As the reality of the Vladimir Putin’s Crimean land grab sinks in, the most alarming aspect of it all is not the ease with which Russian troops seized the peninsula, but the way the Kremlin mobilized Russian public opinion behind its agenda.
The meme propagated by Russian state-controlled media – that Kyiv is controlled by a bunch of fascists and terrorists who pose a threat to Russians in Ukraine-- is preposterous: the Euromaidan movement has its unsavory far-right elements, but its political aims are still broadly liberal - less corruption, blind justice and more economic opportunity for all. The shocking thing is that a vast majority of those who depend on Russian state media for their information clearly believe the Putin-generated alternative reality, and are wholeheartedly supporting the Crimean incursion.
How is this possible in the Internet Age when information seems more freely available than ever before? To understand, it’s important to keep in mind that Putin had been carrying out a creeping coup in Russia’s information sphere over the past few years. It’s a putsch that took a quantum leap late last year, and now it seems to be accelerating.
Putin’s media-control campaign went into overdrive just weeks after the start of the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv, kicking off with a December announcement about the reorganization of the state-run RIA news agency, a move plainly designed to bring it under tighter Kremlin control. Putin also launched a purge of independent thinkers among media professionals. Among the latest victim is an editor at Lenta.ru, one of Russia’s leading news websites, let go for ostensibly for posting an interview with a prominent Ukrainian ultranationalist. Back in February, the CEO of Ekho Moskvy, a radio outlet that often views events with a critical eye, got the sack and was replaced by a Kremlin crony.
Not only are individual journalists being purged, the Kremlin is trying to disappear entire news sources. Early in the year, the Kremlin squelched the independent cable news channel Dozhd (Rain). Then, on March 13, state media regulators summarily blocked a bevy of independent and opposition-oriented websites. One of those blocked sites, Ekho Moskvy, was later unblocked after removing a blog written by Alexandr Navalny, the most popular and vocal critic of Putin in Russia.
The same sort of thing is going on in academia and the non-profit sector in Russia: those capable of independent thinking are being systematically bullied into co-opting their beliefs, or at the very least, remaining silent. Putin’s chief instrument of coercion over civil society activists is legislation that makes it difficult for NGOs to accept grants from foreign sources. The Kremlin is threatening to make life similarly difficult for academics who use foreign grant money to conduct research.
The Kremlin’s efforts are even extending into social media: the founder of VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook, was pressed not too long ago to sell his stake in the company to a Putin pal. It’s also worth mentioning that the State Duma, Putin’s rubber stamp legislature, has reportedly mulled a bill that would make the publication of anything deemed “anti-Russian” tantamount to treason, leaving those responsible vulnerable to lengthy prison sentences. The bill has been shelved, but it could be brought out of mothballs at any time.
The way things are going, it won’t be long before the Kremlin will have achieved critical mass in the domestic information sphere; it may soon be even harder for Russians outside of Moscow and Petersburg to gain access to dissenting voices than it was back in the samizdat era.
Deceptively for viewers and readers of Western news outlets, it remains relatively easy to hear Russian critics of Putin. Pussy Riot’s antics get great press in the West, for example, but their exploits go unobserved by Russian-speakers dependent on Kremlin-controlled media.
If it’s ever going to be possible to reason with Putin – and after his latest, rambling performance at a press conference about the Crimean crisis, that’s a big ‘if’- the United States and European Union first have to burst Russia’s information bubble.
Given developments over the past few weeks, it’s clear that Putin is capable of taking Russian society to a very dark place. Not only Russia and Russians are imperiled by the Kremlin’s attempt to stop the free flow of information. The history of the 20th century shows that a society closed off to a variety of viewpoints is capable of committing great atrocities and causing global harm. Ensuring diversity when it comes to news sources is one of the best means of preventing any given state from going off the rails.
As advocates of an open society, the United States and European Union should take fast action to counteract the Kremlin’s efforts to make Putinspeak a state language in Russia. An information offensive is needed, one capable of competing with the Russian state media machine.
In contemplating such an initiative, those making decisions should avoid fighting the last war. An information campaign built upon propaganda is doomed to fail, and even play into Putin’s hands. The point of a new initiative shouldn’t be to prove the superiority of Western ways, but merely provide Russians with a different point of reference that can help them think for themselves and make more informed decisions on how they wish to see their country develop – to show that there isn’t just one course for state development, but many. It should not covey animosity toward Russia, it should simply try to stoke debate among Russians.
Given their Cold War connections, existing outlets, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, are unlikely to accomplish this aim. An entirely new entity is needed. A new approach to presenting the news is also required. Since the target audience should be younger Russians, the use of humor to convey serious points is a tactic that should be embraced. Russian-speaking versions of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert need to be introduced to Russian audiences. Russians have always loved a good joke, so satire may well be the most potent weapon that can be deployed against the humorless Putin.
Justin Burke is the executive editor of Eurasianet.
Justin Burke is Eurasianet's publisher.