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Putin’s War on Truth

Since his full-scale military attack on Ukraine began on February 24, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has cracked down severely on Russia’s information landscape. In addition to blocking access to almost all social media outlets and international news sites and criminalizing speech that does not conform to the Kremlin narrative, Putin has deliberately and forcefully spread propaganda about the war and the Ukrainian state and people.  By depriving the Russian people of access to credible information and controlling state-run media, Putin aims to drum up domestic support for his war of pure aggression on the peaceful, democratic citizens of Ukraine.

At a hearing on March 29, 2022, the U.S. Helsinki Commission heard from three expert witnesses who discussed Putin’s propaganda tools and narratives and offered recommendations for the United States to help ensure that the people of Russia are not cut off from the truth. Parliamentarians from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) also attended, including President of the OSCE PA Margareta Cederfelt (Sweden), and OSCE PA Vice Presidents Pascal Allizard (France) and Irene Charalambides (Cyprus).

Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), who presided over the hearing, compared Putin’s current propaganda and censorship campaigns and practices to the Stalin era and called out claims that Russia is trying to “denazify” Ukraine.

“Putin is building a new iron curtain and attempts to justify his indefensible war and continued attacks against the Ukrainian people,” he said.

Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) described recent and upcoming hearings, emphasizing the Helsinki Commission’s focus on the war in Ukraine.

He stated, “There’s no higher priority that we have right now than to deal with what Russia has done in violating every single principle of the Helsinki Final Act – every single principle.”

Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) praised the unified bipartisan stance that Republicans and Democrats have taken in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and highlighted the dire consequences ordinary Russians have faced in speaking out against Putin or the war.

“I am particularly grateful to the brave Russians… armed only with truth who have spoken out at great risk to their personal safety,” he said.

Senator Richard Blumenthal (CT) remarked on the intrinsic connection between the war in Ukraine and the war on truth in Russia, emphasizing that as the West fortifies Ukrainian freedom-fighters with arms and equipment, we must also fortify the efforts of truth-tellers.

Fatima Tlis, a journalist with Voice of America, described contemporary Russian propaganda as a combination of old techniques and new technology, comparing disinformation deployed by the Kremlin to a soap opera—intriguing and engaging to the audience. Tlis emphasized that full force propaganda has been deployed against the Russian people for decades and it will require an intelligent strategy to counteract it.

She recommended utilizing humor, referencing a satirical TV show that Putin shut down shortly after coming to power.

“He’s afraid of being laughed at because, you know, the great czar cannot be laughed at,” she observed. “He loses his power. People are not afraid of him anymore if they can laugh at him.”

Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, described the need for a coordinated, three-pronged response to Russian propaganda by government entities, tech companies, and media. While Russia is the most pressing challenge, Pomerantsev pointed out that China, Saudi Arabia, and other countries are also engaging in these practices.

He called for comprehensive action to combat the Russian disinformation complex and said, “Where they have troll farms, we will have online town halls.  Where they use disinformation to manipulate people, we will use communication to engage with them as citizens.”

Vladimir Kara-Murza, Russian journalist, author, and former host at Echo of Moscow Radio, spoke to the comprehensive program of disinformation that Putin has installed in Russia from his first days in office, and highlighted the difficulties independent media outlets in Russia face, including being forced to cease operations.

He also recalled the Soviet-era example of using radio broadcasts to combat a new information Iron Curtain. “Nothing beats totalitarian propaganda better than the truth,” he said.

Members brought a number of concerns and questions to witnesses, ranging from how to support Russian dissidents, to which techniques would be the most effective in distributing accurate information to Russian citizens.

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