Invading Ukraine with near impunity isn’t the most impressive feat Russian President Vladimir Putin has pulled off lately. That distinction goes to his skill at keeping Russians in thrall to a virtual reality—one in which NATO is about to invade their homeland, Ukraine has been taken over by neo-Nazis, and U.S. President Barack Obama spends all his waking hours scheming to subvert Moscow. Figuring out how Putin does this is the first step toward the West’s key strategic imperative: formulating an appropriate response.
It isn’t just a question of censorship. Inside Russia, many sources of accurate information survive. True, most of them are now either websites or newspapers—television, the main source of news for most Russians, is controlled by the Kremlin—but the country is significantly more open today than the USSR was 30 years ago. Even so, Putin commands domestic support ratings upward of 80 percent. And even among the 30 million Russians who live abroad and have easier access to television stations not controlled by the Kremlin, many believe in the Kremlin-dictated reality. In Estonia, for example, over half of the Russian population still thinks that the country had volunteered to give up its independence and join the USSR after World War II, according to a 2005 poll.
These kinds of sentiments have fueled a surge of Russian patriotism that has enabled Putin to continue his aggressive geopolitics in the face of Western sanctions—which explains why he takes propaganda very seriously. His first move after coming to power in 2000, before reining in the energy sector and the bureaucracy, was to seize control of television. Since then, he has diligently remade it to suit his purposes. The first thing to note about modern Russian TV is that, unlike the stale Soviet fare, it is highly entertaining. Western consultants have helped Russian producers launch glitzy talent shows, addictive sitcoms, and steamy pop videos—content that draws huge audiences. If in the Cold War part of the West’s