The main peculiarity of Russian propaganda is that Russians rarely try to craft a single attractive and consistent story. Instead they throw around many different (quite often contradicting) messages… and then they see which ones work. This might seem a strange, stupid or even schizophrenic approach, but the sheer number of people who listen to and follow the Russian narratives all around the world is astonishing.
The trick is that each message works for a different audience. This is a very postmodern approach where social bubbles and prejudices of various groups are exploited. The main aim is not to prove to the world that Russia is a great country (even Russian propagandists realize this is an impossible task), but to plant the seeds of doubt and distrust among the many big and small forces of the West, to make them feud with one another and to make them weak.
The narratives used by Russia may vary tremendously in their tone and quality. Some are outright nonsensical lies (like the notion about the “oppressed Russian speakers”), but some may be logical and based on a legitimate evidence, only used in a manipulative way. Some may work on ultraconservative rural Americans while others apealing to the European leftist LGBTQ+ vegans.
Here I will try to collect all the main Russian narratives used specifically to justify the invasion in Ukraine or to demotivate the opponents of this invasion. I will briefly explain why each of these narratives is false/manipulative/harmful, but of course the main issue with all of them is that they are used to empower a genocidal war waged by a tyrannical regime – in the perfect world that alone should condemn these narratives and everyone who employs them diberately or otherwise.
1. Ukrainians and Russians are one nation
This idea has slightly less outrageous variations: “Ukrainians and Russians are ”brotherly” nations” or simply “Ukrainians and Russians share common history”. The idea is always the same – that Ukraine and Russia are very close, so very close that they are effectively the same thing. This idea is integral to Russian identity. It is shared in Russia by perhaps everyone, because even the most intelligent pro-Western Russian liberals tend to broadcast this “one nation” narrative. Some of the Western leaders also tend to believe one or more of these messages.
This narrative has only a tiny bit of truth to it, because ALL nations with common borders have common history. And quite often that means, more specifically, common wars and tragedies.
To compare this to another pair of countries not so far away… Would you insist that Germany and Poland are brotherly nations? No? But why?! There are quite a lot of mutual relatives in the bordering regions of these countries. Both countries use Latin alphabet. Both countries were devasted as the result of WWII – shouldn’t they be united into one? …Sounds idiotic, right? Well, now you know how stupid you sound to the ears of a Ukrainian when you say that our common history with Russia somehow justifies Russia’s wish to own us.
Our “common history” with Russia is a history of an empire and a ruthlessly exploited colony. This “common history” consists almost exclusively of wars, shortages, genocide and persecution of Ukrainian small landowners, political figures and intelligentsia. This isn’t that kind of history that “brings you closer”, not in a positive way.
That is why the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians do not want to go back to the USSR or any other mutation of the Russian empire. In my opinion, this fact in itself should be enough not to consider us “one nation” with Russians, who, on the contrary, weep for 1970s zastoy and worship the bloody beast Stalin as an “effective manager”.
Ukraine and Russia are radically different nations. If you think otherwise, perhaps you just need to actually learn something about Ukraine (and, for that matter, about Russia too). We’re not just dissimilar, but in many regards quite the opposites of one another, especially when it comes to the political culture. Russians always tend to worship a tsar. They need a leader to consider him a genius, a saint, even a demigod perhaps. Ukrainians, on the contrary, are always suspicious and critical of anyone who has any kind of authority. Ukrainians are anarchists by nature. And that is just one of many principal differences.
But even if this “one nation” nonsense was absolutely true, somehow most people fail to see that this shouldn’t legitimize Russia’s imperialist claims.
If we’re “one nation” – how does that justify or even explain the tremendous violence against the Ukrainians and destruction of Ukrainian cities? Do similarities justify crimes? Will the police let you walk away if you kill your twin brother?
If we’re “brothers” – why would you need to force your brother to love you? Perhaps if you have to force any of your relatives to love you, it’s already far to late and they aren’t your relatives anymore.
And if we are sharing a lot of common history, then why exactly should Ukraine join Russia? Why not the other way around? Maybe it’s Russia who must join Ukraine, not vice versa? Maybe it’s not the Russian Empire or the USSR we should restore, but the Kyivan Rus with Kyiv as the capital, Ukrainian language as the official one, Kyivan Prince as the head of the state? Why not?
2. Ukrainians are Nazis
This narrative is extremely popular all around the world as it seems that every left-leaning person on the planet is prone to believe it right away. “Oh, look! Russia says there are Nazis without providing any credible evidence to that, so there can be absolutely no way this isn’t true!” – No second thoughts, no doublechecking, no benefit of the doubt. Nazis! AAA!
This narrative’s variations were employed as the major pretext for the invasion on the 24th of February. And somehow even while mass murdering civilians Russian soldiers still believe they are doing the righteous thing – killing the Nazis.
To large extent I’ve already explained why this narrative is not just an exaggeration, but a complete and absolute bullshit (see the link to Russia’s Biggest Lie). But to recap the main points briefly:
- Speakers of Russian language were never oppressed in any meaningful way in Ukraine. Quite the opposite, except for some limitations at the state institutions, Russian speakers always enjoyed a wider variety of services, media and intellectual products in Ukraine than Ukrainian speakers.
- Ukrainian right-populist/nationalist organisations and parties have a very limited influence on Ukrainian political life. Their COMBINED level of electoral support never exceeded 12% nationwide and on average was always well below 5%. Even now, in the times of war, it is quite unlikely that any single nationalist party would form a sizeable faction in the parliament. This is in sharp contrast to seemingly liberal Western European countries where an openly right-populist isolationist candidate Marin Le Pen may rather easily get almost half of the votes.
- The widely discussed Ukrainian “Azov” Regiment (contrary to the popular notion) aren’t Nazis or even white supremacists. Their organisation includes numerous Jews and Muslims, and many international fighters in this Regiment are speaking Russian. “Azov” speaks of the “idea of a nation” (which is also enshrined in their symbol), but their nationalism seems to be of a much more civic (not ethnicity-based) type than most people imagine. At the same time, it should be emphasized that this regiment-with-an-ideology comprises only a very small part of Ukrainian forces employed in the current struggle. Thus the disproportionate attention of the Western media to them is in itself a drastic distortion of the real state of affairs.
Overall, while it would be too optimistic to say that there is no racism, xenophobia or antisemitism in Ukraine, these issues are hardly any worse than in most of the neighboring countries. Ukraine is a liberal and tolerant society, even extremely so if compared to Russia where even large chunks of their own population in the Caucasus and Mid-Asian regions are subjects to traditional Russian racist slurs. So while Russia accuses Ukraine of all kinds of xenophobia or backwardness, in truth the Russian Federation itself is the home to an exceptionally notable bigotry.
Unfortunately the same can be said about the Nazi-related accusations. While Russia accuses Ukraine of being Nazist/nationalist/fascist/etc, the atrocities committed by the Russian army show clearly that Russians have much more to do with Nazism than the Ukrainians raped, abducted, imprisoned, tortured, mutilated and killed by the invading forces.
3. NATO somehow provoked Putin
The idea of NATO involvement in this conflict has a multitude of applications for Putin. It helps him justify the more and more obvious failures on the frontlines: oh, look, “we’re fighting not only Ukraine, we’re fighting the whole NATO!” – because otherwise Russia would be forced to admit their military isn’t “the second most powerful army in the world”. On the other hand, this narrative desperately denies not only Ukrainian agency in this war, but Russian agency as well – thus helping to evade responsibility. Finally, the narrative in question helps spread doubt among Western allies if they should continue their support of Ukraine. Thus it empowers the voices of those pitiful spineless Western politicians and experts who believe that the appeasement would stop Russia better than weapons and sanctions.
Starting from the end, we’ve seen the effects of appeasement with Hitler, haven’t we? Why do we never learn from history? Why do we always have to lead everything to ruin before we understand that this ruin could and SHOULD have been prevented?
The implied Russian concern about NATO is a lie. Russia was never truly worried about NATO in the first place. Listen to Putin’s 1-hour lecture he gave on the 21st of February. He mentions NATO rather briefly for the first time only after more than 30-minute rambling on how bad and corrupt Ukraine is. NATO is not a problem for him in itself. If it was, he would never have invaded Ukraine – because Ukraine’s membership in NATO even now isn’t truly considered by the alliance. NATO kept their doors closed to us for decades and Putin definitely knew about it.
If Putin was worried about NATO one bit, right now he would’ve been withdrawning much of his forces from the Ukrainian territories in order to protect his borders with Finland, the soon-to-be a NATO member. Their membership will double the contact line of Russian borders with the NATO member-states. But Putin limited his reaction to this to some vague threats and then even said that he has no problems with Finland joining NATO.
So, sorry, NATO hasn’t provoked Russia. Nobody forced Russians to rape women in Bucha or bombard Kharkiv.
As for the notion that Russia fights against NATO – it is to some extent true, but not quite so. It is true that Ukrainian forces wouldn’t have managed to hold off the invaders for so long without the weapons and previous training from the allies. But the weapons arrive very slowly and usually in very limited numbers. In terms of manpower Ukraine relies almost exclusively on its own citizens. Several thousands volunteer fighters from abroad are heroes, no doubt, but this is not nearly the same as an allied army fighting alongside you. So Russia fighting NATO is a well-stretched exaggeration.
4. Russia fights the “Western Evil Forces”
Few things disappoint me in the collective West more than this idea… or rather not the idea itself, but how successfully it works around the world.
This shit comes in at least two distinct flavors. One – for the left-leaning people, the other one – for the conspiracy lovers on the right. These two groups dislike each other a lot, but the narratives used for them by Russia have surprisingly similar logic – that there is some kind of Big Evil in the West that must be destroyed and Russia kinda helps in doing so.
To me this narrative seems alarmingly, obviously, laughably false, but it enjoys enormous support on different ends of the political spectrum.
The leftists hate Western imperialism, militarism, clericalism and those pesky top-1% ultra-rich capitalists. So who’s the best ally in fighting all these issue? Correct! Putin. An ultra-rich imperialist whose country spent all its money on his numerous palaces and the military while also employing vast amount of religious elements in its propaganda.
The alt-right suspect their Western politicians of corruption, lies and attempt to overblow the state involvement in the economy, secretly spy on everyone and take away the freedom of speech. Who you gonna call for help? That’s right! Putin. A corrupt-to-the-bone ex-KGB officer whose regime holds on thanks to an enormous centralized brainwashing machine and drifts decisively from autocracy towards totalitarianism arresting people for “holding invisible posters”, quoting their own constitution or the Bible in public places.
Whatever social injustice you’re trying to defeat, it would be extremely unwise to side with the very embodiment of the same insjustice on steroids.
Whatever secret plot you’re trying to uncover, this under no circumstances justifies ignoring a much more obvious evil roaring to the high heavens by your side.
Russia will NOT help you fix whatever is wrong with politics in your country! Russia wishes for exactly the opposite: to ruin your countries, because Russia envies you and hates you. Yes, you may think your country is overrun by immigrants and that’s a bad thing, but Russia envies you, because you’ve managed to create such a prosperous and comfortable country that the immigrants want to go there! Yes, you may think your society is socially unjust, but trust me it is endlessly more just than Russia, and Russia hates you for creating the welfare and human rights and freedoms that you find still lacking.
Of course, I’m not saying that everything is perfect in the West. The corporations left unchecked, shady money schemes of the government officials, lack of any answers to the side-effects of automatisation, the tragic unpreparedness of many national healthcare systems to fighting a pandemic, total disregard for the already tangible climate disaster, absolute uselessness of the current world security architecture etc. These and many more are real challenges that demand for good solutions… But I totally fail to see how the looting of houses in Bucha, annexation of Crimea or destruction of Mariupol can help in finding those solutions.
5. What about Iraq?
Naturally, this is always said to demoralize the Western countries and, specifically, the United States. This message is not a self-sufficient narrative. It is used either as a booster to the previous idea (about “Evil Forces”) or as a typical reaction to accusations in those crimes which Russia is no longer able to credibly dismiss or hide. Unlike most of the messages on this list, the so-called “whataboutism” is relatively well-known in the West to be but a manipulative technique.
The answer here is simple. Iraq has nothing to do with what was going on in Ukraine for the last 8 years. I will not justify any American military interventions now because there is no need to do so. Whatever wrongdoings were done by the USA or by some other country elsewhere, the guilty party must be held accountable. But those wrongdoings cannot possibly justify any Russian crimes. You can’t go and rob a shop just because you’ve heard somebody else robbing a shop several years ago. This isn’t a legitimate reason, nor a proper pardon for a new crime.
But Russia tries to use “whataboutism” exactly this way: “if the US bombed and invaded some other country, why can’t we do so too?” Russian logic of “whataboutism” is almost childish. Imagine a nasty kid crying his lungs out on a playground because some other children have a toy which the nasty kid hasn’t. “I wanna pla wiss da WAAARRR!!! WHA CANT A PLAI WISS DA WAAAAAAARRR???!!!“.
6. Not everything is so definite…
When all other arguments fail and dissolve showing the naked baselessness of Russian imperialistic ambitions, as a means for retreat, Russian bloggers and media celebrities tend to switch into this mode of obscurity. It sounds like they “agree to disagree” when it’s already too obvious that their narrative is nothing short of madness. In other words this is a rather desperate attempt to turn a “defeat” into a “draw”.
This very same narrative may be used as a precursor, an entry point to many other messages (including those about the “Evil Forces”). The “not so definite” narrative has been widely used in Ukraine by the subtly pro-Russian bloggers. This works pretty much like a conspiracy theory club. “You know, everyone lies, we shall never know the complete truth, everything is not so definite“.
Of course, no government is completely saint. But if everyone lies, why would you choose to listen to obviously the craziest guy in the room?
Of course, we shall never know “EVERYTHING” – for the world is very complex and our cognitive capabilities and access to information have limits. But why would you trust so blindly the most outlandish story that has the least evidence to it?
Of course, in our lives there are many things open to interpretation, but, as James Comey said in his book “Higher Loyalty“, there are many other things that are verifiably either true or false.
To mention only a handful of things that are true and can be verified:
- Russian top-level officials lied on numerous occasions to the whole world.
- This war was started by Russia under false pretext, without any solid evidence for it and the Russian government changed the justification for this war many times.
- Russian soldiers committed numerous war crimes against civilians over the last three months.
- The majority of Russians support this war.
7. Not all Russians are bad
This narrative is used widely by both Russians and many people in the West to justify reluctance to expand sanctions. At the same time this message limits the circle of war criminals and perpetrators of the ongoing invasion to the Russian government only – if not to Putin alone. I assume, both Russian liberals and Western leaders believe that spreading such narrative will help Russia come to its senses.
But in reality this narrative simply creates an illusion that Russians will somehow sort out their own mess, an illusion that Russia is a normal country and the current war is but a rare regrettable mistake. This narrative serves to make everyone forget about Russian war crimes in Syria and Chechnya, about invasion in Georgia in 2008, about freaks running Transnistria backed by Russia, about all the everpresent Russian imperialist rhetoric that never truly disappeared during the last decades.
Of course, technically/statistically it is true that “not all” Russians are evil. Not all of them are imperialists. Some of them are democrats and even honestly pro-Western. Various sociological researches in Russia prove that around 10-15% of Russians were for many years more or less consistently anti-Putin. However, this doesn’t mean that each tenth Russian is now out in the streets protesting against the war. Out of 145 million only several dozens thousands (much less than 1%) went on protests. And most of them were quickly apprehended by the police.
But what about the rest of the population?
When the Crimea was annexed, around 85% of Russians were celebrating this “achievement” of the Russian leadership. In the first days of the current war more than 70% of Russians were supporting their government’s decision to start a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Even now, when the war rages already for three months, dozens of international companies left Russian markets and Russian losses on the frontlines are mounting, still more than 55% of Russian population thinks this “operation” is a good and necessary thing and it’s going well.
Compare: among Ukrainians around 90% believe that in the end Ukraine will win this war. Some of them are even optimistic enough to say that the ruination, however terrible, provides an opportunity to make our country even better than it was before. But even so, NONE of the Ukrainians would tell you that this war is “a good thing” or that it was “necessary”.
I tried to follow Russian opposition figures for many years, by now I see no real widely supported leaders among them who could truly stand against Putin and, most importantly, who could explain to their own nation that war is hell, that imperialism should stay forever in the past, that the USSR was a terrible mistake, that the West is not and never truly was the enemy and (which is even much-much harder) that Ukraine is a separate independent nation with its own culture and language that should be respected.
By now most of the good Russians are either imprisoned, exiled, killed or too scared and powerless to act. I do not want to judge them for their failures, but we cannot ignore the fact that they have failed – for two decades they were failing to save thir country from tyranny. Today it is very unlikely that they will change anything. So far their activities played a barely noticeable role in the ongoing conflict. Still, for some reason – just like with the Ukrainian nationalists – the good Russians’ influence has been tremendously overstated by the international media.
And then, another reason to be skeptical about good Russians is what I’ve already mentioned at the beginning – they aren’t free from the narratives of their own tyranny. Even the most intelligent and pro-Western “Russian liberals” very often treat Ukraine as something that should belong to Russia – maybe not politically, but in some “cultural” or “civilisational” sense. As it is said here, in Ukraine, Russian lieralism ends with the “Ukrainian question”.
Perhaps Putin was right about one thing: Russia indeed cannot truly exist without Ukraine – because there are no Russian narratives that would allow Ukraine to be sovereign and independent from Russia. There are no Russian narratives that would allow Russia to be a non-imperialistic and non-anti-Western country. At least, there are no such narratives yet. And it isn’t clear who might be ready to write such narrative in the nearest future.
Please, whenever you hear someone intentionally or unintentionally using messages from this list, you should take caution and be critical of whatever that speaker says.
If you find this list lacking, I shall do my best to expand it.