It’s time to open a new front against Putin in Russia
In May, President Biden spoke to the Russian people about the war in Ukraine. “You are not our enemy,” he told them. This is a powerful truth that should be followed by an aggressive program to separate the Russian people from their corrupt, despotic and reckless overlord.
It is time for the United States to reach out directly to Russian citizens. For two decades Vladimir Putin has waged an information war of lies and deception among his own people and against liberal democracy everywhere. We must launch a counter-offensive, based on truth, facts and democratic values.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden was one of Voice of America’s strongest supporters. He kept his budget and kept it from being taken over by the State Department. In 2002, he reminded the Senate that “no matter how strong our military, we cannot achieve all of our foreign policy goals if we lose the war of ideas…we must use our most powerful tools: truth, credibility and openness [and] reaching out to people in their own language…”
The messages addressed to Soviet citizens by the American information agency played an important role in the victory of the West in the Cold War. But in 1999 Congress disbanded the Agency, and since then the United States has had no effective voice to defend freedom and the rule of law in countries with despotic governments, including Russia. .
Ironically, three months after the USIA disappeared, Vladimir Putin became President of Russia. From his early proclamation that the collapse of Soviet Communism was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” to his venomous anti-American speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, to his capture of part of Georgia in 2008, of all of Crimea in 2014 and its invasion of Ukraine this year. Putin pursued the recreation of the Soviet empire through covert and overt aggression.
The brutal invasion of Ukraine has finally awakened the West. We now understand that our security and our values are at stake in Ukraine and we have two goals there: (1) save Ukraine’s independence and freedom and (2) defeat Putin. This requires more than more military and economic aid to Ukraine. This necessitates an information counteroffensive against Putin inside Russia that includes the policy gone since 1999, advocacy.
The news broadcast by the Voice of America is vitally important, but the news is not advocacy. Advocacy brings together truth and facts to influence thought and behavior. Advocacy in Russia to its people would describe Putin’s crimes, corruption and mismanagement. Advocacy will persuade the Russian people that they deserve peace, not war; they deserve grandchildren, not sons tucking into coffins; they deserve honest government, not kleptocracy; they deserve to live as well as Westerners, not as increasingly impoverished subjects of Putin. And advocacy will inspire the Russian people to fight for all they deserve.
We can reach the Russian people directly using the multitude of popular social media sites and messaging services already there. Over 35 million Russians now use the encrypted Telegram app. Young Russians, in particular, use the Internet to get news and information from outside Russia, and it is this demographic that we need to reach.
Putin’s censorship agency Roskomnadzor has blocked access to some sites such as Facebook, but Russians still access these sites using virtual private networks (VPS). Sales of VPN services have exploded in recent months.
Our messages to the Russian people reflect and defend their interests and encourage them once again to have the confidence to demand freedom and a better life. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent video message to Russians is an example of creative advocacy based on truth and facts. It went viral all over Russia. The content and variety of messages are limited only by our creativity. But the medium must be advocacy and the message must be that freedom is good and Putin is bad.
To open up this new front against Putin inside Russia, President Biden should revive in a modern form the advocacy functions once performed by the USIA. Production can be assigned to the department with the most talent in creative communication, but it is essential that the project enjoys the personal interest and enthusiastic support of the president. He could appoint a director of Freedom Advocacy who would report directly to the National Security Council with no bureaucracy in between.
The Russian people are not our enemy, as President Biden said. In fact, they may be our most effective allies against Putin. We must reach out to them now, because our core values and our national security demand it.
Joe Lieberman represented Connecticut in the US Senate from 1989 to 2013 and is the founding co-chairman of No Labels. Gordon Humphrey represented New Hampshire in the United States Senate from 1979 to 1990