But information technology has taken a prominent place in Russia, making it difficult for the state to erase messages it disdains, and the country’s young citizens have been exposed to too many Western experiences through travel and the media to swallow all the government propaganda again. Whether he knows it or not, Putin looks set to lose a long propaganda war at home.
Putin mistakenly thinks it’s 1955 and suppressing the media can stifle inconvenient information. Although he may be spouting propaganda from the Kremlin, promising that he alone can save Russia from an encroaching NATO and the decadent West, he is not the only authority. For almost three decades now, curious Russians have consumed the international press and learned how manipulative the official media can be. Many have also traveled to the West and attended universities abroad, giving them the critical perspective that might have been denied to their parents. The Internet has provided a window to the world through which Russians can judge their own country. Russia has by no means become a western country, but compared to the days before the fall of the wall, it has become increasingly globalized, both economically and culturally. Putin may be able to suspend this integration, but can he reverse it? Doubtful.
So far, Putin has sold the war in Ukraine to Russian citizens through state propaganda and official statements. But how much can his pitch – I wage war to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine and only bomb 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 to tell the truth? For them, it will land as solidly as the idea that the United States was right to launch an invasion of Quebec because English speakers need protection from rampaging Quebecers. Rumors spread by the media are easier to stop than rumors spread by family and friends.
Even though Putin now controls Russian media, he can’t stop curious Russians from using VPN accounts to break the official news and social media blockade on the internet. According to a source, demand for VPNs in Russia has increased significantly since the media crackdown, as have downloads of Telegram and Signal, two encrypted messaging apps. A Russian with a computer and an Internet connection can be as knowledgeable about the war as any Westerner if he ignores Putin’s no-watch order. That could change, of course. The man who would bomb a children’s hospital is capable of anything. Putin has police state powers that he could deploy. He could kerosene the Russian internet and set it on fire. It could jam the revived BBC shortwave service in Russia. He might try to ban VPNs, but even China hasn’t. It could improve Internet traffic monitoring. Or he could expand “spot checks” of protesters’ smartphones, a tactic used at anti-war rallies in Moscow, in its search for dissidents. It could even hunt down and incarcerate Russians who voice their opposition to the war, sotto voce, in the comment sections of restaurant websites.
Putin might think he can hang up the Iron Curtain to prevent any Westerners from landing in Russia. Propagandists will always have the advantage over people who deliberately avoid being exposed to accurate information. 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 ready to cut out the tongues of conscripts he fed for the Ukrainian war when they return home to tell their story? Putin may win some propaganda skirmishes with his people, but he won’t win the war.
Send your best restaurant reviews to [email protected]. My email alerts had a subscription to Soviet life when he is young. My Twitter FeedThe great aunt of was Axis Sally. My RSS feed prompts you to block it.