the Ukrainian people’ or ‘defending Europe from Nazism’.  As the German Embassy in South Africa pointed out, slaughtering innocent people is not fighting Nazism.

Surely no Russian diplomat believes that Russia ‘did not attack Ukraine’. Can there be a more Orwellian diplomatic claim than that a war (“Special Operation”) was started in Ukraine to stop a war in Ukraine?

The Kremlin is now repeating its own history of fabricating claims about chemical or biological weapons. My own country knows only too well about Kremlin disinformation about Russia’s use of illegal nerve agents.

No diplomat should be asked to ‘justify’ atrocities. No diplomat with a conscience should agree to do so.

Deliberate disinformation is not, as one Russian ambassador has recently asserted, a ‘different point of view’. It is falsehood. It does not change facts that include an unprovoked, illegal attack on a sovereign country on false pretences, the people of Ukraine’s defence of their country with extraordinary bravery and unbreakable spirit, and catastrophic human consequences for both countries.

A former Russian Foreign Minister has called on Russian diplomats not to act as ‘cheap propagandists’ for a bloody fratricidal war. Whatever loyalty they feel to their Ministry, it is surely time for my Russian colleagues to speak up and stop the lies.

This article was originally published in Serbian language weekly news magazine VREME on 17 March 2022.

About Sian MacLeod

Sian Macleod was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Republic of Serbia in September 2019. Prior to this, Sian was Ambassador and Head of the UK Delegation to the Organization…

Sian Macleod was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Republic of Serbia in September 2019. Prior to this, Sian was Ambassador and Head of the UK Delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Sian joined the FCO in 1986. Her first posting was to Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, she served briefly in the Embassy in Vilnius. Since then she has been posted to The Hague, returned to Moscow 2004-7, where she became Minister (Deputy Head of Mission). Between overseas postings she has worked in the FCO and the Cabinet Office.

Sian was Ambassador in Prague from 2009 to 2013 and then Director of the British Council Triennial Review and FCO Additional Director for the Eastern European & Central Asian Directorate.

Sian is married to Richard Robinson and they have three children and enjoy music, cycling and cross-country skiing.

Before joining the FCO she studied music at the Winchester School of Art and the Royal Academy of Music.