Despite his defeats, Putin still shapes our perceptions. Let’s fight it at its own game | Peter Pomerantsev
Jukrainians have (again) done what no one thought they could. They (again) defeated supposedly mighty Russia on the battlefield, exposed the underlying incompetence and moral rot of the Putin system. It only took them six days to take it all back pieces of territory in northeastern Ukraine that it took Russia six months to conquer. Russia’s military, political and propaganda elites blame each other: the flaws that usually rumble beneath the surface are now visible to all. Putin looks shaken.
Now is the time for us to act as well. Not just by increase aid to Ukraine on the battlefield (which is essential), but also by advancing on the other fronts of this conflict: energy, information, finance and diplomacy.
Whether we want it or not, Putin attacks us. It’s not just Ukraine’s war. We can feel Putin’s weapons turning against us every day. Putin uses energy blackmail to raise the cost of living, trying to bankrupt our businesses and harm the most vulnerable sections of society. He used the threat to block Ukrainian grain exports as a way to threaten the world’s poor with starvation.
Its use of cyber attacks, assassinations, corruption and disinformation campaigns is well documented. Last week, new US intelligence dumps revealed he had spent $300 million financing of political movements in the west, largely on the far right. Every village that the Ukrainian army liberates in eastern Ukraine is also a victory against the forces of neo-fascism in what used to be called the west.
He does this because he wants a new world where he and others like him can act with impunity. Welcome to conflict in a time of globalization gone wrongwhere intense integration has not meant everyone coming together in a global village of perpetual peace, but a new world where interdependence has meant new opportunities for people like Putin to undermine others.
But its opportunities are also its vulnerabilities.
Firstly, he’s too dependent on energy and has bet that Europe in particular will always be forced to kiss his shiny boots as they beg for petrol. He was encouraged by an array of Western, largely German, political and business elites who continued to entrench energy dependence even after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and harassed sexual minorities, critics and activists at home. There was always the feeling that Russia was inevitable, an unshakable force to which one had to succumb. Instead, we should see him for what he is – an abusive neighbor on whom all dependence must be cut. People need to be reassured that their governments can take care of them and that the sacrifices made by all have a reward – real freedom and sovereignty. We do not make sacrifices “for Ukraine” – we break with our Russian energy dependency because we need real energy security.
But the economic interests that have always advocated doing business with Russia will begin to make their voices heard as the economic costs mount. There is already a whole class of companies that see sanctions and boycotts against Russia as a game: they sell goods to Turkey and other intermediary countries, for example, who then resell them to Russia. There is little danger or reputational costs involved. This must change. The corrupt or just plain shady business and political elites who establish business ties with Russia must be held accountable. These range from dodgy lawyers who shuffle around opaque shell companies, to business lobbies and political party leaders who have worked to entrench dependence on Russia.
We need an uncompromising civic movement that exposes their accountability. For inspiration, think about how Greenpeace worked with academics and journalists to uncover how the fossil fuel industry manipulated politics and public discourse, then launched fearless campaigns to make fuel companies’ lives fossils so hellish that they had to change their ways. This can include both legal pressure, but also reputational costs. We need something similar for Putin’s enablers (and other dictatorial regimes). Money launderers, sanction breakers, and morally bankrupt corporations and politicians need to know that their business will come at a high cost, both in court and in the court of public opinion. Currently, impunity reigns.
The penalties themselves can be tightened. Financial experts talk about the need for more secondary sanctions against companies that do business with Russia; Gazprom Bank remains sanction-free (to facilitate energy transactions). According to the Kyiv School of Economics, 1,144 foreign companies are still operating in Russia.
But aside from closing such loopholes, what is consistently missing from the sanctions package is the communication element. It’s bizarre: imagine launching economic reforms without accompanying them with a communication effort. We gave Putin carte blanche to shape the perception of sanctions himself. And it’s a battle of perception.
The Ukrainians are not so careless. They know that their military actions must be accompanied by information campaigns and cyber campaigns. They try many innovative ones – from hacking Russian TV to airing Zelenskiy’s speeches to social media campaigns on popular Russian hacker video sites hammering the truth about Russian war crimes and the dark future of Russian soldiers in Ukraine.
As the sanctions hit, Putin will continue to try to pamper his middle classes in the big cities, to protect them from the consequences of war, which is simply meant to be a jaw-dropping TV show. Many parts of society still believe that the war will explode, that things will return to “normal”, that the West will give in, that there is no alternative to Putin who can still guarantee the security and stability.
Although Kremlin propaganda celebrates slogans that deceive isolationism (“what good is the world if there is no place for Russia” is a frequently repeated slogan), the Kremlin knows that the Russians do not want not really be isolated: thus the non-stop messages on television about how Western actors of Tucker-Carlson to Viktor Orbán supports Russia and new laws that make piracy of Western entertainment content legal. As long as the middle classes can still go on vacation to Europe, they can still feel that Putin is off the hook.
We need communication campaigns that, at the very least, show that the sanctions are long-term and that there is no ‘return to normal’. Russia has broken all the values that guarantee European peace and must pay the consequences. We don’t need to be liked by Russians; it’s not about convincing people, it’s about showing that there are limits and that these limits are not negotiable. In a famous essay on how to deal with children’s temper tantrums, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes that adults need to understand that they will be hated by children when they set limits on this behavior; they must learn to be the point of frustration.
Putin wants to destroy the underlying values that guarantee a Europe of rights and peace. We need to show that this was an immensely stupid idea and get the Russians to ask the question: was it worth it? Does their leadership know what they are doing?
The example of South Africa shows that people, even in the most morally bankrupt societies, eventually grow tired of regimes that lead them to isolationism. Kremlin insider polls (which are widely leaked in academic circles) show the same thing; when Russians feel shunned by the world because of a difference in values, identification with the state diminishes. As the sanctions bite down, there will be many more information campaigns to be waged. The Kremlin will try to cover up how privileged insiders have a much easier life than ordinary people; attempt to sweep under the rug how some regions will sponsor others even more than they currently do; will avoid talking about how Russia is becoming even more dependent on China (an unpopular policy in Russia). All of these issues need to be brought to light for the sanctions policy to have an adequate impact.
But who owns this work? I’ve used the term “we” throughout this article, but who is “we”? During World War II and the Cold War, there were institutions that could wage what used to be called “political warfare.” In a time of dark interdependence, we will need institutions that can do this again. But there is a huge change from these grim conflicts. Some of the best campaigns these days come from civic space. If during the Cold War the American information agency organized public information campaigns about the Soviet Union, today it may be Lithuanian volunteers who call Russian families and try to inform them of what actually happens during the war in Ukraine. Governments are an inescapable actor, but it is civic actors who can initiate the targeted anti-corruption campaigns and information campaigns I mentioned, and then, by proving success, train lazy governments.
Ukrainians are fighting the Russian invasion as one family – all parts of society coming together for one purpose. We should too.
Peter Pomerantsev is the author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia
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