AMONG THE main pillars that support Russian President Vladimir Putin’s power and outlook on the world — graft, cronyism, paranoia and resentment at Moscow’s diminished post-Soviet stature — it’s hard to overstate the importance he attaches to propaganda. To the Kremlin leader, who cut his teeth as a KGB apparatchik, information is an important instrument of control, influence and intimidation; Western-style journalism and the free flow of news are anathema.
As his war of aggression in Ukraine continues, Mr. Putin has moved to silence the already muffled voices of domestic dissent and amplify the Kremlin’s anti-Western views at home and abroad.
This summer, Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament rammed through measures designed to weaken and stifle dozens of independent Russian pay-TV channels. The laws, set to take effect Jan. 1, ban advertising on cable and satellite channels. State-controlled broadcast channels, which Mr. Putin uses to peddle venomous attacks on the West and misinformation about Russia’s adventure in Ukraine, are unaffected.
That legislation fit a pattern. In recent months, as Mr. Putin pressed his policy of violence in Ukraine, Russian authorities have tightened their grip on an array of means of expression and outlets for news. Internet servers handling Russian traffic, including those used by Google, must now be located within Russia. Individuals who express views deemed “extremist,” or even retweet them, may now face up to five years in prison.
No one can be quite sure which views may be considered “extreme,” which is part of the point. Self-censorship bolsters censorship, and the space for criticism of the Kremlin narrows further.
In recent days, officials announced an initiative aimed at blasting Moscow’s spin to the world via radio and the Internet. Thousands of propagandists on Mr. Putin’s payroll are to fan out to 25 major cities around the world, in an effort to counter what the Kremlin regards as the pro-American bias of Western news outlets. The network, with a budget of tens of millions of dollars, is to be known as Sputnik, after the Soviet space satellite launched in 1957 — an unmistakable reflection of Moscow’s reversion to a Cold War mentality. The effort, which is to include Web sites and radio broadcasts in 30 languages, will be directed by Dmitry Kiselyov, a virulent nationalist and homophobe who is Mr. Putin’s favorite propagandist.
The Kremlin’s increasingly intrusive laws, which also ban foreigners from taking stakes exceeding 20 percent in Russian media companies, have had the desired chilling effect. This week, CNN suspended its broadcasts in Russia (though its news bureau continues to function).
Much as he would like it, Mr. Putin cannot resurrect the Soviet Union, nor is he likely to revive Moscow’s international clout to Cold War levels. But by use of laws designed to intimidate, and through the implantation of fear, Mr. Putin can go some way toward recreating a Soviet-style grip on the information most Russian citizens consume. Meanwhile, the combination of intimidation and preposterous but slick propaganda is having an impact in neighboring countries that the United States would be wise to take more seriously.
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