Although Russia is performing poorly in Ukraine, Putin has an ace up his sleeve against the West: information warfare. As the world prepares to celebrate World Press Freedom Day on Wednesday, Russia is weaponizing the free speech debate to undermine American democracy. It’s high time Washington fights back. For better or for worse, the best way to neutralize Russia’s efforts is to impose “reflexive control” on Russia.

 Putin understands how much Americans value the First Amendment; over the years, he has exploited it to turn Americans against censoring Russian disinformation. In 2017, after Russian state media channel Russia Today (RT) registered as a foreign agent, prompting the US Conressional Correspondent’s Gallery to remove RT America’s Capitol Hill press credentials, the Kremlin launched an attack on the US government’s constitutional legitimacy.

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 Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov called the decision “disappointing, incorrect and violating the principles of freedom of the press, freedom of speech.” He concluded that this “unsuccessful period in American history will sooner or later be resolved by the restoration of democratic freedoms.”

 Recently, the Kremlin has again attempted to throw the US government’s constitutionality into question. In the wake of Russia’s unjust detainment of US journalist Evan Gershkovich, the US restricted certain Russian journalists from entering the country. [Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria] Zakharova responded on her Telegram channel that “the manipulation of freedom of speech and the [infringement] on rights of journalists is obvious.” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s warned  Russia will not forgive.

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 Echoing Zakharova, Lavrov voiced how “A country that calls itself the strongest, smartest, free and fair country has chickened out… showing what its sworn assurances about protecting freedom of speech and access to information are really worth.”

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 Why is Russia targeting the US government’s supposed violations of the First Amendment? Because Putin’s agenda relies on turning Americans against each other. 

 Since Putin first came to power, he has conducted an information offensive aimed at gaining “reflexive control” of American society. “Reflexive control” is an old Soviet concept, foreign to most Americans. It encompasses interfering in another country’s decision-making until the government is compelled to take actions in Russia’s interest. In the words of Russia’s Ministry of Defense, information war works through “massive psychological manipulation of the population to destabilize the state and society.”

 In America’s ever more divided society, Putin knows provoking polarization is the easiest way to destabilize the US Putin sees how salient messages surrounding First Amendment rights are with the American public and has since focused his reflexive operations around this theme. In his “reflexive control” attack, Putin has centered in on gaining the trust of America’s far right and far left.

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 After Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s recent firing, Sergey Lavrov commented that “The First Amendment of the United States Constitution apparently means nothing in practice… clearly, the wealth of views in the American information space has suffered.” While Carlson parroted Russian propaganda and disinformation, Putin knows twisting the truth will attract followers. Indeed, the fallout of Carlson’s firing has been a dream come true for Putin. He wants both democrats and republicans to fight with each other as part of Russia’s military “reflexive control” game.

 The US should continue to employ defensive measures like banning Russian media and sanctioning individuals who undermine digital democracy; however, relying purely on defensive tactics is insufficient. During World Press Freedom Day, the US must call a spade a spade and emphasize the US will take an active role in combatting Russia’s information war.

 The US is no stranger to offensive information operations. During the Cold War, the CIA combatted Soviet influence through information and culture. Washington should embrace this effective strategy of reflexive control and use it.

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 Instead of selling the American Dream, the US should show Russians “the Russian dream” emphasizing that Russian “political greatness” is impossible under Putin’s rule. The US can use examples like Putin’s failures in Ukraine or his regime’s widespread corruption to cultivate not only the liberal but also the far-right opposition to Putin in the information space.

 US information operations should also target the groups Putin’s regime harms most. Putin has been sending mostly ethnic minorities to fight in Ukraine, meaning soldier deaths have disproportionately impacted ethnic minority communities. Putin’s nightmare is that ethnic minorities could form secessionist movements and divide Russia’s multi-ethnic society. The US should ensure every minority in Russia knows how they are being used by the Kremlin.

 As Russia continues to destabilize regions like Moldova, Georgia, the Western Balkans, Syria, and Sudan, the US should use information operations to expose Russia as an unreliable ally. After hostilities broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh region last year, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan asked the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) security alliance to intervene. Russia did not help.

 Russia has been trying to show for years that NATO is a toothless alliance. It is time for the US to turn the script on Moscow’s information warfare and use truthful information operations to show the CSTO is not a credible alliance. 

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 Russian military strategists Chekinov and Bogdanov have argued that: “In the ongoing revolution in information technologies, information and psychological warfare will largely lay the groundwork for victory.” This statement is true: instead of continuing to sit in the back seat, Washington must take the helm in the information space.

 Two can play the information game and the US, unlike Russia, has the truth on its side.

 The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

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