As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, it’s becoming increasingly clear that any military gains Russia makes will be tremendously offset by a different kind of catastrophe: an inability by the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin to create any kind of cohesive narrative to assuage the Russian people, let alone the global community. No matter what happens, Russia has already lost the messaging war.
It’s impossible to say exactly what global repercussions this crisis will have. The developments change by the hour, but already the immediate effects have been brutal. Europe is experiencing its greatest refugee crisis since World War II, oil prices have skyrocketed and the world’s financial markets have been battered. For Russia, the financial fallout has been severe. Stiff sanctions levied by the U.S. and EU have crippled Russia’s economy. Russia’s oligarchs have lost their savings, their yachts and their luxury condos abroad. Companies like Ikea, H&M, Nike, Dell and Apple have pulled out of Russia, a bad development for a country so dependent on imported goods. Airbnb, BP, ExxonMobil, Boeing, Ford and others have halted Russian operations. Amex, Visa and MasterCard have suspended all transactions. The U.S. office of Russian-propaganda TV network RT was shuttered after being dropped by DirecTV. Russia’s largest search engine, Yandex, is on the verge of collapse. CNN, the BBC and Canadian Broadcasting Corp ceased their Russia broadcasts. The ruble has been decimated. The International Olympic Committee has barred Russia from participating in sporting events. The entire world now considers Russia a pariah. Mission accomplished?
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One gets the feeling Putin didn’t plan this one too well. As far as his military objectives are concerned, a tougher-than-expected resistance from Ukrainian troops and Russia’s manifold military bumbles—everything from low soldier morale to fuel shortages to nearly setting fire to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant—suggest that maybe Russia has gotten in over its head. Still, Putin insists the invasion is going “strictly in accordance to the plan and the schedule,” and that “all objectives that were set are being resolved or achieved successfully.” Whatever you say, Vlad.
Then there’s the messaging. Putin’s justifications for the “special military operation”— that Ukraine belongs to Russia (not true), or that it’s conducting a “denazification” of the country—don’t carry weight. Everyone knows the autocratic Russian leader wants to reestablish the USSR and he’s cagey about NATO’s eastern advances into former Soviet-bloc territory. The wheels seem to be coming off Russia’s propaganda machine, so it’s no surprise that the Kremlin has resorted to cracking down on dissent at home. As it turns out, public opinion of the invasion in Russia isn’t as strong as the Kremlin had hoped, with protests breaking out in many parts of the country. The Russian government has now warned that broadcasting “fake news” about the war—which includes calling it a “war”—is punishable by years-long prison sentences. The Kremlin has muzzled what remained of its free press, dismantling the last of Russia’s independent radio and TV stations. Russia has even blocked its citizens’ access to Facebook, joining the ranks of China and North Korea. Nobel-winning Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov said that “everything that’s not propaganda is being eliminated.”
Putin’s strategy for controlling the message is to control the people who receive it. That’s not how it works. Putin lives with a Jay Gatsby-like affinity for the past. Total censorship is impossible in an interconnected world; you can’t put the lid back on that genie’s bottle. The USSR isn’t coming back. This isn’t the 1980s.
Writing for the New York Times on March 3, opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo suggested several theories regarding why Russia’s propaganda efforts have fallen so flat this time. “Perhaps the most obvious is that the invasion is just too ugly a pig to pretty up—an act so baldly unjustified that no amount of propaganda could set it right,” Manjoo said. “But we’re seeing something else, too: that our fear of Russian domination over digital discourse may have always been a little overblown.”
So, who’s left in Putin’s corner? There’s always Donald Trump, who called Putin a “genius” for “just walking right in” to Ukraine. The former President later said Russia wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine if he was still in office. He then attempted to take credit for the military aid he gave Ukraine’s resistance. Trump, if you’ll remember, threatened to halt U.S. military aid to Ukraine in 2019 lest Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky investigate alleged acts of corruption by Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
Then there’s Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who said “Democrats in Washington have told you it’s your patriotic duty to hate Vladimir Putin.” Carlson’s commentary has run so close to Kremlin propaganda in recent weeks that his talking points have been rebroadcast on Russian state TV. As reported by the Washington Post, it appears the Kremlin's latest step is to take a page from the Fox playbook. “The West isn’t simply trying to close off Russia behind a new iron curtain. This is about an attempt to ruin our government,” said Russian Foreign Intelligence Director Sergei Naryshkin, “to ‘cancel’ it, as they now say in ‘tolerant’ liberal-fascist circles.” Sound familiar?