Three Russian soldiers sit in front of a TV camera in Ukraine. Their faces and hands are swollen and bloody from the shrapnel, the older man missing a few teeth. He, Astakhov Dmitriy Michailovich, a lieutenant colonel in the Russian army and now a prisoner-of-war, is first to speak: ‘While being in Russia, we were told by the media that Ukraine is dominated by fascists, that nationalists and Nazis have seized power, that ordinary people need some help to get rid of this yoke. Don’t judge me too harshly.’
He explained: ‘Of course we have Internet. Sometimes we get something from other sources. Although we had some doubts, we knew little about the situation.’
What changed his mind? ‘I personally am a big supporter of Ukrainian boxers.’ He then names some of the more famous ones. ‘And then I heard they decided to stay and fight for their country. They did not want us here. I feel shame that we came to this country. I don’t know why we did it. We knew so little.’
War happens on many fronts. There is the battlefield with its tanks, mortars and machine guns. Much has already been said about this. Our TV screens bring the tragedy of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine into our living rooms, wherever you are in the world: images of destroyed buildings, bridges, lives, dreams.
But another war rages, one that started much earlier: an information war. Says Michailovich: ‘I am sorry for the people still in Russia. They are not guilty. Their guilt is that they are misinformed.’
South Africans of a certain age know all too well what the lieutenant colonel means. In the 1970s young Afrikaner men was sent to a border war that they and the rest of the country knew little about. Fueled by National Party propaganda and American dollars these young men were brainwashed to believe they fought on the right side of history. Look at the faces of those two soldiers next to Michailovich and you’ll see the shock of truth in their eyes.
It is difficult to believe that propaganda can have such an influence on us. It helps to know that it is not a recent phenomenon. A 2015 study by five economists tell, for example, the remarkable story of the radio in Nazi Germany. During the 1920s, the Weimar Republic began using this new technology to broadcast news to the public. Being relatively cheap, the radio spread like wildfire, bringing (political) news directly into people’s homes. The news service of the Weimar Republic was initially successful in reducing radicalism: those areas that had radio signal reception were less likely to vote for the fledgling Nazi party in 1928. But after Hitler became chancellor in 1933, the radio station began to broadcast only Nazi propaganda. This had exactly the opposite effect: those areas with radio signal were now more likely to vote for the Nazis. There were also more antisemitic attacks in those areas. It was for this reason that Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, called the radio the ‘most important instrument of mass influence’.
It wasn’t just the Germans that were susceptible to radio propaganda during World War II. The economist Tianyi Wang studied the consequences of Father Charles Coughlin’s popular but fascist radio programme in the United States. Wang shows that areas with reception of Father Coughlin’s programme were more likely to sign up to pro-Nazi societies and less likely to buy War Bonds, the financial instruments that helped finance the war against Germany.
The radio’s influence was not always negative. Last week Wednesday, Wang presented a different paper at the LEAP Seminar Series. He shows that exposure to black radio stations during the Civil Rights movement in the United States increased the likelihood of black Americans to register to vote and to obtain larger budget transfers for their district.
Another example of war propaganda comes from our own continent. A fascinating 2014 study by David Yanagizawa-Drott shows that a popular radio station in Rwanda responsible was for at least 10% of the violence against Tutsis in the 1994 genocide. The study benefits from the rugged Rwandan terrain to compare villages on opposite sides of a hill: one had reception and the other did not. During the weeks in which the radio station explicitly encouraged violence, the village with radio signal reception had much higher death rates than in the village without reception.
That Russian troops were similarly brainwashed by Putin’s propaganda machine is clear. The question is: what now?
Given that the West is unlikely to send their own troops to Ukraine, the most logical alternative is another theatre of war: economic sanctions. The idea is simple: hurt Russia, notably the rich, financially, and that will a) force Russia to cut back on military spending and b) put pressure on Putin to change direction. And indeed, the scale of sanctions imposed was historic. To name just one: the US immobilised the Russian central bank’s reserves it held in the US financial system.
But do sanctions work? On the one side, there are those that suggest that the scale of these interventions are likely to push Russia into insolvency, forcing change. On the other side, there are those that point to history and ask: what evidence do we have that sanctions do work?
The answer: not a lot. South Africa is a case in point. During the 1980s, South Africa faced sanctions for almost a decade. Sure, it was not as bad as the Russian sanctions now, but it was pretty devastating too: at one stage, South Africa had officially two exchange rates. Why would it not work? The economist Mats Lundahl argued then that sanctions against South Africa will only further legitimise the National Party: ‘Sanctions have different impacts on different groups, as does the apartheid system itself. Some groups gain while others lose. Thus, there is scope for conflicts of interests within the white community, and if those groups that stand to gain if sanctions are imposed are politically influential, the sanctions weapon may work in the completely wrong direction.’
It is very likely that Putin is relatively immune to sanctions. I suspect the strongmen that support and protect him are too. Yes, Russians suffer the consequences – and of course those wealthy oligarchs who have had their yachts and football clubs seized – but does Putin really care about those groups?
Maybe the economic sanctions are indeed severe enough to bring Putin to new insights. Maybe new technologies – just like the radio in the 1920s – allow Russians to access the truth about events in Ukraine. Maybe that would lead to a revolution within Russia. Maybe. But there is also a good chance that, fuelled by Russian propaganda, sanctions notwithstanding, the tragedy in Ukraine continues for some time to come.
* An edited version of this article first appeared in Rapport on 13 March. Parts of this chapter will appear in an updated version of Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom to be published by Cambridge University Press in July.