20 years under Putin: a timeline

Since the beginning of 2014, the Kremlin’s campaign to put pressure on the country’s remaining independent media has picked up steam. The cancellation of the last relatively independent program on the Ren-TV channel, Week with Marianna Maksimovskaya, is the most recent example of this ongoing campaign. According to writer Alexander Podrabinek, the only way to oppose the Kremlin’s propaganda is by increasing access to alternative media and creating international TV channels that broadcast in the Russian language.


According to Levada Center, about 90 percent of Russians receive information from television networks.


“Information War”: The New Century’s Greatest Achievement

Throughout history, mankind has always been involved in wars—and in this sense, as in many others, people have always been naturally creative: in the twentieth century, they invented a “cold war,” and in the twenty-first century, an “information war.” Talk about an “information war” in Russia began in the last year, when this strategy became a necessary element of the Russian aggression toward Ukraine. In a relatively short time, the mass and purposeful state propaganda machine managed to create and instill an image of Ukraine as Russia’s archenemy in the minds of much of Russian society.

Mass propaganda is obviously not a new phenomenon. It was an integral part of the regimes in Nazi Germany and in Communist Russia. It is still a key element of the North Korean despotic regime. However, in all the aforementioned cases, propaganda served—or serves—as the foundation of the tyrannical regime. Had this rug been pulled from under the government, the regime would have collapsed.

In today’s Russia, propaganda is used in a targeted manner in order to achieve particular political goals. Such propaganda is more similar to a heavy weapon that is used during war than it is to the foundation upon which the regime is based. Incidentally, this propaganda is a weapon of mass destruction. From a pragmatic point of view, it is much more advantageous to control people’s minds than to poison them with gas or kill them with an atomic bomb. Besides, the government can use this weapon continuously.


Democracies Do Not Have Such a Weapon

Compared to democracies, dictatorships have the advantage of being able to mobilize considerable forces rapidly in order to achieve certain objectives. The other side of this coin, however, is their inability to obtain resources continuously. Fortunately, in the long term, dictatorships lose out to democracies.

However, we do not live simply as part of a chapter in history. We have only today. And what we see today is the mass dumbing-down of the Russian population by anti-Ukrainian propaganda. More than 80 percent of Russian citizens watch news and political analysis on TV. Almost all TV channels are either directly or indirectly controlled by the federal government.

The Internet offers a different picture. People can find reliable information on the Internet as well as scrupulous analysis and keen discussion of topical issues. Although as of early 2014, 59 percent of the Russian population had continuous access to the Internet, people still prefer to get their news on TV. This preference represents a nationwide inertia and a bad habit that is hard to break.

Instead of restricting the freedom of speech, governments should expand it. Instead of imposing bans, people should fight. The creation of international TV broadcasting in the Russian language would thus neutralize the destructive influence of the Kremlin propaganda.

However, as use of the Internet increases, the number of people who will prefer to get reliable information from the Web will increase as well. This natural tendency causes the government significant concern, and consequently, the regime has taken steps directed at restricting free speech on the Internet. Many laws and bylaws regulating the freedom of expression and information have recently been adopted. The everyday practice of restricting free speech not only is based upon these laws and acts but also is enforced outside of legal boundaries.

For example, in spring 2014, users were blocked from accessing the online publications grani.ru and ej.ru upon the demand of the General Prosecutor’s Office in accordance with a recently passed law. Prosecutors, however, did not give any specific reasons for the repressive measures that were taken against these websites. The Russian censorship body, the Federal Supervision Agency for Information Technologies and Communications (Roskomnadzor), recently issued a warning to the Russian bureau of the BBC and even threatened to fully block Russian users’ access to the BBC’s website because of its posting of an interview with Novosibirsk artist Artyom Loskutov, whom the Russian government considers to be a supporter of the separatist movement. On August 1, the last relatively independent analytic program on federal TV, Week with Marianna Maksimovskaya was cancelled. Also, in summer 2014, Igor Sechin, the eminence grise of Russian politics, won a lawsuit against Forbes’ Russian editorial office. The court ordered the magazine to retract its statements that Sechin is the highest-paid executive in Russia and that he had taken a loan from Gazprombank.

In today’s Russia, a full-scale attack on the remaining independent media outlets is under way. The government is trying to deprive people of information that undermines the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts.


The Necessity of an Appropriate Response

Unlike dictatorships, democratic countries cannot subordinate the media to the government’s political objectives. Otherwise, these countries could not be called democratic. However, democracies can use their advantages—their economic superiority, intellectual resources, and a high level of individual commitment to protecting democratic values—in providing an appropriate response to the Russian government’s actions.

The necessity for counterpropaganda measures has not only recently become obvious. Under the Soviet regime, many Western radio stations broadcast in the USSR and thus remedied the information shortage in the country. The Soviet government tried to cut off Western broadcasts because it realized the threat that free speech was posing to the Communist regime. What can be more dangerous for propaganda than reliable information?

Those who are deeply concerned by the scale of the Kremlin’s “propaganda war” are now turning again to that approach. The former Soviet Baltic states are currently actively considering creating a Baltic TV channel based in Latvia that would broadcast in the Russian language. Ukraine is also mulling the idea of creating quality Russian-language media that could oppose the Russian government’s propaganda. Everyone understands the necessity of an appropriate response to the Kremlin’s propaganda attacks in order to both help Russian citizens separate the truth from the lies and reduce the influence of foreign propaganda on their own citizens.

Those countries that are not under Russia’s control anymore are currently implementing measures not quite appropriate for democracies, such as blocking Russian TV channels and thus restricting the freedom of speech. This path is tactically successful but strategically will not lead anywhere. By using such methods, these countries do no better than the Soviet Union.

Open opposition to the Kremlin’s propaganda is quite a different story. Instead of silencing others, individuals and groups should try to bring them round to their own point of view. Instead of restricting the freedom of speech, governments should expand it. Instead of imposing bans, people should fight. The creation of international TV broadcasting in the Russian language would thus neutralize the destructive influence of the Kremlin propaganda machine on both Russian citizens and Russian-speaking communities in other countries. This would help to bring Russia back to the democratic path—as well as help the world avoid another big war, the outlines of which are becoming clearer day by day.

Although this undertaking is rather costly, it has no reasonable alternative. And more importantly, this path is more civilized and cost-effective than a war. And there is no doubt that the Russian government’s aggressive propaganda will result in one.