The large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has convincingly demonstrated that modern warfare is not only a military confrontation. Propaganda continues to play an important role, and Russia has wagered big on it. Results, however, remain far from those anticipated by the Kremlin.
In continually observing the manifestations of Russian propaganda since February 24, 2022, I have formed an opinion regarding its main tools and effectiveness. It is worth recalling that Russia has had the opportunity to improve its propaganda tools over the years. The large-scale invasion of Ukraine was the culmination of propaganda influence, with its power growing in proportion to the growth of military activity.
However, the invasion of Ukraine, which did not lead to its rapid defeat, forced the Kremlin to adjust its algorithm for employing propaganda tools. I would venture to suggest that Putin and his circle have a distorted idea of the situation in Ukraine and its national character, though they access to a considerable amount of information and Ukrainian emigrants in Russia. The desire to overthrow the government in Kyiv in three days and the promotion of the idea of the “denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine” by Putin personally since February 24 are of the same nature.
It should be noted that after Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the outbreak of hostilities in the Donbass in 2014, the main propaganda tools in the West were RT and Sputnik Media, in which billions of dollars were invested in work and in building a network of influence. After February 24, 2022, the situation changed with the news agencies RIA Novosti and TASS coming out on top. Today, they serve as the mouthpieces of Kremlin propaganda, conveying its many messages in the news feed with limited access to the usual propaganda tools.
I would also note the regional reorientation of Kremlin propagandists, wherein they are less active in NATO and EU countries, Japan, and Australia, offering to China, India, Africa, and Latin America an agenda of outright anti-Americanism and criticism of the West. Russia is trying to promote its own media agenda beyond the so-called “golden billion,” at times with notable success. The anti-Americanism and anti-Western rhetoric of the Kremlin’s message boxes serve to underscore Putin’s idea that Russia is at war with the U.S. in Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin, as his periodic appearances in the information space suggest, continues to be in the role he invented as commandant of the “Fortress of Russia,” which is threatened from nearly every side. In this same scheme, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov plays the role of a truce envoy able to negotiate exclusively for the surrender of the enemy, and former president, now Deputy Secretary of the Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, resembles an aggressive buffoon. His hyperbole of official aggressive rhetoric incites more laughter than fear. Head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and coordinator of the Wagner Military Complex Yevgeny Prigozhin are competing “strongholds.”
In the garrison of the aforementioned “fortress” there are many fighters in the information war. Among them are the so-called “field commanders,” whose skills were honed during the fighting in the Donbass and Syria in 2014-2022. They are extensively used to convey the most vivid fantasies of the creators of the concepts of Russian propaganda. In the spring of 2022, they were joined by a few top collaborators who were responsible for commenting on the situation in the occupied territories of Ukraine. I note that this trend has not changed even after the pseudo-referenda on the inclusion of the occupied territories of Ukraine into Russia. Information sorties are conducted by war correspondents (“voenkor”) who have long been associated with the Russian special services. The activities of these “military correspondents” are designed to create the illusion of a “great Victory,” adding realism to the staged videos distributed by the Russian Ministry of Defense. It should be noted that Russian law prohibits local media from covering the hostilities in Ukraine using unofficial information, so the “military correspondents” have a kind of carte blanche.
To obscure responsibility for the actions of the Russian troops, foremost the war crimes they have committed, Kremlin propaganda uses the term “allied forces,” thus uniting the Russian army and the illegal military formations of the so-called DPR and LPR. However, this term is not misleading since the decision-making center is the Kremlin. As for the Ukrainian Defense Forces, Russian propagandists use other terms for them – “Nazis,” “nationalists,” and “Zelensky’s militants” (with the latter being used recently). Another point is the imaginary contradictions carefully inflated by propagandists between the Ukrainian armed forces and the “nationalist battalions,” to which Russian propaganda ascribes the functions of barrage detachments, similar to those that existed during the Second World War.
In the programs and news reports by Russian media, the genre of “repentance of Ukrainian prisoners” is prevalent. The tone of these public statements leaves no doubt that they have been forced; surely sober-minded Western analysts understand this as well. Reports about life in the “liberated territories” (Russian propaganda ignores Putin’s assurances in February that the occupation of Ukraine has not been a question) are copied from Soviet propagandists of the ‘70s and ‘80s in Afghanistan.
Promoting an anti-Western line, Russian propagandists loudly accuse the U.S. of illegal experiments in bacteriological and chemical laboratories in Ukraine. About once a month these ideas are voiced publicly by the head of the radiological, chemical, and biological defense forces, General Igor Kirilov. The “evidence” that appears in corresponding materials, as a rule, induces laughter.
The sore spot for Russian propaganda since the spring of 2022 has been the supply of modern Western weapons to the Ukrainian armed forces, which made it possible to transform the situation on the frontline. After the Ukrainian armed forces began to receive 155-mm howitzers, the Russian media launched an epic story about hunting them down, the apotheosis of which was the demonstration during the August Army-2022 exhibition near Moscow of a M777 howitzer that was badly damaged and not suitable for further use. Much more attention has been paid to the HIMARS MLRS, the use of which by the Ukrainian military has made it possible to destroy dozens of ammunition depots, command posts, and other important Russian military infrastructure targets. That is why the press secretary of the Russian Ministry of Defense, General Konashenkov, repeatedly talked about the destroyed launchers and the “interception” of HIMARS missiles, turning himself into a laughing stock before the entire world. It should be recalled that the Russian military has failed to destroy a single HIMARS MLRS, however Konashenkov was still promoted in the spring of 2022.
Since hundreds of foreign volunteers are fighting in the ranks of the Ukrainian armed forces, Russian propaganda now can talk about “NATO, which is at war with Russia.” For this, videos from interrogations of captured Ukrainian military personnel are used along with speculation that in the Kharkiv (Kherson, Donetsk, Lugansk) region soldiers who speak Polish / blacks / LGBT representatives are operating against the “allied forces.” All this is broadcast with utmost seriousness by official Russian media and through popular Telegram channels.
Regularly and intensively slinging mud at Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky, Russian propaganda does not shy away from positive messages, for example, when it comes to the initiatives of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or the statements of the self-proclaimed head of Belarus Alexander Lukashenka. It is also worth understanding the desire to use Erdogan as a lever to weaken NATO and to recognize Lukashenka as a vassal of the Kremlin who has been fighting for the length of his leash since August 2020, with little success.
The Kremlin’s desire to conduct information countermeasures following the exposure of war crimes in the suburbs of Kyiv (Bucha, Borodyanka, Irpin) and Kharkiv (Balakleya, Izyum, Kupyansk) and the destruction of Mariupol was the first sign of the ineffectiveness of the propaganda machine. The scale of the crimes shows that hatred towards the citizens of Ukraine is cultivated at an official state level, however it is so large that Russian propaganda could not even begin to block messages about the extrajudicial executions and the consequences of their brutal shelling. Russian propagandists are instead attempting to smooth them over and shift blame for these barbaric crimes to the Ukrainian authorities and the “collective West.”
It is interesting to note that Russian propaganda failed to effectively announce the largest exchange of prisoners since February, during which Viktor Medvedchuk (who was responsible for pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine and is the godfather of Vladimir Putin) was exchanged for 150 defenders of Azovstal. The announcement of “limited mobilization” following this is an extremely weak use of “attention switching” techniques, revealing the lack of professionalism among Russian propagandists.
More was yet to come. The Ukrainian armed forces’ offensive in the Kharkiv region turned out to be an extremely unpleasant surprise for Russian propaganda, which, though it is a country with a population of 145 million people, was unable to locate the capabilities for high-quality mobilization. A simulated patriotic upsurge and pomp coupled with an inability to explain to citizens why for dozens of Russian military men the distance from conscription to burial was only two weeks. This propaganda helplessness was even more noticeable than the failure to explain the explosions in Crimea, which since 2014 has become Russia’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier.”
The intensifying of the Ukrainian Defense Forces’ offensive operations in the Kherson region, fraught from the prospective loss of the Crimea, gave rise to a media monster known as the “dirty bomb.” The top military and political leadership of Russia uses this term in accusing Ukraine without any hesitation, as if they did not seize Zaporozhye – the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. The forcefulness of statements in this case is not an indicator of strength, but rather a sign of impotence.
Russian propaganda that works effectively against the enemy no longer exists. It has sunk, because more than 90% of Ukrainian citizens are certain that their state will drive Russia back. Therefore, Russian hysteria in the form of regular reports of air raids in Ukraine and kamikaze drone raids is no vindication of the worthlessness of Russian propaganda.
Материал доступен на русском языке: Она утонула. Крах российской пропаганды в Украине