In this article, summing up the results of 2022, we will analyse the main narratives and techniques of Russian propaganda.
1. “Special military operation”
From the very beginning of the aggression in February 2014, Russia diligently denied the fact of its war with Ukraine. During its hybrid stage (in the east of Ukraine), the Kremlin operated with the concept of “civil war”: recognizing the scale of an armed conflict, but refusing to recognize itself as a participant in it.
When Russian troops resorted to a full-scale invasion on February 24, it became no longer possible to hide behind “tractor drivers” and “rebels.” However, it is at this point in tearing the masks that the formidable word “war” disappears from the official vocabulary of propaganda, yielding to the more modest concept: “Special Military Operation” (“SMO”).
Turns out that if there is a war — it is not with Russia, if it is with Russia, then it is not a war. And it doesn’t matter that in 2022, the geography and intensity of hostilities increased unprecedentedly.
The meaning of the word “operation” lies in the understatement of drama. An operation is a quick, local, limited force against a particular evil, not a protracted war against an entire people. The Russians had to believe that the “SMO” would cost them little losses, that it was not an aggression, but a “mission” with specific, legitimate goals. In addition, Russia so underestimated Ukraine that it convinced itself that a “full-fledged” war with Ukraine was not only unnecessary, but also impossible in principle.
Contrary to initial expectations, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict has grown into the largest war in Europe since Germany’s surrender in 1945. Moreover, Russia began to suffer painful defeats from Ukraine, and due to massive losses, it was forced to announce mobilization. The further, the falser and the more impractical the concept of “Special military operation” looks when used to describe the situation. As a result, Russian propaganda began to gradually return to the use of the adequate word “war,” but Moscow calls the West and NATO its opponent in the war, still denying the war with Ukraine.
Putin declared denazification as of the main goals of the “SMO.” In this way, Moscow sought to dissuade the West from helping the “Nazi-Ukrainians,” and to present the case to the Russian population as if the “special operation” is a continuation of the grandfathers’ case during World War II. In addition, the purpose of denazification justified extraordinary repressive measures and cruelty in the name of eradicating “the absolute evil.”
However, almost nowhere abroad, Russian propaganda managed to promote the “Nazis in Ukraine” narrative. All former partners of Moscow in the Anti-Hitler coalition rightly supported Kyiv in this war. The very origin of President Zelenskyy made the point about the “Nazi regime” sound awkward. And the comparison of the political system in Ukraine and Russia by the standards of right-wing radicalism was clearly not in favour of the latter.
It quickly became clear that in practice, by “denazification” the Russians mean de-Ukrainization and genocide— typical Nazi goals. But the avid Russian Z-supporters doubted the proclaimed goal of “denazification” not because of this, but when Putin betrayed their expectations of the promised political process over the captured Azov soldiers, exchanging the prisoners demonized by propaganda for his friend Medvedchuk.
In the end, for the general population of Russia, this slogan turned out to be incomprehensible: almost immediately after the start of the full-scale invasion, telephone surveys indicated that the Russians could not explain what denazification meant. Many representatives of the grassroots levels of the Kremlin propaganda system are not even able to pronounce or spell this word correctly.
Initially, the Z and other signs and Latin letters were merely tactical signs the combat vehicles of the Russian invasion forces were marked with. Thanks to numerous photos and videos from Ukraine, they have become visually recognizable, and therefore political technologists have turned the most famous tactical sign Z into a brand for supporters of aggression.
Souvenirs began to be produced, signboards were marked with it, children and adults were lined in the form of the letter Z in flash mobs. It came to an absurdity when the Kemerovo governor Tsivilyov ordered to name his region “KuZbass” in official documents.
Z has become a sacred symbol in Russia, which is forbidden to joke about. A resident of Surgut was fined RUB 40,000 for the comment “Z means assholes.”
Despite all the efforts of propaganda, Z remained rather marginal. Firstly, it seemed strange that Russia, which challenged the “rotten West,” raised a Latin rather than a Cyrillic letter on its banners — such as Ы or Ъ. Secondly, both the image of the letter Z and the excitement of its introduction suspiciously resembled the cult of the Germanic runes and swastikas in the Third Reich.
A successful case of trolling after the sinking of the cruiser “Moskva” was the distribution of footage from the Soviet cartoon, in which the heroes found a sunken ship with the letter Z. One of the characters commented: “Everything is clear. Fascist destroyer … Fascist destroyers were marked with the letter Z.”
4. “Forward to the past, back in the USSR”
A month after the start of the full-scale war, Russian propaganda created a new symbol — a granny with a red flag. The video footage of the granny, who mistakenly went out with a red flag to meet the Ukrainian military, became the basis for the creation of the image of the pro-Russian older generation, who “got tired of living under Ukraine and gladly welcomed the Russian liberators.”
The image of the granny with the flag was instantly reproduced in murals, monuments, and in newspapers. However, later, the Centre for Strategic Communication managed to find out all the circumstances of this story, find, and talk to this woman. As it turned out, the Ukrainian military rescued her from the shelling of Russian artillery.
The appeal of modern Russian propaganda to Soviet sentiments was neither accidental nor isolated. During the occupation, red flags were often flown next to Russian flags, and previously dismantled monuments to Lenin were returned to the central squares of Ukrainian cities. This policy was also reflected in the campaign of renaming settlements and streets by the occupiers.
Kremlin propaganda miscalculated, believing that the majority of Ukrainians were still nostalgic for the USSR and were forced to hide their views during the implementation of the decommunization policy. In the end, the Russians did not manage to formulate any other “attractive” image of the future for Ukraine, except for “Back in the USSR.”
Kiriyenko, First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration of Russia, once a young symbol of intellectual politics in Russia, opens a monument to a granny with a red flag on the ruins of the destroyed Mariupol, where the Russians previously killed thousands of civilians.
All this clearly demonstrated to Ukrainians that Putin’s Russia lives in the past. And it wasn’t just the Ukrainians who felt it. Almost a year into the war, the creative class of Russia itself (at least a large part of it) refused to stand in solidarity with the aggression and began to leave the country en masse.
5. Biolaboratories, infected geese, combat mosquitoes
One of the loud accusations of Russian propaganda, which periodically pops up in various interpretations and under various information pretexts, is the development of biological weapons in Ukraine.
The accusation is so false and absurd that the following argument can be used in its favour: no one would lie so brazenly. But the argument is false: Russian propaganda is brazen enough for unfathomable lies.
In fact, the PSYOP regarding biological weapons is implemented with a rather sophisticated calculation. This topic exploits deep human phobias and archetypal threats: invisible infection, birds that carry death, etc. You may not believe this, but psychologically you cannot help being afraid.
The topic of secret biological laboratories is close and convincing for conspiracy theorists, a huge number of whom live both in Russia and in the West. They have already been prepared after months of “conspiracy fighting” around the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rational arguments and objections of scientists are ignored or rejected as attempts to deceive honest people by participants in those “conspiracies.” In addition, the emphasis on the American origin of biological laboratories, the mention of Hunter Biden (the son of the US president), reveal a clear goal to gain support for this delusion by certain opposition forces in the United States, thus weakening Washington’s support for Kyiv.
Russian propaganda also uses analogies: the case of the Americans accusing Iraq of possessing chemical weapons, stating it was the reason for the US invasion in 2003, but no chemical weapons were ever found. And since it was possible for Washington to make a mistake in Iraq, Moscow is entitled to make a mistake in Ukraine.
6. Tantrums and hatred on Russian TV
Excessive emotions are a telltale sign of manipulation. It comes as no surprise that while propaganda is manipulating Russians like an enormous totalitarian cult, it has to resort to mind-bending escapades all the time.
Emotions help to hide discrepancies in the content of Russia’s statements, like “we are liberating people” vs. “these cities should be wiped off the face of the earth” or “we are protecting Ukrainians” vs. “we are going to bomb them and let them all freeze to death in winter.
A noteworthy event of 2022 was the verbal slip-up of a Russian highest-ranking propagandist Vladimir Solovyov about the chancellor of Germany, when he called Scholz a “Nazi bastard” and compared him to Hitler.
Aggressive attacks of Russian state propaganda against the chancellor have shown how easy it is for them to label anyone as a “Nazi” or a “fascist.” That also applies to Ukrainians who have been targeted by information attacks on Russian TV for many years. This hysteria is just one example among countless regular bouts of hate organized by Russian propagandists.
The aggressive style of Russian TV is not just off-putting for normal people, but it also provides factual material for researching hate speech and its role in the genocide in Ukraine, which will be investigated by international judicial institutions. In addition, it demonstrates the deep mental problems of the Russian collective mindset, which will require significant effort after the overthrow of Putinism.
7. Blackmail: nuclear, hunger, cold
Sensing its weakness to sanctions and in the battlefield, Russia attempts to intimidate Ukrainians and the world and threaten them.
Occasionally, Russian officials bring up the risk of a nuclear war: they claim they are ready to use any deterrents necessary, accuse the West of provoking them, and say they are not scared even of the worst-case scenario.
In their traditional attempts to avoid responsibility, Moscow sought to transform the nuclear blackmail into the format of threats from the allegedly Ukrainian shelling by nuclear power plants occupied by Russians, also accusing Kyiv and “radicals” of creating a “dirty bomb.”
Defeats and the loss of territories encouraged Russia to show off its nuclear arsenal as the last viable argument of why it cannot lose. However, even after that, the Defence Forces of Ukraine proved experimentally that it was possible to liberate even the territories annexed by Russia.
Looking for arguments why the West should force Ukraine to a quick capitulation, Moscow promoted the idea of a threat to food security in the world due to the prolongation of the war. In fact, it was Russia itself who created the food safety issue by blocking export from Ukrainian seaports and having its soldiers destroy Ukraine’s agriculture. The way out of the situation was identified in the form of “grain deals,” which Russia was forced to join due to international pressure.
Traditionally, Russia attempted to organize a “gas war” against Europe in winter, blackmailing it with reducing or terminating the supply of gas. However, this move did not work as expected. It turned out that Russia is more dependent on the EU market than the Europeans are on Russian gas. As a result, Gazprom lost 80% of the European market, which it has no way to compensate.
8. Terrorist attacks on civilian infrastructure
With the appointment of “Armageddon”-Surovikin as the commander of the “special military operation,” the Kremlin bet on the destruction of the Ukrainian rear with air attacks in the style of World War II. Perhaps Surovikin imagined his efforts as strategic bombing of German-occupied Europe by Anglo-American aircraft. But in reality, it is more like the desperate launches of F-1 and F-2 missiles by the Nazis on British cities.
At first, propaganda kept claiming that Russians did not fight against the civilian population, but with the onset of mass missile attacks, they stopped hiding that their goal was to make civilians’ lives miserable. Moscow imagined that Ukrainians, driven to the brink by the lack of power, heating, and other perks of civilization, would protest and force their government to negotiate with Russia on its own terms.
Such frankly terrorist behaviour only made Ukrainians even more determined to repel the aggression. Moscow’s cynicism also astounded Ukraine’s partners, who launched a new vector of aid: the supply of electricity generating equipment, fuel, parts for repairing power networks and other things necessary to survive the winter.
Russian missile terror also intensified the process of providing Ukraine with modern air defence and missile defence systems, including even the famous American Patriot air defence systems. Russia, on the other hand, got itself another item on the long list of war crimes at the upcoming international tribunal.
Plunging deeper and deeper into the void of war and crimes, Putin’s regime needs more and more powerful justifications for itself. As often happens in such cases, there is an appeal to patriotism, existential challenges and even various high-flown delusions.
In Russia, the demonization of the enemy, that is, Ukrainians and the West, has literally reached the point of comparing them to demons and accusations of serving Satan. While at the beginning only Kadyrov was noticed to use “anti-Satan” rhetoric, later, it was adopted by the subordinates of the Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Patrushev. His assistant Alexey Pavlov proclaimed the motto of desatanization, while his deputy Medvedev started mentioning the Devil during his creative writing exercises.
Recently, Putin himself has started complaining publicly about European Satanism and genders. However, the statement about a spiritually self-sufficient Russia and a miserable, sinful West in real life does not hold any substance in real life.
In December, the team of Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny published their investigation “War and Feast,” which depicts the glamorous life of Russia’s Deputy Minister of Defence Timur Ivanov, who is tasked with rebuilding the destroyed Mariupol. Apparently, it is the budgetary funds allocated for this purpose that Ivanov and his wife spend on a luxurious life in the same “damned” Europe. He doesn’t seem too concerned about the fight against “Western satanists” during the war.
In fact, the Russian elite adores the West in a bourgeois way. However, Ukrainians who wanted to reach European standards in their own country are branded by Putinists as renegades. Russians (those who can afford it, of course) continue to enjoy Western lifestyles and recreation. The children of the Russian elite live in the West, while the regime drives ordinary citizens to their deaths in Ukraine in order to “stop the satanic West,” but in reality — just to maintain their power.
10. Putin said that this war is a fiasco of his policy
At a press conference on December 22, while summing up the year, Putin voiced the reasons for the war and provided his reasoning without the slogans about Nazis and biolaboratories. In an offended voice, he complained that the war of Russia against Ukraine should be blamed, of course, on the USA and nationalists from Galicia who allegedly came to power in Kyiv after the collapse of the USSR. But between the lines, you could hear him admitting this fiasco of his two-decade policy of restoring the Russian Empire.
“And today’s events, if they (the USA) led us to this, then they achieved their result. But we also had no choice but to take the actions that were initiated at the end of February this year. … What did we come from back in the day? From the fact that, okay, the USSR ceased to exist, but our common historic roots, culture, spiritual kinship, they will be stronger than what separates us, and those tendencies have always existed. … Thanks to these forces, regardless of our efforts, this discord kept getting bigger. First we were pulled apart, separated, and then pitted against one another. In this sense, they definitely achieved the result. And we, in this sense, suffered a fiasco. But we had no other option. Maybe they pushed us to this line on purpose. But we had no way to step back, that’s the problem.”
At the end of the year, when it was time to look back on the past twelve months, not only Putin, but also other figures (such as, for example, the former Ukrainian MP, collaborator Tsariov) admitted that the long war in itself is already Russia’s loss.
But the fact is that it was not the Galicians, and not the USA, but Putin who started the war and the murders, so it is the one responsible for this biggest geopolitical catastrophe of Russia. Putin let it slip that the war was his fiasco, although he shifted responsibility away from himself. After all, even in the case of the capture of Ukraine, the goal of destroying the Ukrainian people and the idea of their statehood, which was set by Putinism, will remain unattainable.
Due to his ignorance, not understanding Ukraine, Putin staged a bloody experiment to find out whether Ukraine “really” exists. Ukraine, thanks to the heroism of its best sons and daughters, proved that it not only exists, but is also capable of standing up for itself. It caught the world and especially Russians by surprise. By continuing the war, Russia is openly setting the goal of destroying Ukraine, which is — as it has already seen — very real indeed.
Russia’s actions and words in 2022 proved its profound moral degradation and the bankruptcy of its propaganda.
Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security