For everyday Russians, the lens into the war in Ukraine is through a camera operated by Vladimir Putin.
Through propagandized content on state-controlled broadcast and print media outlets, Russians are told the falsehood that the war’s mission is to free Ukrainians from the West-allied Nazified regime in Kyiv, and that, by the way, Ukraine really shouldn’t exist as its own country because it has always belonged to Russia. They’re told that Ukrainians actually want to be liberated by Russian forces so they can be welcomed into the Kremlin’s fold.
And mothers, fathers, siblings and children of Russian soldiers are told lies about the fate of their men, or not told at all.
“I know that families don’t know what is happening with their sons,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told us at a Chicago Tribune editorial board session with her last week. “They are not getting the message that their sons have been killed in battle. So that will have an impact on people, when they really, truly learn the cost that they’ve had to pay for Putin’s little operation.”
In the West’s quest to bring an end to the grinding war in Ukraine that has reached the six-month mark, U.S. and European leaders have relied in part on a raft of sanctions aimed at pressuring Putin to acquiesce and stop the carnage he has wrought. Sanctions are a necessary and critical component of the U.S. and NATO’s policy toward Kremlin belligerence.
But there’s another source of pressure that may be able to cut much deeper into Putin’s obstinacy. Pressure at home, from the Russian people.
Putin has eluded massive blowback from everyday Russians principally because his Kremlin controls all levers of media. The version of the war in Ukraine that Russians get is the version Putin shapes, or more precisely, fabricates. Anyone or any entity that dares to swim against the tide risks the Kremlin’s wrath.
Demonstrations in Russia against the war have waned only because Russians have already seen the Kremlin’s terrifying response to anti-war protests. Shortly after Russian troops invaded Ukraine in late February, large-scale demonstrations broke out in Moscow and other cities — and were brutally put down. Legions of Russians were arrested. Many younger Russians who oppose the war have fled the country.
Putin’s crackdown on dissent reflects arguably his biggest fear — his vulnerability to forces from within.
Alongside sanctions, a concerted push to get the truth to everyday Russians about the war in Ukraine should be a bulwark to the West’s efforts to support Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people.
What’s sure to move Russians to question their president’s actions in Ukraine is the truth about the fate of loved ones on the battlefield. Thomas-Greenfield acknowledged that even the U.S. doesn’t have a clear picture of the number of dead and injured Russian soldiers. But in the invasion’s early weeks, hints of the toll on Russian battalions came with images of Ukrainian soldiers moving untold numbers of dead Russian troops off of streets and onto roadsides.
“When their soldiers don’t come home,” Thomas-Greenfield said, “families are going to start asking questions.”
On Thursday, Putin announced a significant buildup in Russian military forces — an additional 137,000 troops to bring the country’s overall troop strength to 1.15 million. The Russian leader found himself having to replenish his forces after suffering heavy losses during the war’s first six months.
Eventually, however, when more of those soldiers come back to Russia in coffins, he’ll find himself having to explain to grieving families how and why their sons had to die. And if he continues to hide the truth, then the West should — and must — find a way to get that truth to those families.