Russian president’s rampant disinformation campaign after 2014 backfired because he went about it the wrong way, says expert
Vladimir Putin’s propaganda in the Donbas region after the 2014 invasion has been described as ‘half-baked’ and failed to persuade people, an academic has said CREDIT: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Vladimir Putin’s “nonsense and half-baked” propaganda in Ukraine’s Donbas region after the 2014 invasion failed to convince local residents, a Cambridge academic has found.
The Russian president’s government launched a rampant disinformation campaign and fully-fledged propaganda in the eastern Ukrainian region after 2014, in a bid to win the hearts and souls of the largely Russian-speaking population.
But Dr Jon Roozenbeek, an academic from the University of Cambridge, believes the Russians failed to do this, because they took the wrong approach.
He posits that in order to truly fester hatred against an enemy and for it to lead to meaningful actions, there needs to be an element of “us versus them”. However, Russia’s disinformation campaign focused too intently on crafting the “them” and not the “us”, he believes.
The Kremlin repeatedly parroted the line that Kyiv was run by far-right extremists and that the Russian presence in the so-called “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk was a “de-Nazification” mission.
Dr Roozenbeek believes this was the crux of the Russian plan and worked to an extent. However, the whole scheme unravelled because of a lack of an “in-group” story – the “us” to rival the “them”.
“Eight years of Russian propaganda have failed to provide a convincing alternative to Ukrainian nationhood in eastern Ukraine,” said Dr Roozenbeek.
“The Kremlin’s decision to favour outgroup animosity over in-group identity building, and its vast overestimation of the extent to which its lies about non-existent Ukrainian ‘fascists’ promoted pro-Russian sentiment, are key reasons why the invasion has been a strategic and logistical disaster.”
‘Novorossiya’ brainwash attempt failed
During his PhD thesis, he analysed more than 85,000 articles from dozens of media outlets in the region over four years to gauge how thoroughly Russian propaganda was taking hold.
He found that half of the content remained business as usual, but a third was regularly dedicated to propaganda.
The Kremlin was trying to brainwash Donbas residents with a sense of Russian identity centred around the idea of “Novorossiya” or “New Russia”, a hangover from the Russian Empire era. But, a lack of effort and impetus meant it never caught on in Donbas, said Dr Roozenbeek.
“Despite the importance given to constructing identity and ideology after the Russian-backed takeover in Luhansk and Donetsk, including as directed by the Kremlin, very little in-group identity was promoted,” said Dr Roozenbeek.
“What identity-building propaganda I could find in Donbas after 2014 was vague, poorly conceived, and quickly forgotten. Political attempts to invoke Novorossiya were cast aside by the summer of 2015, but such weak propaganda suggests they didn’t stand much chance anyway.”
“Putin has severely underestimated the strength of Ukrainian national identity, even in Donbas, and overestimated the power of his propaganda machine on the occupied areas of Ukraine.”
He added that there is a need to ensure the propaganda does not spread further afield now with the ongoing war, as it could jeopardise the Ukrainian effort.
“If the nonsense of Novorossiya or other half-baked ideological narratives start to spread in the West, it could end up being used to pressure Ukraine into relinquishing large swathes of its territory, as a drawn-out war in the Donbas causes the global community’s nerves to fray,” he said.
The Russian propaganda war machine continues to rumble on today, with stories emerging of soldiers genuinely believeing they were freeing Ukraine from the clutches of Nazi rule.
On Monday Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, spewed more Nazi jibberish on Italian television, claiming Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian president – who is Jewish – is a Nazi and even stating Adolf Hitler had “Jewish blood”.
“So what if Zelensky is Jewish? The fact does not negate the Nazi elements in Ukraine. I believe that Hitler also had Jewish blood,” Mr Lavrov said in an interview with Italian television. He added: “Some of the worst anti-Semites are Jews.”
Outrage at the unfounded remarks has led to the Israeli government calling them “unforgivable” and summoning the Russian ambassador for talks.