West races to counter Putin’s propaganda war through cracks in Kremlin’s blockade of the Internet

The West is in a race against time to counter the Kremlin’s propaganda inside Russia as President Vladimir Putin accelerates efforts to cut his people off from the outside world.

Mr. Putin has waged an information war on Western and independent news media in Russia, ousting foreign news sites, banning social media giants and threatening penalties of up to 15 years in prison for those who publish what the Kremlin labels “fake news” about the war.

The Kremlin has flooded airwaves with a barrage of falsehoods about the war, which it refers to as a “special military operation.” Many Russians believe Moscow was forced to invade Ukraine to protect Russians against Ukrainian aggressors and that Ukraine is run by Nazis.

Many Russians believe the Kremlin’s explanation that videos and photographs of bloodied Ukrainian citizens are Western propaganda staged with actors and special effects, that the Ukraine military is bombing its country’s residential buildings and that the U.S. is covertly manufacturing biological weapons in Ukraine.

Though Mr. Putin largely succeeded in dictating the narrative within Russia about his war on Ukraine, many in the country thirst for outside news.

“We still see the desire of the Russian public to really understand what is happening,” said Kiryl Sukhotski, Radio Free Europe’s regional director for Europe, a U.S. government-funded news organization that began broadcasting in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. “Of course, there is quite substantial support for Putin’s war in Russia. That’s why it is so important to penetrate through this wall of propaganda that the Kremlin is building.”

Radio Free Europe was forced out of Russia this month.

To break through, people in Russia are relying on virtual private networks or VPNs that so far still give them internet access to outside news outlets and social media posts.

On March 4, Radio Free Europe suspended its operations in Russia after authorities targeted it with bankruptcy proceedings and its Moscow-based journalists came under the increasing threat of imprisonment for deviating from Kremlin talking points on the war in Ukraine.

Other foreign news outlets targeted in Moscow’s information crackdown include the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Voice of America.

Since being driven out of Russia, Radio Free Europe has continued to reach Russians through YouTube, where views on its content have more than tripled since the start of the war, said Mr. Sukhotski.

He said traffic on Radio Free Europe’s website has also skyrocketed as more and more Russians download VPNs to bypass Russian internet controls.

Since the start of the invasion, Russia has accelerated efforts to unplug from Western tech platforms and switch to domestic alternatives, further tightening its grip on information and public perception.

But those attempts have been stymied by its dependence on Western tech companies that still serve as the backbone of the Russian economy. While Russia has banned Facebook and Instagram, it has still not banned YouTube.

Russia is still heavily dependent on YouTube’s parent company, Google, which could shelter the company from the Kremlin’s heavy hand, said Alena Epifanova, a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“YouTube, which is still available, is still a very big obstacle for Roskomnadzor,” Ms. Epifanova said, referring to the Kremlin’s media watchdog. “If [Google] were to leave the country, it will practically mean that it can take with it the Android operating system, the Google Chrome browser, which is also the most popular browser in Russia, and also other products which are widely used by Russians.”

Russia’s business and also Russia’s state authorities, Russian people, they benefit from these technologies,” she said referring to Google and other Western tech giants such as Microsoft and Oracle. “Russia does not have the same level of technologies to switch to which could be an alternative to Western technologies.”

Still, it could be only a matter of time before they are completely cut off from their Russian audience.

“YouTube is still available but we do not know how long it is available,” said Radio Free Europe’s Mr. Sukhotski. “Russia closed down Facebook, closed down Instagram, closed down other social media networks that we still rely on Russians getting to them via VPN.”

Policymakers in the West say the Russian people likely would not support the war if they knew the truth about it.

“The Russian people deserve the truth about Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression and instead are being fed lies by the Putin regime,” said Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, said Mr. Putin’s war on truth is “irretrievably intertwined” with his kinetic assault on Ukraine.

“He could not be at war in Ukraine with the criminal, barbaric means that he is using and with the loss of life among his own troops if he could not suppress the truth in his own country,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “We need to fortify and buttress the efforts of truth-tellers in Russia.”

There are still areas in Russia’s information ecosystem that the West can leverage to its advantage, experts say, but it will require resources and coordination between the news media and tech companies.

“In order to reach Russian audiences, we’re going to need the information version of a Berlin airlift,” said Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University and co-director of the Arena Initiative, a research project to overcome extreme polarization and disinformation.

“Currently the Russian firewall is still pretty leaky,” he said. “We can get through pretty easily. But we know that it is going to get worse day by day. We need the expertise, the power, and the intentionality of the great tech companies — the American tech companies — to help us break through that firewall as it gets higher and higher and higher.”

Correction: The name of Kremlin media watchdog Roskomnadzor was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

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