The attempt to control information within Russian territory seems to be a more arduous task than the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, may have calculated. The wave of popular dissatisfaction – which has already resulted in 7,000 prisoners in Russia, until this Thursday (3) – brings to the fore an issue that may have repercussions on the future of the War in Ukraine. To what extent can domestic public opinion destabilize Putin’s strategy?
One week after the start of the invasion, Kremlin soldiers continue on the offensive, not only in Ukrainian territory. Also inside Russia, with slightly different weapons. Instead of bombs, press censorship, slower internet signal for access to social networks (and restrictions on some), official bodies talking about “denazification” of a Ukraine that would be committing genocide against Russians, official opinion poll showing growth of the president’s approval.
Since the determination by Roskomnadzor, the communications regulatory agency, that independent media in Russia do not use terms as war, attack or invasion, at least two important outlets have been suspended: TV Dojd and Radio Eco Moscow. The latter, born in 1990, at the end of the Soviet Union, is considered a symbol of democratic resistance in the country.
Even with the restrictions on vehicles, disapproval of Putin manages to find loopholes. In an apparent act of sabotage, on Thursday, state TV RT (Russia Today) used a “War in Ukraine” vignette in its programming for the first time. The approved expression is “special military operation in Donbass”, indicating that the military action is intended to protect ethnic Russians in the east of the neighboring country. The change in tone occurs in parallel with the resignation request of presenters, which made the work of the vehicle in European capitals unfeasible.
On the internet, there are traces
If, on the one hand, Putin claims to “denazify” Ukraine, on the other hand, he uses the well-known Nazi device of investing in disinformation to gain support for his expansion and domination project. The difference is that, in the age of the internet, a slip can hardly be swept away without leaving a trace.
Episodes in the media linked to the Kremlin reinforce this. An article published in a seemingly hasty way on Saturday by the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti celebrated the victory of Russia, which is said to be “restoring its unity” with the conquest of Ukraine. “Russia is restoring its historical fullness, bringing together the Russian world, the Russian people — in its totality of great Russians, Belarusians and small Russians,” the text read.
Under analysis in the British periodical The Spectator, Marl Galeotti, author of books on Russia, analyzes that, presumably, the article should have been published only after the Russian victory, but ended up being making it public before. “The mistake was quickly realized, but in the modern information age our edits and mistakes remain embedded in the geological layers of the internet,” he mused. Although the page has been removed, the original remains archived at the Wayback Machine, a service that archives web pages, and was printed in The Frontier Post, an English-language newspaper, published in Pakistan.
Another symptom that Putin’s censorship strategy may be imploding is a text published by the TASS agency on Sunday. After reporting the president’s order that the country’s nuclear forces were on high alert, the article listed casualties of 146 tanks and 4.300 Russian soldiers, adding: “According to reliable sources in the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, Putin is personally extremely disappointed with the progress of the military operation.” “Since then, the article has been deleted from the network, but these accounts match the number announced by the Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine,” warned Galeotti, questioning whether the publication was the result of a hacking or deliberate sabotage by a TASS journalist. .
Big Techs in Surveillance
The world also witnessed an unprecedented reaction from technology giants, which imposed restrictions on Russia in response to the invasion . Google Maps, for example, has been temporarily disabled in Ukraine to ensure the safety of the population. Meta, which owns Facebook, also said it had removed about 40 profiles that spread false information about the war.
Google Europe announced this Tuesday (01) that it has blocked the YouTube channels in Europe of the media RT and Sputnik, linked to the Russian government. The video platform had already limited the ability of the two vehicles to monetize content through advertising. Previously, the company Meta announced that it would restrict access to the same Russian vehicles on the social networks Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
In addition, Twitter started to put an alert on the content posted by RT and Sputnik , indicating that there is a connection with the Russian government. The measures respond to a request from the European Union, on the limitation of the media that would be broadcasting state propaganda content.
Apple stopped the export and sale of branded products in Russia, limiting apps of RT and Sputnik in your store. Netflix, on the other hand, stopped adding Russian channels to the platform and Spotify announced the closing of its office in the country.
Popular demonstrations, flags of “No to war”, have also grown in the streets of the main Russian cities, resulting in thousands of prisoners. Alexei Navalny, one of the main leaders of the opposition to Putin, encouraged this Thursday, through Twitter, that his countrymen leave “every day to the main square of your city”.
“Russia wants to be a nation of peace. Unfortunately, few people would call us that now. But at least we won’t become a country of frightened and silent people, of cowards who pretend not to notice the war against Ukraine unleashed by our obviously crazy tsar,” said Nalvany, imprisoned since January 2021, and who accuses the country’s secret services of attempted murder by poisoning.
Dmitry Muratov, independent journalist awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, told The Guardian that there is no “enthusiasm” among the Russian population for the war in Ukraine.
“The remembrance of the Second World War, that people have relatives in Ukraine and that Ukraine is a country dear to us, it holds even the most fanatical supporters of the current leadership”, he argued.
But the disapproval does not stop at ideological and moral issues. The country’s economic situation, after severe world sanctions, puts Russia on the brink of social collapse. Videos on social media show citizens rushing to ATMs, fearing they will close ent and banks and the deactivation of credit cards.
It is worth remembering that the astonishing devaluation of the currency, the interest rates and the blockades announced by the great powers directly affect the Russian oligarchs. The scenario has led analysts to bet on an increase in elite pressure on the Putin government.
“We want to affect the Russian elite, which supports Putin and benefits from this regime, and in addition to this package of sanctions (including the deletion of Swift), we have others that focus on corruption and misinformation,” said European Commission Vice President Josep Borrell on Sunday.
Public Opinion Strength
History recalls other situations in which public reaction was decisive for the course of conflicts. In the Vietnam War, for example, which was widely covered by the media, the American population received a large volume of images of the fighting, including chemical attacks and massacres of civilians. In the midst of this context and the accusations of lack of assistance to the victims, pacifist demonstrations took shape in the United States and in other parts of the world, pressing for the withdrawal of American troops, which began to take place in 1973.
A shift in public opinion also contributed to the entry of the United States into World War II. In December of 1941, the commotion and indignation of the North Americans at the Japanese attack on Perl Harbor led the country, which until then had remained neutral, to take part in the conflict. There were also sequences of demonstrations, popular insubordination and strikes that led to the fall of the Russian government in World War I.
The events are not comparable, but they are a beacon when analyzing the importance of popularity in major political decisions. Putin’s bet on a “disinformation war” shows his awareness of this. “It’s amazing to see modern information warfare evolving in real time,” disinformation researcher and former CIA analyst Cindy Otis told Time magazine.
On Friday, as Russian troops attacked Kiev, rumors spread by the Kremlin media said that President Volodymyr Zelensky had fled the country. The president of Ukraine himself debunked the narrative of the invaders, posting a video on his Twitter profile in which he walked through the streets of the capital. In times of social networks, the outcome of a conflict that has information as a weapon is even more difficult to predict. (Fabio Galão collaborated)