Staunton, November 8 – Vladimir Putin’s moves to silence Ekho Moskvy, the Russian capital’s last independent radio station, and thus establish a virtual monopoly over the broadcast media in Moscow demand a US response, something Washington can and must do if it is to effectively counter the Kremlin leader’s aggressive course.
That response should at a minimum take the form of reviving and expanding US international broadcasting, a low-cost option that proved its effectiveness against Hitler during World War II and against the Soviets during the Cold War and that can be equally effective against Putin now.
At a minimum, there are five things that the US should do now.
First, while working to launch a direct-to-home satellite television system that can broadcast directly to Russian viewers, the US should restart its shortwave broadcasting. At the end of the Cold War and because of changes in listenership patterns, the US curtailed and then ended its shortwave broadcasting to the former Soviet space.
Some thought the Internet would be sufficient to make up for that, but others recognized that radio broadcasting reaches a different and larger audience. And consequently, even as people talked about an Internet future, they sought to open FM broadcasting stations to reach that audience.
In the 1990s, such a strategy appeared sensible if not beyond criticism. But it no longer is. That is because it has put US broadcasting in a stranglehold Putin fully understands. To broadcast in FM, the US in almost all cases must have stations on the territories of Russia or countries it wants to reach.
On the one hand, that gives governments a veto over the existence of these stations. But on the other, and more subtly and seriously, it means that in some cases, American broadcasters have engaged in self-censorship lest they provoke the “host” governments into moving against them, an approach that may be understandable but is in fact inexcusable.
Shortwave broadcasting, as its opponents always say, is indeed difficult to listen to and has a declining audience. But its stations can be on US or allied soil and as a result the US can deliver accurate news without its journalists or their managers looking over their shoulders at governments which are anything but interested in honest journalism.
Second, the US should revive the basic principles of surrogate broadcasting even as it continues to have a national service in the same languages. During the Cold War, the US had two distinct kinds of broadcasting, surrogate and national. Each had its special characteristics, and each served a particular need.
Surrogate broadcasting involved having people from a region broadcast to their homelands, like the famous BBC broadcasts to occupied France in which “Frenchmen are speaking to Frenchmen.” It enjoyed special credibility as a result, and it operated under the principle of not broadcasting anything that was “inconsistent with US policy.”
That principle was very different from the one under which the government broadcasters staffed by Americans or those with green cards are operating. They were required to broadcast only that which was “consistent with US policy,” a distinction that highlights why both were needed and both were listened to.
Soviet-era listeners turned to the surrogate broadcasters of RFE/RL in order to hear what they would hear from their own stations if their countries had been free. They turned to the VOA in order to learn not only more about the United States but also about what Washington policies in fact were.
Both were necessary, and both remain necessary. Unfortunately, in recent years and in the name of saving money, the distinctions between the two have been blurred, with the allocation of resources following language lines rather than being divided between surrogates and national stations. That should be changed and changed now.
Third, the US should increase the number of non-Russian languages of the Russian Federation in which it broadcasts. RFE/RL currently broadcasts to the Russian Federation in Russian, Tatar, Bashkir, and three languages of the North Caucasus. For obvious reasons, it should be broadcasting in other non-Russian languages as well.
Among the primary candidates for new services in this area are the Finno-Ugric peoples of the Middle Volga and the North and, especially in the current context, the large number of Ukrainians who have been living in the Far East for more than a century. (The US did broadcast to this language community briefly in the mid-1980s.)
Such broadcasts like those to the union republic nations in Soviet times would send a message of hope to these peoples that they are not forgotten and their aspirations are respected by the West, even as it sent a message to Moscow that the whole world is watching what the Russian regime is doing to its own people outside Moscow’s ring road.
Fourth, the US should begin, in cooperation with the non-Russian countries around Russia currently threatened by Putin’s aggressive policies, 24/7 television networks in Russian. The last year has shown how dangerous it can be when Russian speakers in the non-Russian countries around Russia get their news, information, and ideas from Moscow broadcasters.
In all too many cases, the governments of the former Soviet republics and the three formerly occupied Baltic states have been reluctant for domestic reasons of nation building to broadcast in Russian. But what that has meant is that Russians and Russian speakers listen not to national services but to Moscow-supplied ones.
That was a problem even before Putin began exploiting it for his aggressive purposes. Now, because he is doing so in Ukraine and elsewhere, it is so serious that at least some of these countries are changing their approach, and the US in cooperation with them and the EU has launched special daily programs, with repeats, in Russian for this audience.
That is a start, but it is only a start. What is needed are channels Russians and Russian speakers in these countries will turn to for all of their programming needs. It is unfortunately the case that few will watch Moscow television for entertainment and then switch to such US programming for news and commentary.
And fifth, because Putin is making it ever more difficult for normal journalistic activities, the US should restore a research function for its radios. During the cold war, it was extremely difficult to get information about many things going on in the USSR; now, thanks to Putin and his policies, it is once again becoming difficult.
In Soviet times, the US established at RFE/RL a serious research program. (The author of these lines is proud to have been associated with that program in 1989-1990.) With the end of communism and the explosion of news sources, those who oversaw the radios assumed that journalists could do the job without special research support.
That position was never as defensible as many thought, but it did lead to a cutback and then the destruction of this research function. Now, the situation has changed, and a research effort is needed once again.