Vladimir Putin slipped a noose around the throat of independent Russian media last week, and with a few tugs has begun to choke the life from it.
Drawing on his existing legal powers and new ones passed by the Russian legislature — which forbids the spread of information that contradicts the official Russian take on the Ukraine war, punishable by 15 years in prison — Putin has silenced domestic critics of his regime. In reaction to the new measures, opposition radio station Ekho Moskvy and TV Dozhd (Rain) have closed shop. Mediazona, which covers political arrests, Snob magazine, the Agentstvo investigative news site and others have been blocked by the government. Access to Facebook and Twitter has been interrupted, and Russians can no longer upload to Tik Tok. Many international news organizations have either abandoned their Russia bureaus or curtailed their reporting.
The clampdown has relegated the war to news outlets that agree to call the Ukraine invasion a “special military operation,” that proclaim as “fake” the bombed-city footage we’ve been watching, and that assert that Russian troops are “rescuing” Russian-speaking people from “Nazis.” Official Russian propaganda has now obliterated what was — by Soviet standards, at least — a relatively free media environment. That doesn’t mean Putin has been a free speech radical during his time in office. The New Yorker noted his general hostility to open expression last summer and his regime’s attacks on journalists are well-documented.
But information technology has gained a significant toehold in Russia, making it difficult for the state to blot out the messages it disdains, and the country’s younger citizens have been exposed to too many Western experiences through travel and media to ever swallow whole government propaganda again. Whether he knows it or not, Putin seems doomed to lose an extended propaganda war at home.
Putin mistakenly thinks it’s 1955 and that media suppression can douse inconvenient information. While he can propagandize from the Kremlin, promising that only he can make Russia safe from an encroaching NATO and the decadent West, he is not the only authority. For almost three decades now, curious Russian people have consumed the international press and learned how manipulative official media can be. Many have traveled to the West, too, and attended college abroad, which has given them the critical perspective that might have been denied to their parents. The internet has provided a window on the world through which Russians can judge their own country. Russia hasn’t become a Western country by any means, but compared to the time before the fall of the wall, it’s become increasingly globalized, both economically and culturally. Putin may be able to pause that integration, but can he reverse it? Doubtful.
So far, Putin has sold the Ukraine war to Russian citizens through state propaganda and official pronouncements. But how well can his pitch — I’m waging war to protect Russian-speaking people in Ukraine and bombing only military targets — work on Russian citizens who have family and friends in Ukraine? They might believe Putin in the short term, but how will they react when their Ukrainian familiars phone them the truth? For them, it will land as solidly as the idea that the United States had cause to launch an invasion of Quebec because English-speakers need protection from rampaging Quebecois. It’s easier to stop scuttlebutt spread by media than it is scuttlebutt spread by family and friends.
Even though Putin now controls Russian media, he can’t prevent inquiring Russians from using VPN accounts to breach the official blockade of news and social media on the internet. According to one source, demand for VPNs in Russia has risen dramatically since the media clampdown, as have downloads of Telegram and Signal, two encrypted messaging apps. A Russian with a computer and an internet connection can be as well informed about the war as any Westerner if they ignore Putin’s don’t-look-up order. This could change, of course. The man who would bomb a children’s hospital is capable of anything. Putin possesses police-state powers that he could deploy. He could kerosene the Russian internet and set it aflame. He could jam the BBC’s revived shortwave service into Russia. He could try to ban VPNs, but not even China has done that. He could upgrade the monitoring of internet traffic. Or he could expand the “spot checks” of protesters’ smartphones, a tactic used at anti-war rallies in Moscow, in his search for dissidents. He could even hunt down and incarcerate Russians who voice their opposition to the war, sotto voce, in the comments sections of restaurant websites.
Putin might think he can rehang the iron curtain to prevent anything Western from landing in Russia. The propagandists will always have the edge with people who deliberately avoid exposure to accurate news. But technology, geography and recent history will hinder such a resurrection. The most honest witnesses to war, as America learned with Vietnam, are veterans. Is Putin prepared to cut off the tongues of the conscripts he fed to the Ukraine war when they come home to tell their story? Putin might win a few propaganda skirmishes with his people, but he won’t win the war.
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