Mar 15, 2022

Counterpropaganda: How the West Can Turn Russians against Putin’s War

Transatlantic allies should be supplementing their arms-delivery and sanctions policy with factual counterpropaganda to alienate the Russian population and business class from President Vladimir Putin and his costly war against Ukraine.

A view of the newsroom of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Moscow, Russia April 6, 2021. Picture taken April 6, 2021.
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The United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union must calibrate their responses to Russia’s war against Ukraine to raise the political costs of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s extraordinary foreign-policy gamble. With an all-out invasion Putin has abandoned the low-cost rationale by which he managed the annexation of Crimea of 2014 and the proxy war in the Donbas.

Not since the end of the Cold War has Moscow taken such a high-stakes move not only on foreign policy but also on the domestic will to sustain the human and economic hardship that the war and the economic sanctions have unleashed. The West’s resolve to punish Russia for its unprovoked aggression is unprecedented. It correctly assumes that the operation and the occupation may turn out to be politically unsustainable if the military and economic costs exhaust the home front.

However, the West does not yet seem to be operating with a clear idea of how to jeopardize Putin’s gamble that his home front maintain the will to bear these costs. Western policy needs to come full circle to maximize its impact on Russian domestic politics—to alienate the Russian population and business class from their president and his war of choice.

This is mainly a question of stronger communications directed at the Russian public about the purpose of sanctions and, in partnership with Ukraine, about the senselessness of the growing military casualties in a country that does not welcome Russian soldiers as liberators. The West must complement its existing strategy toward Russia with counterpropaganda, which—unlike propaganda—is defensive and relies on factual messages, to turn the national mood against Putin.

Help Ukraine Spread the Truth

The first adjustment to Western policy is how to translate its support for the Ukrainian Armed Forces into a sense of doubt on Russia’s domestic front. The chilling truth is that most Russians supported Putin’s invasion at its onset. However, the longer the war drags on and the more casualties Russia suffers, the more the home front is likely to question and reject the Kremlin claims of a low-cost operation to liberate a brotherhood nation. Independent polls, protests throughout Russian cities, the military’s need to limit the reporting from the war in Ukraine, suggest that the Russian people feels brotherhood with the Ukrainian people in a completely different way to what the Kremlin would like it to be.

Western policy should capitalize on this sentiment more pointedly than has been the case so far. Western public diplomacy should refrain from advertising its arms deliveries, which reinforces the Kremlin narrative that NATO has provoked the conflict and that Russia is acting defensively. The extended debate and clumsy diplomatic handling of the now abandoned delivery of Polish warplanes to Ukraine is a good example of how arms supplies should be handled more discreetly. Western policy should focus as much as possible on how practical support for the Ukrainian Armed Forces could raise the costs of the invasion and how it can partner with Ukraine to influenceRussian public opinion about the course of the war.

The first element here is how to increase public awareness about the increasing number of fallen or wounded Russian soldiers. The United States estimates that between 5,000 and 6,000 Russians were killed during the first two weeks of the invasion. By comparison, the Soviet Union in its unsuccessful Afghanistan war lost as few as 14,500 soldiers during a 10-year period from 1979 to 1989, but this was enough to sap public confidence in the Communist leadership. Reports about mobile crematoria and Putin’s denial of the involvement of conscripts in Ukraine show the Kremlin’s sensitivity about the issue of casualties. It should be noted that after Russia’s unofficial invasion of Ukraine in 2014 the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia was very vocal about casualties.

Social media campaigns should target families and mothers of fallen and wounded Russian soldiers, who are the most affected and thus likely to ignore government threats or bribes to remain silent. To build domestic resistance to the invasion, Ukraine has established a hotline for relatives of Russian soldiers trying to find out the fate of their sons. Western countries, with closer ties to Ukraine such as Poland and the Baltic States should stand ready to assist in pro-active efforts to identify relatives in Russia to raise awareness about the human costs of Putin’s invasion.

The second element is to undermine the Kremlin narrative that Russian forces are in Ukraine to liberate its people from an illegitimate government. President Putin has lost the worldwide propaganda war to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, but not the propaganda war at home. There are several objective messages to deliver: The Ukrainian fighting spirit shows a strong Ukrainian nationhood; locals are not welcoming Russian soldiers as liberators; and the “special military operation” is becoming an absurd description for a full-scale invasion increasing claiming civilian casualties.

Russia’s closure of the few remaining liberal media outlets and blocking of Western media, as well as the attempts to restrict access to social media suggest problems with suppressing that information. Videos of President Zelensky and stories of Ukrainian military victories are spreading horizontally to Russians via social media platforms like Telegram, which counts 38 million monthly users.

The fact that Russian TV propaganda has gone into defensive mode suggests that the social media stories have made it into the general information space and gained traction among traditional media consumers. The impact on public sentiment is hard to measure but one should not forget that it was social media that mobilized the mass protests in Belarus against President Alexander Lukashenko in 2020. The high degree of social interconnectedness between Russians and Ukrainians as well as the common language makes the horizontal spread of stories on social media about the Ukrainian will to fight an unprovoked invasion mainly a Ukrainian task.

However, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union should also join the effort to counter the Kremlin propaganda in Russia about its allegations of a Western puppet regime in Kyiv and that NATO provoked the conflict. Social media today should be exploited as an opportunity equal to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America during the Cold War in terms of delegitimizing a repressive regime in the eyes of millions of its citizens. It falls on the Western countries to explore and invest in technology to overcome Russian censorship, which is similar to that of the Cold War but with less of an ideological component.

Communicate the Purpose of Sanctions

Western sanctions are taking their toll on the Russian financial system and economy and understandably have strong symbolic meaning when it comes to punishing an aggressor state. However, the Western countries must focus on their desired end goal, namely, to turn the home front against Putin in a way that makes his invasion untenable. To paraphrase the Russian president’s war speech, the West should not seek to wage economic war on the Russian people but to conduct a special financial operation to make the Kremlin back down. Containment, the foreign-policy strategy that led to Western victory in the Cold War, needs to be revisited for its most important insight: that Russia’s autocratic model is unsustainable (as Marxist-Leninism was under Soviet rule) due to its inherent contradiction between elite and societal interests, and Western policy must work patiently to exploit this contradiction.

Putin seems to have gone down an uncertain path, questioning the social contract with the Russian people that has kept him in power for more than two decades. Putin was popular in Russia in the 2000s because he overcame the instability of the 1990s associated with his predecessor Boris Yeltsin. Now his invasion has caused the ruble to collapse in value and people to run on banks to withdraw cash. The prospect of economic contraction, galloping inflation, and wage decreases is a serious problem for the Kremlin. Russia is approaching a situation reminiscent of the bank failures and the sovereign default in 1998, when many Russians lost their savings. A population experiencing stagnant real wages for the past eight years and believing the government should pay attention to domestic affairs is unlikely to favor Putin’s choice of a military adventure in Ukraine that achieves the exact opposite.

Western policy needs to supplement its sanctions policy with a counterpropaganda effort to negate the Kremlin narrative that the West has declared war on the Russian people. Instead, the transatlantic allies must get through to the Russian public with one simple message: that the economic sanctions are in place to incentivize their political leadership to abandon their objective of subduing Ukraine. Western messages should refute the Kremlin propaganda, which is preparing the Russian people for temporary hardship similar to the sanctions imposed in 2014, by highlighting that they are conditional on Russia abandoning its military adventure.

The magnitude of the sanctions makes it impossible to keep reality at bay for long. Social media and the horizontal spread of information about the purpose of Western sanctions makes it hard for Russian censorship to close all the cracks all the time. Russians, who now face up to 15 years of prison for spreading “disinformation” about the war, may channel their dissatisfaction instead through protests against the government’s inability to deal with a hopeless economic situation.

The business class deserves a special mention: It is well aware of the reasons for Western sanctions but needs a further push to question Putin’s leadership. It has been suggested that sanctions are more effective against personalist authoritarian regimes like Russia, which depend on patronage, for example in the form of offering lucrative contracts, to stay in power. Oligarchs may feel that Putin betrayed their patronage contract through his reckless foreign policy, which now obliges them to abandon the privileges of Western life. Two prominent Russian oligarchs have called for peace, after being faced with the economic and personal consequences that Putin’s war has unleashed, while another warned against confiscating Western assets similar to the 1917 revolution.

To tighten the net around the oligarchs further, the US, the UK, and the EU should now follow up with threats to increase transparency and anticorruption measures related to illicit flows on their own financial and real estate markets. Sanctions will not make Putin stop his war, but Western communication needs to increase the chances that they will fan the delegitimization of his regime.

Containing Conflict

Russia has crossed a Rubicon that has outraged the world, forcing an unprecedented isolation of Russia and support for Ukraine. While the strong emotions easily translate into a wish for regime change or a change of leadership in Russia, the scenario of an autocrat pressed against the wall in an unpopular war at home and abroad, as well as threatening the use of nuclear weapons, requires focus on policy change as the primary objective. The Western countries can entertain hopes of regime change on behalf of both Russia and Belarus, whose repression and absurd propaganda increasingly look alike, but they need to maintain the moral high ground that they are acting defensively.

The perception of extreme measures may push the Kremlin to further escalation or Russia to a wider economic and state collapse with unpredictable consequences for a nuclear power. The Western countries may wish to consider clear and relentless communication also to the Kremlin about the purpose of the sanctions: to stop its aggression against Ukraine. Moreover, the West should refrain from outcries holding the Russian people collectively responsible and from the indiscriminate severing of cultural and scientific ties, which reinforce the fortress mentality that the Kremlin promotes. Absent their willingness to intervene militarily on behalf of Ukraine, the cornerstone of Western policy should be raising the stakes in Putin’s military gamble enough to strip it of any political meaning. Russia and Putin’s price may soon enough become too high to pay.

Henrik Larsen is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.

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