Vladimir Putin is desperate
The philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote about the consequences of living an empty life devoid of any morality. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he wrote. “From the desperate city you go into the desperate country and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.” Thoreau might have had Russian President Vladimir Putin in mind.
Desperation takes many forms in dictators. When despots get truly unhinged, they crush information, as Putin did last week with his draconian censorship laws and press restrictions, including blocking Facebook and foreign news outlets. His actions led the steadfast British Broadcasting Corporation to shutter its operations in Russia amid a historic crackdown on information.
Day by day, information sources in Russia have closed down as live broadcasts from Ukraine continue with heartbreaking images and news. We are bombarded with information from the battlefield, but Putin is trying to close hearts and minds inside his country.
Some news outlets inside Russia have tried to continue, but repression is hard.
Independent radio in Russia has been silenced. The crackdown is so forceful that Russia’s Novaya Gazeta, a major independent newspaper, announced it would no longer cover news of the war in Ukraine. This is the same newspaper whose editor, Dmitry Muratov, shared a Nobel Peace Prize.
Information is the oxygen of life. It brings light to the darkest of corners. Putin has tried to quash information, but it tends to seep out and stream itself into human awareness. No crackdown will fully succeed in the modern world because propaganda has limitations.
As scholar Moisés Naím has written, “The explosion of information and media online has created opportunities for deception, manipulation and control that simply didn’t exist as recently as a decade ago. Declining trust in the traditional institutions that once served as gatekeepers to the public sphere has vastly lowered the reputational costs of bald-faced lying. And the globalization of polarization has created new opportunities for alliances with leaders who are using similar wedge issues in other countries. The result is a crisis in the sustainability of democratic government on a scale not seen since the rise of fascists across Europe in the 1930s.”
For decades, American nongovernmental organizations such as Internews have trained independent journalists in Russia in radio, television, print and online journalism. We should continue to train reporters even as this crackdown takes place. We need journalists now more than ever to cover stories and bring news of even the darkest kind.
Make no mistake. Russians know what is happening to Ukraine. Russians have learned about this outrageous assault on the life and people of Ukraine from their phones despite an ongoing propaganda campaign by Putin to build a rationale for stealing a country. Despite 22 years of being fed false information, Russians have learned about the world. They have traveled, studied, worked and lived in an information age. We should not underestimate their knowledge or their understanding of propaganda.
Many say that Putin’s propaganda is not new. But in the last few months, Putin has moved from propaganda to a new form of public diplomacy — obfuscation. He has sought to confuse the world with conflicting statements about war and peace. He has sought to use the fog of war as a fog machine, hoping to cloud hearts and minds.
But cutting off information has short-term benefits and long-term harm. Ultimately, people want to know what is happening around them, and with trust in public institutions low, even in Russia, especially among young people, information will travel to individuals. Those brave Russians who took to the streets and were swept off the streets by police will be followed by more and more courageous souls for whom freedom of information matter.
Russian tanks will keep advancing, but so will truth. It always marches on and triumphs because it seeks neither friends nor enemies. Truth exists for truth’s sake.
At the end of Thoreau’s quote from “Walden,” he writes that “a characteristic of wisdom” is “not to do desperate things.” Putin is neither wise nor learned. The emptiness of his soul is all that is left, and history will remember him for his reckless desperation.
Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.
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