Speaking at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Ronald Reagan galvanized the world by saying: “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Those words instantly passed into legend. More than that, they helped set in motion the events that ended the reign of the Soviet Union. An equally compelling denunciation of tyranny and a powerful new vision for Europe must be articulated if we are to win the battle of ideas against Putin and avert another cold war.
Already thousands of protestors had gathered in Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square to voice their opposition to President Putin’s military incursion in Ukraine. I expect their numbers will grow as Russia’s forces in Crimea become a permanent presence.
Born in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv, I understand why these brave protestors have taken to the streets. These Russian citizens are impelled by the repeating cycle of hope and disillusionment in their own government, which has lasted since the collapse of the Soviet Union. By appealing to them directly in a carefully crafted, high-profile speech the President can help to sway public opinion in Russia, rally our European allies, and avoid further bloodshed in Ukraine.
That’s because for many Russians the economic improvements Putin claims to have brought no longer suffice in place of true and functioning democracy. Increasingly, these Russian citizens, as well as ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine—ordinary people, activists, the youth, but also authors, artists, public intellectuals and influential dissidents—are looking to the West. They represent what Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian businessman and foremost Putin critic, calls “the other Russia,” indignant and repressed. They seek a new political narrative. They are ready for guidance: a historic speech delivered from the heart of Europe by a hopeful American President.
When nuclear powers are poised for conflict, a war of words is always better than a war of tanks and missiles. A KGB spawn, Mr. Putin understands the power of language, having at once seized control of public airwaves in Crimea, reined in independent news outlets like Lenta.ru in Russia, and stepped up his neo-Imperialist message throughout Europe and beyond. Yet when it comes to addressing audiences directly, President Obama, with his natural rhetorical gifts, easily upstages the aloof, awkward Putin.
To strike a chord with Russians, the President must convey moral certitude, make a strong case for Western values, while also acknowledging America’s own sometimes ill-conceived military interventions. The policy of economic sanctions against Kremlin pursued by the U.S. Government so far is merely tactical. The ultimate battle is for the hearts and minds of Russians, both in Russia and Ukraine. President Obama should lead the charge.
Steven Volynets is a Ukrainian-born writer living in Brooklyn. He has written for PC Magazine and Moment Magazine.