On May 7th Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, staged such a moment.
Having stoked conflict, raised tension to breaking point and threatened invasion, he made a magnanimous concession.
The bogus referendums on the independence of eastern parts of Ukraine may be postponed and a presidential election on May 25th may go ahead.
And Russia would pull its troops back from the Ukrainian border.
Putin has got most of what he wanted.
The annexation of Crimea has been accepted, serious economic sanctions have been averted, his popularity has shot up and, having created a mess in Ukraine, he is playing peacemaker.
Nor did he give much away.
The referendums were logistically impossible anyway.
Yet his offer will push the Kiev government into talks with self-proclaimed separatists in the east and south of Ukraine.
The negotiated release of Pavel Hubarev, a “people’s” governor of Donetsk arrested in March, will give the rebels legitimacy without any referendum.
The orchestration of a threat, only to withdraw it, is the latest episode in the information war that Russia has waged at home and abroad, and which it seems to be winning—not least in Germany.
Unwilling to confront the Kremlin, says Kirill Rogov, a political analyst, the West has had lamely to accept Mr Putin’s concessions.
In the past three months Russian propaganda has created virtual reality to justify the annexation of Crimea and shape facts on the ground.
The narrative was consistent, crude and false.
A Western-sponsored fascist junta had seized power in Kiev and threatened Russian-speakers.
Crimea was saved by prompt intervention, but the south and east of Ukraine fell into civil conflict.
This culminated in the deaths of 40 people in a fire in Odessa, which Russia called an example of Ukrainian fascism.
“The purpose of an information war is not to persuade someone of something, but to get people engaged in warfare,” says Gregory Asmolov, a researcher at the London School of Economics.
It intensifies hatred and solidifies support for the regime.
As Boris Nemtsov, a veteran liberal politician, wrote in his blog, “I can’t remember such a level of general hatred in Moscow—not after the August 1991 coup and not after Yeltsin’s stand-off with parliament in 1993.
Aggression is stoked by television…
The Kremlin is cultivating and rewarding the lowest instincts in people, provoking hatred and fighting.”
Russia’s information war reflects how Putin’s regime depends on controlling the media and eliminating political competition.
Having seized control over the main television channels at the start of his presidency in 2000, he is now cracking down on the internet, until recently relatively free.
On May 5th Putin, who earlier called the internet a CIA project, signed a new law requiring popular bloggers and commentators with more than 3,000 followers to register as media outlets.
Earlier, the Kremlin shut or took control of several independent websites, and barred a popular blog by Alexei Navalny, an opposition politician who is under house arrest, facing a long jail sentence on bogus charges.
As Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet dissident, argued, unaccountable and repressive regimes are a threat not only to their own citizens but also to international security.
Sakharov’s internal exile in January 1980 followed the invasion of Afghanistan and was accompanied by a massive propaganda campaign.
Yet the saving grace of Soviet propaganda was that it did not succeed.
Its anti-Americanism was undermined by its economic failures.
The shortages of food in the Soviet Union made the benefits of the West all too obvious.
By contrast, today’s Russian propaganda works.
It is slicker and more engaging than the drab Soviet version, and the audience is more willing to accept it.
According to a poll by Public Opinion Foundation, most Russians trust the state media and see nothing wrong with occasionally twisting information.
Anti-Americanism and revanchism exploit the trauma left by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was presented not as an act of liberation by its own people but as a defeat imposed on Russia by the West.
Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada Centre, a pollster, says this trauma was deeper than anyone could have imagined.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea is widely seen as a sign of resurgence of the great Russian state and revenge against the West.
Only 3% of Russians disapproved of it and fewer than 1% felt any sense of shame for Russia’s actions.
By openly confronting the West, Putin has also freed Russians from a nagging inferiority complex.
Russia, he declared, was a unique civilisation which is morally superior to the West and need not justify itself to anyone.
Another reason for support of Mr Putin’s actions is economic.
As Yegor Gaidar, an early economic reformer, once noted, Russia’s post-imperial nostalgia flourished not at a time of economic hardship but after several years of rising incomes, largely the result of rising oil prices.
Yet the limits of Russia’s model were laid bare after Putin returned to the Kremlin for his third presidential term in 2012.
A wave of street protests by the urban middle class revealed a demand to modernise the state.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine is, in effect, an alternative to modernization.
A party of crooks and thieves, as United Russia, the ruling Kremlin party became known, is now a party of empire builders and Putin is a consolidator of Russian lands.
Corruption, the central theme a few years ago, has receded into the background.
Aggression in Ukraine was part of a broader confrontation with the West, Mr Rogov argues, driven largely by the need to bolster the regime and its rent-seeking, paternalistic system.
Putin has consolidated the support of those who benefit from oil rents: millions of state employees, accounting for nearly a third of the Russian labour force.
This may explain why support of the Kremlin’s actions is strongest among the better educated, bureaucratic class.
“They basically want this system, where their incomes kept rising, without too much effort on their part, to continue,” says Mr Rogov.
It also explains why most Russians were not prepared to bear the real cost of a war in Ukraine in human or financial terms.
Before Putin’s latest concession, the public was becoming anxious at the prospect of real bloodshed and the economic pain of ever tougher Western sanctions.
A serious conflict would have meant Russia’s military involvement and sanctions that damaged an already weakening economy.
Putin has shown little respect for any democratic process, but he has always paid attention to his own poll ratings.
None of this means the long Ukraine suspense story is over.
Putin has plenty of tools at his disposal to keep Ukraine unstable and off limits for the West.
There is no guarantee that the presidential election on May 25th will succeed, especially in the troubled eastern and southern regions.
Nor will the aggressive mood stoked by Putin easily be ended.
Instead, it could be directed against “traitors” and “fifth columnists” at home.
The logic of suspense is that release is followed by more tension.
Source: The Economist