Search news of Russian war in Ukraine or led by women protests in Iran and you will see violence and bloodshed, as Russians attack civilians and Iranian police target protesters. Indeed, these images reflect the reality on the ground and we are right to increase our support for those directly fighting the regimes.
But in the information age, information itself is also a key weapon and should not be ignored in the fight against authoritarian regimes. The fact is that the long-term path of the war in Ukraine passes through the center of Moscow and the streets of St. Petersburg just as the long-term path of the protests in Iran passes through the center of Tehran and the religious centers of Qom. The long-term battle is for the hearts and minds of the Russian and Iranian people, who have the capacity to end the reigns of terror that President Vladimir Putin and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have inflicted on their respective nations, peoples and neighbours.
In Ukraine, standing alone, military losses it probably won’t be enough to get Putin to surrender. On the contrary, the more he suffers at the hands of Western weapons, the more likely Putin is to resort to ever more brutal tactics. As we have already seen, as losses mounted, Putin lashed out more and more civilian targets and flew the flag of first nuclear use. Furthermore, as these losses mount further, the chances of Putin being overthrown by an even more aggressive fanatic only increase, because he may be seen as weak and unable to succeed by the power-hungry fanatics who have supported this invasion ever since. from the beginning.
Similarly, in Iran, as we have seen, the images of women standing against their longtime male oppressors and open defiance of the regime were crucial in forcing the initiation of change from within.
A key way to influence this dynamic is for Allies to provide open and secure Internet access to the Russian and Iranian people, giving them access to information without the prying eyes of their governments and without having their content filtered or their actions monitored. Enabling citizens access to Western media and up-to-date and accurate news from the ground can help the United States and our allies break the grip of the Russian And Iranian domestic propaganda machines.
With such access, Russians and Iranians would be able to see more clearly for themselves the violence imposed on Ukrainian and Iranian women, learn the truth about their leaders’ mounting failings, and potentially hear the voices of alternative leaders. Furthermore, open and secure internet access will help Russian and Iranian citizens organize and mobilize, reducing the risk of being caught by the deep digital surveillance conducted by the Putin-Khameini regime.
In many ways, open and secure Internet access is the modern equivalent of the broadcast regimes that were so successful during the Cold War: the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe / Radio Freedom, and many others. Today’s capabilities are even more powerful because they allow resistance movements to directly support and publish information and to recruit and mobilize the population. Online videos can provide education, WhatsApp can help mobilize, Google Maps can direct forces and protesters, and Twitter can provide news and ideas, to name a few.
Indeed, these aspects of information flow are exactly why authoritarian regimes routinely impose censorship and monitor their country’s internet activities. Open access to information is the one weapon that scares authoritarians like Putin and Khameini the most.
Thankfully, the United States and our allies have the technology to change that today. From providing broadband Internet access through small satellite hotspots to providing access to heavily encrypted virtual private networks, allied governments can partner with private companies to help citizens in authoritarian countries bypass regime firewalls and connect directly and securely to the open Internet. This tactic will be difficult for authoritarian regimes to fight because trying to locate and arrest those connected to those hotspots will likely backfire and further alienate populations hungry for more information.
Funding the deployment of such hotspots in authoritarian nations, ensuring consistent and secure access, and working with the private sector to develop the next generation of such access, including capabilities that are easier to disguise and harder to block, will also be critical for states United and our allies.
The only “good” end of the war in Ukraine and the protests in Iran will be when their future governments decide to end the brutal actions against their own people and neighbors. To help those seeking to achieve these goals, one critical weapon will be one that can break the back of the Russian and Iranian propaganda machines: open and secure Internet access for their citizens.
Ram Fish is the CEO of 19Labs and a lecturer at Case Western Reserve University. Brian Gran is a professor of sociology, law and applied social sciences at Case Western Reserve University. Jamil N. Jaffer is the founder and executive director of the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School and the former Chief Counsel and Senior Counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.