In late February 2022, President Vladimir Putin launched a military invasion of Ukraine, sparking worldwide outrage as well as protests within Russia. Beyond the intense conflict on the ground , there has been an information battle to control the narrative on the war. Stories about Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, as well as other brave Ukranians such as the renowned Ghost of Kyiv, dominated the Internet and inspired global support for their cause. Russia has retaliated by spreading propaganda and misinformation about the invasion through their state media and unofficial channels such as Telegram, a popular chat app that rarely removes content and has been used extensively by both sides to relay information.
Members of the European Union have banned Russian state media outlets in their countries, and popular Western media companies, such as TikTok and Netflix, have suspended their services in Russia or been blocked from providing them. This has resulted in Russian misinformation having little sway internationally. Therefore, according to Western national security and disinformation experts, the Kremlin has reoriented its focus on winning over the domestic population.
The Russian government has asserted its control of the rhetoric surrounding the war in Ukraine in several ways. Officials have threatened media professionals with up to 15 years in prison if they publish information that contradicts the Kremlin’s official narrative and criticizes the war. Additionally, they have banned sites like Facebook and Twitter and labeled Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, as an extremist organization.
The official narrative justifies the invasion, labels it as a “special military operation”, and blames Ukranians for the conflict. Russian propaganda frequently promotes the idea that the invasion is designed to protect Ukranians against neo-Nazis, and that it is this group that is responsible for the violence in Ukraine. Putin has repeatedly defended his military involvement in Ukraine as a part of the “denazification” and “liberation” of the country. For example, Russian state media affirms that neo-Nazis were “hiding behind civilians as a human shield” during the shelling that killed several civilians in Mariupol. The neo-Nazi rhetoric is powerful and often effective as it invokes memories of World War II and of the suffering caused by the Nazis. However, it is clear that these claims are based on no evidence, and that the attacks on Ukrainian civilians have been committed by Russian forces.
Russian state media has also accused the Ukrainian military of firing on its own citizens, and has blamed them for attacks that had been committed by Russian forces. For example, the news outlet Readovka posted on Telegram that the city of Kharkiv had been attacked by Ukranian missiles. Following the attack on Kharkiv, the International Criminal Court opened an investigation against Russia for having committed war crimes, as residential neighborhoods were bombed and several civilians were killed. However, the Russian defense department maintains that they have only targeted military infrastructure using high-precision weapons, according to an article from the state-run news agency, RIA Novosti.
Photos of civilians following Russia attacks have been widely spread in the Western media when condemning Putin’s actions in Ukraine, however some Russian Telegram channels and websites have suggested that these images are fake and have been doctored to inspire international support. For example, after a photograph of a Ukrainian civilian covered in blood was featured on the front page of many newspapers, there was speculation on Telegram that the blood was “either makeup, or ordinary grape juice or pomegranate juice”.
The Kremlin’s efforts to push this narrative have had mixed results. There have been reports of protests throughout Russia in response to the invasion, with over 10,000 protestors having been detained. Regardless of the threat of jail time, demonstrations have been occurring daily across Russia. A survey conducted by Russian research firms, which has been approved by US based polling experts, found that 39 percent of respondents in the 18 to 24 age group opposed the war, and 29 percent supported it. However, it was found that 75 percent of respondents aged 66 and older supported the war in Ukraine. This can be explained partly because younger people tend to get their news from social media, while the older generation are more likely to watch the news on television, which often only reports on the Kremlin’s official narrative.
Nonetheless, it is important to note that the difference between those in the younger age group who support the war and those who do not is only 10 percent. Nika Aleksejeva, a Baltic researcher for the American think tank Atlantic Council, believes that preexisting ideologies are more important to consider than where people get their news from. The “Z movement” in Russia has emerged recently, and advocates for a Russian nationalist worldview while justifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as their duty as “historically one of the only liberators from fascists.” It is believed that the Z symbol originated when people noticed that this letter was painted on Russian tanks and military vehicles used in Ukraine. It has quickly become an important symbol for those who wish to express their support for the war in Russia. Increasing numbers of young people have joined the Z movement, with some painting a Z on their cars or wearing Z pins to show their support. Some members of Russia’s lower house of Parliament, such as Maria Butina who represents the Kirov region, have also taken to wearing this symbol to express their support.
The propaganda coming from the Kremlin can make it difficult for Russians to discern what is truly occurring in Ukraine. Although many people in Russia continue to protest against Putin, his rhetoric on the invasion is powerful, and can be difficult to dismiss with the absence of any counter-narrative. As the war progresses, it will be important to monitor how Putin further digitally isolates Russia, similarly to how he has done so economically and diplomatically.
Edited by Valeria Lau
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Featured image by Victoria Pickering and obtained via Flickr Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.