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The U.S. Is Being Routed by Russia in the Information War Over Ukraine

Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Russia’s isolation grows by the hour. Last month, 100 nations endorsed a U.N. resolution to condemn the annexation of Crimea. Earlier this month, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe deprived Russia of its voting rights in the body. One of the most reposted, regrettably racist, Russian-language tweets in April marvels that even Nigeria’s U.N. representative is now lecturing the Kremlin about the ills of “nineteenth-century-style spheres of influence.”

If you think any of this fazes most Russians, you are wrong.

President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings are at a five-year-high, Moscow’s land grab in Crimea enjoys wide support, and most Russians (63 percent, in fact) are confident in the state-run media’s objectivity. Economists are fond of pointing to the massive losses Russia absorbs on the Moscow stock exchange every time the Kremlin provokes new trouble in Ukraine. Just on Monday, the MICEX dropped 2.5 percent, erasing billions of dollars in market capitalization. So far, by and large, ordinary Russians do not care. Not while there’s a war on, it seems.

For all its success in rallying the international and European communities to its side, the United States’ effort to win over Russians has failed. This is true despite Moscow’s evident defeat in the “information war” over Ukraine. Russia’s political isolation has even produced a popular joke:

Two Russian tankmen are sitting in a Parisian café, drinking coffee, and eating croissants. Several columns of Russian tanks are parked outside. A stream of troops is passing by, headed westward. One tankman says to the other, “There is one thing I do regret: that we lost the information war over Ukraine.”

How can the U.S. be expected to win the hearts and minds of a people capable of a joke like that?

Before devising how to break through to Russians, Washington should pause a moment to understand what it’s done wrong so far. One of President Obama’s strongest signals to the Kremlin throughout the Ukraine crisis has been America’s second round of sanctions, which targeted 16 of Putin’s closest political allies. The list includes four members of Putin’s so-called “inner circle”—an attempt to sow dissension within the Kremlin’s ranks, and a symbolic gesture implying that Putin’s power is owed to illegitimate business ties.  

Putin’s dubious connections to these men—billionaires like Gennady Timchenko and the Rotenberg brothers—could be politically explosive. Thanks in no small part to Putin’s own ceaseless vilification of 1990s-era oligarchs, any relationship with big business has the potential to ruin a Russian politician. As columnist Oleg Kashin observes, rumors about dirty dealings with men like Timchenko and the Rotenbergs have mushroomed into the Kremlin’s biggest liability today. This is why opposition leader Alexey Navalny has focused his anti-corruption activism on precisely this pressure point.  

But when the U.S. published its sanctions against Russian elites, it bungled the timing: the list was made public just hours after a rare and widely read op-ed in the New York Times by none other than Alexei Navalny. That article, “How to Punish Putin,” named all four of the men the Treasury Department identified as “members of the Inner Circle” and called for the U.S. to sanction them. Navalny’s supporters joked about the coincidence, but the political fallout was terrible for the Russian opposition. Already considered a fifth column inside Russia, it looked to really be working hand in glove with the American government.

The White House might be forgiven for the unfortunate timing, except this isn’t the first time Washington has displayed this kind of cluelessness. Almost five years ago, Obama scaled back the deployment of U.S. missile-defense installations in Eastern Europe, paving the way for the New Start Treaty and a brief thaw in relations with the Kremlin. It was a huge concession to Moscow at the expense of the Poles and, making matters worse, the announcement came on September 17, 2009, the seventieth anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland. This inattention to detail only exacerbated the sense that the U.S. was throwing Poland under the bus for the sake of its relationship with Russia, which had already been cultivating doubts about America’s commitment to Eastern Europe. (Less than three months later, Poland's prime minister would say of America and its “reset” with Russia, “I can only have the satisfaction of being the first prime minister over the past fifteen years who isn’t so enchanted with our ally.”) 

The biggest fumble came this week, when the White House confirmed that CIA Director John Brennan traveled to Kiev last weekend. The Russian government and media have been loudly insisting that American spies orchestrated the overthrow of the Yanukovych government. And now it looked like Russian claims that the U.S. government was helping Kiev crack down on separatists in the Donbas region were true.  

For its part, the State Department has been trying to reach out to Russian speakers on the Internet for years, but the crisis in Ukraine has highlighted just how clumsy those efforts are. Earlier this month, Russia’s Foreign Ministry went so far as to lampoon the U.S. embassy to Russia, which tweeted—to the amusement of many—a misspelled hashtag that was supposed to say “the isolation of Russia.” Russia’s diplomats warned the U.S. that it ought to learn how to spell a country’s name before spreading “spam” and offered their proofreading services to the State Department’s press office. Recently retired U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul can’t seem to let go either, which only fuels the Russian trope of weak and pathetic Americans in thrall to Russia. He remains active online, where he engages Internet trolls earnestly, and regularly reinvents the rules of Russian grammar and spelling.

The State Department does operate a Russian-language Twitter account called “Progress for Ukraine,” where it posts snazzy-looking, correctly spelled infographics, but many of its posts only recycle links from other accounts run by the OSCE, NATO, and so on. Even when the U.S. remembers to check the calendar and proofread its messages, outreach to Russians has been underwhelming. The other day, for instance, the State Department was soliciting Twitter users for questions with a hashtag that translates to the less-than-sexy “the Hour of Truth.”

When Russians see this, it’s hard to expect them to believe that America understands them. Language like this is clearly intended to convey a sense of certitude and righteousness. On the Internet, and perhaps for Russians in general, this humorlessness and lack of irony is a death sentence. Until the Americans understand this, Russian jokes will win every time.