Vladimir Putin delivers an address every May 9 to celebrate Victory Day, which marks the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany in World War II — what Russians dub the “Great Patriotic War.”
The strongman will almost certainly use Tuesday’s speech to rationalize his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
The United States should turn the tables by highlighting for the Russian people the full extent of Putin’s failings.
Putin has long sought to exploit the Great Patriotic War’s legacy to assert Russia’s status abroad and legitimize his rule at home.
In the Russian telling, the Soviet Union, with little help from the West, defeated Nazi Germany and saved Europe.
The Soviets lost more than 27 million people in the war, which retains a deep emotional resonance for many Russians.
Kremlin propaganda conveniently erases uncomfortable parts of this history, whitewashing Moscow’s contribution to the war’s outbreak via the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in which the Soviet Union and Germany carved out spheres of influence in Europe.
Putin has increasingly drawn on the Soviet defeat of Nazi invaders to cast Russia as resisting the domination of the US-led West.
The Russian leader paints his invasion of Ukraine as part of this broader struggle.
Russia had to act, he argues, to ensure its security after the West installed a neo-Nazi proxy regime in Kyiv.
“Victory will be ours, like in 1945,” Putin declared during last year’s speech. Russians are ensuring “there is no room in the world for Nazis.”
Given his military’s poor performance, he will not be able to declare victory Tuesday.
And many Russian cities have canceled their annual military parades due to security concerns.
The supposed drone assassination attempt on Putin was likely a false-flag operation, but authorities do have justified fears of Ukrainian strikes.
Nevertheless, Putin will speak per tradition at the Victory Parade on Red Square, with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu predicting more than 10,000 people will show up to watch.
He will surely once again use the occasion to legitimize his despotic regime and aggression against Ukraine — and blame the West for it.
Washington should flip the script by conducting information operations that exploit Russian nationalism.
While lauding the virtues of Western democracy won’t resonate with most Russians, messaging that highlights Putin’s geopolitical failures will appeal to nationalistic pride.
Nationalism has steadily risen in Russia, thanks largely to Kremlin propaganda.
Tellingly, 56% of Russians now regard Joseph Stalin as a “great leader.”
A 2017 poll by the independent Levada Center found that a quarter of respondents believed Stalin’s repressions were “historically justified,” while 13% admitted they knew “nothing” about his crimes.
Even more worryingly, support for Stalin has grown the most amongst young people.
Washington should capitalize on this to show Russians how Putin fails to live up to his own narratives.
Whereas Moscow depicts Stalin as a strong leader and compares the Ukraine invasion to the Great Patriotic War, US information operations could highlight how Putin has damaged Russia’s military and geopolitical prowess by fostering corruption.
Another powerful tool is humor.
Russian state censors are particularly keen to stamp out anti-regime messaging that employs dark humor and satire because this content appeals strongly to Russians.
The government banned the satirical film “The Death of Stalin,” which a Communist Party senior official labeled a “form of psychological warfare.”
US information operations should employ humor wherever possible.
Washington could revive old Soviet-era jokes about Stalin, retrofit them to apply to Putin and make humorous memes to post on Russian social media Tuesday.
Engage with black humor and sarcasm.
America, for instance, could remind the Russians of Stalin’s statement “Death is the solution to all problems. No man — no problem” — and make parallels to Putin’s war in Ukraine.
They can make memes showing poverty in Russia thanks to Putin’s war and revive them with an old Soviet joke: “Life has become better, comrades.”
Russian imperialism is alive and well.
Russians are very proud of their country, and many believe in Great Russia and the “Russian World,” Russkiy mir, which can be an asset in US information operations.
After the drone attack on the Kremlin and the latest threat Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the paramilitary Wagner Group, issued to withdraw from Bakhmut, the far-right groups should be reminded that Putin’s poor military performance is making Russia a pariah state.
To bolster Russia’s “Patriotic” World War II narrative, Putin has been trying to erase historical truths.
The United States should launch an offensive information-operations campaign globally emphasizing the truth about the Soviet-Nazi alliance and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Although Putin is performing poorly on the battlefield in Ukraine, Defense Minister Shoigu declared that “information has become a weapon.”
Since the Cold War, the US use of information warfare has deteriorated amid a fixation on hard power.
It is time to start winning the information war against the Kremlin.
Russia has been sowing chaos through polarizing America and exploiting domestic vulnerabilities for years.
Let’s flip the script on Moscow’s information warfare and remind Putin that two can play at that game.
Ivana Stradner is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
This story originally appeared on NYPost