Changes in Putin's propaganda narratives since the Russian invasion of Ukraine
Giorgi Bilanishvili, Research Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
Russian propaganda is undoubtedly one of the foundational pillars of Putin’s regime, as it prepares public opinion in the Russian Federation and beyond, and shapes it according to Russia's aggressive intentions. Today, few doubt that the propagandists of the Putin regime, in their attempts to spread and strengthen the relevant narratives, are full accomplices to the unspeakable crimes and aggression that the regime is committing in Ukraine.
In light of the large-scale military aggression against Ukraine, our task was to assess the changes in the propaganda of the Putin regime by observing various propaganda programs of the Russian Federation, and deciphering their meaning. In this regard, the attention of the interested public has already been drawn to the video released on March 8, in which Yaakov Kedmi, featured on the YouTube channel of one of the main ideologues of the Putin regime, Vladimir Solovyov, talks about the failure of the Russian military campaign in Ukraine. This passage is particularly interesting since Yaakov Kedmi unconditionally asserted the invincibility of the Russian army both before and after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while praising Putin.
Accordingly, his "transformation" is noteworthy, but here we must pay attention to the fact that Kedmi made skeptical assessments not in any of the TV propaganda talk shows aired during prime time, but rather on a YouTube channel, in morning hours. However, if we put his assessment in the general context of new or updated narratives voiced in prime time talk shows, then we are able to get a more complete picture.
Changes in the main propaganda narratives of the Putin regime after the start of military aggression against Ukraine
- The propaganda gradually abandoned focus on the term "denazification", which, along with demilitarization, Putin identified as a goal of the military aggression against Ukraine. It seems that even the well-functioning propaganda machine of the Putin regime could not explain and justify this completely incomprehensible and, moreover, deliberately criminal term to a population zombified by Russian propaganda.
- The narrative of conducting only high precision, targeted strikes in Ukraine has disappeared. Instead, a solid narrative emerged about the Russian Federation's readiness for long-term war, as opposed to the approach taken in the first days of the invasion of Ukraine, when the focus was on rapid military success;
- A solid narrative has emerged that Russia is fighting the West in Ukraine, which has long been preparing a military strike against it, but Moscow managed and forestalled it;
- Certain state institutions have been accused of taking inappropriate measures - a kind of sabotage against the Russian state. They include the central bank and the antitrust office, which are still outside the executive branch;
- A weak narrative appeared about the failure to carry out, manage, and plan military operations, on which, as already mentioned above, Yaakov Kedim spoke openly on a talk show with a different format.
Assessment: None of the above modifications in the propaganda of the Putin regime speaks in favor of Russia. Moreover, they can be considered as the first indicator of a crisis among the Russian elite.
In order to understand the overall picture, including in the context of invigorated pro-Russian actors in Georgia, along with the change in general propaganda narratives, we will also review the main narratives of the regime's propaganda in several different directions. In reading this review, it should be borne in mind that propaganda narratives do not reflect reality, and the vast majority of them are created solely in the interests of the regime.
The propaganda narrative related to the period before the Russian military attack on Ukraine
- Ukraine was developing biological and nuclear weapons with the help of Washington. For a long time, American laboratories have been operating in Ukraine for this purpose. Ukraine would have created a so-called “dirty bomb” in the near future;
- Western curators intentionally included a passage on nuclear weapons in Zelensky's speech in Munich so as to provoke an armed conflict;
- Washington has dragged Ukraine into the war with Russia. The West nurtured fascists in Ukraine. They were prepared to fight not only against Lugansk and Donetsk, but also against Russia. Russia merely forestalled it, otherwise Ukraine was planning to start a war against Russia and was going to bring it to fruition in the near future.
Assessment: The propaganda narrative is consistent and serves to discredit the West and justify Russia's war against Ukraine. However, it will not work in the West, while in its own society the Russian propaganda has long managed to portray the West and Ukraine as a "sworn enemy" and aggressor. As for Georgia, it remains susceptible to such a propaganda narrative, especially in light of the intensification of local propaganda actors who reiterate the same message in relation to the West.
The propaganda narrative about the ongoing war in Ukraine
- The military operation is unfolding as planned. At this point, all combat tasks have been successfully achieved. The Ukrainian army is already in disarray. A unified command no longer exists. Field commanders make decisions independently. The Ukrainian servicemen are abandoning their weapons and running away;
- Only the National Guard is fighting in Ukraine, which is in fact a terrorist organization, as they use every prohibited method. They are using civilians as a human shield and also shooting them on charges of collaborating with Russia. They do not allow them to use humanitarian corridors. In the places where the Russian military has entered, the locals welcome them and express their special admiration for Putin;
- Supply problems and a slowdown in the military operations are a common occurrence. Russia is ready for a long war. Russia will mobilize soon, take the matter seriously, and win. The Russian armed forces will press the opponent, encircle them and create a so-called pot (котел), and then completely annihilate them. Despite everything, Russia is not going to occupy Ukraine;
- Even though it is facing the collective West, Russia will prevail;
- The West is not going to be directly involved in a military campaign on the Ukrainian side because it fears Russia. If necessary, Russia will use its nuclear weapons, as was repeatedly and openly stated by Putin before and now;
- Even if the Ukrainian government wants to negotiate armistice with Russia, the West will not allow it. Those who had large capital have already left Ukraine in order to save themselves.
Assessment: The propaganda narrative is contradictory and, in light of the general development of hostilities in Ukraine, is unbelievable and therefore weak.
The propaganda narrative about the Western pressure on Russia and the consequences of the sanctions
- Russia is ready to withstand any pressure, and when the West realizes this, they will change the policy of the sanctions;
- Russia will introduce to the Russian market products from friendly countries, eliminating the crisis;
- The Soviet Union successfully managed not only to withstand the sanctions imposed on it, but also to steadily develop the economy;
- There are examples of successful economic development of countries under sanctions. China, India, and other big nations will help Russia in this endeavor.
Assessment: The propaganda narrative is more or less consistent; however, it is less convincing in light of the serious difficulties already present in Russia. As for Georgia, it is still vulnerable to this kind of propaganda narrative.
The propaganda narrative referring to President Zelensky
- Zelensky is not a real ruler, he is just projecting an image;
- Zelensky is very rich. He does not care about the fate of the people. Fighting to protect him is nonsense;
- No-one knows the exact whereabouts of Zelensky. The West is already preparing his evacuation;
- His own entourage may doom him;
- Zelensky is a cocaine user, he does not have a sane mind.
Assessment: The propaganda narrative is mostly contradictory and therefore less convincing. However, based on the example of Georgia, we see that at least one specific propaganda narrative - about Zelensky's drug addiction - has been firmly established in a certain segment of society.
The propaganda narrative that contains threats against the West
- Russia must cut off supplies of oil and gas to the West or export them only in exchange for gold;
- The Russian Federation will launch a military strike against any country engaged in the operation to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine;
- All property owned by Western companies on Russian territory should be nationalized;
- The weaponry intended for the Ukrainians must be destroyed at the Ukrainian borders or in the places of its initial deployment;
- If deemed necessary, Russia is ready to use nuclear weapons.
Assessment: The propaganda narrative is largely consistent, although, at this stage of the conflict, only the threat of use of the nuclear weapons maintains a degree of effectiveness. Against the background of the focus on a policy of not irritating Russia, the influence of this kind of propaganda narrative is quite high vis-à-vis Georgia.
The propaganda narrative intended primarily for domestic political consumption
- Some members of the Russian intelligentsia are traitors, having embraced liberal views, and are betraying their homeland;
- The oligarchs should not even think anything against the government, otherwise there will be severe repercussions;
- They want to sow panic among the population by spreading information about the queues at ATMs;
- The Federal Antimonopoly Service of the Russian Federation could not prevent Russia from becoming dependent on Western companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Accordingly, they acquired a platform to work against Russia;
- The Russian Central Bank did not take measure to return Russian financial assets from the West, thereby severely hurting the country. As a result, the issue of the responsibility of its leadership must be raised;
- Russia will replace all Western technology and products with the help of China and other countries. The products from various Western countries will be diverted to the Russian Federation through post-Soviet countries, thus circumventing sanctions;
- The spread of objective information about Russia is being deliberately hindered in the West. They also purposefully hide information about the Ukrainian aggression. For this purpose, all the alternative information sources that are objectively covering the situation are being suppressed;
- The international financial elite is fighting against Russia;
- Innocent Russians are being treated inhumanely. Not even the Paralympians were allowed to participate in the Paralympic Games, which is unheard of and unjustified.
Assessment: The propaganda narrative aimed for domestic consumption has somewhat exhausted its own resources, as it has long managed to form public opinion in accordance with the interests of Putin’s regime. At this point, its task is to maintain the public opinion created in the past and prevent a possible spark of unrest.
In this context, it is noteworthy that the propagandists of the Putin regime themselves are concerned about the fact that the so-called gadget dependent youth is not sufficiently susceptible to their propaganda. Consequently, there is still a small probability of a protest movement being sparked in Russia in the near future, which mainly depends on the youth’s ability to mobilize.
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