It’s time to open a new front against Putin inside Russia

During May, President Biden spoke to the Russian people about the war in Ukraine. “You are not our enemy,” he told them. This is a powerful truth which should be followed by an aggressive program to separate the Russian people from their corrupt, despotic, reckless overlord.

It’s time the U.S. reached out directly to the citizens of Russia. For two decades, Vladimir Putin has waged an information war of lies and deceit among his own people and against liberal democracy everywhere. We must launch a counter-offensive, based on truth, fact, and democratic values.

As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden was one of the strongest supporters of the Voice of America. He guarded its budget and prevented it from being taken over by the State Department. In 2002, he reminded the Senate, that “No matter how powerful our military, we will not be able to achieve all our foreign policy objectives if we lose the war of ideas… we must use our most powerful tools: Truth, creditability, and openness [and] reach out to people in their own language…”

Messaging of Soviet citizens by the U.S. Information Agency played an important part in the West’s victory in the Cold War. But in 1999, Congress disestablished the Agency, and since then the U.S. has been without an effective voice in advocating for freedom and the rule of law in countries ruled by despotic governments, including Russia.

Ironically, three months after the demise of the USIA, Vladimir Putin became president of Russia. From his early proclamation that the collapse of Soviet Communism was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” to his venomously anti-U.S. speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, to his seizure of part of Georgia in 2008, all of Crimea in 2014 and his invasion of Ukraine this year. Putin has pursued the re-creation of the Soviet empire by covert and overt aggression.

The brutal invasion of Ukraine has finally awakened the West. We now understand that our security and values are on the line in Ukraine and we have two objectives there: (1) to save Ukraine’s independence and freedom and (2) to defeat Putin. This requires more than more military and economic assistance to Ukraine. It requires an information counter-offensive against Putin inside Russia that includes the policy missing since 1999, advocacy.

News delivered by the Voice of America is vitally important, but news is not advocacy.  Advocacy marshals truth and fact to influence thinking and behavior. Advocacy in Russia to its people would describe Putin’s crimes, his corruption, and his mismanagement. Advocacy will persuade the Russian people they deserve peace, not war; they deserve grandchildren, not sons coming home in coffins; they deserve honest government, not kleptocracy; they deserve to live as well as Westerners, not as increasingly impoverished subjects of Putin. And advocacy will inspire the Russian people to fight for all that they deserve.

We can reach the Russian people directly using the multitude of popular social media sites and messaging services already there. More than 35 million Russians now use the encrypted app, Telegram. Younger Russians especially, are using the internet for news and information from outside of Russia, and this is the demographic we need to reach.

Putin’s censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, has blocked access to some sites such as Facebook, but Russians still reach those sites using Virtual Private Networks (VPSs). Sale of VPN services have soared in recent months. 

Our messages to the Russian people reflect and defend their interests and encourage them once again to have the confidence to demand freedom and a better life. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent video message to Russians is an example of creative advocacy based in truth and fact. It went viral all over Russia. Content and variety of messaging is limited only by our creativity. But the medium must be advocacy and the message must be that freedom is good and Putin is bad.

To open this new front against Putin inside Russia, President Biden should revive in modern form the advocacy functions once carried out by the USIA. Production can be assigned to whichever department has the most talent in creative communications, but it’s critical the project have the personal interest and enthusiastic support of the president. He could appoint a Director of Freedom Advocacy who would report directly to the National Security Council without bureaucracy in between.

The Russian people are not our enemy, as President Biden said. In fact, they can be our most effective allies against Putin. We need to reach out to them now because our fundamental values and our national security require it.

Joe Lieberman represented Connecticut in the U.S. Senate, 1989-2013, and is founding co-chair of No Labels. Gordon Humphrey represented New Hampshire in the U.S. Senate from 1979-1990