Whatever we and other observers may say about the challenge posed by Alexei Navalny to the Russian government, it is clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin fears it. But the ongoing protests against the Putin regime also pose a challenge and offer an opportunity to the Biden administration.
The continuing demonstrations across Russia, often in subzero temperatures, against Putin and for Navalny, as well as the regime’s arrest of more than 5,000 people, highlight Putin’s perception of his regime’s fragility. Putin’s towards repression as the only answer for the regime also betrays its sense of its own brittleness. And that involuntary revelation of weakness should lead the U.S. government and its component organizations that deal with Russia to do more than merely protest to Moscow.
Navalny’s video “Putin’s Palace: History’s Biggest Bribe” has now been viewed over 100 million times on social media. This highlights the fact that despite the regime’s unrelenting repression of social media and the internet, it cannot stop the truth from gaining traction. In turn, that means that the U.S. government and its component organizations such as Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and Voice of America (VOA) no longer have any excuse for not upgrading their activities to get the truth to Russians and to do to Russia what Putin is doing to the U.S.
While Russian media have free rein in the U.S. , Radio Liberty is undergoing draconian repression to eject it from Russia. These repressive actions against Radio Liberty also point to Moscow’s sense of its government’s fragility and how truthful journalism threatens it at its core. In similar fashion, Putin and his lapdog media have charged that Navalny and all of his supporters are working for U.S. intelligence or government agencieswhen this is clearly a lie. But it remains the case that Moscow intervened in the 2016, 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections. And if it remains unchecked, we will likely see more interventions in future elections.
Therefore, the Biden administration possesses ample justification for reviving these institutions and letting them deploy the most modern tools and strategies to tell the Russian people the truth about their regime. This would be a major step forward in the defense of the U.S. against Russian information warfare, a defense that was greatly compromised by Donald Trump and his entourage’s susceptibility to Russian information warfare over Ukraine and their refusal to admit that Russia intervened in the 2016 election. It would also mark a major step forward from Trump’s attempt to convert these institutions into personal cheerleaders for him and his administration. Fortunately, in one
of its earliest actions, the Biden team sacked Michael Peck, Trump’s appointee to lead VOA, and Trump’s other appointees to lead Radio Free Europe.
But the fact remains that Russia continues to wage information war at home and abroad with relative impunity, at little cost and with significant gains accruing to it thereby. Navalny’s example here and the revelations to the Russian people of the utter venality and corruption of the regime, as well as its grossness – e.g. Putin’s palace comes replete with a hookah lounge and a stripper’s pole – offer us the opportunity to pay Putin back in his own coin. If Radio Free Europe is ousted from Russia, we should do the same to RT and other Russian media outlets here that are merely arms of Moscow’s intelligence services. Some may object on constitutional grounds. But, as Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson famously wrote, “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.” We have the right to defend ourselves and insist on reciprocity in these affairs.
The point is that Radio Free Europe and VOA tell the truth, a truly scarce commodity in Russia historically, not least now. In as much as Moscow has long since believed, no matter what we do, that our actions are aimed to undermine its government, we might as well tell the truth. Or if we are to be hung for stealing goats, we might as well be stealing sheep since Moscow’s long-running information war against the U.S. no longer needs to be proven.
Strengthening our ability to tell Russians and other audiences the truth is a long overdue remedy for some of the problems that have recently plagued us. Moreover, standing up for Navalny’s rights against Putin’s assassins and thugs and its war upon us, our interests and values is not just timely. It is also the right thing to do. As Lincoln memorably said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it will remember what we do here.”
And the world should remember that when the time came in both Minsk and Moscow where human dignity is at severe risk, we did not shirk from our responsibility to bear witness.
Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). He is also a former professor of Russian National Security Studies and National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College.