While Russian troops are again massing at the Ukrainian border, and the first reports of renewed fighting are heard, Russian President Vladimir Putin is cracking down hard on the free flow of information in his republic. What is Putin preparing for? And what can be done to break the hold he imposes on his people?
It is hardly surprising that Putin would fear his own, in a nation that has seen more than its fair share of revolutions and uprisings. Putin was around when the governments of Warsaw Pact countries were toppled by their own people. More recently, he witnessed the revolutions of the Arab Spring - however shortlived they may have been. Putin saw firsthand how easily information, when freely spread, can rile a population. And while Russians may support his aggressive stance against Western interference in Russian affairs, the past months have shown that Russians don't like news reports about dead Russian soldiers.
Reports show that Putin is gearing up for something. He has made it illegal for anyone to report on deceased Russian soldiers in peacetime, and he has organized mobile crematoriums in a bid to prevent burials of the corpses of Russian soldiers. The first law basically forbids mothers from talking about their dead sons, while the crematoriums keep parents from paying their last respects to their sons. No body, no crime. As has so often been the case in Russian history, Russia's sons are seen by their ruler as expendable pawns.
Despite his best efforts to quell reports about dead Russians in Ukraine, news stories about burials, the discovery of graves evidently containing Russian soldiers, and mothers grieving their sons' deaths, have been finding their way to Russian society thanks to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and various blogs. Consequently, after earlier obliging bloggers to only post stories under their real names and to register with the authorities, Putin has threatened to block said social media services if they don't comply with his strict rules on information.
So Putin shows the world what he fears most. The next question is how to play on that fear. Instead of simply accepting that there's nothing that can be done, Putin's adversaries should actively direct Russian people to Russian stories about fallen Russian soldiers. Russians should be informed about ways to circumvent censorship and blocking, using free tunneling software such as Psiphon, which is also available for Android phones.
This approach requires the United States and its European allies to put some serious muscle into information warfare. The piecemeal approach used so far of handing out some money here and there is not helping the Russian people. And right now help is what they deserve - especially as events at the Russian-Ukrainian border point to a very blood summer.