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The Hill - Putin’s only real vulnerability — the Russian street

The Hill - Putin’s only real vulnerability — the Russian street

This article by Gary M. Shiffman was originally published on March 3, 2022 in The Hill.

Landmarks around the world, from Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to Rome’s Colosseum and London’s 10 Downing Street, have been lit with the colors of the Ukrainian flag to show support for Ukraine after Russia’s invasion. In nearly every major city, thousands of people have amassed in public squares and outside Russian embassies in protest. In Bucharest, the crowds chanted, “Putin the assassin.” In Geneva, one native Russian told the media, “I’m ashamed of my country of birth.” 

But, most importantly, the Russian people inside Russia are protesting. Dozens of Russian celebrities have already spoken out against the invasion. One online petition gathered nearly a million signatures in four days, and anti-war rallies have taken place in at least 51 cities around the country, including at Great Gostiny Dvor, one of St. Petersburg’s most famous landmarks. 

Right now, Russians are torn over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. On one hand, Putin is telling them it is a necessary action to prevent “hostilities against our country.” But as images of the atrocities come out – a fatally wounded child in unicorn pajamas; a mother delivering a baby in a bomb shelter – Putin’s grip on the narrative is faltering. 

Here’s why this matters: Putin requires public support. He can survive in power with economic sanctions targeting his inner circle, his major industries and his country. He can survive an onslaught of foreign weapons and forces sent to Ukraine and his military planes shot down. But he absolutely cannot survive the loss of the Russian streets. He must maintain popular support.  

I’ve spent my career studying violence, and the pattern is always the same: A political leader gains support by marketing violence as essential to his group’s well-being. As Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said, “Ideology – that is what gives evil doing its long-sought justification.” 

Putin has never shied away from praising Stalin and his ideology. But it begs the question: Could Stalin and his Gulags and his torture chambers and his massacres have happened today, in the internet era? 

Warfare – politics – is really just a game of marketing and branding. Nothing is more important to the success of a violent campaign than the narrative behind it. Osama bin Laden grounded his narrative in religion. In his 2002 “letter to the American people” (which was really a letter intended to inspire his own followers), he began by quoting the Quran: “So fight you against the friends of Satan.”

Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” seems similar to today’s moves by Putin. Mao invoked the narrative of class struggle to justify his violence: “If the peasants do not apply great force, the power of the landlords, built up over thousands of years, can never be uprooted.” 

Putin’s narrative is an ideology of nationalism. In his Feb. 21 speech, he constructed a narrative, mainly directed toward his own people, that his invasion is intended to protect what is rightfully Russian, to prevent the “disintegration of our united country.” Modern Ukraine, he wrongly asserted, “was entirely created by Russia” and is “an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.” 

He also used a classic strategy for building support for violence – setting up a framework of “us versus them.” “They are torturing people, children, women, elderly people,” he said of Ukrainian forces. And “the only goal they [Western leaders] have is to contain the development of Russia.” It does not matter to the success of his campaign that these accusations are entirely false. All that matters is, as The New York Times says, at least “muddying the Russian public’s understanding.” Every prominent invader in history, from Stalin to Hitler to ISIS leaders, have relied on this same strategy. 

If Stalin could not succeed in the internet era, then Putin will fail. Millions of people assembled in the streets of Egypt in 2011, backed by a world watching online, overpowered Egypt’s long-serving president Hosni Mubarak. The voices of the people, when amplified, can overpower even the strongest leader. 

President Biden, other heads of state, members of Congress and freely elected legislators around the world, celebrities and social media influencers, and all people of the world must engage in the counter-narrative. Praise the people of Ukraine for their courage and share in their pain. But most importantly, to reverse this ill-conceived invasion and end the suffering and madness, support the people protesting in the Russian street, because only they can overpower Putin. 

Gary M. Shiffman, PhD, is an economist working to solve problems related to human violence. A Gulf War veteran and former Senate National Security Advisor, Chief of Staff at US Customs and Border Protection, DARPA Principal Investigator, and Georgetown University professor, he founded two technology companies, Giant Oak, Inc, and Consilient, Inc. He is the author of The Economics of Violence (2020), and his essays have appeared in media outlets such as The Hill, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, TechCrunch, and others.

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