This is part 3 of my series on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, you can read the other parts here.
“Putin cannot bring the Soviet Union back together, but he can bring back breadlines.”
Sanctions will likely have a very significant impact on the Russian economy. Unlike previous (2014) sanctions, which were toothless and slow to have an impact, these went straight for the jugular of the Russian financial system, possibly crippling it overnight. The Russian central bank had to raise rates to 20%, banks stopped giving out loans, and the ruble collapsed. The Russian economy is likely going to be engulfed in inflation, the magnitude of which it has not seen since the early 1990s. Russia has been cut off from the West overnight. Russia has turned into a toxic pollutant on corporate ESG checklists. Even Coca-Cola is leaving Russia.
The thinking in the West is that the Russian people will revolt against their dictatorial ruler, and this will bring an end to the war. In addition, the sanctions should in theory deprive Russia of the economic oxygen it needs for Putin to be able strengthen the Russian military and put an excruciatingly high price tag on future wars.
Will sanctions bring an end to Putin?
Sanctions have a checkered history. They didn’t get rid of Castro in Cuba or the Kims in North Korea. It took more than a decade for sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s to bear fruit. Sanctions in the past have been an effective stick that was turned into a carrot when both sides came to the negotiating table.
But the world has never seen sanctions like this. Ironically, these sanctions may give Putin even more power.
To control the masses, Putin tells them what to think. How does he manage that?
In 2014, I was perplexed by how the Russian people could possibly support and not be outraged by Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine. But I live in Denver, and I read mostly U.S. and European newspapers. I wanted to see what was going on in Russia and Ukraine from the Russian perspective, so I went on a seven-day news diet: I watched only Russian TV – Channel One Russia, the state-owned broadcaster, which I hadn’t seen in more than 20 years – and read Pravda, the Russian newspaper whose name means “truth.” I wrote a lengthy article on this topic – you can read it here. An excerpt:
In my misspent youth, I took a marketing class at the University of Colorado. I remember very little from that class except this: For your message to be remembered, a consumer has to hear it at least six times. Putin’s propaganda folks must have taken the same class, because Russian citizens get to hear how great their president is at least six times a day.
We Americans look at Putin and see an evil KGB guy who roams around the country without a shirt on. Russians are shown a very different picture. They see a hard-working president who cares deeply about them. Every news program dedicates at least one fifth of its airtime to showcasing Putin’s greatness, not in your face but in subtle ways. A typical clip would have him meeting with a cabinet minister. The minister would give his report, and Putin, looking very serious indeed, would lecture the minister on what needs to be done. Putin is always candid, direct and tough with his ministers. [In Part 1 of this series I discussed how Russians love their leaders to death. Russian TV is an unending informercial for Putin. Russians get huge helpings of Putin-love for breakfast, lunch and dinner.]
I’ve listened to a few of Putin’s speeches, and I have to admit that his oratory skills are excellent, of J.F.K. or Reagan caliber. He doesn’t give a speech; he talks. His language is accessible and full of zingers. He is very calm and logical. [I’ve heard that isolation during the pandemic had an impact on him and he lost some of his eloquence over the last few years.]
I have to confess, it is hard not to develop a lot of self-doubt about your previously held views when you watch Russian TV for a week. But then you have to remind yourself that Putin’s Russia doesn’t have a free press. The free press that briefly existed after the Soviet Union collapsed is gone – Putin killed it. The government controls most TV channels, radio and newspapers. What Russians see on TV, read in print, and listen to on the radio is direct propaganda from the Kremlin.
Before I go further, let’s visit the definition of propaganda with the help of the Oxford English Dictionary: “The systematic dissemination of information, especially in a biased or misleading way, in order to promote a political cause or point of view.”
I always thought of the Internet as an unstoppable democratic force that would always let the truth slip out through the cracks in even the most determined wall of propaganda. I was wrong. After watching Russian TV, you would not want to read the Western press, because you’d be convinced it was lying. More important, Russian TV is so potent that you would not even want to watch anything else, because you would be convinced that you were in possession of indisputable facts.
Russia’s propaganda works by forcing your right brain (the emotional one) to overpower your left brain (the logical one), while clogging all your logical filters.
I know exactly what I am going to hear back from some of my fellow Americans. They are going to say: Don’t you think Americans are brainwashed by Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, and other news outlets? There is no question in my mind that American news is more biased today than ever before. But there is a difference between bias and what is happening in Russia. At least by watching different news outlets and reading different newspapers, Americans can triangulate to the truth.
Most importantly, the US government doesn’t tell networks what to say. The editor of The Washington Post doesn’t have to worry about a trumped-up charge if he writes a scathing article about Biden. In Russia there is only one media voice and that is the voice of the government. All other voices were silenced by the government. The government has zero accountability. Think of Watergate, Irangate, and other “gates” scandals – they could never happen in today’s Russia.
I never appreciated the free press as much as I do now. The free press shines a light on government actions. It provides a much needed feedback loop between government and the public.
Over the last few days things have gotten tremendously worse on this front. Russia passed a new law: If you call this war with Ukraine a war, not a “special operation” or publish any views that contradict stories put out by the Ministry of Defense (i.e., create “fake news”) you can get up to 15 years in prison. Providing assistance to foreign organizations that oppose the war (sorry, “special operation”) with Ukraine will be considered treason, which may result in up to 20 years in prison. Needless to say, most independent local and foreign news organization immediately closed their doors. Since the invasion, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media have also been blocked in Russia. In other words, Russia turned into China overnight.
Today, cognitive dissonance between reality and what the government says rose to a comical level. A day after the Russian government passed the aforementioned laws, Putin gave a speech, where he said (I am loosely translating):
In Russia, our people are expressing their views about what they like or don’t like about the situation in Ukraine. But there, in Ukraine, those who express the same opinions as the liberal part of our citizenry are grabbed from the street and shot. They are just simply shooting them. In Russia, our liberals are protesting. In Ukraine they just kill them without due process.
Remember, this speech was given just a day after he passed a law that you can get up to 15 years in prison for calling a war a war.
Here is another example of how official Russian news has little resemblance to reality. I went to Pravda, clicked on the first article I saw, and read: “The Ministry of Defense has repeatedly stated that no missile, artillery, or air strikes are carried out by Russian forces on the cities of Ukraine; and the civilian population will not suffer during the operation, since its purpose is solely to disable the military infrastructure.”
Ruins of apartment buildings that have been destroyed by Russia artillery are figments of our imagination. Who do you want to believe, the Russian Ministry of Defense or your lying eyes?
Here is another example: a message on Instagram by a Ukrainian young man:
My dad works as a security guard in a monastery near Nizhny Novgorod [Russia]. He is a deeply religious person and congratulates me on all church holidays. Yesterday I wondered why my father did not call (the war is the same) and called him [my]self.
I told in detail about what was happening – my father replied that this was nonsense, there was no war, and the Russians were saving us from the Nazis, who were making human shields out of civilians.
I could not believe when I read this. I wanted to see if it was true on my own. I was already in a WhatsApp group chat with my classmates with whom I went to middle school in Russia. This is what they told me: Russia was forced into this war. It is getting rid of neo-Nazis in Ukraine. The Russian Army is liberating Donbas and Lugansk from Ukrainian genocide. Their admiration for Putin was at a new high. (The stories I read that Putin’s popularity is hitting new heights seem to be true.) At the end of the conversation, I was convinced that they are brainwashed, and they were convinced that I am brainwashed.
We had no common reality to stand on. None. We all agreed that we don’t want people to die on either side. They were convinced that the civilians who are dying in Ukrainian cities are killed not by Russian artillery and rockets but by neo-Nazis and Banderovtsi (Ukranian nationalists) shooting and bombing their own people. (The war in Donbass and Lugansk and neo-Nazis are a very important topic that I’ll have to discuss separately, hopefully in the next part.)
These are folks I went to school with, played in the snow with, and even had crushes on a couple of them. They are kind, good people, but Putin’s TV has completely zombified them. As one of my friends said, they have Russian TV on their brains. (Of course, there is another possibility: that I am zombified and am completely oblivious to that fact.)
People in Russia are brainwashed beyond what any Westerner can possibly imagine. They live in their own version of the Truman Show, in an alternate reality that is deeply divorced from the world outside their dome. This point is paramount: Control of the media allows Putin to completely deform and carefully craft his version of the truth. And this is why I am worried that sanctions may not be as effective as we hope.
I heard from my junior high school friends a line that I’ve seen in other places: “We are in the middle of a war. We have to finish that war.” This war has further solidified Putin’s position. He presents the sanctions as the West’s aggression against Russia. It seems that zombified Russians have given him a blank check on the pain they are willing to endure and the lives of their kids they are willing to lose. This may change as the body count continues to climb and parents realize that their children who today are not picking up the phone are lying dead in the fields of Ukraine, and that sanctions from the West will continue to inflict tremendous pain on the Russian economy.
This brings me to the next point. Russia’s next chapter looks very dark.
Not everyone is zombified in Russia. A few of my school friends reached out to me privately and expressed their disgust with the war. They did not want to voice their opinions in public. Even when we talked on WhatsApp, despite WhatsApp’s claim of end-to-end encryption, they were still concerned that they might be listened to. These are not a paranoid people, but people who know the ugly Russian history and who are acutely aware that the newly passed laws carry punishment for being labeled an “enemy of the state” or a “collaborator with the enemy” (yours truly) is 15 years rotting in prison.
Let’s zoom in for a second on Russia’s dark history. Until the late 1980s, Joseph Stalin was a Soviet hero who led the Soviet Union in defeating the Nazis. You could often see Stalin’s portrait hanging in classrooms right next to Lenin’s. My father told me that when Stalin died in 1953 the whole country cried, including him (he was 20). It was one of the saddest days of his life.
After perestroika and glasnost in the late 1980s, we were shocked to learn that the evilness of Stalin, the father figure we admired so much, was fully on par with Hitler’s. Stalin killed 20 million people, while 27 million people died in WWII. (I don’t claim to know the validity of the precision of either number. It’s irrelevant; both men killed millions of people). Stalin also eliminated the leadership of the Soviet Army, which made Soviet losses in WWII greater.
The Stalin regime was oppressive. If you were called an “enemy of the people” there was no due process; you were guilty and you were either shot or sent to a gulag, where you’d die from inhuman working conditions and hunger. In fact, a lot of magnificent Soviet infrastructure was built by slave labor (“enemies of the people”).
Today, Putin’s government is rewriting history. Stalin is back in vogue again. He is glorified as a leader who united the country, and you start seeing new statues of him popping up across Russia. In 2014 Russia passed a law that prohibits criticism of Soviet activities during WWII (and thus of Stalin).
Putin wants Russians to forget their history so he can repeat it.
I vividly remember my mom’s terrified face in the early 1980s when a guest at our dining table or my father said something that was not supportive of government policy. If it leaked to authorities, my parents would not have gone to the gulag, but they could have lost their jobs. I never thought I’d see fear of criticizing the government again in Russia. But it’s back. This is why my friends who don’t have a TV in their heads were afraid and did not want to speak up in my classmate WhatsApp group.
In less than two weeks since the beginning of the Ukraine war, with the passing of the new laws, Russia made an enormous leap back towards 1937 and an oppressive Stalin-like regime. While Ukraine, thanks to Russia, went back to 1941, as women and children started dying from artillery and rocket bombings.
The situation in Russia will get worse. Mothers will realize they have lost their children in Ukraine, and sanctions will cause enormous unemployment, breadlines, and maybe even hunger. People will start speaking up more – and the Stalin-era oppression will likely come back in full swing. The country will suddenly be swarming with “enemies of the state” and gulags will be back in vogue again.
There is talk in the media that the oligarchs and upper echelons of the government may revolt against Putin. If you are thinking about this, so is Putin. I don’t know what probability to put on this; I don’t think anyone knows. Whatever you think that probability is, I’d reduce it by half.
In the meantime, though, this war is lasting longer and going worse than Putin expected. Putin has the time to continue the war, because Russians are either brainwashed and supporting the war or being arrested the second they voice their displeasure with the war. My biggest concern, since there is no feedback loop by which to accomplish the goal of “freeing the Ukrainian government from drug addicts and Nazis” (I kid you not, Putin’s words) and basically replacing the Ukrainian government, Putin will resort to the strategy he employed to win the war in Chechnya – he leveled Chechnya’s cities.
A silver lining here is that it is usually the young people who don’t “have a TV in their heads,” as they watch less Russian TV, spend more time on social media (I never thought I’d be thankful for social media), and are more aware of what is going in the West (no, NATO was not about to invade Russia). The army is full of young people, and maybe Russian soldiers will continue to surrender or, even better, become the source of dissent.
Unfortunately, to my shock, this war is more popular in Russia than I ever thought it would be. Maybe by the time you read this it will already be over, but I doubt it. Putin is under little pressure to conclude it, and, as my middle school friends said, “The war has already started; we have to finish it.”
The thinking part of the populace, who understand what is going on and are against the war, are going out onto the streets and protesting or are too afraid to do so. As of this writing, more than 2,000 peaceful anti-war demonstrators have been arrested. Any appearance, even a pretense, that Russia is a democracy is gone. The mask is off.
As I was working on this article, though it is about Russia and Ukraine, I realized how lucky we are in the US. With all our problems we still have a fully functioning democracy. We have a free press. It is biased, but it is free. Without a free press we will have tyranny. I really did not appreciate that as much as I do now.
Also, I realized the beauty of our federal system. Russia is almost destined to oscillate between democracy and authoritarian control. It is very large country with a very diverse population that has different value systems and cultures. When you try to govern it from the top, you quickly discover that you have little control. In the early 2000s, at Putin’s request, Russia switched from locally elected governors to Putin-appointed governors, consolidating power not at the state level but at the top, with Putin. Putin’s argument was that local governors were corrupt. In truth however, the only way to govern Russia and preserve democracy is to have a US-like system. The federal government provides basic services –defense, interstate police (FBI), the legal system, etc. The majority of decisions are made on the local and state levels, based on the needs and values of those entities.
My Russian school friends and I were reminiscing about our school years. We started asking, “Where is this person? What happened to that one?” Sadly, we discovered that close to 15-20% of our class has died. None of them were even 50 years old. Most died under 40 from alcoholism. The demographic crisis is real in Russia. There are fewer people alive in Russia than when Putin took office 22 years ago.
Next: I’ll discuss neo Nazis in Ukraine.