Although a significant sector of Russian society does not support the war against Ukraine, most Russians are in favor of it, at least publicly. People consider the military invasion as the “liberation” of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people from the “Nazis” and even as a battle against NATO. This narrative, despite its absurdity, is regularly broadcast in the Russian media. The multi-channel nature of Russian propaganda has led to the fact that today many Russians live behind iron blinders and in a parallel information reality. This is also demonstrated by data from sociological surveys.
According to an independent poll at the end of March 2022, some 53% of Russians “definitely supported” the war against Ukraine; 28% “mostly supported” it; and 14% “opposed” it. The primary motives of support, the survey found, were “protection of the Russian-speaking population” and “border security.”
How and why did such a vast number of Russians fall under the influence of false Russian propaganda, even though they have free access to the Internet and alternative sources of information?
How does Russian propaganda work?
According to the KGB school’s counterintelligence dictionary of terms, Soviet active measures (the KGB term for covert influence operations) were aimed at “misleading the enemy” and “imposing one’s will on them.” Today’s Kremlin leaders with KGB experience appear to use a similar approach.
- Disinformation: It is one of the most important weapons of the Kremlin and a quick way to prepare a society for almost any issue.
The objects of the Russian propaganda strategy are human rights; the attitude of the world toward the country; and wars – including the war in Ukraine. Information on such topics is built on a total distortion of reality and is at odds with the news published in independent media in other countries. There are many examples of false narratives of Russian propaganda – from insisting that Crimea had “always been Russian” to conspiracy theories about Ukraine and the US using bioweapons laboratories.
- Doubts: When the Russian Federation commits crimes, its main task is not to present its own version of events but to destroy the versions disseminated outside the country.
For example, when a Malaysian Boeing plane was shot down by Russian-controlled forces on July 17, 2014, while flying over eastern Ukraine (all 298 people on board died), dozens of versions of what happened appeared in the Russian media. A vast number of explanations drowns the audience in doubt. As a result, television viewers believe that the ultimate truth will never be known. Versions outside the Kremlin-controlled media are blurred and lost in conflicting interpretations.
- Volume and versatility: Russian propaganda is fast, continuous, and repetitive. Messages received in a larger volume and from more sources are perceived as more truthful. At the same time, a large amount of information suppresses competing messages.
After the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Russian state television became a non-stop propaganda machine, showing up to 80 hours a week of news and political talk shows. Information is produced on many channels controlled by one center. Ordinary people watching different TV channels don’t realize that they still get information from one main source – the presidential administration. State television sets the tone, and other media follow it.
- Cruelty, emotionality, and hatred: At the end of February 2022, Russian propaganda became even more criminal.
“This country should not exist at all, and we will do everything so that it does not exist.”Anton Krasovsky
The former propagandist of the Russia Today (RT) channel Anton Krasovsky called to “drown Ukrainian children right in the river!” and to “drive these children into houses and burn them.” Krasovsky also allowed himself such statements regarding Ukraine: “This country should not exist at all, and we will do everything so that it does not exist.” After a speech about murdering children, Krasovsky was suspended from work but did not suffer any punishment.
Another example: The well-known TV host Vladimir Solovyov stated that the authorities in Ukraine, the United States, and Western Europe serve the “prince of darkness.” He equated negotiations with Ukraine with “negotiations with Satan.”
Such large-scale, streamlined propaganda not only blocks alternative points of view but also plays on people’s feelings and incites hatred. Forming a common enemy unites society, and such a presentation of information causes vivid emotions that excite the viewer.
- Control of the media and the prohibition of alternative opinions: Russia’s state-run media create a “bubble” that does not allow alternative narratives.
Before the invasion of Ukraine in February, there were dozens of independent media outlets in Russia, but they were threatened, attacked, and harassed in every possible way. There are even dozens of unsolved cases of murders of journalists in Russia. Independent investigations into such killings often indicate that the attacks were carried out in the interests of the state regime.
With the onset of the war, the state blocked or shut down most of the remaining independent media outlets. Most journalists were declared “foreign agents” and banned. The sites of opposition papers are only accessible via VPN.
- Internet trolls: Through online chats, discussion forums, and comment sections, thousands of fake accounts on the Internet attack information that contradicts Russian propaganda. The trolls have been known to be on duty 24 hours a day, in 12-hour shifts, and each has a daily comment quota.
- Explanation of reality and sweet lies: The great credibility of the propaganda is based on its emphasis on a post-Soviet identity. Almost two-thirds of Russians regret the collapse of the USSR (62%).
For Russia, the victory in May 1945 is a sacred point in history, which is used by propaganda with particular cynicism. One of the well-known slogans for celebrating the day of victory in World War II in Russia is “We can do it again.” That victory is an unconditional argument in favor of the strength of the state, the army, and the people.
Nevertheless, the quality of life in Russia is much worse than in Europe. Russian propaganda shifts the focus from poverty to an external but known problem – enemies are around. In particular, the West and NATO countries with their “decaying” societies (as opposed to the sacred Russian). Propaganda suggests a single answer to all the uncomfortable questions: The enemies are to blame.
This narrative is convenient and straightforward. It also correlates with the image that Russia is a unique country, a winner and a liberator that saved the planet from the Nazis. The rest of the world is jealous of Russia or wants to weaken it for their own purposes. In parallel with this, discourse about the Soviet Union is taking place. The USSR is presented not as a union of many different countries but as an association of these countries with Russia. In this idea, all Russian-speaking people seem to belong to Russia. Any movement toward Western values is perceived as a threat. Russia is constantly putting pressure on neighboring countries as if trying to draw them into Russia.
Today, the call to fight “Nazi Ukraine” has replaced calls for victory over “Nazi Germany.” Having found themselves in a war with Ukraine, part of the Russian society is already so zombified that they believe that Putin decided to attack first because he really saw some kind of threat. People themselves are looking for ways to soften being in a crisis moment. Russians “like” state media reports. Independent, critical media focusing on complex and distasteful topics seem hostile to this audience.
Propaganda, Ukraine, and antisemitism: Kremlin propagandists have failed to sell “denazification” as a pretext for war against Ukraine to an audience outside Russia. Still, the Russian government spreads one of the most insidious forms of antisemitism – the distortion of the history of the Holocaust. It should be mentioned here that antisemitism in the Soviet Union, for which a part of the Russian public is so nostalgic, reached catastrophic proportions.
In response to objections that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish and his relatives were murdered by the Nazis, the Kremlin is spreading false stories to question Zelensky’s “Jewishness” and making false claims that the most brutal Nazis were Jews themselves. Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev opined that Zelensky “rejected” his Jewish identity and compared him to “a representative of the Jewish intelligentsia in Nazi Germany, who, for ideological reasons, would have asked to serve in the SS.”
“A representative of the Jewish intelligentsia in Nazi Germany, who, for ideological reasons, would have asked to serve in the SS.”Dmitry Medvedev on Volodymyr Zelensky
In May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shared antisemitic speculation and a distorted interpretation of the Holocaust story, stating that “Adolf Hitler also had Jewish blood.” Lavrov added, “The wise Jewish people say that the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews.”
On February 1, 2023, Putin’s alleged mistress Alina Kabaeva, who now heads the board of directors of the Russian media group NMG, congratulated the propagandists at the anniversary event and said: “Information work today, in the conditions in which we live and fight for our country, is like a military weapon. And in terms of its significance, it is in no way inferior to the Kalashnikov rifle.”
It is regrettable to admit, but it is true. Today, this “Kalashnikov” is aimed at the population of Russia itself, forcing the Russian people to support war crimes and to believe in Russia’s innocence. ■