Weapon of War. Russian Propaganda After 02/24/2022

Russian propaganda has been studied for a long time and carefully. But the beginning of the so-called “special military operation in Ukraine” changed its tasks and methods.

The author discusses the propaganda industry of the Russian Federation after 02/24/2022.

Since it is sensitive to changes in the military-political situation, this is apparently one of a series of texts devoted to this important topic.

1. Propaganda as an industry

Russian propaganda today is a complex of enterprises producing and implementing products whose task is to manage the choice and behavior of mass audiences in favor of interest groups that have exclusive access to resources and power. The complex includes public and private enterprises. But funding and planning of their work, conceptual and methodological support, and guidance are provided by the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation (AP RF).

Choice and behavior management should be understood as

  • creation and implementation in target audiences of implicit but stable rules and norms, which, from the point of view of the authorities, should be followed;
  • the formation of conditioned reflexes in them – stable reactions to events in the socio-political and military context and to situations that arise in it, as well as to various types of information, images, symbols, and signs1;
  • rapid production of “answers” that remove questions (doubt, bewilderment, uncertainty, fear) that arise in crisis situations;

The task of propaganda is to standardize the behavior of large communities and control them in order to solve the problems of ruling interest groups.

The fundamental interest, in this case, includes three components:

  • retention of power at all levels – federal, regional, and local;
  • resource base control;
  • security.

At the same time, local, sectoral, and situational interests can arise and change in accordance with changes in the economic, political and military spheres.

The propaganda industry includes a number of industries.

  • radio, television, news agencies;
  • paper media: newspapers, magazines, bulletins, etc.;
  • internet: social networks, websites, video platforms (YouTube), “troll factories”, etc.;
  • literature: fiction, non-fiction, educational and other;
  • video clips, serials, full meter, cartoons, documentaries;
  • show business: theater, concerts, festivals, clips, exhibitions;
  • mass events: rallies, demonstrations, meetings, forums, etc.;
  • “scientific” events: conferences, round tables, etc.;
  • education: the introduction of control messages through textbooks, lectures, etc.;
  • art: painting, sculpture, poster, leaflets, symbols (emblems, flags, ribbons, badges, clothes), etc.;
  • production of household items: food, labels, price tags, etc.;
  • “virus laboratories”: rumors, gossip, “folk songs and poems”, etc.

Not all of these components are fully included in the propaganda industry. But it uses them all. Moreover, it combines products from different industries. Example: it can offer festival participants both musical works and symbols, literature, etc.

At the same time, the desire to produce propaganda products takes into account the features inherent in specific target audiences – national and religious communities, groups with different levels of culture and education, and people of different ages and genders.

But the main message of propaganda is one: submission to authoritarian power.

2. From former forms of propaganda to others.

Totalitarian or more dangerous?

The demand for submission to authoritarian power is addressed to all audiences. This formula suggests that today Russian propaganda is an instrument of a system hostile to free choice, the rule of law, humanism, political and civil liberties, and other values of democracy.

Until relatively recently, experts sometimes doubted the complete coincidence between the features of well-known totalitarian societies and the features of the system created by the authorities of the Russian Federation. Political scientist Maria Snegovaya argued2 that in the Russian Federation there is no “upsurge of society” and “mobilization” necessary for a totalitarian project. And the attempt of the authorities to conduct “mobilization with the help of ideology” (politician Lev Gudkov spoke about it) was considered unsuccessful.

According to Maria, “Russian society is very tired and afraid of upheavals.” And the authorities, “unlike Nazism or early forms of totalitarianism,” did not see “expansion plans.” “The regime,” she believed, “is most interested in ensuring … the opportunity to remain in power as long as possible without change.”

Sociologist Grigory Yudin, on the contrary, saw3 in the actions of the Russian authorities (unlike the attempts of the USSR, Germany, China, etc. to include citizens as much as possible in constant social activity) the desire to divide people, interfere with their self-organization and identification, without offering their own large-scale projects, like the CPSU, NSDAP, CPC, etc.

Besides, the philosopher Alexander Pyatigorsky believed that: “It is absurd to talk about the threat of totalitarianism in Russia. The totalitarian project requires such resources of negative energy, which are simply not available now. Although some people are still capable of totalitarian gestures… But there are no more people capable of totalitarian control. And, most importantly, there are no people capable of totalitarian rule. However, other forms may appear, forms worse than totalitarianism as well.”4

Perhaps the regime that the Russian government is building is one of these other forms waiting for a name and generating propaganda to match itself? And the above estimates, perhaps, are correct for the pre-war stage of its creation?

Back in the summer of 2021, Novye Izvestiya quoted Andrey Andreev5, an employee of the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who believed that “the ruling class is getting worse and worse at selling foreign policy threats to Russians – from confrontation with the West to the situation in Ukraine (in Donbas). Russians see the main threats inside…”. This is, first of all, “a low standard of living…” That is, propaganda was getting worse and worse at shaping the image of the enemy in the person of “Pindos”, “Gay Europeans” and “Ukrops”6.

And in the fall of the same year, journalist Yevgenia Albats, talking with political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky, noticed that it was we ourselves (i.e. people with a civil position), “saying that we have a totalitarian … regime, we feed them (i.e. assemblers of the regime) with fears7. And after a few phrases: “I do not even want to allow the thought of war.”

Pavlovsky replied: “There will be war. We are approaching the war.” And now, the war is on.

Another – military – propaganda is working in all its might.

3. In wartime mode

On April 19, 2022, the head of the Rossiya Segodnya agency8, Kirill Vyshinsky, said on Sputnik radio9 that after the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian media were producing military propaganda. Its goals: “The first is to raise the morale of those who fight for you. The second is to undermine the morale of those who fight against you.” Then, to the best of his understanding, he expounds part of Sun Tzu’s treatise: “… The art of war is the path of deception. You must lie all the time. If you are far away, then you must say that you are close. If you are weak, then you must say that you are strong…”.

What is important here is not so much whether Vyshinsky is right and whether he believes in his words, but what he accurately describes what he and the Russian propagandists are doing.

The two confessions of this head by one of the leading propaganda services of wartime Russia are important as well.

First, the Russian media lies, and this is normal for them.

Second: Russia is weak.

The second conclusion is based on the last phrase of the quoted quotation. Russian propaganda convinces the population that Russia is strong by intimidating a military adversary, Ukraine, and, as it believes, a larger strategic enemy, the United States and the so-called “collective West.” According to Vyshinsky’s logic, the one who insists that he is strong is actually weak.

Forming and introducing the image of “the most powerful and dangerous enemy,” propaganda gave him a number of names: “USA,” “collective West,” “NATO.” In its language, they mean countries that oppose the Russian regime and its expansion.

These words, with a special meaning “put on” them, are actively used by political functionaries, diplomats, and publicists, supporters of the war. In their essential propaganda speeches, they announce that Russia’s true goal in the conflict with Ukraine is to end the global leadership of the United States and the “collective West.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: “The Russian military operation in Ukraine is designed to put an end to the US course towards global domination.10

Vice Speaker of the Federation Council of the Russian Federation Konstantin Kosachev: “An uprising against the global empire of the West… can lead to a more just world order.11

Publicist Aleksandr Dugin: “Our Ukrainian step is a challenge to the unipolar world order, oriented towards the US and NATO.12

The materials I have just quoted came out on the same day. And although the number of their views on the RIA Novosti newsfeed is rather modest (unlike Lavrov on the air of Rossiya-24), they were repeated by hundreds of publications in the Russian Federation. That is, they gave a powerful propaganda volley to the target audiences, declaring: “We are at war with the USA, NATO, and the West. The goal of the war is a new world order.”

 It would seem that this volley sounded in dissonance with the words of Putin, delivered on 04/12/2022: “The purpose of the special operation in Ukraine is to help people in the Donbas…”13. But this is not so. Further, Putin emphasizes: “the Kyiv authorities” are “pushed by the West.” That is, his “help to the Donbas” is part of the fight against the West.

4. Intermediate results. Impact on audiences

The approach voiced by the mentioned figures and replicated by propaganda, judging by the results of the VTsIOM polls14, has support.

As of April 5, 2022, “the decision to conduct a special military operation is supported by 74% of respondents. 17% do not support it. And 9% found it difficult to answer. At the same time, the actions of the President of Russia are approved by 78%, and not approved by 13%. Further, “71% of Russians have a bad attitude towards the United States. Of these, 47% are very bad. 14% reported a positive attitude.” As for NATO, “almost 59% of Russians are rather negative about the alliance, 23% are indifferent, and 2% are positive. Citizens predominantly believe that NATO is a military organization aimed at aggressive actions against Russia… (62%).15

On April 22, 2022, the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM)16 announced that “81% of respondents assess the work of Vladimir Putin positively, and 79% trust him.”

The accuracy of the figures of VTsIOM and FOM can be doubted. 100% of VTsIOM shares belong to the state, and the RF President’s Administration is the customer of FOM research. By a number of indications, they have a rich experience of obtaining results pleasing to the owner of one and a key partner of the second organization. And propaganda uses the results of its research to influence people’s choices and behavior.

But after all, according to the Levada Center, published on March 31, 2022, “53% “definitely support” the actions of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine, and 28% “rather support”. Do not support – 14%. Another 6% found it difficult to answer.17” And according to the data as of April 15, 2022, “the share of positive assessments of the United States was 17%, and negative – 72%. At the same time, in February, 31% of Russians titled the United States “good”, and 55% – “bad”. 10% have a positive attitude towards NATO, 78% negative18.

Meanwhile, the Levada Center is an independent research center that is included in the register of “foreign agents”. But the results of its polls are similar to those of the FOM and VTsIOM.

In turn, the specialists of the “Laboratory of Public Sociology”19 investigated the reasons for such support. The results of their work are available on the Social Europe website in Svetlana Yerpyleva’s article, “Why do Russians support the war against Ukraine?20” Without refuting the data of VTsIOM, FOM, and Levada Center, they note that the reasons for supporting the war are different for different groups of respondents, but “an array of state propaganda forms the attitude of Russians towards the regime (and the war in Ukraine).”

Philosopher Maxim Kantor agrees with this. On April 14, 2022, he writes on Facebook: “I consider the Russian people a victim of this war. Thousands of people turned out to be duped and drawn into the meat grinder of war due to propaganda and total pressure from the authorities. They are a miserable fooled people.”

But how did they manage to fool them? By massive and lengthy processing. However, the reason is not only in the mass character and duration but also in the content of the key message, which, day after day, was implemented and is being implemented in the audience.

“Our brotherly people of Ukraine are suffering. We need to free them.” This is how it sounds in the presentation of the politician and media figure Ilya Ponomarev:

“Putin… is playing on a very important trait of the national character of the Russians…,” he says. “Russians love to be liberators. And this is exactly what the Russians think they are doing now.21

And this can be called the success of propaganda.

But this success is problematized by Gleb Pavlovsky22 in an interview with Novaya Gazeta: “You shouldn’t think that people are pipes that you can always play on.”

5. Language, symbolism, cynicism, quick response

The wartime regime demanded that propaganda replenish its language in order, as Maxim Kantor said, to better “stupefy” and “fool” the people. Here are its new words.

“Special operation.” It replaces the word “war.” And the point is not only that, according to the documents, in the event of, in fact, a war, the pumping of gas through Ukraine should be stopped, but also that the word “war” is colored negatively for many Russians while “special operation” is neutral or positive. Sometimes the “special operation” is compared with the liberation of Ukraine from German troops during the Second World War.

By the way, the word “liberation” is used by propaganda to call the seizure of territories and the destruction of cities in the course of “denazification”, as it calls one of the goals of the war.

“Denazification” is the destruction of Nazi ideology and power in Ukraine. They are not there. But propaganda convinces mass audiences in Russia of their presence.

These and other words from its dictionary and are invented for internal use. Their use outside the country is hardly effective since the world sees much more than most residents of the Russian Federation, who are deprived of access to the banned international media.

As for the symbolism, the letter Z replaced both the former red star and the red-blue-white star adopted in 2017. The authorities of the Russian Federation do not explain what Z means, but there are a number of hypotheses. According to one, during the Russian-Belarusian maneuvers “Allied Resolve”, the symbols Z and V meant that the troops belonged to one of the “hostile” sides – “West” and “East”. Why the Latin alphabet was chosen for this is unclear. The exercises began on the 10th and ended on February 20, 2022, three days before the entry of troops into Ukraine, and the equipment was sent into battle with these signs.

Now they are placed on houses, posters, clothes, and Easter cakes. Whether they solve the problem of controlling behavior in the process of eating is difficult to say, but Z on Easter cake does not touch you.  Instead, it makes you laugh. It is a pity that there is no data yet on how it is perceived by the Russians, who have become the main target audience of propaganda since February 24, 2022.

During the war, it solved the problem of forming a positive attitude for the majority of the population. And now, turning to it, it changes the intonation by making it more cynical. So, in its early days, Russian TV avoided showing the ruins of civilian facilities and residential areas, the corpses of civilians. But it has changed. There is a well-known story about when a Russian TV journalist chokedly says to the camera that now a gun will fire at a residential five-story building, and the explosion of the projectile immediately hits the frame.

Propaganda blames the “Ukrainian Nazis” for the victims and destruction, introducing the opinion that the tragedy in Bucha is staged, and the Armed Forces of Ukraine, who do not want to surrender, provoke the shelling of Kharkiv, Zhytomyr, Mariupol, and other cities and villages.

Propaganda takes into account: in Russia, thanks to VPN services available according to Levada Center to 25% of respondents, blocked media is partially accessible. So it tries to respond quickly to their messages. So, in response to the news that Ukraine received new weapons, the Russian media write that “the Russian Armed Forces shot down a plane with a large batch of weapons”, that “Arms supplies to Ukraine will not prevent Russia from achieving the goals of the special operation”, and the defense of the West is under threat from deliveries to Kyiv23. In response to reports about the Stormer HVM system24 being sent to Kyiv, texts immediately appear under the following headings: “British anti-aircraft guns will not help Ukraine. This is PR, not support.”

If the agencies report that a super-powerful bomb25 was dropped on the Azovstal plant, and civilians who had taken refuge there could die from the explosion, the text immediately comes out: “The bodies of residents killed by the Armed Forces of Ukraine were found in the Mariupol hospital.26

As a result, the propagandists have something to report on. The Russians have been told that aid to Ukraine is useless. It is doomed. And the “Nazis” kill their own.

6. Answer versions

The speed of reaction and the sophistication of Russian propaganda disinformation complicate the search for countermeasures especially in a society where truthful information is valuable and propaganda is considered an unacceptable method of influence and evil.

Obviously, an organized and large-scale response to state propaganda in Russia is difficult. Due to the police measures, opponents of war and authoritarianism in Russia do not have the means to influence public opinion on a massive scale.

Therefore, free information centers in the Russian language left Russia.  Novaya Gazeta-Europe, TV Rain, and telegram channels like February Morning successfully broadcast to Russia using YouTube (the platform is not blocked), and they have a noticeable (up to 25% of users) potential audience of text feeds and a significant audience of video products. So, February Morning estimates the demand for its video content in Russia and outside it at 600,000 viewers and 1,000,000 views per day.

Meanwhile, state TV channels continue to dominate in terms of influence on audiences in Russia and beyond. However, emigrants from Russia and civilly responsible Europeans are trying to limit their impact.

A group of activists from Germany turned to the authorities with a petition, “Defuse one of Putin’s most dangerous weapons!.” In particular, it says that a war is going on in the minds of people in which “the sharpest weapon is used: various forms of propaganda (primarily state television channels).

The power of this weapon is enormous. Newscasts and talk shows are designed to make you feel as if the ideas that are planted in your brain are yours and you must defend them fiercely. These ideas shape the lives of their bearers.” And further: “The 1st and 2nd television channels of the Russian Federation and NTV are not sources of information in the proper sense of the word, but weapons of a hybrid war.  We are talking about the fight against the most dangerous enemy of all things and values ​​that are important to us.

Therefore, providers that broadcast Russian programs should remove these propaganda channels from the broadcast system.”

The authors of the petition sent it to the Bundestag, Stern, and Spiegel magazines, Die Zeit, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Bild, and other media, as well as to providers in Germany.

By the way, in Austria, the broadcast of the RT channel was limited back in March27. Media Minister Susanne Raab said: “Russia today is a weapon of war.”

Margarita Simonyan hastily reacted to this in TJournal: “For any repost of RT and Sputnik materials, you can now get a fine of 50 thousand euros. New Austrian law. And the bloody regime is still you.” This does not mean that Ms. Simonyan does not see the difference between information and propaganda. However, it does mean that such measures against propaganda work by limiting the possibilities of its operators.

Obviously, support for civil initiatives aimed at limiting the impact of propaganda on Western audiences provided by political decision-makers will make it possible to find adequate responses to their aggressive actions.

Also, the answer could provide a significant assistance in freeing Russian media with February Morning, Novaya Gazeta, Europe, TV Rain, and others, bringing to Russia the truth about the war and the situation in Ukraine and Russia. They carry not only anti-war but also democratic energy to the audience.

It is also important to create other similar free and quality media.

Such media as Svoboda / Free Europe, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, and other Western media that have been working in Russian for a long time require expanding the possibilities as well.

Notes:

[1] The concept of political propaganda as a tool for introducing conditioned reflexes has been discussed for many years after the publication in France and Great Britain of the book by the prominent Russian and European psychophysiologist and political activist S. S. Chakhotin “The Rape of the Masses. The Psychology of Totalitarian Political Propaganda”. In the French version – “Le Viol des Foules par la Propaganda politique”.

[2] “The Temptation of Authoritarianism: How and Why Peoples Give Up Freedom”. Moscow, 10.10.2015.

[3] Speech at the Boris Nemtsov Forum. Warsaw 10.10.2019

[4] «Россия», # 7, 26.02.2009. «Мудрец в Москве». Беседа с Дмитрием Петровым. https://www.ashurbeyli.ru/public/storage/flipping_book/flippingbook/rus72009/20/assets/basic-html/page19.html

[5]  «Новые известия» 12.08.2021 «Бедность и болезни: россияне перестали считать внешнюю угрозу главной для страны». https://newizv.ru/article/general/12-08-2021/bednost-i-bolezni-rossiyane-perestali-schitat-vneshnyuyu-ugrozu-glavnoy-dlya-strany

[6] Disparaging and offensive slang names for Americans, Europeans and Ukrainians.

[7] The New Times, 20.06.2021. «Глеб Павловский: не вижу ни одного сценария, который не заканчивался бы большой войной». Беседа с Евгенией Альбац. https://newtimes.ru/articles/detail/204761/

[8] Russia Today is a Russian media group. Created on December 9, 2013. Includes the international agency and radio Sputnik, the Baltnews and Ukraina.ru portals, as well as other media.

[9] Радио Sputnik 19.04.2022, 18:37 «Вышинский: с «Азовсталью» – странная история». https://radiosputnik.ria.ru/20220419/vyshinskiy-1784361802.html

[10] «Ведомости» 11.04.2022 «Лавров: операция на Украине призвана положить конец доминированию США в мире». https://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/news/2022/04/11/917569-lavrov-konets-dominirovaniya-ssha

[11] РИА «Новости» 11.04.2022 «Константин Косачев: Запад воспринимает успех России как свое поражение». https://ria.ru/20220411/kosachev-1782780428.html

[12] РИА «Новости» 11.04.2022 «Дугин: новый миропорядок сложится по результатам спецоперации на Украине». https://ria.ru/20220411/miroporyadok-1782934426.html

[13] ТАСС, 12.04.2022 «Путин заявил, что столкновение с антироссийскими силами на Украине было неизбежно». https://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/14351983

[14] VTsIOM – All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research. the oldest Russian state research organization. Founded in 1987

[15] ВЦИОМ. Официальный сайт. 

«Информационная война вокруг специальной военной операции».

https://wciom.ru/analytical-reviews/analiticheskii-obzor/informacionnaja-voina-vokrug-specialnoi-voennoi-operacii

«Россияне об Америке: новый «ледниковый период»?»

https://wciom.ru/analytical-reviews/analiticheskii-obzor/rossijane-ob-amerike-novyi-lednikovyi-period

«НАТО и Россия: вчера, сегодня… завтра?»

https://wciom.ru/analytical-reviews/analiticheskii-obzor/nato-i-rossija-vchera-segodnja-zavtra

[16] The Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) is a non-profit organization established in 1991 as part of the VTsIOM. In 1992, she left the VTsIOM, and then became one of the largest sociological services.

[17] «Левада-центр» 31.03.2022. Раздел «Конфликт с Украиной». https://www.levada.ru/2022/03/31/konflikt-s-ukrainoj/

[18] «Левада-центр» 15.04.2022. Раздел «Международные отношения». https://www.levada.ru/2022/04/15/mezhdunarodnye-otnosheniya-6/

[19] The “Laboratory of Public Sociology” is a research team founded in 2011 that studies politics and society in Russia and the post-Soviet space in a comparative perspective.

[20]  Social Europe 22.04.2022 “Why do Russians support the war against Ukraine?” Svetlana Erpyleva

https://socialeurope.eu/why-do-russians-support-the-war-against-ukraine

[21] YouTube, 19.04.2022 “The Lies That Justified The War in Ukraine”, Ilya Ponomarev, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_-Vbt9oFpw

[22] «Новая газета» # 103, 15.09.2021 «Было бы замечательно, если бы у нас была диктатура спецслужб». Глеб Павловский. Беседа с Кириллом Мартыновым.

[23] «Ведомости» 6.04.2022, «Известия» 15.04.2022, РИА «Новости» 16.04.2022

[24] Reuters 16.03.2022 ‘UK supplying starstreak anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, defence minister Wallace tells BBC’ – https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/uk-supplying-starstreak-anti-aircraft-missiles-ukraine-defence-minister-wallace-2022-03-16/;

The Times 19.04.2022 ‘Britain sends Stormer anti-aircraft vehicles to Ukraine’. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/britain-sends-stormer-anti-aircraft-vehicles-to-ukraine-86hcsj7mh

[25] Associated Press, News Line 21.04.2022 ‘A 91-year-old Holocaust survivor has died in a basement in the besieged Ukrainian port of Mariupol’. https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-boris-johnson-business-europe-evacuations-8c8571d266e764ce982afde349bac7d3

[26] Автор текста – Ксения Максимова. Газета.ру. 20.04. 2022, 20:33.

[27] Mediasat 11.03.2022 «Русский канал RT запретили в Австрии». https://mediasat.info/2022/03/11/russkij-kanal-rt-zapretili-v-avstrii/