How Strategic Messaging Can Help Turn Putin Around
Cracks in the Russian leader's popular support can be deepened with careful appeals to the nation’s history and sense of greatness.
Vladimir Putin can be forced end his war in Ukraine if enough Russians turn against it. Information warfare targeting Russians and appealing to the nation’s history and sense of greatness may force him to back down.
The Levada Centre, an independent analytical center registered in Russia as a foreign agent, polled Russians in 2021 and the first two months of 2022. The surveys showed strong support for Putin and his narrative that the U.S. and NATO as responsible for the Ukraine crisis. Indeed, Putin’s support increased from 64 percent in September and 71 percent in February. Even the prospect of sanctions appeared more likely to increase anti-Western sentiments than to reduce support for Putin.
But the Russian leader will find sustaining the information bubble difficult. Information warfare can separate Putin and his vanity from Russians, Russian culture, and Russia’s place in history. This task requires subtlety. We must allow the Russian populace to avoid humiliation, while mobilizing them against Putin’s regime.
What messages might resonate? Directly asking Russians to stop the war might not. Russian media has convinced most of the country’s public that this is not a war and that Putin does what is necessary. Messaging should focus on what the invasion means to Russia’s heritage as a great nation and to daily lives. Here are some messages that may resonate with Russians. The video that Arnold Schwarzenegger released on March 17 brilliantly illustrates the correct way to articulate this message. He identifies with a Russian athletic icon, praises the Russian people, relates his own experience with Russia and Russians in a glowing way, talks about their greatness, and only then pivots to the war. It is powerful and resonant, and points the way to message to Russians.
Casualties are an Achilles heel for Putin, who will try to hide the body bags. Reportedly, he is sending the dead and wounded to Belarus to keep them out of sight from Russians. Let’s make certain Russians know the reality that the war is killing the young sons of families whom Putin’s team lied to, telling these ill-trained conscripts that the invasion was a training exercise. The implicit message deprives Putin of the will and purpose that Count Carl von Clausewitz deemed essential to success in warfare. Putin’s arrogance and insensitivity to the sentiments of mother’s concern for a son offers a powerful message for opposing the war.
A good way to complement this message would be to communicate that instead of fighting Nazis, an ill-prepared Russian army is slaughtering innocent women and children and destroying whole cities, leaving them in ruins and its citizens starving. The message deprives Putin of the moral high ground, another factor von Clausewitz recognizes is important. Putin launched the invasion in hopes of Making Russia Great Again and winning respect. This messaging will drive the narrative that he’s made Russia a global pariah guilty of committing war crimes. No self-respecting Russian will respond favorably to that idea.
The thrust of messaging should be an appeal to Russians to demand leadership that worthy of the nation’s greatness, rather than direct attacks on Putin, which they may be less likely to believe. One exception is Putin’s personal corruption. But how that message is formulated matters. Merely calling him corrupt won’t be sufficient. Showing his hypocrisy, the cardinal sin in politics, might. The key is to show Putin is profiting at their expense. For example, communicating that he apparently bought a billion-dollar estate with public-health funds may strike a chord.
Let’s remind Russians that while invading a neighbor, ostensibly to extend Russian influence, Putin has turned a blind eye to encroaching Chinese influence in eastern Russia. The Washington Post has pointed out that some Russians there worry about and resent Chinese immigration and influence, and fear a Chinese invasion. Let’s play to their concern.
Russians depend on air travel to get around their country. Aeroflot and airline Aurora use Airbus and Boeing planes. Western aircraft manufacturers are already declining to support the Russian-owned planes, creating operational problems. Strategic communication should blame Putin for this disruption.
News reports reveal that Putin is driving many of its brightest minds in technology and innovation abroad. That supports a message that the war is undercutting Russia’s economic future – and opportunities for families to share in a brighter future.
High-visibility business, sports, cultural, and political figures whom Russians recognize have called for stopping the war. Magnifying those voices sends the message that influencers whom Russians admire and respect agree that the war is wrong. Statements can originate in the West in English. They can then migrate to Russia, using subtitles. Russians seem less likely to dismiss these expression as “western propaganda.”
We should work to turn the Kremlin’s narrative about the Soviet Union’s role in WWII against it. The message is that a people who sacrificed in that war cannot tolerate the destruction against Ukraine.
Finally, let’s attack Putin’s arrogant support for elites, who stole their wealth from the people at the expense of Russia’s future. A 2013 Credit Suisse report estimates that 35 percent of Russia’s wealth is owned by the wealthiest 110 individuals. Let’s drive the message that heir riches, plundered from the Russian people, have hurt the lives of ordinary Russians.
There are few centers of opposition in Russia that frighten Putin. The loss of confidence in him by ordinary Russians may prove the most powerful and information is the way to arouse their opposition.
Dell Dailey, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, has led numerous special operations units and the Department of State’s counterterrorism efforts. James P. Farwell has advised U.S. Special Operations and the Defense Department. The opinions expressed are their own and not those of the U.S. government, its agencies, departments, or combatant commands. We acknowledge the excellent suggestions offered by Dr. Ofer Fridman of the Centre for Strategic Communications, Dept. of War Studies, King’s College, U. of London and cyber expert Rafal Rohozinski of the SecDev Group.