The U.S. is pushing Russians to defy Putin. But don’t call it regime change.

The United States is trying to take advantage of growing fissures in Russian society as an increasing number of that country’s citizens express opposition to dictator Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The U.S. strategy is often blunt and relies on information war tactics, such as President Joe Biden’s direct appeals to the Russian people or the State Department’s new Russian-language Telegram account, unveiled just days ago. But it likely also includes some clandestine elements, according to former intelligence officials, such as stepped-up efforts by American spies to recruit informants within the Russian political sphere.

Biden administration officials say their goal is not to oust Putin from power, but rather to make it impossible for him to ignore public sentiment and continue his increasingly brutal invasion. Their main guiding principle is to provide Russian citizens with facts and context that they cannot find on Kremlin-controlled outlets, whether online or through other media.

“We know many of you want no part of this war,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday in comments directed to the Russian people. “You — like Ukrainians, like Americans, like people everywhere — want the same basic things: good jobs, clean air and water, the chance to raise your kids in safe neighborhoods, to send them to good schools, to give them better lives than you had. How in the world does President Putin’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine help you achieve any of these things?”

Putin, meanwhile, is using his far-reaching control over Russian media to stir up nationalism in favor of the war. Russian news outlets already are filled with headlines appealing to such sentiments, like ones that falsely claim that Russian speakers in Ukraine face a “genocide.” And Putin is sure to use that same lever over time to persuade his people to blame sanctions imposed by the West, not him or his war, for the economic pain they already are feeling.

U.S. officials acknowledge they are treading on sensitive ground.

“The goal is to convey information and truth to the Russian people,” said Liz Allen, an assistant secretary of State for global public affairs, whose bureau is a leading player in the outreach to ordinary Russians. “We make decisions every day about what makes sense to say and what not to say.”

On Wednesday, Russia’s most prominent dissident, the imprisoned Alexei Navalny, urged his fellow citizens to stage daily protests against the war, calling Putin “our obviously insane czar.” He alluded to Putin’s ongoing jailing of thousands of Russians who’ve protested the war.

“If in order to stop the war we have to fill prisons and paddy wagons with ourselves, we will fill prisons and paddy wagons with ourselves,” Navalny said in a statement posted on his Twitter account.

Ordinary and oligarchs

Even before Putin sent his troops across the border into Ukraine last week, the Biden team had gone to unusual lengths to use information against him.

The administration repeatedly publicized intelligence about Putin’s plans, such as the number of troops he had gathered along Ukraine’s borders to efforts to plant fake stories to justify an attack. The U.S. initiative, historic in many ways, didn’t stop Putin, but it did help convince other countries that the Russian leader was serious about invading.

Since Putin sent his troops into Ukraine — eight years after first invading and annexing pieces of the neighboring country — there has been a significant outcry from ordinary as well as prominent Russians who question the war. This comes despite Russian laws, regulations and technological controls that make it hard to voice dissent.

Numerous Russians have attended anti-war demonstrations that have sprung up in dozens of cities across their country. Thousands have been arrested by Russian security forces as a result of expressing their opposition in the unsanctioned protests.

Tens of thousands of Russian professionals, from scientists to information technology workers, have signed petitions against the war. One declared that “the responsibility for unleashing a new war in Europe lies entirely with Russia.”

And many Russian celebrities, from comedians to athletes, have spoken out against the invasion. “It’s a catastrophe and a crime,” Oxxxymiron, a popular Russian rapper, declared in a video. He also canceled several sold-out concerts in protest.

Perhaps more of concern to Putin — who appears increasingly isolated, physically as well as psychologically from the sentiments of most of the 140 million people he rules — are the misgivings about the war being voiced by the country’s oligarchs.

Some of these wealthy elite have profited from Putin’s reign and helped keep him in power — while allegedly hiding his money for him — for more than 20 years. They are among individual Russians the United States and Europe are now hitting with sanctions.

In recent days, Russian billionaires Oleg Deripaska and Mikhail Fridman have called for an end to the war, according to The Financial Times and other media outlets.

While such reservations are often carefully voiced — avoiding direct criticism of Putin, for example — the fact that such figures are speaking out, and so quickly, is remarkable given the oppressive system Putin has constructed. At the same time, the growing isolation of Russia is a threat to the wealth of these tycoons.

The Biden administration is moving on multiple fronts, and often quite overtly, to exploit these cracks in Russian society. Its work is being complemented — even outshined by — Ukraine’s own information war tactics, which have ranged from viral videos to appeals to the parents of Russian soldiers.

In remarks delivered on Feb. 15, Biden argued the case against war to ordinary Russians.

“To the citizens of Russia: You are not our enemy,” the U.S. president said. “And I do not believe you want a bloody, destructive war against Ukraine — a country and a people with whom you share such deep ties of family, history, and culture.”

As Russian forces have attacked Ukrainian cities including the capital, Kyiv, the State Department and other U.S. government bodies have amped up their efforts to reach out to Russians. At the same time, Russians have directly felt the impact of U.S. and European sanctions on their country as the value of the ruble has crashed and they’ve been unable to get cash from their bank accounts.

State Department officials have blitzed social media networks, especially Twitter, while seeking to get American government voices onto Russian-speaking media.

Blinken has tweeted out messages in Cyrillic script addressed “to the people of Russia.” U.S. diplomats have offered to appear on Russian state-run media, and — as is often — when they are rebuffed by those outlets, they’ve appeared on what few independent media outlets are left in Russia. The department also has begun posting videos on its new Russian-language Telegram channel, @USApoRusski.

It’s tough to tell how much impact such efforts are having, especially given ongoing attempts by the Russian state to monitor and control citizens’ web access. It’s also early days; many Russians are only now absorbing the realities spawned by the invasion of Ukraine.

One key State Department’s Russian-language Twitter account, for example, had nearly 57,000 followers in May 2021, according to the most recent data captured by The Wayback Machine internet archive. It has 66,000 now. But another department Russian-language Facebook page has fewer than 19,000 followers.

State Department officials, however, say they’ve seen spikes in traffic from Russia on their various platforms, including www.state.gov and the department’s YouTube channel, during the Ukraine crisis.

Russia’s biggest social media network is VKontakte. State Department officials said the U.S. has a presence on the site, but it was not entirely clear how extensively it is used. (The United States has in the past sanctioned the leader of the site.)

The department’s public messages have tried to direct domestic anger toward Putin and his war, an approach it may need to continue as Russians’ lives are increasingly squeezed by the sanctions imposed by Washington and its allies.

“The open protest of Russians against President Putin and his war is a very courageous act,” reads one State Department message. “As President Biden said, the people of Russia are not our enemy. We blame this war on President Putin, not them.”

At times, U.S. officials have offered more emotional appeals.

After a Ukrainian diplomat publicly shared what he said were the contents of a heartbreaking text message exchange between a Russian soldier and his mother, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman seized the moment.

“These text messages would cut to any mother’s core,” she tweeted. “As a mother and grandmother, my heart is with all the Ukrainian and Russian mothers and fathers whose children are dying right now in Putin’s senseless war of aggression. #StopTheLies.”

‘Absolute information control’

U.S. officials deny that their information tactics and open support of Russian dissenters is part of an effort to oust Putin. Asked directly if regime change in Russia is what the Biden administration is seeking, a senior administration official said, “No, it’s not.” Biden himself said in the Feb. 15 remarks: “We do not seek to destabilize Russia.”

But Putin has long seen anti-government demonstrations, including past ones in Ukraine, in Arab countries, and in Russia itself, as being ginned up by the United States in hopes of toppling world leaders. Under his guidance, the Kremlin has waged its own information war against America, including during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Putin’s government apparatus has already begun cracking down on media coverage of the war, including reports on the protests against it in Russia. Among the Kremlin’s targets is Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which has seen a surge of interest from Russians amid the war.

RFE/RL — which is funded by the U.S. government but retains editorial independence — has rejected Russian government demands that it censor its content. It has seen some of its programs blocked and is seeking other ways to get information to Russian audiences.

The Kremlin also has begun to limit or slow down access to sites like Facebook and Twitter. “Their goal is pretty clear: I think it’s absolute information control,” RFE/RL’s President and CEO Jamie Fly said of the Russian state.

Russia’s pro-democracy movement is weaker than it’s been in the past. Putin has killed, imprisoned or pushed into exile many of the most skilled Russians willing to stand up to him, including Navalny. And U.S. officials are unwilling to say much about what covert methods they are using to weaken Putin’s grasp on power, especially when it comes to the oligarchs.

Former U.S. officials, however, say such moments are ripe for a country like the United States to penetrate Putin’s inner circle as well as to recruit informants from within Russia’s bureaucracy.

“There are doubtless prominent elites who will have little stomach for the moral or financial bankruptcy of the Kremlin’s moves here,” said Gavin Wilde, a former National Security Council official who dealt with Russia.

He agreed that the “nameless rank-and-file are probably ripe for recruitment,” but said it might be hard for U.S. officials to reach them given restraints the Kremlin is reported to have put on their travel. Both countries have also engaged in years of tit-for-tats that have led to expulsions of one another’s diplomats. Just this week, the United States said it has begun the process of expelling 13 Russians based at the United Nations, all of whom it suspects were engaged in espionage.

Many Russians who decide to assist the U.S. government often do so after years of growing unhappiness with their own leadership, said John Sipher, a former CIA officer who worked in Russia. “They realize the system is rotten,” he said. “It’s so dirty at the top that they have no choice.”

In the long run, the most potent outreach to Russians may not come from the United States but from Ukrainians, whose political leaders as well as ordinary citizens are proving deft at information warfare. Many Ukrainians and Russians have friends in each other’s countries, not to mention relatives.

From a viral video of an elderly women chiding Russian soldiers to a Ukrainian government effort to help Russian families use online platforms to identify soldiers killed or captured, Kyiv is flexing its media muscle.

That includes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who, as his country faced the wrath of Russia’s military, directly addressed the Russian people in an emotional speech.

“If the Russian leaders don’t want to sit with us behind the table for the sake of peace, maybe they will sit behind the table with you,” Zelenskyy said. “Do Russians want the war? I would like to know the answer. But the answer depends only on you, citizens of the Russian Federation.”

Quint Forgey contributed reporting to this report.

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