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Russia’s Propaganda Machine Is Faltering Over Ukraine

A once well-oiled system has been shocked by the war.

By , a historian and translator of Russian war propaganda.
Pedestrians cross a street in front of a billboard displaying the symbol “Z.”
Pedestrians cross a street in front of a billboard displaying the symbol “Z.”
Pedestrians cross a street in front of a billboard displaying the symbol “Z” in the colors of the ribbon of Saint George and a slogan reading, “We don’t give up on our people,” in St. Petersburg, Russia, on March 7. AFP via Getty Images

Just a week into the Russia-Ukraine war, Russia is underperforming both on the battlefield and in the propaganda sphere. Any hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin may have had of military and popular opposition melting away have evaporated. His Ukrainian opponents have proven adept at manipulating and spreading historical narratives via social media to strengthen unity at home and sow discontent among a Russian population split on the worthiness of war.

Ukraine’s propaganda efforts have focused on painting contrasts between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Putin. Zelensky has recorded a series of apparently ad hoc videos from besieged Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, depicting himself and his cabinet members on site even as Russian forces advance. The cool, calm, and collected Ukrainian president has addressed Russians directly and in Russian—a significant move given Putin’s hyperbolic claims about Ukrainian oppression of Russian speakers—appealing for peace. He seems to show no fear in his media appearances.

Putin, meanwhile, has remained hidden away from view, giving only prerecorded speeches, addressing viewers as the “nation” rather than as “you,” and meeting even his own advisors at absurdly long tables. This approach hardly matches up to Putin’s reputation as a virile action man. In a press conference on March 3, Zelensky—speaking in Russian, his first language—underlined the contrast between the two leaders: “Sit down with me at the negotiating table. I’m not busy. Come sit with me! Just not 30 meters away like with [French President Emmanuel] Macron and [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz. … I’m your neighbor. You don’t need to keep 30 meters away from me. I don’t bite. I’m an ordinary guy. … What are you afraid of?”

Just a week into the Russia-Ukraine war, Russia is underperforming both on the battlefield and in the propaganda sphere. Any hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin may have had of military and popular opposition melting away have evaporated. His Ukrainian opponents have proven adept at manipulating and spreading historical narratives via social media to strengthen unity at home and sow discontent among a Russian population split on the worthiness of war.

Ukraine’s propaganda efforts have focused on painting contrasts between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Putin. Zelensky has recorded a series of apparently ad hoc videos from besieged Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, depicting himself and his cabinet members on site even as Russian forces advance. The cool, calm, and collected Ukrainian president has addressed Russians directly and in Russian—a significant move given Putin’s hyperbolic claims about Ukrainian oppression of Russian speakers—appealing for peace. He seems to show no fear in his media appearances.

Putin, meanwhile, has remained hidden away from view, giving only prerecorded speeches, addressing viewers as the “nation” rather than as “you,” and meeting even his own advisors at absurdly long tables. This approach hardly matches up to Putin’s reputation as a virile action man. In a press conference on March 3, Zelensky—speaking in Russian, his first language—underlined the contrast between the two leaders: “Sit down with me at the negotiating table. I’m not busy. Come sit with me! Just not 30 meters away like with [French President Emmanuel] Macron and [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz. … I’m your neighbor. You don’t need to keep 30 meters away from me. I don’t bite. I’m an ordinary guy. … What are you afraid of?”

Elsewhere, a series of war myths of ordinary people heroically fighting—and dying—in battle against the Russian army have emerged. Apocryphal stories of fighter ace the “Ghost of Kyiv” and the martyred troops of Snake Island, who purportedly died under Russian naval fire but actually survived, hark back to the most effective war myths of the past. Their truth is irrelevant when social media stories spread at lightning speed. These stories of brave leaders and troops are powerful tools in uniting the Ukrainian nation behind the resistance effort.

But critically, the Ukrainian media onslaught is also proving effective in Russia itself. Videos of Zelensky and stories of Ukrainian military heroes are spreading like wildfire to Russians via social media platforms like Telegram, which counts 38 million monthly users in Russia. Unlike state TV channels and radio stations, the Russian government has no direct control over these channels. As a result, anti-government information spreads unimpeded. Zelensky’s March 3 speech, for example, has been viewed more than 300,000 times and received 8,000 likes on one Telegram channel alone run by outspoken rapper Morgenshtern.

To be sure, it’s difficult to measure sentiment via social media. Yet the Russian government’s response has been telling. Government-controlled newspapers and TV are chiefly consumed by older demographics, who do not use platforms like Telegram. Up until now, they have largely ignored Zelensky’s fiery speeches and appeals to Russians and the West. But in early March, they chose to make a multiplatform assault on the “Ghost of Kyiv” story. Pravda decried the tale as “more like a propaganda myth than real person.” Svobodnaya Pressa claimed the pilot was one Oleksandr Oksanchenko—and promptly accused him of bombing Russians in Donbass in 2014.

The very existence of these stories tells us something. The Russian propaganda apparatus clearly considers the story to have spread to older media consumers in Russia. If that is the case, then pro-Ukrainian information must be traveling horizontally from social media platforms like Telegram into the wider information sphere.

If viewers and readers in Russia are latching onto Ukrainian narratives, then the government’s propaganda efforts are falling flat thus far. The government still refuses to call the war anything other than a “special military operation.” As a result, the attempts of official groups like the Young Army—a government-sponsored paramilitary organization for young Russians that claims to have more than 1 million members—to drum up public enthusiasm for what looks to be a lengthy and difficult conflict have failed. In a post on March 1, the group announced a campaign asking its members to write letters of thanks to “service members carrying out the special operation on the territory of Ukraine.” The hundreds of comments were mostly positive, but many that expressed concern or confusion were rapidly removed by moderators: “How can we write to soldiers when there isn’t a war on?”, as one commentator put it.

Faced with this almost absurd contradiction—the need to motivate versus the need to pretend the war is not an invasion at all—state media has found itself taking contorted positions. On March 3, the five most-read stories on Argumenty i Fakty—a leading Russian newspaper that in another life was admonished by the Soviet authorities for its progressive views—discussed three military topics (supposed Ukrainian attacks on their own civilians, Ukraine’s imagined plans to build nuclear weapons, and Zelensky’s imagined plans to surrender to Putin) and two financial themes (reindexing of pensions due to sanctions and a proposal for a credit holiday due to rising inflation rates).

A survey of the leading stories on Pravda, which has been the Soviet and Russian state’s most ardent media supporter for a century, on March 4 suggested that financial bad news stories are being brushed away: Rising prices are not linked to sanctions, Western companies are withdrawing due to their own shortsightedness, and sanctions will only lead to rising oil prices that will help Russia and hurt the West. In contrast to the Ukrainian side’s tales of ordinary people bravely defending suffering civilians, this neoimperialist and defensive content is unlikely to increase public support for the war.

Indeed, there is some early indication that public opinion may prove to be irrelevant in how events further unfold. The Putin regime appears to be preparing a media crackdown of the most brutal kind. In recent days, it liquidated the country’s sole remaining liberal radio station, Echo of Moscow, and pulled the TV station Dozhd, long a thorn in the regime’s side, from air. Although Dozhd is still broadcasting via YouTube, it signed off its television broadcast by cutting to footage of Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, which was aired in the Soviet Union during times of crisis and when leaders died. Independent journalism is under the knout, but some journalists remain defiant for now.

The government is attempting to exert unprecedented control over the social media sphere. Roskomnadzor, the country’s media watchdog, announced a block on Twitter and Facebook and is still considering cutting access to YouTube. These steps have long been discussed, but until now, the government has held back from taking these extreme measures. More concerningly, a new bill signed into law by Putin threatens up to 15 years of imprisonment for those who spread fake news about the activities of Russian forces. The broad nature of this law should concern progressive forces: Given the regime’s love of disinformation, it is unclear how fake news will be distinguished from reality. Meanwhile, Russians attempting to cross their own borders now report being forced to unlock their devices and show guards their personal messages and Telegram channels.

The regime may struggle to shut down access to foreign social media sites, especially fiercely independent Telegram, altogether. Doubts about the technical viability of such censorship will persist. Russia’s technical capacities are nowhere near equal to China’s, which took more than a decade to fully build up its own internet services and shut out most of the world. However, the regime is making its intent clear. The actions of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime in neighboring Belarus—widespread protests led to a mass anti-government information campaign via Telegram—perhaps provide a model Putin will follow. Lukashenko’s security forces have arbitrarily arrested and detained average users suspected of spreading undesirable information. Simultaneously, as in the case of the flagrantly illegal kidnapping of Nexta Telegram channel editor Roman Protasevich, the regime has shown no regard for boundaries and norms when it comes to prosecuting its plans. Combining its own penchant for violence, the arbitrary approach of the Belarusian security system and a high-tech mass surveillance system of the kind implemented by China may allow Russia to win this propaganda war yet.

These might seem like frightening steps for ordinary Russians and for freedom of speech in Russia. It might seem like these are the actions of a dictator who has total control. However, in reality, this was not the regime’s playbook on the war’s first day. The conflict was meant to be a walkover, Ukrainian opposition was meant to evaporate, and Russians were meant to unite behind the image of their nation as a savior. Make no mistake: When it comes to the propaganda war, Putin is playing scorched-earth defense.

Ian Garner is a historian and translator of Russian war propaganda.

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