How Putin’s “Useful Idiots” Blame “the West” for Russia’s Rape of Ukraine

By Paul Thomas Zenki

Not all of Putin’s propagandists know they’re working for him…

Right now, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine, a peaceful neighbor whom it attacked without provocation. The Russian military is targeting civilians, including children, with bombs and starvation in its effort to end the Ukrainians’ resistance to annexation by democidal kleptocrats.

As always, Russia’s crimes are staged with a smokescreen of false propaganda, both within Russia — where independent journalism has been shut down and calling the war a war can fetch 15 years in prison — and across the globe. And as always, Russia counts on “useful idiots” to fan the flames.

Originally, the term “useful idiot” or “useful innocent” was used by European Communists in the aftermath of the Second World War to denote democrats who agreed to collaborate in the hopes of achieving a democracy which the Communists had no intention of delivering. In Putin’s Russia, useful idiots are an integral component of the political calculus of state propaganda, spreading the Kremlin’s output of official manure across the ripe fields of their own home nations under a homegrown label.

I don’t believe these people are idiots, deluded though they may be. So I will simply call them Usefuls. Here’s a short list of the fertilizer they’re hauling for neo-tsarist Russia.

Genocide, bioweapons, and denazification

The easiest claims to debunk are the notion that Putin is “denazifying” Ukraine by sending assassins to murder its Jewish president and his administration, or that he’s out to save ethnic Russians from genocide or to decommission non-existent bioweapons labs run by the United States. By and large, these claims have only gained traction outside of Russia among far right-wing conspiracy-theorist factions and have no realistic chance of climbing out of that pool. Of far greater concern is the very real possibility that the biolab stories may be preparing the ground for future Russian use of chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine to be blamed on these phantom Western programs.

Security concerns

The most common trope spread by the Usefuls, across the political spectrum, is Russia’s claim of “legitimate security concerns” posed by European nations joining the defensive North Atlantic Treaty Organization. According to this Kremlin narrative, Russia is surrounded by NATO militaries and has a genuine fear that they might just up and attack, and it needs to seize Ukraine as a buffer. (Nevermind that incorporating Ukraine would actually bring Russia closer to NATO.)

Of course, say the Usefuls, this doesn’t justify Russia’s actions, but it does shift the onus of responsibility to “the West” for not having the sense to limit NATO membership to nations no farther east than Germany. The problem with this argument is that Putin’s own actions demonstrate beyond any doubt that the narrative is false. It is precisely because Russia feels certain that NATO will not attack, even if Russia brutally invades a peaceful neighbor and begins wantonly killing civilians, that it went ahead with the war and is conducting it in the manner that we are seeing. The war itself is proof positive that Putin accepts the fact that NATO is a defensive alliance from whom it has nothing to fear as long as it does not itself attack a member nation.

Crazy Ivan

The Usefuls also love to pretend that if security concerns are not the real issue, there can be no other explanation for the war other than Putin being a madman. And just look, he’s calm and articulate, obviously not insane.

Such arguments are jaw-dropping in their ignorance of Ukraine. The Dnieper River and its tributaries support a vast agricultural industry comprising some 70% of Ukrainian land. Underground are enormous untapped reserves of natural gas, second only to those of Norway, as well as great stores of unexploited industrial minerals, including those needed for battery production. Odesa and other ports provide access to the Black Sea, and from there to the Mediterranean and on to the Atlantic.

Putin’s kleptocracy has had its way with the wealth of Mother Russia, making Putin arguably the richest person in the world. But in the process it has stripped away much of Russia’s resources. Reincorporating Ukraine solves many of those problems and opens up tremendous fonts of potential new wealth for Russia’s oligarchy.

Broken agreements

But wait, cry the Usefuls, “the West” broke its agreement not to “expand NATO” eastward! The problem with this claim, however, is that no such agreement exists. The context of claims to the contrary is a 1990 treaty among Germany (East and West), France, US, UK, and USSR reunifying Germany — specifically, various statements made during negotiations that allowing reunification would not expand NATO jurisdiction beyond German borders.

There are disagreements over whether any of those statements constitute “assurances” that nations east of Germany would be barred from NATO membership. But regardless of what was said during the talks, the fact of the matter is that non-expansion of NATO did not form any part of the agreement that came out of those talks. The indisputable upshot is that the parties involved did not, in fact, agree that any nation whatsoever would be barred from NATO membership.

On the other hand, Russia did sign a formal non-aggression pact with Ukraine in 1997 in which Russia agreed to recognize Ukraine’s 1991 borders. As we all know, Russia violated this treaty in 2014 when it invaded, occupied, and annexed Crimea. In light of that, Ukraine allowed the pact to expire in 2018 as it was no longer worth the paper it was printed on. The Usefuls consistently fail to bring up this agreement when talking about “broken promises.”


But mere facts are as naught to the Usefuls. “The West” is still to blame, they say, because they saw it coming. They point to years of intel and punditry assessing Putin’s potential capacity for war and his threat to Ukraine in particular.

In the face of all that, say the Usefuls, “the West” was absolutely obliged to placate Russia in order to prevent an invasion of Ukraine, and failure to do so makes “the West” culpable for what’s going on there. But such arguments labor under the false assumption that such concessions had the power to prevent Russia from executing its plans.

As we’ve seen, Putin’s actions demonstrate unequivocally that all his talk about security concerns are lies, just as his talk about denazification and bioweapons and genocide are lies. Fear of NATO was never his concern with Ukraine in the first place. He has perfectly rational economic reasons for wanting the territory, and those reasons are not altered one whit by anything any other nation does. The very idea that preventing this war was ever in the hands of any nation other than Russia is a fallacy.


When all else fails, of course, the Usefuls trot out a steaming hot platter of whataboutism. They point to America’s history of invasion and brutality, from Mexico to Vietnam to Iraq. And while it’s true that the US does have a long history of invading other nations on bogus pretexts, including a neighbor whose territory it annexed, this is not the cause of Russia’s attack on Ukraine and cannot in any way make the US or “the West” responsible for it.

The deluge of nonsense

The Usefuls can be a stubborn lot. Once the above points have been made, they will often resort to tirades of nonsense and irrelevance: “You can’t read Putin’s mind!”… “So, everyone who criticizes America is a Russian agent?”… “Stop believing what you’re told by the media!”… “Just because Putin lies about some things doesn’t mean he’s lying about everything!”… “You’re just a typical American who can’t see anything from anyone else’s point of view!”… and so on and so forth.

I suppose it’s hard to come to terms with having been a propagandist for a man who murders his political opponents, steals billions from his own country, and drops bombs on kids. Easier to tell yourself that’s not what you’ve been doing at all, that you’re a brave soul speaking truth to power and seeing the reality everyone else is denying.

But the sad fact of the matter is that Putin’s rape of Ukraine isn’t our fault and we couldn’t have prevented it by appeasing him. Putin has fundamental economic and political reasons for wanting Ukraine to be part of Russia that have nothing to do with us, he’s willing to kill thousands if not millions of innocent people to make that happen, and he knows full well that NATO is not going to attack him for it.

At the same time, though, it makes things easier if he can convince the home audience and at least a portion of the global audience that he’s not simply engaging in a coldly calculated war of choice against a peaceful neighbor in clear violation of signed international agreements, not to mention all human decency and morality. Hence the multi-pronged propaganda effort and the regrettable but inevitable self-recruitment of the Usefuls to its cause.

I can’t be angry at the Usefuls. After all, they know not what they do. At the same time, though, I consider it a crime to sit back and say nothing while they make excuses on behalf of those perpetrating one of the most barbaric acts of the current century.

As a boy, whenever I would get underfoot of the grownups, my mother used to admonish me, “Make yourself useful!” That’s admirable advice. But at the same time, it behooves us to be careful about exactly who it is we choose to make ourselves useful to.

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Header image by Gerd Altmann

Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.