Just as Kremlin planners have had to revise their expectations of carrying out a “quick, victorious special military operation” to topple the government in Kyiv, install a Moscow-chosen proxy president and occupy large swathes of Ukrainian lands, so has Russia’s narrative on the cause of the war also been undergoing a revision.
Russian officials, up until the final days of February 2022, had mocked American and British intelligence indicating that an invasion of Ukraine was imminent. In January, Alexei Zaitsev, a spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had gone so far as to say, “We have repeatedly stated that our country is not going to attack anyone. We consider even the idea of a war between our peoples unacceptable.”
Simultaneously, Russian news broadcasts, which are heavily controlled by the Kremlin, were telling a different story as they beat the drums of war, telling their viewers that Ukraine posed an immediate threat to Russian national security.
After the invasion had begun on February 24, Russian propaganda went into overdrive, justifying to Russians and the world why Moscow had been “left with no choice” but to launch a “special military operation” against its neighbour. But eventually even the designation of its invasion as a “special military operation” became hard to swallow, as Ukrainians offered stiff resistance to Russian forces, astonishing Russian military and propaganda chieftains.
Julia Davis, the founder of Russian Media Monitor, said in an interview with the Kyiv Post that, “Before the war started, state TV propagandists boasted that if Russia decided to invade, it could overpower Ukraine in a matter of days, if not minutes. They also predicted that such an invasion would proceed quickly and painlessly, akin to Crimea, with little to no resistance.”
Despite what Russia had told its citizens, it is evident that the promised “three-day war”, now approaching three months, is not going as planned, as even close Putin ally Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko conceded recently.
A former ambassador to Moscow, speaking to the Kyiv Post on background due to his ongoing correspondences with his former peers in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that Russian diplomats had initially told him that the Ukrainian invasion “Will be over within a week.” Later, they explained, “We have had some setbacks, but this month we will be done.”
This prediction was then adjusted to a Russian victory over Ukraine by Victory Day [May 9].
Now their message has become, “We hope this will finish sometime soon,” meaning that they simply cannot understand how the war has gone so contrary to their expectations, the ambassador explained.
Things have only worsened for Russia’s leadership as their national economy, under massive strain due to international sanctions, goes into a tailspin.
Davis believes it is clear that Russia had “grossly miscalculated” what the effect of their invasion would be. According to her, they also thought the sanctions levied against Russia would be “light and easy to circumvent, and the West would soon move on.
Things would return to the status quo before you knew it, and Russia would be sitting pretty with more lands to add to its own.” As a result, Moscow has been taken aback by the West’s total loss of appetite for Russian energy coupled with the ever surging demand for more sanctions against Russia.
Russia’s rhetoric about the “government in Kyiv’s” president, who the Russian press referred to as “a Russophobic Nazi” bent on “invading Russian lands,” whilst “developing weapons of mass destruction,” has proven an untenable tale for its experienced propagandists to spin:
How can Moscow justify to its millions of television viewers that the Russian Army failed to conquer Kyiv or to remove the “urgent strategic threat” posed by Ukraine’s “Russophobic Nazi” president, who, by the way, is a native Russian-speaker and a Jew? If the “Kyiv Regime” was an immediate existential threat to Russia’s existence, then should Russia not have conquered Kyiv no matter how high the cost?
Despite Putin’s public declarations that the invasion is going “as planned,” the Kremlin’s preferred propagandists have been contorting themselves in an effort to find positives to spin about the disastrous war.
According to Davis “they’re caught in their own web of lies, with mounting casualties, economic struggles and no tangible victories. Instead of announcing grand successes they have previously predicted, they are reduced to explaining why they are not being achieved.
Other than elusive assertions of Russia restoring its historical grandeur, they have no positives to mention. There is not a single aspect that can be named in terms of this war benefitting anyone, not even Putin.”
Previously, Moscow often cited that Ukraine’s interest in joining NATO posed a “direct threat to Russia.” This is notwithstanding the fact that these NATO aspirations have been in the Constitution of Ukraine since 2015 but have shown little progress, even though President Zelensky has made regular international pleas for Ukraine to achieve immediate NATO ascension.
Russia’s narrative on the threat posed by NATO further collapsed as both Finland and Sweden on Wednesday, May 18, submitted their applications to join the organization.
Finland shares a 1,300 km land border with Russia (in contrast to Ukraine’s 1,975 km land border with Russia) and famously defeated the much larger Soviet Union during the three-month long 1939-1940 Winter War, which cost the Soviet Union an estimated 127,000 – 168,000 soldiers’ lives – something that one would think would cause Russia to be far more concerned about Finland’s NATO plans.
Following the Nordic nations’ announcement that they would seek NATO ascension, Vladimir Putin publicly remarked that Russia did not perceive Finnish or Swedish NATO membership as a threat to Russia.
It defies logic why Ukraine’s membership in NATO is a direct threat to Russia, but technologically advanced Finland, which has a border only 150 kms from the St Petersburg city limits, is not.
Putin’s nonchalance about Finnish ascension could be interpreted as Putin’s acceptance that he is powerless to stop Helsinki from joining NATO, while also de facto acknowledging that his invasion of Ukraine was truthfully never about NATO.
Recent polling indicates that the Russian public’s interest in watching television has waned over the past several months, and citizens are increasingly turning to non-government controlled mediums, especially Telegram, which allows them unfettered access to information that Moscow would prefer them to not see.
Moscow’s narrative of how splendid the “special military operation” is, and how few Russian lives it has cost, is ruined by Telegram channels such as “Spook boys,” which posts graphic content of Russian soldiers who have died during the invasion of Ukraine. No matter what Russian news programs might say, the photographs provide indisputable evidence that not all is well for the Russian Army in Ukraine.
Davis believes that these kinds of alternative news sources can undermine the Russian public’s support for the war: [As Russian] “State media pundits openly call for the images of dead Ukrainian servicemen to be frequently shown to break the morale of those resisting Russia’s aggression. You can therefore assume that the reverse would impact their own population.”
Mikhail Khodaryonok, a retired Russian colonel, publisher of military texts, and a regular on Russian television, stated during a show on the evening of May 16 that the largest political-military problem that Russia faces today is that, “We are in full geopolitical isolation. However much we might hate to admit it, we have virtually the entire world against us. And that is the situation we need to get out of.”
As Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine continues, it becomes ever more difficult for Moscow’s mouthpieces to maintain a cohesive public argument as to how this war, in any way, has helped Russia.