Ukraine war: how have Vladimir Putin’s narratives survived a year of reality checks?

Ukraine war: how have Vladimir Putin’s narratives survived a year of reality checks?

The Russian state has a long history of using its information operations to try and shore up its military plans overseas. Of course all states try to win over the hearts and minds of the population either at home or where they are fighting. But Russia’s approach is a bit different.

What we see in Russia is a strange sort of intermeshing between official statements, interventions from people who are clearly on the Russian state’s payroll and the pronouncements of supposedly neutral but Kremlin-aligned commentators. It’s not for nothing that Margarita Simonyan – a close associate of Vladimir Putin and the editor-in-chief of Russia’s international broadcaster, RT – once infamously said that Russia needed RT for “the same reason the country needs a defence ministry”.

The Russian state and its representatives frequently use lies to create cover for their military operations. And some are believed, at least, temporarily or in part. Back in 2014, Putin personally denied the involvement of Russian special forces in the annexation of Crimea, claiming that the military equipment sported by the “little green men” on the peninsula could be bought from any local shop. Following the 2018 poisoning of two Russian nationals in Salisbury, England, three Russian suspects were charged. Putin stated that the suspects were private citizens, even though later open-source investigations proved them to be senior members of Russian military intelligence.

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Since then, western nations have learned the value of preempting Russia’s disinformation attempts. If we look back to a year ago, Russian officials kept insisting that no invasion of Ukraine was planned, even as Russian tanks continued to mass on Ukraine’s borders. Indeed, RT’s commentators were dismissing all such concerns as “Russophobia” right up to the day of the invasion. Incidentally, RT’s broadcast rights in the UK were revoked by regulator Ofcom shortly after the invasion just as they were banned across the EU.

Shifting narratives

The key difference between the invasion of Ukraine and earlier Russian provocations is not only that the intelligence reports had been clear about the Kremlin’s intent all along, but that western governments had taken the unusual step of publicising them. This meant Russia’s political elite was unable to pass the invasion off as a response to some unanticipated provocation when it had so clearly been pre-planned.

The Kremlin’s narratives have shifted throughout the conflict. The initial pretext for Russian involvement in Donbas was supposedly to protect Russian-speakers from “genocide”. The Kremlin has consistently tried to portray Ukraine as “institutionally Nazi” – ignoring that Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish and that Russia’s Wagner group of military mercenaries itself has clear ultra-nationalist links. Russia habitually uses such mirroring techniques to project its worst attributes onto others.

A few months into the conflict, Russia extended its stated goals from “de-Nazification”, to “de-Ukrainisation”. It ramped up unambiguous propaganda about Ukrainians being Russians by another name, and suggested that Ukrainian nationhood is made up. In this narrative, the Ukrainian state is in itself neo-Nazi and, for that reason it must be liquidated, as were the Nazis themselves by the Red Army in 1945.

Whenever evidence of Russian war crimes has emerged, the familiar playbook of Russian information operations has kicked in. For instance, when civilian mass graves were left behind by Russian forces in Bucha and Irpin, Russian politicians dismissed the evidence as fake and state-controlled domestic television aired hours’ worth of conspiracy theories.

The Kremlin even tried to get the UN to discuss what had happened in Bucha as a Ukrainian deception operation. The UK – which had previously alleged that Russia uses the UN security council to spread false information – was at that point the security council’s chair. It refused to convene the council, so this time the Kremlin’s well-rehearsed mirroring technique came to nothing.

Public service broadcasters including the BBC and Deutsche Welle have comprehensively debunked many Kremlin falsehoods. But – as with all disinformation – their power comes not from their factual accuracy but from how believable audiences feel them to be. This helps explain why Kremlin narratives about the west using Ukraine to undermine Russia ring true for many beyond the Euro-Atlantic bubble. It is a plausible line in many countries still grappling with the legacies of colonialism.

What is more, though Russian media operations have been disrupted in the US and Europe, they’ve been less affected elsewhere in the world. Over the past year, for example, RT has given a high profile to its Indian telegram channel on its international Twitter feed. Its website remains accessible via a mirror site in the UK and it has expanded with the new RT Balkans web service.

Western unity in the face of Russian aggression is an important factor in Ukraine’s fight for its sovereignty. Improved understanding of how Russian disinformation works – and how to preempt and resist it – has been important in cultivating this unity. But that unity doesn’t necessarily extend to the rest of the world.

Russia is actively courting public and political opinion in the wider world – and it’s efforts have met with some success. It’s no surprise that states such as Iran and North Korea have has no problem supplying arms to Russia, or that allies such as Belarus and Syria have refused to condemn it at the UN. But even democratic India declined to comdemn the Russian invasion, instead abstaining from the UN vote. This speaks to the wider resonance of Russia’s “counter-hegemonic” propaganda push and – in a protracted conflict – we ignore this wider context at our peril.

The Conversation

Precious Chatterje-Doody does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.