Even though Russia has laid down a strict regime of wartime censorship, we should not settle for the country living in an alternative information space, said Piret Reintamm Benno, deputy head of the Estonian Embassy in Moscow.
"When Coca-Cola and McDonald's arrived in Russia 30 years ago, they came as a symbol of changed times. Their exit now marks another paradigm shift. We should take the opportunity to explain to the Russian society why it is happening. The Russian media talked about the companies' colossal profits. However, it should be explained why they really left. That it is not a Russophobic attack on the people. That the roots go deeper, to things conjured up by the Russian leadership because of which the Russian people are now suffering," Reintamm Benno said on the "Vikerhommik" radio program.
She added that efforts need to be made to take truthful information to Russian society. But how to do that in a situation where the state controls everything and has closed domestic independent publications and restricted access to foreign channels?
"Yes, there is strict wartime censorship. Editors-in-chief who dare refer to events in Ukraine as war and not a special military operation are looking at 15 years hard time. On the other hand, we have VPNs for accessing the information we need online. VPN is a growing trend also in Russia. What is more, a lot of professional journalists have been fired in Russia. They know the Russian media and people, as well as how to speak to them. Why not use them to produce content. To bypass old-fashioned censorship and attack with modern and smart solutions in information warfare," Reintamm Benno said.
She added that what is pouring out of official Russian channels, especially television, is depressing.
"Their narratives are lent strength from there. People are told that the aim of the war was to prevent Ukraine from developing biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. And if we fail to counter it, Russians will soon come to believe it was a noble undertaking. We should not sit idle [in information warfare].
Many looking to escape Russia
The deputy head of the embassy said that the number of people looking for their Estonian roots and applying for an Estonian passport to get out of Russia has grown notably.
"I came to work from the consulate side today, and I have never seen such a crowd. At least 30 people were already waiting there. Colleagues from other embassies tell me that consular work has exploded. Russia has a lot of people with Estonian roots who can apply for an Estonian passport and leave Russia that way."
Reintamm Benno said that work is made more difficult by the fact that diplomatic passports no longer enjoy visa freedom and the embassy has to make do with the staff it has.
"A lot of people are looking for ways to leave Russia, whether by appealing to family ties or on humanitarian grounds. Dozens and even hundreds of them are turning to us. There is a sense of deja vu. One is reminded of how people tried to escape war in the past and looked to embassies for help.
Sanctions reflecting in price advance
The diplomat said that she recently visited a small Moscow grocery store. The products of many well-known European trademarks were still there and she didn't notice any gaps on the shelves.
"The products of companies leaving the Russian market or those that already have will continue to be available for some time. But the prices have already skyrocketed. A colleague of mine said how the cashier at the supermarket had asked his wife whether she was sure she wanted to pay 130 rubles for an ice cream that had cost 80 rubles just recently.
The deputy head of the embassy explained that every day brings news of companies pulling out of Russia, meaning that shops in malls and lining the streets will be empty one day.
"There is no collapse or protests to be seen on the streets. But a measure of depression can be felt, and it is only gearing up as some sanctions have just been ordered or haven't taken effect yet. People feel that what has happened or is coming is just the beginning."
Reintamm Benno said that the Russian media has reported attacks on Russian embassies in EU cities. The Estonian diplomat added that this resulting in counterattacks in Moscow cannot be ruled out. There have been no hostile gatherings near embassies so far.
Editor: Marcus Turovski