We have not been good at differentiating between Russia as a country, the Russian people and Vladimir Putin. Russian society as a whole has been kidnapped by its president. Mr.Putin could be congratulated for the swiftness of action, but he knows it is not that difficult to kidnap a physically frail, mentally vulnerable society, which has been fatigued by years of reforms/corruption/robbery/humiliation. To use Judo as a metaphor: a weak, beaten up Judo-fighter who has just come out of a series of fights stands no chance against a rested, well coached one, who is in superb shape. No wonder that the weak, led by a natural instinct of survival, let down their arms and seek the cover of the powerful and strong.
The west did not understand, that the "poison" leading to Russian society's breakdown was being fed, and we did fairly little to administer an antidote. We did almost nothing to help counter the aggressive way in which Vladimir Putin has changed Russian society and gradually turned it against the west. Did we respond properly and with wisdom to the cry for help by crowds who stand for democracy and freedom, while it was still possible? Did we support those who understand that the future of Russia lies in a society and an economy governed by the rule of law, where checks and balances are real, where competition is the road to success?
No, we did not.
Back in the days of the cold war, the west made serious efforts to engage with the societies of Eastern Europe, including Russia. The west had a dialogue with those societies, today there is none. There was an effort to explain the realities of democratic societies. Through popular culture, rock music, literature sent over the airwaves and later satellite television there was a communication with the masses. Radio Free Europe, BBC, Deutche Welle was everywhere, opening a window to the real world for millions and millions. The propaganda machines of the illiberal regimes Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union could not cope with this. Fashion, consumer goods were all messengers of a better life, of respect for the individual.
There was a serious engagement with the elites as well. The message was subtle but hard: we respect you, we appreciate you, we want to work with you. The cultural elites of Eastern Europe and Russia wanted to be part of a "global scene", even if this entailed risks of persecution and prison terms. It did not matter: they would take their punishment and walk into the sometimes inhumane and terrible prisons knowing that they are taken seriously by their peers in the free world. They cherished the solidarity and friendship of authors, directors, writers, actors and dancers in the west, which meant the world to them. There was serious a dialogue, with the Russian middle class, which even if battered and weak, still had a stance and had strong views about a better, freer, richer and liberal future.
Business contacts and political relations, however important, do not build the fundaments of long lasting relationships. Human contacts and networks, and personal experiences are where you establish mutual respect and create the foundations which can survive a crisis and conflict.
The Russian public's reaction to the invasion of Ukraine is a sign that we are now faced with a society, which is brainwashed, perhaps, even more than during Soviet times. Russians live in the artificially created universe of Vladimir Putin, in a glass dome, which we have not made serious efforts to penetrate. He dominates the airwaves in a sophisticated and complex manner. His political ancestors in the Soviet Union would be proud. He has in his 15 years of reign silenced almost all independent TV stations or newspapers. He has a sophisticated and nationalistic propaganda machine to influence and control the minds of Russians inside Russia and in neighboring countries. He has silenced the voice of civil society. He has also created a global network of TV channels and NGOs, well-staffed and financed and sophisticated. Like in the past, the Russian propagandists have a detailed and tailor made plan for each country that matters.
We have no such plan for Russia.
It is time to engage with Russians of all levels. We must find a way to communicate with the man on the street, with the political, economic and cultural elites. We need to be strategic and smart. Russians would listen, if we would find a way to get to them, if we made sincere and respectful efforts to shatter the glass dome of mental isolation. There needs to be a serious dialogue. We must build on the fact that Russians want to be respected by the rest of the world, first and foremost by Americans and Europeans. There are inroads to their minds, if we just had the courage and perseverance.
It is an enormous challenge to win back the hearts and minds of Russians. This is a far greater challenge than imposing sanctions. It is however doable.
Paul (McCartney) and Ringo (Starr), any ideas?