A new report from the Tony Blair Institute calls for the West to adopt a new strategy to break Vladimir Putin’s “digital Iron Curtain” which shields the Russian people from outside media, and accurate information about what is happening in the war in Ukraine.
The report - Communicating with the Russian People: How to Break Through Putin’s Digital Iron Curtain - says that this blackout is “a weapon of war” and will cause further bloodshed and delay any peace settlement by turning off the most effective pressure valve on Putin: the perception of his own citizens.
In a contribution to the report, former Number Ten Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell said:
“The challenge of how to get truthful information to the Russian people is key to ending the war in Ukraine peacefully. Only they can put effective pressure on Putin. This paper looks at imaginative ideas for how that can be done.”
TBI Executive Director Ryan Wain, one of the report’s authors, said:
“Breaking through Putin’s new Iron Curtain is a precondition for ending the war in Ukraine. Russian citizens are fundamentally good people and they must be exposed to the atrocities being committed in their name. By combining trusted messengers with the right messages and latest technology, a concerted communication effort would show that Putin is damaging Russia today - the country’s economy and its living standards – and its future too.
“While we welcome the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent messages directly appealing to the Russian people, efforts like this must fit within a broader, coherent strategy that speaks to all citizens – not just those who use the internet. Of course, this approach must also sit alongside ongoing support for Ukrainians fighting Russia on the ground, economic sanctions and a reduction in Western reliance on Russian oil and gas.
“Our short-term priority must be to build Russian support for a negotiated end to the conflict in Ukraine. Longer term, it should be about helping empower those in Russia, who are open to closer relations with the West, to make sure this never happens again.”
The report recommends ways through the iron curtain, including using virtual private networks (VPNs) and the dark web to enable direct communications with the Russian people and the sharing of clear and credible information on the war through social media and other content. This would contain compelling alternatives to Kremlin narratives from authentic message-carriers, such as the growing Russian diaspora and Ukrainians themselves.
The report draws on extensive polling to provide an insight into the perspective of Russian people on the war, noting:
Public opinion appears to remain strongly in favour of Putin.
Although the Russian people are largely supportive of their country and their leader, they are more sceptical of how the government as a whole handles the state.
The majority of Russians see the West as the aggressor in the current conflict.
Younger people are the primary anti-Putin demographic and the main users of social media.
There is a strong sense of unity among Russians that they and Ukrainians are “one people”, even if the majority of Ukrainians themselves don’t feel the same.
The report recommends that the West should:
Create a Digital Communications Alliance: Establishing a new global body, independent of any nation states or governments, to convene cyber- and communications expertise and provide resources would facilitate the delivery of this unprecedented communications effort.
Craft a compelling narrative: based on bespoke polling to work out the right messages to share with the Russian population, recognising that different sections of the population will respond best to different messaging strategies.
Carefully select message-carriers: Information should be conveyed by a diverse pool of convincing message-carriers to successfully reach all segments of the Russian population.
Identify the right mediums: Monitoring which social-media channels remain open, understanding how they work operationally and exploring creative means of communication will be key to creating a sustained messaging campaign.
Be clear on responsibility: Any communications strategy should be built on absolute clarity about its target: tackling misinformation directed by the Kremlin. It requires being clear and consistent with the Russian public on the author of their suffering – Putin – and that he is equally the agent to end that suffering.
Deliver a message of hope: While the campaign must be clear-eyed in detailing what is happening in Ukraine and, as a result, in Russia, it must also set out a clear message of hope: the West is not predestined to poor relations with Russia, nor is it a natural enemy. The West wants to work more closely, collaboratively and effectively with Russia, but the barrier is the Kremlin. The messaging should outline the steps that Russia could take to de-escalate and end the war in Ukraine while explaining what this will mean for a step-by-step removal of sanctions.