How to break through Putin’s propaganda in Russia

President Biden has called for Vladimir Putin’s ouster. But only Russians can remove Mr. Putin. For this reason, in addition to supplying arms to Ukraine, the US must take steps to reach out to the Russian people.

Mr. Putin understands that in order to prevail in Ukraine he must maintain Russian public support. He uses state television to inundate Russians with reports of alleged atrocities committed by US-backed Ukrainian Nazis against ethnic Russians, particularly in the Donetsk and Luhansk republics, which are said to be defended by the Russian army.

However, the Putin regime is isolated at home. According to Karen Dawisha, author of “Putin’s Kleptocracy,” 110 people control 35% of the country’s wealth. It is this group that is waging war against Ukraine and manipulating the Russians.

America may have more power to influence Russians than we realize. The US should start creating a database independent of the existing Ukrainian side to help the Russians learn the fates of missing soldiers. The Russian Defense Ministry announced on March 25 that 1,351 Russian soldiers had died. Ukrainians put the number at 16,100. Valentina Melnikova, secretary of the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, said Russian commanders often fail to recover soldiers’ bodies, listing them as “missing in action.” This provides an excuse for not paying compensation to families and lowers the official death toll.

Many parents do not know what happened to their sons and are advised by the Department of Defense that there is no information. Obituaries appear sporadically in the Russian regional media. A US database, accessible through Radio Liberty and other websites, would not be complete but could provide more information than is available from Russian officials.

The US and its allies should also announce that proceeds from confiscated property from corruption-related oligarchs will be returned to the Russian people. Russia’s super-rich can afford yachts and villas because they have made fortunes with government money. The Russian oligarchy has its roots in the 1995 “bond-for-stock” auctions, in which Russia’s giant commodities companies were transferred to corrupt businessmen in exchange for supporting President Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 re-election campaign.

A good example is Roman Abramovich, who is now protected from sanctions for his role as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. He and his partner Boris Berezovsky bought Sibneft,

a vertically integrated oil company, in 1995 for $100.3 million in an auction that left out competitors. Sibneft soon had a market cap of $1 billion. In 2005, Mr. Abramovich, who had parted ways with Berezovsky, sold it for $13.1 billion. Mr. Abramovich owns two yachts, each valued at more than $600 million.

A bill called the Yachts for Ukraine Act has been introduced in Congress that would allow the US to sell confiscated assets and use the money to help Ukraine. Although helping Ukraine is a good idea, it would not change opinion in Russia. A promise to transfer money originating from Russia to a future democratic Russian state would be a public acknowledgment by the US that justice for ordinary Russians is long overdue.

Finally, and most importantly, the US should disclose everything it knows about the September 1999 home bombings that brought Mr. Putin to power. The four bombings were blamed on Chechens and used to justify a new war in Chechnya. Mr. Putin, who had just been appointed prime minister, was put in charge of the war and catapulted into the presidency on the back of early successes.

But a fifth bomb was discovered in the basement of a building in Ryazan, south-east of Moscow, and the bombers were captured. They weren’t Chechen terrorists, they were agents of the Federal Security Service. In another incredible development, Gennady Seleznev, Speaker of the State Duma, announced on September 13 that a building had been blown up in Volgodonsk after a building was blown up in Moscow. This building was actually blown up for three days later.

The history of the apartment bombings is crucial, as the signs of official involvement are the strongest evidence of the Putin regime’s true attitude towards the Russian people. The bombings are a taboo subject in Russia, but interest is high. An interview with Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a Duma deputy, about the Volgodonsk incident has been viewed 15 million times on YouTube.

Despite the regime’s attempts to stifle thought in Russia, the signs of contradiction are unmistakable. Maria Ovsyannikova, an editor at Channel One TV, staged an on-air protest denouncing the channel’s lies. In the North Caucasus, mothers of soldiers blocked a bridge on March 20, demanding to know the fate of their sons. Most importantly, there is resistance in the Russian military, which alone can remove Mr Putin from power.

Just before the invasion, General Leonid Ivashov, leading a group of retired officers, warned that an attack on Ukraine would spell the end of Russia. He said the planned invasion was an attempt by a corrupt regime to remain in power. He called on Mr Putin to resign. His statement was supported by the majority of his organization’s board of directors.

A month into the war, Russia’s generals are almost certainly unsettled by the mass deaths of Russian soldiers. After 15 months of war in Chechnya in 1996, General Alexander Lebed said that 30% of Russian soldiers were ready to point their guns at the people who sent them there.

Despite the regime’s attempts to isolate the Russians, information still leaks out through cellphones, Telegram, YouTube, and word of mouth. This creates an opening to the West. In addition to helping Ukraine, we must involve the Russian people. Despite the bleak situation, as in the past, there may be a dramatic shift in opinion in Russia.

Mr. Satter is the author of The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin.

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