Analysis

Russia Botched Its Early War Propaganda Campaign, but Now It’s Doubling Down

How Putin’s “zampolits” and the Russian Orthodox Church are spearheading a new agitprop campaign to boost troops’ morale.

Soldiers carry a coffin of 20-year-old Russian serviceman in Saint Petersburg.
Soldiers carry a coffin of 20-year-old Russian serviceman in Saint Petersburg.
Soldiers carry a coffin of 20-year-old Russian serviceman Nikita Avrov, during his funeral at a church in Luga, south of St. Petersburg, Russia, on April 11. AFP via Getty Images
By , a professor at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy at Reichman University (IDC Herzliya) in Israel.

Russia is never as strong as it appears, but neither is it as weak as it seems. Prior to the war, many observers overestimated Russia’s military. Now, another extreme has emerged: underestimating Russian combat effectiveness.

Western euphoria about Ukraine’s success at fending off Russian forces has led leaders to underestimate Russia’s capacity to mobilize manpower and domestic support as well as Moscow’s ability to bolster troops’ morale—one of the essentials for battlefield performance in Russian military thinking.

Although the initial psychological state of Russian troops was poor, things are changing. As part of its wartime adaptation, the Kremlin embarked on a colossal agitation campaign to boost morale, and this could impact the course of the war.

Soldiers carry a coffin of 20-year-old Russian serviceman in Saint Petersburg.

Soldiers carry a coffin of 20-year-old Russian serviceman Nikita Avrov, during his funeral at a church in Luga, south of St. Petersburg, Russia, on April 11.AFP via Getty Images

Russia is never as strong as it appears, but neither is it as weak as it seems. Prior to the war, many observers overestimated Russia’s military. Now, another extreme has emerged: underestimating Russian combat effectiveness.

Western euphoria about Ukraine’s success at fending off Russian forces has led leaders to underestimate Russia’s capacity to mobilize manpower and domestic support as well as Moscow’s ability to bolster troops’ morale—one of the essentials for battlefield performance in Russian military thinking.

Although the initial psychological state of Russian troops was poor, things are changing. As part of its wartime adaptation, the Kremlin embarked on a colossal agitation campaign to boost morale, and this could impact the course of the war.

Russia has an established tradition of using propaganda for war mobilization in the front and in the rear. In 1918, the Kremlin created the institution of political officers, also known as commissars, to safeguard the Bolshevik regime and channel ideology to the military. It was dismantled after the Soviet Union’s collapse, only to be resurrected by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in 2018, the organization’s 100th anniversary.

The Main Military-Political Directorate of Russia’s defense ministry consists of deputy commanders for political work (zampolits), military priests, and psychologists and is charged with maintaining the loyal minds, motivated hearts, and stable psychology of Russian servicemen and citizens. Zampolits exist in every unit consisting of more than 100 servicemen.

Expecting rapid capitulation and the Russian soldiers to be greeted as liberators, Putin did not prepare the public, the elite, or the military.

Like their predecessors, these new commissars provide so-called moral-psychological-political maintenance to the troops through agitation and propaganda (known as agitprop). In contrast to its forerunner, the Main Military-Political Directorate claims broader responsibilities: It seeks to articulate a national ideology as well as running the ecosystem of national patriotic education and the biggest Russian youth movement. It exemplifies the penetration of politics into the military and militarization of Russian society.

In the words of the chairman of the defense committee of the Russian parliament, the goal of military-political work is to mold a reliable warrior: loyal to the state and bearer of traditional values—statehood, spirituality, and patriotism. The official tasks of military-political work include agitprop, protecting servicemen from negative informational influence, assessing the morale and psychological-political state of the troops, religious-patriotic work, and preventing deviant behavior. The anticipated end result is motivation and unconditional support of national security policy.

In theory, zampolits translate ideological loyalty and emotional stability into unit cohesion, combat effectiveness, and accomplishment of the mission. This reflects Russian military culture’s emphasis on morale and psychological factors over material-technological ones. Iron does not fight, goes the proverb. In Russian strategic ethos, battles are won by the will, spirit, and endurance of the servicemen—not by machines or technology.


A soldier salutes Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A soldier salutes Russian President Vladimir Putin after a meeting with Russias medal-winning athletes from the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in Moscow on April 26. NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images

Given this tradition, on the eve of the invasion, I expected a splash in “morale-psychological-political” work as an indication of a transition to war. In Russian doctrine, this (next to intelligence and logistical preparations) is a prerequisite. If the war had gone by the book, in the months leading up to the invasion, zampolits should have been increasingly honing the psychological-political fortitude of forces. By Feb. 24, every soldier would have known what he was fighting for, which combat hardships to expect, and how to overcome them.

In reality, none of the above happened, resulting in extremely low morale in the first weeks of the war. Some soldiers were shocked that they were fighting in an actual war and were disoriented about their whereabouts as well as confused about the war’s goals. A majority of junior and mid-level commanders learned about the mission the day they crossed the border. They were told they would be greeted as peacekeepers liberating a brotherly nation from a group of Nazi radicals holding it hostage. The reality could not have been further from that. The Ukrainian military resisted massively, fiercely, and skillfully; civilians made clear that Russians were detested occupiers. For the psychologically unprepared soldiers, this was hard to come to terms with.

It raises one of the most perplexing questions about Putin’s war in Ukraine: Why, despite an established tradition and a formal doctrine, was Russia’s military-political effort absent in the run-up to the invasion?

The first reason was flawed assumptions; the Kremlin overestimated its military power and underestimated Ukraine’s. It saw no need for major propagandistic work among the troops for a blitz raid that would lead to effortless regime change. Expecting rapid capitulation and the Russian soldiers to be greeted as liberators, Putin did not prepare the public, the elite, or the military.

Political officers need a message from the leadership to channel to the masses. The Kremlin did not provide anything prior to the invasion. It probably assumed that nothing more was needed. In mid-2021, the General Staff ordered zampolits to channel to the troops Putin’s article on Russian-Ukrainian history. Beyond that, no major effort was made among soldiers. Apparently, Putin also took for granted the effectiveness of Russian subversive influence in Ukrainian society during the previous decade.

Second, the Kremlin kept everyone in the dark. In part, this cult of secrecy pertains to Putin’s style in national security. He and his entourage are intelligence officers running clandestine activities, not senior commanders planning military campaigns. Moreover, the Kremlin channeled its propagandistic energy in the opposite—misleading—direction. In the months leading up to the invasion, Washington publicized intelligence it had on Russia’s intentions.

The goal was to turn global sentiment against the Kremlin and deter it. Russian propaganda went all out in an effort to refute the allegations that Moscow was preparing for war. The campaign against Western reporting apparently convinced many in the Russian military and public. It should come as no surprise that zampolits convincingly channeled this message to the country’s servicemen, leaving them unprepared for the planned invasion.

Things changed by the second week of the war. Putin, the Russian Orthodox Church’s patriarch, and the country’s political establishment started to provide ammunition for tailored agitprop. Here is the gist of what zampolits and military priests told the troops: Ukraine, controlled by Western forces, has a Russophobic regime, which is conducting genocide against its Russian population and has turned itself into a launching pad for NATO’s aggression.

The operation is therefore an unavoidable preventive strike to neutralize an existential threat and avoid colossal future costs. It will preempt the deployment in Ukraine of NATO’s missile capabilities with a short-flight time range as well as prevent the use of Ukrainian infrastructure to produce chemical, radioactive, and biological weapons. Its aim is to demilitarize and “de-Nazify” Ukraine and save the Russians of the Donbas region from genocide. The operation will elevate Russia’s status in the world by terminating the unipolar moment and changing the configuration of the world order.

This geopolitical rationale comes with a messianic twist. The Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate have presented the operation as a kind of a crusade for the Russian world: one of the main themes of the unwritten national ideology. The concept views Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus as a joint social, cultural, and religious entity. Disjointed by historical circumstances, this entity is destined to be reunited. The patriarch operates as the Kremlin’s commissar. In his wartime sermons, he has been framing the operation as a just “metaphysical war” for the salvation of a fraternal nation.

In mid-March, Putin participated in a concert commemorating unification with Crimea—the biggest propagandist cultural event of the operation so far. Religious figures of speech saturated the rhetoric of secular performers. The leitmotif (“We are Russians, and God is with us”) was omnipresent. Parallels with the Great Patriotic War (the Russian name for World War II) were unavoidable. A former actor turned parliamentarian envisioned the triumph of the operation as a V-Day parade in Red Square, where a single Russian nation—Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians—would march united. The slogan “for Russia and for the president” resonated with the old “for the motherland and for Stalin.”

Positioning himself as a katechon—a force that protects Russia from the Antichrist—Putin, similar to Joseph Stalin in wartime, invoked ancient Russian military commanders to inspire the troops. He chose Fyodor Ushakov, the 18th-century Russian admiral who became a monk, was canonized in early 2000, and serves today as the patron saint of the Russian nuclear submarine fleet.


When the initial invasion aimed at quick victory fell to pieces, the Russian military began adapting. Several rounds of combat adjustments boiled down to more firepower, brute force, and urban combat. Fragmentation and destruction of the Ukrainian military, coupled with annihilation of the defense-industrial infrastructure, became the Russian theory of victory.

Wartime adaptation is one of the biggest professional challenges to any military. The same applies to Russian armed forces and its zampolits. Russian doctrine sees “morale-political-psychological” stability of the troops as among the prerequisites for wartime learning on all levels of command. Initial rounds of adaptation apparently failed. Still, the Russian military is a learning organization capable of transforming while fighting.

Zampolits, clerics, and psychologists doubled down to bolster combat spirit as well as battlefield effectiveness and adaptation. Like the Soviet commissars during the initial months of the Great Patriotic War, zampolits have been forced to explain to confused troops the rationale for the war, leadership omissions, poor performance, deviations from doctrine, civilian deaths, slow progress, and the state’s inability to achieve its war goals.

For Russian servicemen, the cognitive dissonance has been genuine—more so than to the public, which is largely insulated from the horrors of war.

Zampolits are now on the front lines, conducting agitprop and performing combat roles; they are involved in humanitarian and intelligence missions, deliver addresses at funerals, and conduct edutainment in hospitals.

Enabling soldiers at the front to recover from trauma, overcome shock, and return to battle is another combat mission of zampolits. To generate fury against the enemy and dissuade servicemen from defection, they exploit content depicting cruelty on the part of the Ukrainian forces. Casualties among political officers and clerics are mounting. Those killed in action vary from the rank-and-file officers to senior zampolits, including a deputy commander of the Black Sea Fleet for political work.

Their main propagandistic challenge is to explain to the troops why Russia is at war with a fraternal nation; why the resistance is so fierce and committed; and why Moscow, the political center of the Russian world, is inflicting enormous devastation and loss of life on the spiritual center of the Holy Rus—which it regards as the birthplace of Russian civilization.

For Russian servicemen, the cognitive dissonance has been genuine—more so than to the public, which is largely insulated from the horrors of war. The devastation is not easy to come to terms with. Ukraine is not Syria or Chechnya. The Kremlin has created a dilemma for itself; employing indiscriminate firepower in the heart of the Russian world, it is waging precisely the sort of war it sought to avoid initially.

To rationalize this for the troops and reconcile the dissonance is the biggest challenge facing the zampolits and clergy. Here is the gist of their message as it appears in internal Russian military sources: The collective West is a force of evil that has polluted the consciousness of a fraternal nation for several decades with its alien values and is sowing war among brothers.

Foreign penetration is deep and will demand a prolonged campaign. This effort by external forces to bring the nations of Holy Rus into conflict is, according to the patriarch, a recurring trend in history. The operation is a crusade to liberate bygone brothers from the hands of a dark force that confronts the Russian nation. Fighting in Ukraine, which eventually narrowed down to liberating the Donbas region, means fighting for the independence of Russia.

“We need to stop the fraternal bloodshed,” the patriarch broadcast from the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces, but “servicemen should be loyal to the oath of allegiance,” meaning they should obey any order from the Kremlin. Although this might sound like nonsense to Western ears, Russian military agitprop explains to the soldiers that “the slowness of the advance” reflects the order to minimize damage to the civilian population. Putin’s phrase that “everything is going according to the plan” is omnipresent. Brutality attributed in foreign media to Russian troops is qualified as Western staged fakes.

The church backs the Kremlin in every possible way. The patriarch sent birthday blessings to the commander of the Russian airborne troops, when his elite forces raided an airfield near Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. He sent the same benediction to the commander of the Russian Navy, whose infantry has been deployed to the main battlefields of this war, and presented a large icon of the Mother of God to the commander of the Rossgvardia—an ostensibly domestic security force—to protect his troops in battle.

The zampolits face formidable challenges. The next big one will arrive if and when the Kremlin decides to overcome its manpower shortages by declaring a state of war and national mobilization. Zampolits will be one of the main vehicles to deliver this manpower.


Russians celebrate the 66th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 1983.

Russians and tourists pour into Moscow to celebrate the 66th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in Nov. 7, 1983.Mikki Ansin/Getty Images

The Russian military needs to rotate personnel and replace casualties. Losses of equipment matter, but manpower is even more critical. Russia is employing an unknown mix of conscripts and contract soldiers to Ukraine. The spring and autumn drafts constitute the inflow of servicemen, but public support is crucial for it. In the meantime, the wounded and dead are returning home. If they are not accorded any adulation or feel betrayed and unwelcome, it may stimulate draft-dodging, decaying morale, and civilian unrest.

In the run-up to the war, the Kremlin neutralized the opposition. Draconian measures and about 15,000 arrests prevented initial anti-war activism from turning into national protests. Still, the Kremlin is concerned. Putin’s allegation that the West is exploiting combat losses and sanctions to sow domestic confrontation betrays genuine anxiety. Sanctions are worrisome but not critical at this stage. At least initially, many ordinary Russians even saw them as comeuppance for a detested upper class. In contrast, a demoralized military returning home may fuel public ferment.

In response, the biggest internal informational campaign in decades has started. In 1941, Stalin mobilized the cultural elite to enhance the war effort. Similarly, today, the Kremlin is forcing the entertainment industry and opinion-makers—singers, writers, poets, publicists, public intellectuals, bloggers, and TikTokers—to back the regime or else be branded renegades and disappeared. Most of the disaffected have fled in despair. Those who have stayed are expected to not make a fuss. Criticism of the military is equated with treason and suppressed mercilessly. Censorship is unprecedented in scale.

Offline and online agitprop is formidable. Most of the war-popularizing campaign has been orchestrated top-down, but some initiatives are grassroots. Z-themed content—human and vehicular flash mobs, auto-runs, anthems of war, videos, TikToks, and billboards often adorned with ribbons of St. George (a symbol of the victory in World War II and a sign of loyalty to the regime)—is everywhere.

Zampolits have been behind many of the edutainment projects in support of the war. Military agitprop makes it appear like a majority of the public supports the Kremlin’s course and its armed forces. It supplements this image with endorsements of the war by well-known figures from the cultural-artistic elite and show business. Zampolits ensure that those returning from the front are publicly greeted as heroes who have fulfilled a sacred duty.

In the most daunting moments of war, Stalin expanded the repressive authority of the commissars. Putin may do the same.

Officials, zampolits, and priests standing over the coffins of the dead repeat the mantra of fallen heroes who “have not left ours behind.” The perception of sanctions as a collective punishment and the “cancel Russia” phenomenon in the West have convinced many in Russia that the whole world is indeed against them—exactly the Kremlin’s message. Zampolits cultivate and exploit this sentiment to generate public fury at the West. The logic is simple: If the public considers the goals of war meaningful, has a clear image of the enemy, and sees victory as achievable, it will stand with the Kremlin.

While schools have begun including materials on the “genocide in Ukraine” and the joint history of the two countries and as pupils write letters to soldiers, zampolits have their own line of operations. They engage with the youngsters through Yunarmiya—a militarized patriotic youth movement that numbers about 1 million members. Yunarmiya has been behind many of the pro-war public activities mentioned above. Many of its members drafted this spring have gone through basic military training previously and may volunteer to fight at the front. Outside Yunarmiya, zampolits have been agitating and coercing current conscripts to sign war contracts and conduct “prophylactic conversations” with anti-war youngsters.

As Putin’s “special military operation” incrementally turns into a protracted war, what lies ahead for the zampolits? First, zampolits may reacquire the levels of authority they enjoyed in the Soviet era. The Kremlin is using the war to reshape society. As the Kremlin hunts traitors, zampolits may acquire responsibility for the oversight of political loyalty. This means screening and neutralizing unreliable elements within the military and in society at large. Prior to the war, their mandate was confined to morale and psychological-political maintenance.

This may change soon. In the most daunting moments of war, Stalin expanded the repressive authority of the commissars. Putin may do the same. In April, Russia’s Presidential Administration recommended all ministries and state corporations establish deputies for informational-political work. In addition to internal propaganda, these civilian zampolits are charged with “monitoring the emotional climate and moods” within their institutions.

In the longer run, the zampolits are likely to focus on nurturing patriotic, tech-savvy youth. Prior to the war, Russia possessed significant human capital pertaining to artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data analytics, and their dual-use applications. A massive exodus of information technology specialists is already a strategic blow to the field. To preserve its defense sector, Russia needs a steady inflow of politically reliable and motivated “scientific-technological youth.” Cultivating a patriotic cadre of motivated IT specialists and preventing brain drain are likely to become one of the main near-term tasks of military-political work.

Finally, the military and zampolits, in particular, may become central to crafting an official ideology, even though the Russian Constitution forbids it. They could now seize the initiative and become a producer and distributor of ideological content, within both the armed forces and society at large while aggressively policing political loyalty. The acquisition of these authorities would elevate zampolits to a role similar to Soviet commissars at the peak of their power.

Dmitry Adamsky is a professor at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy at Reichman University (IDC Herzliya) in Israel. He is the author of Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics, and Strategy and The Culture of Military Innovation: The Impact of Cultural Factors on the Revolution in Military Affairs in Russia, the U.S., and Israel.

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