Putin's disastrous invasion of Ukraine has revealed the indiscriminate nature of Russian propaganda.
On the 25th of February 2022 Russian armoured columns charged across the Belorussian border towards the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. At the same time Russian airborne forces descended on Hostomel airport just outside the city in an apparent attempt to open up a bridgehead for reinforcements. Despite warnings from U.S intelligence agencies the initial invasion still came as a shock to the Ukrainian government who had become accustomed to Russian provocations since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
In the first few days of the invasion roughly 20,000 Russian troops and hundreds of armoured vehicles pushed across the border while Russian missiles and airstrikes hammered Kyiv and its surrounding suburbs. But the offensive soon ground to a halt. As Russian forces pushed south, Ukrainian officials opened the gates on a dam across the Irpin river – flooding a small town but successfully delaying the Russian advance. Meanwhile, in Belarus, railway workers sabotaged tracks and signalling equipment to disrupt Russian supply lines.
At Hostomel airport, Russian special forces were overwhelmed and wiped out by scratch battalions comprised of various units of the Ukrainian armed forces. Denied a bridgehead close to the city Russian logistics broke down – leaving hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles stranded on the main highways leading into Kyiv. Over the following days members of the Ukrainian National Guard began ambushing and destroying isolated Russian units – buying time for the Ukrainian Army to reorganise for a wider counter-attack.
When the invasion force retreated a month later it left behind hundreds of destroyed armoured vehicles as well as the bodies of many of its soldiers. Kremlin officials clearly expected their invasion to be swift and decisive. Very little effort was made to disguise the enormous military buildup on Ukraine’s borders and yet Russia stopped short of a full mobilisation of its armed forces – allocating only a fraction of the troops necessary to lay siege to a city the size of Kyiv. Three days after the invasion began, Ukraine’s air defences remained intact and Russian units were already running out of food and fuel. As U.S. defence analyst Alex Vershinin pointed out in an article for Russia Matters.
“The Russian government appeared to build its operation around the assumption that Ukrainian elites and the populace would support the overthrow of their government, or at the very least stand aside. They did not expect heavy resistance from the Ukrainian population.”
In the wake of Russia’s disastrous invasion and the resulting stalemate in Ukraine’s eastern territories it’s worth asking where this assumption came from and why Russian planners so badly underestimated Ukrainian resolve.
So far, mainstream commentary on the war has largely neglected the obvious explanation – that Russian planners fell victim to Russian propaganda. Most journalists and foreign policy analysts seem to assume that there must be some sort of firewall between those in charge of lying to the Russian people and those in charge of advising the Russian president. Surely, they tell themselves, the Kremlin didn’t actually believe their own bullshit about a crusade against Ukro-fascists? Surely they must have understood, privately, that they were waging a war of conquest.
The notion that Russia’s president could fall for his own government’s disinformation runs counter to longstanding portrayals of Putin as a sort of Bond villain brought to life. In the world of foreign affairs most observers consider Russia’s President – a former KGB officer – to be ruthless and chauvinistic but very few characterised him as stupid. Indeed, prior to February this year, western journalists and security analysts published a steady stream of breathless commentary on Putin’s mastery of ‘information warfare’. According to their reports, the Kremlin had managed to neutralise western democratic institutions and deflect foreign criticism by reviving the Soviet doctrine of ‘maskirovka’ – deception and denial.
According to this narrative the Kremlin was engaged in a sophisticated disinformation campaign whereby state media and intelligence agencies worked hand-in-glove to manipulate public opinion at home and abroad. In 2016 borderline hysterical reporting attributed Donald Trump’s electoral victory not to the nomination of a deeply divisive candidate by the U.S. Democratic Party, but to interference by shadowy FSB hackers and Russian state-sponsored troll-farms. Likewise the debate in Britain over ‘Brexit’ was said to have been exacerbated by ‘Russian meddling’ online. Even the exposure of the FSB assassins sent to murder Russian dissident Sergei Skripal was considered, by some, to be all part of Putin’s master plan.
In retrospect the Kremlin appears to have been throwing everything at the wall in an attempt to see what would stick. But there was one subject where Russian propaganda remained focused and sustained – Ukraine. Since crackdowns began on independent media in 2014 almost every state controlled TV channel and mainstream newspaper has echoed the themes raised in Putin’s speeches and public statements – central to which is the idea that Ukraine should not be considered a country in its own right.
On this front Russia managed to achieve some success simply by establishing naming conventions. Up until very recently most English-language publications followed Russia’s example by referring to Ukraine’s capital as ‘Kiev’ (as opposed to the Ukrainian transliteration ‘Kyiv’) and by referring to the country as ‘the Ukraine’ in the same way they might refer to a region like ‘the Caucuses’. Russian state media further muddied the waters by insisting that the Ukrainian language was more like a dialect and that Ukrainian food, music and culture was indistinguishable from its purported Russian equivalents. When Russian forces annexed Crimea in 2014, Putin revived terminology from the old Tsarist empire to suggest that vast territories in Ukraine’s east should properly be considered ‘Novorossiya’ (New Russia).
In an effort to extend Russia’s influence the Kremlin also laid claim to the loyalty of many Ukrainian citizens. An official Russian report on ‘The Humanitarian Direction of Foreign Policy’ published in 2007 emphasised the need for Russia to take an aggressive stand to defend the human rights of ‘compatriots abroad’. According to the official government position, tens of millions of Russian ‘compatriots’ had been arbitrarily separated from their historic ‘homeland’ by the collapse of the USSR. Since the early 2000s the Russian government has used this rationale to issue passports to tens of thousands of people residing in Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Moldova and Georgia as part of a gradual effort to undermine the sovereignty of its neighbours. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 they were able to describe their military intervention as a ‘protective measure’ because the majority of citizens in the border regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were, by that stage, dual citizens of both Russia and Georgia.
In 2014, mass uprisings centred on Kyiv’s Maidan Square broke out in response to widespread government corruption and Russia’s growing influence on Ukrainian politics. Predictably, Russian state media dismissed these mass demonstrations as the culmination of a Western conspiracy and instead of reconsidering Russia’s heavy-handed interference in Ukrainian politics, Putin took advantage of the chaos to seize Crimea and send troops and weapons to aid separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region. British journalist Peter Pomerantsev described the uncanny nature of this undeclared war in his book This Is Not Propaganda.
“War used to be about capturing territory and planting flags, but something different was at play out here. Moscow needed to create a narrative about how pro-democracy revolutions like the Maidan led to chaos and civil war. Kiev needed to show that separatism leads to misery. What actually happened on the ground was almost irrelevant; the two governments just needed enough footage to back their respective stories. Propaganda has always accompanied war, usually as a handmaiden to the actual fighting. But the information age means that this equation has been flipped: military operations are now handmaidens to the more important information effect. It would be like a heavily scripted reality-TV show if it weren’t for the very real deaths.”
Before the war in Ukraine fell from the headlines some journalists warned that Kremlin officials appeared to sincerely believe the narratives repeated ad nauseam on Russian television. According to their view of the world the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian protesters – many of whom braved bullets, teargas and sub-zero temperatures for days on end – represented only a fringe movement. Writing for The Guardian in 2014 Shaun Walker noted that:
“…the most disturbing thing about the Russian propaganda is that it is clear that many inside the Kremlin actually believe it. In December, a Russian government source assured The Guardian that the Kiev protests were the preserve of radical marginals, and that the rest of the city had no time at all for its goals.”
Since then, Russian state media has upped the ante by alleging that Russian-speakers living in Eastern Ukraine have been subject to persecution and discrimination by Ukraine’s fascist government. This rhetoric allowed the Kremlin to justify its support of separatist groups in Ukraine over the following years. Meanwhile mainstream Russian TV networks gave airtime to a whole host of conspiracy theories concerning the shootdown of MH-17, the machinations of the Soros Foundation and the IMF and, more recently, the origins of Covid 19. While acknowledging the temptation to try to unpack these claims, author and Kremlinologist Mark Galeotti warned against looking for some overarching strategy.
“If we persist with the idea that Putin is a strategic mastermind we will be looking for a grand design in the chaos that simply isn’t there. If it seems that Russia is moving in all kinds of different directions at once, it’s not a result of misdirection or because we haven’t seen the pattern – it’s because that’s exactly what Russia is doing.”
In addition to this mistaken assumption, many commentators in the ‘West’ assume that Russian propaganda is aimed at them. U.S. and British observers often fixate on English-language outlets like Russia Today and imagine that the Kremlin’s main goal is to convince outsiders that their cause is just. By way of response these same journalists point to foreign United Nations resolutions, NGO reports, polling in occupied regions and denunciations by human rights organisations to illustrate the verdict of the ‘international community’. For example: a recent analysis by a researcher at Cambridge University concluded that:
“Years of Russian propaganda have failed: neither Ukraine nor the West are divided in their condemnation of the invasion…”
But Russian aspirations of a ‘Novorossiya’ in Ukraine’s east or the protection of ‘compatriots abroad’ were never really intended to win international approval. Neither were they aimed at those Russian-speakers living beyond Russia’s borders. Instead these claims were designed, primarily, to shore up domestic support for Putin’s regime – by stirring patriotic sentiment, provoking righteous fury, channelling dissatisfaction and by providing Putin with a self-fulfilling prophecy of chaos and violence on Russia’s borders.
In a recent article for The New York Review of Books American historian Timothy Snyder compared contemporary Russian propaganda to its Soviet precursors which were intended to present an idealised vision of the world to come rather than put a shine on the here-and-now. Given this emphasis on wishful thinking, Snyder argues that pointing out contradictions in the Russian narrative (Jewish Nazis) or highlighting blatant lies (Ukraine attacked Russia) is not all that useful.
“Propaganda is … not a flawed description, but a script for action. If we consider Putin’s propaganda in these Soviet terms, we see that the invasion of Crimea was not a reaction to an actual threat, but rather an attempt to activate a threat so that violence would erupt that would change the world. Propaganda is part of the action it is meant to justify. From this standpoint, an invasion from Russia would lead to a Ukrainian nationalist backlash that would make the Russian story about fascists, so to speak, retrospectively true. If Ukraine is unable to hold elections, it looks less like a democracy. Elections are scheduled, but cannot be held in regions occupied by a foreign power. In this way, military action can make propaganda seem true.”
Likewise Peter Pomerantsev summarised the method behind the apparent madness of Putin-era propaganda. Referring to the sprawling Ostankino TV headquarters in Moscow as the ‘battering ram of Kremlin propaganda’ Pomerantsev described the cumulative effect of years of relentless disinformation regarding Ukraine – including claims of atrocities committed against Russian speakers.
“When you go to check (through friends, news wires, anyone who isn’t Ostankino) to see whether there really are fascists taking over Ukraine or whether there are children being crucified, you find it’s all untrue, and the women who said they saw it all are actually hired extras dressed up as “eye-witnesses,” and the whole line between fact and fiction at Ostankino has become irrelevant. But even when you know the whole justification for the President’s war is fabricated, even when you fathom that the real reason is to create a story to keep the President all-powerful and help us all forget about the melting money, the lies are told so often that after a while you find yourself nodding because it’s hard to get your head around the idea that they are lying quite so much and quite so brazenly—and at some level you feel that if Ostankino can lie so much and get away with it, doesn’t that mean they have real power, the power to define what is true and what isn’t? Wouldn’t you do better just to nod anyway?”
For the last decade this so-called ‘firehose of falsehoods’ has worked remarkably well to quell internal unrest and drown out opposition movements. But the recent invasion of Ukraine revealed that Russia’s propaganda machine is not nearly as coordinated or as precise as reporters and analysts assumed. When push comes to shove Maskirovka turns out to be more or less indiscriminate – bamboozling the general public, soldiers, government officials and domestic and foreign audiences alike*.
On the central issues of Ukrainian nationalism and the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government, the Kremlin’s disinformation appears to have infected the very highest levels of the Russian state – compromising strategic plans and leading to a string of disastrous decisions.
The first real collision between myth and reality took place on the front line in February 2022. After years of being fed stories of Ukrainian ‘Nazis’ some members of Putin’s invasion force came to believe that they would be welcomed – if not by the majority of Ukrainians then at least by the primarily Russian-speaking population in the country’s east. Many of the soldiers who participated in the initial invasion appear to have been told that resistance would be confined to ‘Banderites’ – followers of Ukrainian ultra-nationalist Stepan Bandera who collaborated with the Nazis during WWII. In Russia the term has come to be used as shorthand for the Neo-Nazi movement in modern Ukraine – including the paramilitary Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector) and the Azov Battalion.
One Russian soldier – Daniil Frolkin – who agreed to an interview with one of the few remaining independent Russian news organisations – said that members of his unit were told, at the outset, that they would be liberating Ukraine from Nazis. Frolkin’s commanders described the ’Special Operation’ as a three-day ‘intimidation’ campaign directed at Kyiv – presumably intended to overthrow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government and secure recognition of the separatist ‘republics’ in Ukraine’s east. Instead Frolkin’s unit was almost wiped out in clashes with Ukrainian National Guard forces on the outskirts of Kyiv.
In the aftermath of the Russian withdrawal a reporter from Rolling Stone accompanied a Ukrainian officer as he picked through the wreckage of a burnt-out Russian vehicle. Holding up a peaked cap the officer marvelled at the audacity of the men who had invaded his country.
“These fucking guys brought their dress uniforms in their armored vehicles…They actually thought they were gonna get a parade.”
Even in eastern cities like Kherson, where the majority of residents speak Russian as their primary language, the local population was far from enthusiastic. In the first days of the invasion, residents waving Ukrainian flags confronted Russian troops and demanded that they leave. Shopkeepers refused service to Russian soldiers and a few brave individuals stood in the path of Russian tanks. In the absence of instructions from Kyiv, both the mayor of Kherson’s and the regional governor refused to recognise Russian authority.
In Melitopol, a city in Ukraine’s southeast, citizens protested the arrival of Russian troops by taking to the streets and singing the national anthem. In a video posted in the first days of the occupation a brave resident confronts a Russian soldier standing guard.
“Can’t you see that we are just people who love their city? We are not Banderites…I was born in Elektrostal. In Moscow region. My mother’s family lives there.”
Despite staggering casualties** Russian propaganda still appears to be serving its intended purpose on the home front. Polls conducted since the start of Russia’s ‘Special Operation’ continue to show high levels of support for the war among Russians (between 58% and 80% of respondents depending on how the question is phrased). But it’s one thing to convince the Russian public that Ukrainians yearn to be reunited with the motherland. It’s quite another thing for men like Putin and senior Russian officials to base their military strategy on this same assumption. So, again, we have to ask: how did Vladimir Putin manage to lose track of what was real and what was a figment of his own wishful thinking?
While it’s impossible to work out exactly what goes on inside Putin’s head it is possible to get a sense of how the Russian President stays informed and who he trusts to advise him. According to most accounts, Putin doesn’t use a smartphone, has no personal email address and rarely accesses the internet. Neither does he appear to take much interest in western newspapers or TV reports. Instead he sees the outside world through the briefing papers provided by Russia’s various state bureaucracies – including daily reports from Russia’s intelligence services. All this information is filtered through Putin’s own bureaucratic apparatus – the Presidential Administration.
As some journalists have noted, Russia’s intelligence services are not nearly as formidable as they are often made out to be by the western press. By design, the remits of Russia’s FSB (Federal Security Service), GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate), SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) and FSO (Federal Protective Service) all overlap – resulting in competition, duplication of effort and fierce inter-agency rivalries that indirectly help coup-proof Putin’s regime. As researcher Mark Galeotti wrote in his account of the Russian security services:
“The wars between the agencies have raged on-and-off since 2004. The blurring of boundaries between them encourages regular turf wars – not just over the usual bureaucratic prizes of responsibilities, funding, and access to the leadership but also business opportunities for officers, and sometimes outright survival.”
One could imagine how this sort of competition might give rise to an informal peer-review process – allowing Putin and other senior officials to contrast and compare the information being fed to them by the various agencies. But, according to Galeotti, the upshot of this rivalry has instead been:
“…a vicious cycle of escalating claims and conspiracy theories, as the various services compete for the boss’s attention with ever-more-lurid allegations. When Putin claims that the West is trying to undermine him, that Ukraine is run by neo-Nazis or that a secret ‘deep state’ conspiracy dominates Washington, is he just posturing, or is he in fact repeating eyecatching nonsense from intelligence briefings that aim to enthral rather than educate him?”
Putin himself clearly finds it difficult to obtain reliable domestic news. In a 2017 article entitled ‘Inside Putin’s Echo Chamber’ exiled Russian journalist Karina Orlova described the backchannels put in place by the Russian president to overcome the disinformation produced by his own media organisations.
“…Putin to some extent understands the failings of the system he has built for himself. He certainly doesn’t trust his own media to report objective facts, for example. The privately-owned TV-Dozhd channel recently reported that reporters employed by the main state-owned TV station in Russia’s regions are obliged to write up special weekly reports on the local problems and concerns they see on the ground. Those reports are not for broadcast, but are instead sent to the Presidential Administration directly. …What’s notable in all of this, however, is that when Putin tries to get an alternative conduit for information, he still relies on the system itself to provide it, rather then [sic] reading opposition or foreign newspapers or think tank reports. And he still remains captive to his various courtiers and close associates, who organize his information flow.”
Orlova closed her article by asking a series of questions that, five years on, seem rather prescient:
“Does Vladimir Putin know the real state of the country’s economy? Does Vladimir Putin know his real approval ratings? Does Vladimir Putin know the real capabilities of the Russian Army?”
Putin’s audacious attempt to topple Ukraine’s government did not come as a surprise to some foreign commentators. A small number of historians and political scientists recognised the trajectory that Putin was on well before the Russian Army renewed its assault on Ukraine. Some even had a term for it – the dictator trap. According to this theory, the more repressive a ruler becomes the more likely they are to end up surrounded by advisors who are too afraid to offer genuine advice. Without anyone to challenge their ideas, dictators end up overestimating their capabilities and/or succumbing to their own delusions. As historian Stephen Kotkin summed up in an interview for The New Yorker:
“This is the problem of despotism. It’s why despotism, or even just authoritarianism, is all-powerful and brittle at the same time. Despotism creates the circumstances of its own undermining. The information gets worse. The sycophants get greater in number. The corrective mechanisms become fewer. And the mistakes become much more consequential.”
Putin’s most recent mistake has certainly proved disastrous for millions of Ukrainians. Thousands of civilians have already been murdered or killed in the crossfire, tens of thousands of others have been conscripted into separatist militia and thrown into action against their countrymen. In the process, towns and cities like Mariupol and Popasna have been reduced to rubble – forcing eleven million Ukrainians to flee their homes in the last six months.
Right now the prevailing hope seems to be for some sort of internal coup against Putin’s regime. Here again the ‘dictator trap’ provides some cause for optimism – as the same blind spots that led Putin to underestimate the consequences of invasion now make it difficult for him to recognise and respond to any moves to oust him.
Removing Putin, however, won’t erase the decades of disinformation. To safeguard Ukraine and Georgia, and the stability of Europe in the long term, Russia’s propaganda machine will have to be dismantled piece by piece.
*Notably the U.S. government, with the benefit of its vast intelligence network, also accepted Kremlin propaganda that Russia’s highly trained and modernised military would brush aside whatever opposition Ukraine could marshal. Hence, in the run-up to the invasion, the U.S. government mainly supplied portable anti-tank and anti-air weapons designed to be used by Ukrainian guerrillas during what they saw as an inevitable Russian occupation. Perhaps fearing a repeat of embarrassing scenes from Afghanistan – in which tons of heavy equipment, aircraft and machinery ended up in the hands of the Taliban – the U.S State Department held off providing Ukraine with ‘conventional’ weapons (artillery, aircraft and armoured vehicles) until they were satisfied that the Ukrainian armed forces could hold their own against the Russian Army.
** Even the lowest estimates of Russian casualties suggest that the number of personnel killed so far in Ukraine is higher than the number of Soviet soldiers killed during the entire ten year occupation of Afghanistan by the USSR.
Kseniya Kizilova & Pippa Norris (Russian Analytical Digest): Assessing Russian Public Opinion on the Ukraine War
Timothy Frye (Colombia University): Is Putin’s Popularity Real?
Mark Galeotti (European Council on Foreign Relations): Putin’s hydra: Inside Russia’s intelligence services
David Remnick (The New Yorker): The Weakness of the Despot
Karina Orlova (The American Interest): Inside Putin’s Echo Chamber
Ekaterina Fomina (IStories): ‘I Confess to All the Crimes’: A Russian Soldeir Admits to Executing a Civilian and and Denounces his Commanders
Timothy Snyder (The New York Review): Crimea: Putin vs. Reality
Alex Vershinin (Russia Matters): Lessons From the Battle for Kyiv
Jon Roozenbeek (Cambridge University): The Failure of Russian Propaganda