September 23, 2022 | Washington Examiner

The US should help Russian mothers get the truth out about Putin’s war

September 23, 2022 | Washington Examiner

The US should help Russian mothers get the truth out about Putin’s war

Russians are taking to the streets in protest at President Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization of military reservists. While demonstrators from all backgrounds have participated, it is Russian women who could prove to have the greatest impact. They are poised to resist Putin’s demand that their sons, fathers, and brothers go to war in Ukraine. To help in their cause, the United States should focus information operations on Russian women by encouraging them to protest and spreading their message to others.

Putin’s announcement marks Russia’s first military mobilization since World War II. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that 300,000 reservists would be called up to military service and promised to limit recruitment to those that had previously served in or been affiliated with the military. Of course, most Russians know not to take the government at its word — not with inmates being conscripted and ethnic minorities disproportionately pressured to join the Russian army. But Russia does need the numbers.

The U.S. government estimates that Russian casualties in Ukraine exceed 70,000 killed and wounded. The Kremlin says the figure is far lower. And thanks to a law Putin signed in March, if Russians deviate from the Kremlin’s talking points, they can be jailed for five to 10 years. However, these threats did not stop people from protesting on Wednesday. History has repeatedly demonstrated the potential for Russian mothers to mobilize their grief into action. Soviet mothers played a major role in undermining public support for the Soviet war in Afghanistan. In Chechnya, the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers played an even more active role, launching large protests and marches against the war. The organization exposed atrocities and advised mothers on how to prevent the conscription of their children. Since 2014, the committee has fought against war in Ukraine, bringing attention to the deaths of Russian soldiers in spite of the Kremlin’s denial of formal involvement during the early stages of the war. During the onset of Russia’s recent invasion this year, the committee again exposed the use of conscripts in combat. The subsequent labeling of the committee under Russia’s “Foreign Agents” law suggests the Kremlin is cognizant of the threat Russian mothers pose to their pro-war narratives.

It is high time that Washington should help ordinary Russians retake the messaging around the invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. is not a stranger to information operations. During the Cold War, information warfare was a successful strategic tool that spread American culture and incited dissent in Eastern Europe. Given that outright conflict between Russia and the U.S. remains a remote possibility, the Kremlin sees its information operations as its most consequential offensive against America. As Russian strategists note, “A new-generation war will be dominated by information and psychological warfare.”

Well, two can play at that game.

To counter Putin’s propaganda machine, the U.S. should engage in information operations that specifically help Russian women. Such social media campaigns should be accompanied with memes and videos that show how young Russians are being killed in Ukraine. In order to reach Russians, the U.S. should use the platforms most popular in the country such as VK, Instagram, YouTube, or Telegram. Further, the U.S. should invest in helping Russian-speaking social media influencers who live abroad spread the truth about the state of Putin’s invasion.

Critics will say that American information operations are manipulative, but the Kremlin thrives on making the Russian people feel isolated in their doubts about the government. American information warfare against the Kremlin would help Russians rally around positions they already have, but cannot express safely.

Dr. Ivana Stradner serves as an adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Barish Center for Media Integrity, where her research focuses on Russia’s information operations and cybersecurity, particularly Russia’s use of advanced forms of hybrid warfare and the threat they pose to the West. Follow her on Twitter @IvanaStradner. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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Russia Ukraine