Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Russian Propaganda in Mass Media

The war in Ukraine has become the biggest armed conflict in Europe since 1945. For many, the scale of Russia’s brutality is reminiscent of the horrors of the Second World War. The war is largely fueled by violent hate speech against Ukrainians and the denial of the Ukrainian people’s right to exist as a nation. For many, this indicates a genocidal intent behind Russian atrocities.

“The destruction of the Ukrainian nation and its identity through the elimination of its political, civic, and cultural leaders is accompanied by the explicit suppression of its language, culture, history, and educational system. All these actions are justified to a Russian domestic audience by the widespread dissemination of propaganda of ethnic hatred. Russian state and state-controlled television today is a direct copy of Radio Rwanda, spewing a steady diet of hate speech that depicts the very idea of a distinct Ukrainian identity and an independent state as a criminal form of ultranationalism and dehumanizes Ukrainians by referring to them as ‘worms,’” Adrian Karatnycky writes in Politico. “Putin’s war aims, thus, no longer focus on the defense of Russian speakers, nor the creation of a neutral and demilitarized Ukraine. Rather he is implementing a policy to eliminate Ukrainians as a nation and state.”

An example of this would be an essay published in July 2021 by Russian President Vladimir Putin titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” in which he reiterated that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people, one.” Just prior to launching his invasion of Ukraine, Putin also declared that “modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution.”

What distinguishes Russia’s strategy from the one of the Nazis during the Second World War, apart from Adolph Hitler’s extermination of the Jews and others, is the availability of information and digital technologies which Russian mass media uses extensively to promote its absurd rationale behind the invasion.

For many years, the Kremlin has been creating false narratives and spreading them both inside the country and globally to achieve its policy goals or justify its actions. Since the beginning of the Ukraine war, the Kremlin has changed its plans and reasoning for the so-called “special military operation” several times, starting with the demilitarisation and de-Nazification of Ukraine to the prevention of NATO expansion.

Before looking deeper into the recent cases of Russian propaganda in mass media, let us look at five major reoccurring Russian disinformation themes that the Kremlin is currently utilizing to poison the information environment regarding Ukraine.

Destroyed residential buildings in Bodoryanca, Ukraine. (David Peinado Romero)

“Innocent Victim”

Portraying Russia as a victim is a strategy that Russian government officials use to justify their actions as a forced response to the West, NATO, and the United States, which for many years have acted as the permanent antagonists and rivals in Russian propaganda. In addition, to make these claims seem more powerful, after annexing Crimea in 2014, Russia created the “Russophobia” concept – accusing anyone who questions Russian actions of being Russophobes. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, has accused the U.S. and its Western allies of “blatant Russophobia.”

“Historical Revisionism”

To justify some of its actions, the Kremlin often uses historical events. And when these events do not align with the Kremlin’s objectives, it distorts them to serve its interests. For example, to rationalize Joseph Stalin’s decision to align himself with Adolph Hitler, Putin published a twisted version of the Second World War, downplaying the Soviet role and shifting blame for the war to other countries.

“The Collapse of Western Civilization”

Another popular narrative of Kremlin propaganda centers around the coming collapse of the West because it deviates from traditional values and inclinations toward equality, multiculturalism, and inclusiveness.

“Popular Movements are U.S.-sponsored ‘Color Revolutions’”

Suppose a popular pro-democracy and pro-reform movement is not deemed to be in Russia’s geopolitical interests. In that case, the Kremlin will often attack its legitimacy and claim that the United States is secretly behind it. These accusations often target local and international civil society groups and independent media that expose human rights abuses and corruption.

“Kremlin sets the reality”

When the actual geopolitical and economic situation in the world does not correspond with the interest of the Russian government, it will not hesitate to manipulate the facts and create false realities to shift the blame and create confusion. Russia has used such technique to flood the information space with many false claims, such as the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, and Russia’s 2008 invasion and ongoing occupation of Georgia, to distract conversations from their role in the events.

Russian disinformation in mass media

Russia “is pushed” to declare war

Every day Ukrainian cities are experiencing acts of terrorism from the Russian military. From July 11 to 17, residents of Kharkiv and Myloyiv faced barrage after barrage of Russian artillery fire. 25 people died, including 2 children, due to a missile attack on the center of Vinnytsia. Russia justified the attacks by arguing that they were targeting militants and nationalists and the “the liquidation of foreign mercenaries.”

As the Ukrainian military continues using American-donated HIMARS to successfully destroy military depots, Russian propagandists began to think about declaring war on Ukraine. According to Russian propaganda, what Russia is doing now is “a special military operation,” not a war.

Some of the more popular Russian talking points: “This pushes us to declare war against Ukraine. Perhaps that’s the point. We can’t stand it all the time when strikes are made on Russian territory”; “The Russian Federation has every reason to declare war on Ukraine”; “An attempt will be taken to oust Russia from the territory it acquired before this war, including Crimea. Then the question of war with Russia itself will arise.”

The U.S. will stop supporting Kyiv because Ukraine provoked an ideological war

Russian propaganda tried to create a false belief that Washington will soon cease to support Ukraine and will quickly remove sanctions because the U.S. is “not eager to burn all the bridges in relations with Russia: if cooperation in one area or another is more profitable with Russia, and not with one of the partners from other regions of the world, the Americans lift sanctions just as easily as they imposed them, nothing personal, just business.”

Spreading similar messages repeatedly, Russian propaganda assures the Russian population that the “special military operations” are about to end, and Ukraine’s Western allies, not Russia, will suffer the consequences.

To persuade the audience, they use messages that “the number of Americans who oppose further assistance to Ukraine has grown steadily in recent months…Ukraine has provoked a war inside America” and “young U.S. citizens are calling on the authorities for realism and restraint. They are sure that supporting Ukraine will lead to disaster, so it is worth focusing on problems within the country.”

Sanctions do not work

They actually do.

Among hundreds of other propagandistic narratives, Russian media continues to convince everyone that the sanctions are not working and are in no way affecting Russia’s economy. In fact, this narrative became so strong that even some Ukrainians believed it. In reality, we can see that the Russian economy is facing significant problems. However, instead of stopping the war and addressing the economic downturn, the Kremlin is only becoming more aggressive in its rhetoric.

It is true, however, that the effect of Western sanctions is not enough to collapse the Russian economy wholly and quickly. Still, they are gradually affecting important sectors of the economy.