June 27, 2023 | New York Post

After Wagner Group’s failed coup, spread the word: Putin is vulnerable

June 27, 2023 | New York Post

After Wagner Group’s failed coup, spread the word: Putin is vulnerable

In response to Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s threat over the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin refrained from any serious counteraction as Wagner troops neared the city.

Prigozhin ultimately called off his attack, but the event alone is a stark indication of Putin’s debilitated and humiliated position.

The Kremlin was quick to place the blame on the West, immediately stating that “the mutiny plays into the hands of Russia’s external enemies. . . . We warn Western countries against undertaking even the slightest attempts to use the domestic Russian situation to achieve their Russophobic goals.” 

Hmm. What an excellent idea! 

Washington should play off Moscow’s famous paranoia and launch new information operations to communicate Putin’s diminished strength, security failures and greatly reduced influence to Russia’s allies.

To be sure, Prigozhin’s “coup” failed; Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko negotiated an agreement for Prigozhin to be exiled in Belarus and for charges to be dropped. 

Later, reports indicated that even the rebel himself would not be charged.

Of course, Putin is not known to forgive betrayal.

And on Monday he vowed to bring “the organizers of this rebellion” to “justice.”

That was a vow surely intended to head off the likelihood that he will be seen as weak.

Yet the Russian leader was humiliated by his former protégé (and caterer!), and if Prigozhin survives unscathed, it’ll make Putin look weaker still.

The United States should capitalize on the moment to convey Putin’s unreliability to his allies, via strategic information operations.

Convincing his partners abroad, not to mention Russians themselves, could undermine support for his war in Ukraine and perhaps hasten an end to the conflict.

This approach would be familiar to the CIA, which countered Soviet propaganda during the Cold War using similar informational and cultural techniques.

Indeed, to some extent, Washington and Kyiv have already begun efforts to embarrass Putin.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reportedly stressed that Wagner had “exposed the weakness of Putin’s regime.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken mocked the Russian strongman, pointing out that a mere 16 months ago, Putin seemed intent on capturing Kyiv, but just he found himself having to protect Moscow from invading forces.

Such rhetoric is a step in the right direction, yet the United States should expand on these efforts by disseminating these messages worldwide through social media.

A smart campaign that uses humorous memes distributed on social media is the best way to convey information rapidly and universally.

America should craft and spread memes that use images that highlight or even poke fun at Putin’s weakness.

Most important, the United States should ensure that all of Russia’s allies are aware of the risks associated with aligning themselves with a diminished and unreliable figure.

It is especially critical to relay the message to the Global South, where Russian disinformation surrounding the war in Ukraine is highly prolific.

In Russian-occupied Syria and Africa, where Wagner’s influence is pervasive, the United States could cooperate with local media outlets to create and distribute informative content that not only clarifies the ongoing situation but also communicates the reality of Putin’s weakened state.

Local influencers, popular radio programs or even digital billboards in urban areas could serve as effective media for such a campaign.

In Latin America, too, Washington could leverage its strong historical ties and the reach of existing broadcasting networks.

Engaging with popular regional TV networks and radio stations to share content that reflects Putin’s vulnerability could be effective.

Since the end of the Cold War, the US government has been reluctant to use information to its full advantage in fighting enemies like Putin.

This should change.

Information today is an enormously powerful weapon.

The United States would be foolish not to use it (as Russia does) and fail to spread the truth about Putin’s real weakness, making sure all Russian allies know the risks of hitching their wagon to a declining, unreliable star.

Ivana Stradner is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow her on Twitter @ivanastradner. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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