To defend Ukraine, fortify our public diplomacy
As the world waits to see Vladimir Putin’s end game for Ukraine, anxious talk has centered on troops, tanks and ships — the hard assets we can all count and compare. It has also focused on economic sanctions. An impressive array of banking, institutional and personal sanctions have been rolled out with NATO and EU allies and more are on the table. Embattled and brave Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has produced an extraordinary video in Russian for the Russian people, making clear they are not the target. President Biden and other leaders have echoed this.
But our public diplomacy tools are more limited and antiquated than they should be. Since the Cold War, U.S. broadcasters like the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have fortified our interests by telling our story to audiences abroad — and especially to audiences who can’t trust their own governments to tell it straight. As Russia endeavors to sell its people on a grinding war, we need to invest in our own narrative infrastructure to get Putin’s public the truth.
Make no mistake: An invasion will cost Russia — and ordinary Russians — dearly. This is no sequel to the Crimea movie, a snatch-and-grab operation accomplished with few casualties. By all accounts, as significant as Russia’s traditional military advantage may be, it is facing a brutal insurgency. And the Russian economy, already frail, will be hammered by the sanctions barring technology imports and banking transactions. As tight as Putin’s antidemocratic grip may be, citizens don’t stay quiet when their bank accounts bottom out, or when their sons and daughters start coming home in body bags. Rebellions have been ignited by less, as Russians watching nearby Kazakhstan — where it took ruthless Russia-backed violence to prevent protests from toppling the regime — surely know.
For now, Russia is shoring up against the risk of public backlash with a barrage of misinformation (some of which is communicated by Russian television or on our tech platforms), painting Ukrainians as Nazis with genocidal ambitions. But we have the tools to counter the noise, just as Voice of America brought Russians the truth of the Chernobyl disaster when state media would have preferred to stay silent about the jeopardy the Soviet people faced.
Already — as they have for decades — U.S. and Western media play a critical role in getting real news to audiences starved of it. They too can use TikTok, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. New York Times Columnist Tom Friedman calls this “world war wired.” The U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees stations like Radio Free Europe and the Cuba-facing Radio Martí, claims 350 million weekly listeners, viewers, and readers in its most recent annual report. In Russia’s orbit in particular, the networks have won significant public trust by fact-checking state propaganda and airing the kinds of stories the regime usually suppresses, whether on pro-democracy protests or the use of slave labor in Russian prisons. And these journalists have continued that critical work despite constant threats to their life and liberty.
But we’ve failed in important respects to make the investments — in money and attention — that a truly robust infrastructure for public diplomacy requires. USAGM still bears the scars of former President Trump’s efforts to shrink and politicize the agency, an assault that played into the hands of regimes that (like Russia) have tried for years to tar these outlets as “foreign agents” and propagandists. Despite a flash of congressional interest in structural reform, lawmakers have yet to make any serious headway, even in light of a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that underlined the need for new thinking.
What to do? In the short term, surge funding to the outlets on the frontlines of the information war —first and foremost Radio Free Europe — as proposals like the Defending Ukraine Sovereignty Act of 2022 would. The Russian people need to understand the risks their leadership is running, and they need to understand them now. But to put public diplomacy on a sure and sustainable footing, we need to repair the deeper damage done over the last few years. That means getting USAGM permanent, capable and apolitical leadership as soon as possible. And it means strengthening the protections for editorial independence that are so critical to ensuring the networks’ success abroad — to distinguishing what we have to offer from local misinformation.
Since its earliest broadcasts countering Nazi propaganda, the Voice of America has promised listeners that whether the news was good or bad, we would tell them the truth. The Russian people badly needs to hear those difficult truths now. We should invest in our ability to tell them.
Jane Harman is distinguished fellow and president emerita of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She served nine terms in Congress as a Democratic representative from California and was ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee. Her book, “Insanity Defense: Why Our Failure to Confront Hard National Security Problems Makes Us Less Safe,” was released in May by St. Martin’s Press.