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Is Russia's Propaganda Persuading?

Russia is using the propaganda playbook to defend its actions in Ukraine, but early signs are not good for the Kremlin

In 1928, Arthur Ponsonby wrote that “when war is declared, truth is the first casualty.” In our modern world of social media and twenty-four hour news coverage, that adage is all the more true. Truth dies because in war, news is quickly replaced by propaganda, which is the use of lies (or selective truths) to persuade. This exact phenomenon is on display now in Russia, where the state has gone into full gear in its use of propaganda to persuade its internal audience of five distinct lies that must be believed if the Russian people are to be persuaded that this invasion is a just and necessary action.

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal posted an illuminating video that nicely recapped the propaganda effort underway by the Kremlin. Let’s examine the persuasion tactics the Kremlin has put to use so far.

Lie 1: Claim that Ukraine is part of Russia

From his first speech announcing Russia’s invasion, Putin has stressed that what the West thinks of as Ukraine owes its very existence to Russia.

Image Credit: Wall Street Journal

This lie has a long history and was first fully articulated in a speech Putin gave in 2014, when he claimed that:

Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The graves of Russian soldiers whose bravery brought Crimea into the Russian empire are also in Crimea. This is also Sevastopol – a legendary city with an outstanding history, a fortress that serves as the birthplace of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

As we see in the news graphic below, in 2022 Russian propaganda is adding the idea that most of the territory of Ukraine was a series of “gifts” made by past Russian leaders, as if somehow — even if that were true — this history would justify Russia’s actions in 2022:

Image Credit: Wall Street Journal

Lie 2: Deny that the conflict is a “war”

As many sources have reported, Russian media outlets are not allowed to use the word “war” in their coverage. They must use the phrase “special military operation” that Putin coined when he first announced the invasion.

Image Credit: Wall Street Journal

As Al Jazeera reported: “A statement by Russia’s internet censor board, Roskomnadzor, warns that referring to the ongoing military campaign as an “invasion”, “attack” or “declaration of war” will lead to the offending website being blocked.” All high officials under Putin are careful to talk only about the SMP and will not acknowledge that any war is taking place. As a sign of how important this labeling exercise is to the Kremlin, as of Tuesday of this week, schools across Russia have been giving special social studies classes to their students that relay Putin’s position on the conflict and that it is wrong to call this military operation a war.

Lie 3: Claim that Ukraine needed saving from itself

“The purpose of this operation,” Putin has said, “is to protect people who for eight years now have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime.” To this end, “we will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.” In 2022, calling one’s opponents “Nazis” is a sign of rhetorical laziness or desperation — or both, which I think is the current case. Starting his propaganda with this baseless claim only shows how weak Putin’s rhetorical position is, and his statement became even more grotesque when his forces bombed the Babyn Ya memorial that remembers the 33,000 Jews massacred in two days in 1941. That is not to say there are not extreme right-wing groups in Ukraine, there certainly are, but it is a gross lie to claim that this is state ideology or policy.

Image Credit: Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial

Indeed, as NPR reported, a long list of historians have signed a letter condemning the Russian government's "cynical abuse of the term genocide, the memory of World War II and the Holocaust, and the equation of the Ukrainian state with the Nazi regime to justify its unprovoked aggression."

Lie 4: Claim that Russia had no choice

All across Russian media, what people hear is that this conflict was forced on Russia by the West, because of its expansion of NATO and its failure to stop the atrocities being committed against Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine.

Image Credit: Wall Street Journal

Here is what Putin himself said on February 24th, when justifying the invasion:

“It is well known that for 30 years we have persistently and patiently tried to reach an agreement with the leading NATO countries on the principles of equal and inviolable security in Europe. In response to our proposals, we constantly faced either cynical deception and lies, or attempts to pressure and blackmail, while NATO, despite all our protests and concerns, continued to steadily expand. The war machine is moving and, I repeat, it is coming close to our borders.”

Having said these words, Putin then raised the stakes:

“For the United States and its allies, this is the so-called policy of containment of Russia, [which brings] obvious geopolitical benefits. And for our country, this is ultimately a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a people. And this is not an exaggeration – it is true. This is a real threat not just to our interests, but to the very existence of our state, its sovereignty. This is the very red line that has been talked about many times. They crossed it.

Lie 5: Claim that Russia is acting with care

Russian leaders have gone to great lengths to stress that their actions are being taken with utmost care not to hurt innocent bystanders. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed falsely last week: “No strikes are being made on civilian infrastructure.”

Image Credit: Wall Street Journal

Images such as the one below are kept out of Russian media, and what Russian people hear is that their nation’s forces are moving “surgically” through Ukraine to ensure that civilian lives and infrastructure are protected.

Image Credit: New York Times

Just in case the lies fail…

It is critical that the Russian media propagate the big lies, and for that reason, any vestiges of independent reporting are being shut down by the Kremlin. As the New York Times reported yesterday:

Echo of Moscow, the freewheeling radio station founded by Soviet dissidents in 1990 and that symbolized Russia’s new freedoms, was “liquidated” by its board. TV Rain, the youthful independent television station that calls itself “the optimistic channel” said it would suspend operations indefinitely.
And Dmitri A. Muratov, the journalist who shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year, said that his newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which survived the murders of six of its journalists, could be on the verge of shutting down as well. “Everything that’s not propaganda is being eliminated,” Mr. Muratov said.

In addition, new directives from Roskomnadzor have been put into place that state clearly the exact messages that should be sent and the precise wording that must be used:

Image Credit: Wall Street Journal

Fortunately, at least a few very brave media leaders are resisting the Kremlin line. Muratov, for example — a co-winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize — insists he will defy the Kremlin’s warnings to self-censor and says he will rely solely on the information his own team gathers. Editors at other independent media have said the same. “Propaganda is like radiation,” said Muratov, “and it has touched many here.”

Is it working?

According to Levada, the Russia-based polling organization, some of the propaganda is persuading, and a majority of Russians believe that the U.S. and NATO are primarily responsible for the current conflict:

While 61% is a majority of the population, the number is about 20% lower than it was in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea and seems low to me given the intense propaganda efforts by the Kremlin. Perhaps the five lies have not had time to do their job. On the other hand, perhaps in an age of social media and global information networks, it has become harder for big — and not so big — lies to work.1 As the Washington Post has reported, there are intense efforts underway by Ukrainian technologists to combat Russian propaganda online. Indeed, Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov personally asked the nation’s tech community to come to the country’s defense:

Fedorov’s appeal may already be working. Yesterday, WIRED reported that:

Hackers defaced a Russian Space Research Institute website and leaked files that they allege are stolen from Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. Their message? “Leave Ukraine alone else Anonymous will f*ck you up even more.” Meanwhile a DDoS attack pummeled Russia's .ru “top level domain,” with the aim of essentially cutting off access to all URLs that end in .ru. These are just the latest incidents in a surge of hacktivism in support of Ukraine.

We don’t know how this conflict will end or which side will ultimately win the war of persuasion. What we do know is that, as with most wars, both sides wish to master the narrative, and that Russia seems, at this early stage, to be struggling (sometimes clumsily) to run the old propaganda playbook in the Internet age. The rules of persuasion do not change, but how the rules are implemented does, as Russia may now be discovering.

1The “big lie” is an expression first coined by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf to describe a fiction so huge that no one could believe that it had been fabricated.
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