Claude Moniquet is co-CEO of the Strategic Intelligence and Security Center. He’s a former agent of the Directorate-General for External Security and a former journalist.
Unleashed on February 24, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine was promptly followed by a massive commitment from Europe.
The pledge came in the form of arms supplies, a constant flow of intelligence to support Ukrainian military operations, and the adoption of several rounds of sanctions — with the avowed aim of bringing the Russian economy to its knees — all accompanied by the expulsion of hundreds of “diplomats” and the political isolation of the Kremlin.
On closer inspection, however, this strategy lacked an essential element: doing everything possible to ensure free and objective information for Russian society. And it’s well past time for Europe to act in support of the country’s free press.
The current figures speak for themselves: Before the outbreak of the war against Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity rating was around 65 percent. Four months later, it has risen to 85 percent.
Of course, coming from a country where those in power are constantly manipulating the facts to create a “parallel truth,” one can doubt these figures, but they nevertheless reflect a reality: The majority of Russian society approves the actions of its president and believes in the official version of a defensive operation against “NATO aggression” and the need to “de-Nazify” Ukraine.
Seen from Paris, Brussels or London, it’s hard to understand such enthusiasm from an otherwise peaceful people. But the reasoning is tragically simple — since well before the war, Russians have been subjected to constant hype from state media and those close to the government.
They tirelessly repeat the same lies: Russia is under siege by NATO — which wants to destroy it — and must defend itself; Ukraine was going to receive nuclear weapons directed against Moscow; and the Americans had installed dozens of biological warfare laboratories there, developing viruses to decimate the unfortunate Russian population. So on and so forth. . .
This is the official line — pitiful, not to say grotesque.
But on the other side? There’s less and less to counter the narrative each day.
Not content with attacking NGOs defending human rights or the rule of law, following the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin unleashed an unprecedented crackdown on independent journalism.
To ban or block the most popular critical media and silence journalists, the authorities are using new laws, allowing them to “combat false information” or label outlets as “foreign agents.” For example, the mere use of the word “war,” rather than the Orwellian euphemism “special military operation,” can result in 15 years’ imprisonment for the “guilty.”
A protester holds a placard reading “Putin – No!” during an opposition rally in central Moscow, in 2019, to demand internet freedom in Russia | Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images
By the end of June, no fewer than 166 independent media outlets, journalists and bloggers have been declared foreign agents. To name just a few, the Moscow Times, Dozhd, Meduza and Novaya Gazeta are now either dead or on borrowed time. Even the highly respected radio station “Echo of Moscow” had to announce its liquidation after being blocked by the authorities, despite being majority owned by the Gazprom group.
And today, the censors’ sights are now set on RBK — one of the last remaining independent media groups in Russia, which publishes a business daily and broadcasts a TV channel, among other things. The reason for its targeting: RBK covers the war in an objective and unbiased way, broadcasting live and uncut speeches by top Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as well as European and American politicians. The group’s basic principle corresponds to the highest standards of journalism, with different opinions expressed in all its outlets.
However, with the federal agency Roskomnadzor constantly monitoring every story about the war in Ukraine, RBK is about to be shut down, and its current persecution presents a textbook case.
In addition to the repressive new laws mentioned above, the government has multiple other weapons to silence the independent press. For example, Rosneft, the state-owned oil giant, has launched several legal actions against RBK since 2017, claiming astronomical damages, including a 2021 lawsuit to the tune of $7 million — the equivalent of RBK’s pre-tax profit.
Not surprisingly, the media group has lost two of these cases to date, and in the coming weeks, it is likely to lose the third. And such a conviction would obviously bankrupt the company.
The eventual closure — or forced bankruptcy — of RBK will result in the disappearance of one of the last remaining independent voices in the Russian media landscape, as well as job losses for more than 1,000 people, including nearly 600 journalists with a proven commitment to free expression.
However, to help defend and protect a “free” Russian press, the European Union still has a card to play.
For a few million euros, or tens of millions at the most — a pittance compared to the cost of sanctions, or the arms delivered to Kyiv — Brussels could set up a fund to help independent journalism in Russia.
In concrete terms, this assistance could take various forms, from offering necessarily discreet support for independent journalists and bloggers who choose to remain in Russia, to helping relocate certain editorial centers outside Russian borders and establishing temporary offices in the West with journalists who wish to do so and their families.
Even more than before, in the 21st century, a war is not only won on the field but also by speaking to the heart and reason of the citizens concerned.
And yes, in this context, investing in free and objective information can also constitute a “grand strategy.”