Author: Vaja Gogiashvili
Opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent those of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.
,,The consciousness of Russians is not chained to facts, they love words more and operating with words” - Ivan Pavlov, Russian Physiologist, Nobel Prize Laureate.
European continent has not witnessed a large-scale war since World War II, which sacrificed millions of lives, but on February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale aggression against Ukraine, which changed the existed geopolitical order significantly. Russian aggression was immediately followed by the reaction of the Western states, by means of economic and financial sanctions. At the same time, the European Union and the United States have provided Ukraine with significant military infrastructure, which played a huge role in preventing the Russian army’s advance; yet, it is still impossible to deal with the Russian information war.
For Russia, the war with Ukraine has a significant importance, since it considered Ukraine as a “part of Russia”. Additionally, the Russian nation constantly identifies itself with Ukrainians – with language, history, culture, geography, etc. These are the roots of applicable (dis)information and propagandist narratives, that have become an important task, that can also be found in the article published by Putin in 2021, titled ,,On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians“, in which he notes: ,,when I was asked about Russian-Ukrainian relations, I said that Russians and Ukrainians were one people – a single nation... First of all, I would like to emphasize that the wall between Russia and Ukraine, between the parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space, to my mind is our great common misfortune and tragedy."1 Further, according to Putin, Ukraine was “invented” by Vladimir Lenin, while he was building the Soviet Union. These statements were aimed at brainwashing the Russian people and justifying another attack on Ukraine.
The Russian disinformation and propaganda machine has started working actively amid the war. Russian propaganda is trying to mobilize not only the Russian nation, but the international community as well, the multilingual cable TV channel Russia Today, the same as RT funded by the Russian government, helps to achieve this goal. Margarita Simonyan, who is the head of RT is the main propagandist, gives a following assessment of the war in Ukraine: ,,They [Ukrainians] are preparing to seize our Crimea and we are doing the best we can do - we are bombing" 2
West – a scapegoat
,,The formula for saving any dictatorship is universal: create an enemy, start a war. The state of war is the regime's elixir of life. A nation in patriotic ecstasy becomes one with its "national leader", while any dissenters can be declared "national traitors".” - Mikhail Shishkin, Russian writer, author of novels, winner of the Russian national bestseller and the winner of the ‘great book’ prizes.
In Russia's information war, the ‘Collective West’ (EU, NATO, US) is the main target, which, according to the Russian narrative, is fueled by the fact that all military wars were provoked by Western states, and therefore Russia has no other way to avoid the danger, except committing herself to war.
The ‘Collective West,’ which has been imposing sanctions to Russia since 2014 is yet unable to influence Putin and change his behavior, as he got adapted to the sanctions. The reason is economic crises that is caused by sanctions, but according to Russian narratives, it is not the fault of Putin or his aggressive policy, but the scapegoat is found in the West – the western countries are slandered as enemies of the Russian idea and the Russian nation. Vladimir Putin is trying to feed Russians with disinformation by bringing in an external factor / threat to justify his military interventions and the propagandist media helps to achieve this goal. At the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the Russian media declared: ,,Anti-Russian sanctions kills global economy." 3 The statement, which has a psychological content was directed against Russians in order to put the blame of the Russian economic collapse to the West. Criticism of the West by the Russian media works well under sanctions because it reinforces Russian patriotism and creates an icon of enemy in the West.
Does propaganda actually help Vladimir Putin to reinforce his actions and positions by creating an icon of enemy? The Russian narrative is not limited to blaming the West for provoking the war, it goes further and touches the most sensitive topics - identity, orthodoxy, traditional values and family holiness, where the West and Western culture are accused of promoting homosexuality and “depravation.“ In order to eliminate ,,non-traditional sexual relations" Russia has adopted a law that prohibits LGBT propaganda among teenagers. The mentioned law aims to strengthen the masculine culture, which is another brick in Putin's propaganda – to present the authenticity of the Russian men. With such a policy, Putin manipulates with conservative and emotional principles and he portrays himself as the only way to solve the problems, in which he has the full support of the majority of the Russian nation!
Putin has the support of the Russian nation not only in the ideological struggle with the West, but also in the war, which significantly increases his personal rating. During 2008 Russia-Georgia war, his rating increased from 80 to 83 percent, and after the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as “independent states,“ it increased to 88 percent. In 2014, the annexation of the Crimean peninsula was greeted with applause by the Russian people, who believed that they had regained the historical land of Russia, that's why Putin's rating increased from 60 to 80 percent after the Crimean annexation and Russian experts referred to it as ,,Crimea effect".4 Crimea annexation had a great impact on the Russian people, which gave Putin a historic mission - to return the “lost territories“ to Russia. On February 24, 2022, during another attack on Ukraine, Putin's rating at the initial stage increased significantly and became average 83%.
Historically, the Russian nation has always been united around a single person, a leader, and it is the reality today. Putin portrayed the war(s) as existential for Russia's future, as the only way to achieve the old Russian glory. Russians have been given the opportunity for a surge of national pride through the wars, which they have been so deprived since the collapse of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, so every propaganda campaign for justifying another war portrays the Russian nation as the main symbol of victory and glory. Putin, imbued with an insatiable desire to restore the old Russia, justifies all his wars under the pretext of Russian idea.
Varieties of Putin's Disinformation War
Putin called Russia's war in Ukraine a “special military operation“ as a response to preventing NATO expansion in Eastern Europe. The second reason for justifying the Russian war was the presence of the Ukrainian military in Luhansk and Donetsk, as they were accused of “committing genocide.“ The third reason was the denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine. It is important to note that all of the above changed according to the situation, as it was organized by Kremlin's propaganda.
- Removing a threat from NATO agenda began since the negotiations with Western countries failed, so it became important to find another reason to focus people's interest on the topic of Ukraine again.
- Using the iusses of Lugansk and Donetsk became a precondition for the beginning of the war, where Vladimir Putin drew public attention towards those living in the occupied regions, as if they were threatened with genocide by the Ukrainian authorities. Therefore, on a third day after this announcement, a state of war was declared against Ukraine.
- After the failure of unsuccessful Blitzkrieg plan, the Kremlin needed to invent a new myth and therefore declared the Ukrainian authorities as Nazis, which was further strengthened under the pretext of denazification of Ukraine. In 2014, the Kremlin referred to the Ukrainian government as a ,,Fascists junta." According to Russian narrative, the main essence of denazification was purification of the Ukrainian government from the Nazi, which was a great threat for the Russian-speaking population.
After this goal became impossible, Putin, fearing to lose the confidence of Russians, took a new propagandist step towards the separatist regions and declared these regions as a part of Russia in order to avoid the real threat of losing the war and to claim a symbolic victory.
The policy of discrediting the West by the Russian media can no longer influence the world community, because Russia’s absurd move of invasion made everything clear and finally showed her real face. Russian society remains in information vacuum and is deprived of any alternative access to information, whereas the West is depicted as an adversary for orthodoxy and traditions, so obviously, Russia’s view of Western values is distorted, because there is only one "truth" – that is Putin and the Kremlin, flowing from state-run televisions. Therefore, the current state of the Russian nation is very similar to the state of George Orwell's famous dystopian novel ,,1984" where ,,War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
- Статья Владимира Путина «Об историческом единстве русских и украинцев», 12 июля 2021 года. http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181
- Russian propagandists worry about losing Ukraine war, November 29, 2022. https://www.i24news.tv/en/news/ukraine-conflict/1669750800-russian-propagandists-worry-about-losing-ukraine-war
- Взаимные упреки: кто заплатит за антироссийские санкции, 23 мая 2022 https://www.vesti.ru/article/2759363
- What's left of the 'Crimea effect'?, 03/16/2019. https://www.dw.com/en/vladimir-putins-crimea- effect-ebbs-away-5-years-on/a-47941002