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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MEDIA WATCH: Russia Wages War of Words

Acting President Vladimir Putin needs two things in order to triumph in March's presidential elections: a successful military campaign in Chechnya and widespread applause and acclaim for his resolute leadership during this crisis. His generals, it would seem, can give him the former, while the media and the multitude of state organs that hold the media's leash in Russia are charged with drumming up the latter.

Observers of the media here have been shocked at the intense level of attention that the "information war" has garnered from Putin during his brief tenure at the helm. The level of activity on this front clearly demonstrates that winning this war is as essential to the Russian government as destroying the resistance in Chechnya itself. What is more, the scorched-earth tactics that Putin has adopted will almost certainly leave Russian civil society looking little better than Grozny does.

So far, Putin's most successful gambit in the information war has been to label any material critical of the Chechen policy or even skeptical of official accounts of events as the intervention of hostile foreign security forces bent on undermining Russia's national interests. Xenophobia, sadly, always plays well in the Russian regions and even those who are not taken in by such nonsense find themselves bogged down refuting such charges instead of constructively debating the real issues.

Incidentally, the "foreign secret service" gambit has the convenient additional benefit of distracting attention from the fact that Putin himself is the only candidate for the Russian presidency who has acknowledged receiving a decoration from a foreign security service (the East German secret police). In any normal democracy, it seems to me, the fact that a candidate earned such a decoration and refuses to explain how would automatically disqualify him.

Claims that anything the Russian government doesn't like is bad for Russia not only have the effect of casting doubt over foreign media reports that filter into Russia. They also undermine any attempts by Russian journalists to take an independent line and, most dangerously of all, generally erode the public's already tattered confidence in the media. Regional politicians of all political stripes are eagerly waiting to follow Putin's lead and assault the patriotism of any local media outlet or civic organization that they happen to dislike.

Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky told Kommersant last week, "When the nation mobilizes its forces to achieve some task, that imposes obligations on everyone, including the media." That Kremlin politicians continue to insist that journalists are "obliged" to support the state and agitate for whatever the regime desires is frightening enough. However, the echoes of this attitude in the even more politically primitive regions will be truly terrifying.

While Yastrzhembsky, Putin and other officials were impugning the patriotism of anyone who questions them, the usually reticent FSB was holding a press conference this week to warn the nation of - surprise, surprise - the increased activity of foreign spies and their local sympathizers in Russia. Civic activists of all types - especially environmentalists - are increasingly under suspicion. The FSB's dogged pursuit of environmentalist Alexander Nikitin is just the most visible example. Needless to say, those few journalists out there who have managed to wean themselves from official sources of information and who have begun covering the work of such civic groups are also under suspicion.

The pro-Putin Unity party won big in December with the slogan, "Unity Is Our Strength." The unsubtle implication is that "pluralism is weakness." How can such an attitude spell anything less than disaster for the media, for civic society and for open participation in civic life in Russia? The Glasnost Defense Fund has issued repeated statements over the last three months warning of the consequences of Putin's "information war" and the onset of "creeping totalitarianism." The Russian state is waging war against its own citizens not just in Chechnya but throughout the country.

"Russia has no friends but its army and navy," said Tsar Alexander III more than a century ago. It would be more accurate to say that Russian politicians have no friends but the military and the state's extensive security apparatus. In the absence of a reliable independent media, Russian citizens have no friends at all.

Robert Coalson is a program director for the National Press Institute. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of NPI.