The Bear Out There
Consider this: On July 17, 2014, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 aboard. Most of the world quickly recognized that Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine had brought down the plane. This conclusion was strongly supported by international media dispatches, declassified intelligence reports, and the separatists’ own social media posts claiming credit for the attack.
But at least one group of people heard a much different story. The audience of the Kremlin’s expanding media apparatus was treated to unsupported allegations and disinformation reminiscent of the extravagant untruths of Soviet-era Pravda. Russia Today (RT), the Kremlin’s flagship international media outlet, insinuated that the Ukrainians perpetrated the attack, supposedly in an effort to bring down a separate aircraft flying Russian President Vladimir Putin. At times claiming the Ukrainians shot the airliner down with a surface-to-air missile, other times arguing a Ukrainian jet fighter did the deed, the reporting followed the Russian state media’s party line on the Ukraine crisis – that is, at the behest of America, Ukraine has been taken over by bona fide fascists who are viciously persecuting the country’s Russian minority.
This shameless propaganda is crude but effective. Although the Ukraine crisis has severely damaged Putin’s international standing, his popularity has soared among Russians. It is no coincidence that, according to a Gallup poll, 99 percent of Russians who follow news about Ukraine consult Russian state media – and incredibly, they find that medium to be the most reliable source of information.
Moreover, the opportunity to consult other news sources is diminishing amid the Kremlin’s suppression of Russia’s few remaining independent media outlets. The Kremlin cracked down on independent Dozhd TV in January after it published a controversial poll, while a Kremlin stooge was appointed head of Ekho Moskvy radio. Even the Internet is subject to control via regulations on political bloggers, vague restrictions on political speech, and other laws that Reporters Without Borders have called “draconian.”
Russia Today, which broadcasts in several languages throughout the world and was the first news channel to get a billion views on YouTube, has ambitious expansion plans, particularly in France and Germany. The Kremlin views those nations as a potentially sympathetic market for its message, which revolves around anti-American conspiracy theories.
That is the central prism through which Putin explains the full range of his belligerent actions. The seizure of Crimea and other attacks against Ukraine, the attempts to strong-arm Russia’s neighbors into a Soviet-inspired Eurasian Customs Union, the aggression against Georgia – these are all part of Putin’s attempt to reassert Russian hegemony over the former Soviet Republics. Viewing the United States as a central obstacle to achieving this goal, Putin’s international propaganda machine denounces America as the principal enemy of world peace.
Putin may have swapped Soviet Communism for Russian chauvinism as Russia’s guiding ideology, but the bellicose, expansionist impulse and anti-American cant remain intact. We are now witnessing small-scale Russian aggressions such as restrictions on Western food imports, a crackdown on Russia-based McDonalds, and a ban on adoptions of Russian orphans by U.S. citizens, as well as large-scale campaigns such as Russia’s widespread international cyber-attacks.
Our attempt to accommodate Putin by scrapping our Central European missile defense plan has failed, and our diplomatic “reset” collapsed without being replaced by a new, coherent Russia policy. We now urgently need to reset the reset. Our new policy should immediately implement the following four measures:
1. Give more help to nations that are threatened by Russia. President Obama is supporting a stronger NATO presence in the Baltics and throughout Central and Eastern Europe, but he is doing close to nothing to help besieged Ukraine. These NATO efforts need to be accelerated, and the alliance should begin supplying Ukrainians with lethal weaponry to help fight off Russian encroachments. We should also isolate Russia diplomatically in every conceivable forum and confront Russia over its violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
2. Encourage the EU to free itself from its debilitating dependence on Russian energy, including, among other measures, by easing our own self-defeating restrictions on cultivating domestic energy sources, with the goal of becoming an energy supplier to Europe. Keep in mind that more than half of Russia’s state budget revenues derive from the sale of fossil fuels.
3. Resurrect the Central European missile defense shield scrapped by the Obama administration amid Russian objections.
4. Launch a sustained public communications campaign to ensure Russian speakers receive factual accounts of international events. Voice of America’s Russia service has a paltry $13 million budget, which is no match for the Kremlin’s estimated $300 million budget for RT alone. Voice of America and Radio Free Europe’s Cold War operations provide an effective blueprint for this sort of programming, which should include satellite, radio, and on-line dimensions. In light of the Putin regime’s campaign to control on-line news outlets, our effort should include a comprehensive strategy to promote Internet freedom.
President Obama recently admitted he has no strategy to counter the Islamic State terrorist army. The same rudderless leadership is evident in his Russia policy. Ukraine’s neighbors have warned NATO for weeks that a Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent – and these warnings were urgently conveyed to me on my recent trip to Eastern Europe – but the President made no meaningful moves to dissuade Putin. News that a thousand Russian troops – and according to the separatist rebels, up to four thousand troops – have entered Ukraine has not yet shocked the President into action. If presidential leadership is not forthcoming, Congress should seize the initiative and implement as much of the above agenda as it is constitutionally empowered to do.
Public diplomacy will be a vital element of a new Russia policy – we must stop ceding the battle of ideas to our opponents without putting up a fight. The Putin regime is authoritarian, but it is not immune to Russian public opinion, and that’s why it is trying so hard to suppress free speech. If Putin became convinced that his belligerence would lower his standing among his own people rather than elevate his popularity to record levels, he may think twice before undertaking further foreign adventures.
The damage already done to the Russian economy does not seem to affect Putin’s calculations. While he may be willing to sacrifice Russia’s own economy for his geo-political ambitions, we cannot afford to be a mere bystander as his destabilizing actions begin to threaten the economies of the Baltics and other NATO allies, possibly including our own.
Rep. Devin Nunes is a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.