How Kremlin propaganda changed during the war in Ukraine

Since the beginning of the Russian Federation’s war against Ukraine, Kremlin propaganda has gone through at least four stages. So how did the propaganda guidelines for coverage of the fighting change as the Kremlin’s military plans failed to materialize?

At first, Russian citizens were told about the denazification of Ukraine, then about the “advantages of a peaceful life” in the “liberated territories”, but after major military failures, the main message of propaganda had to be reinvented.

Method No. 1. “Nazis”

There were four very unequal stages in the coverage of the war – from the point of view of the ideological “packaging” of these events. The first stage lasted only a few months and was conventionally called “cosplay of the Second World War”. For the first two months, the main message in the materials was “denazification”. From above, Russian editors asked at every opportunity to draw analogies with the liberation of the Ukrainian SSR in 1943–44. Draw analogies with the strikes of the “First Ukrainian” or “Second Ukrainian Front” against Hitler’s troops – and so on.

In mid-April, the administration of the President of the Russian Federation received an instruction to cover in detail the round table of political scientists “Denazification: history, tools, perspective.” The organizer of the discussion was EISD (Expert Institute of Social Research) – this is the main “brain center” for the departments subordinated to Serhiy Kyrienko, the first deputy head of the AP.

Since Putin then repeated that Russia was not going to seize the territory of Ukraine, this thesis was then considered an axiom. On this wave, one of the official Russian political scientists, Marat Bashirov, even urged, when entering another populated place, not to tear down the yellow-blue flags from the administrative buildings and simply hang the Russian tricolor next to them. He said, “we are not against Ukraine, we are simply liberating this republic from the Nazis, just like during the Great Patriotic War.”

Along with instructions on what to write, the editors received instructions on what not to write. Thus, the Russian mass media “banned” the calls of Ukrainian oppositionists from the former Party of Regions to create civil-military administrations (CMA) in cities occupied by the Russian army.

Oleg Tsarev and other members of the Verkhovna Rada, who fled to Russia after 2014, took to social networks to call for the creation of at least some kind of government in such territories as soon as possible. The argument was as follows: the residents found themselves there without a supply of food and fuel, even if a “humanitarian” is brought from Russia, there is no one to entrust its distribution, the people suffer, and as a result, anarchy leads to a rapid decline in pro-Russian sentiment. It is possible that Tsarev sincerely sympathized with his fellow countrymen, but he was probably also driven by simple benefits. Former supporters of Yanukovych should become the main candidates for the military-civilian administrations.

However, all editors were forbidden to even mention this topic. Most likely, at that moment the final decision had not been made at the top, Putin still had hope that it would be possible to quickly install his government in Kyiv and that military-civilian administrations would not be needed. The ban was lifted in early April. This could be understood when Pavlo Filipchuk, the “head of the military-civilian administration” of the Kherson city of Kakhovka, appeared on the screen of “Vestei 24”. From that time, it was ordered, on the contrary, to study in detail the “establishment of peaceful life” in the occupied territory. The cancellation of the ban took place after Kirienka was instructed to “establish a peaceful life”. In mid-summer, however, the term “military-civilian administrations” was banned, although it was still mentioned in official Russian documents. Instead, they ordered to use of ordinary, “peaceful” terms such as “Kherson region administration”.

Methodology No. 2. “Source of wealth

At the beginning of May, “denazification” suddenly faded into the background. It was instead ordered to write more about how Russia will benefit materially from the accession of new territories. That is, to instill in the people that war is simply profitable from a financial point of view. It became clear that at the top they decided not to leave the occupied lands to Ukraine, but simply cut them off to Russia. Quote from the manual: “Russia’s budget will increase due to the entry of new territories (the style of the original is preserved). The liberated territories have great economic potential.”

A series of notes such as “Kherson will help the country’s economic development” and “Zaporizhia will help enrich Russia” appeared in pro-Kremlin publications. In short, it was decided to prepare public opinion for annexation. It was proposed to look at the “new territories” as a source of wealth. However, in the notes, we always had to make a caveat that what was destroyed during the war would have to be restored there first. Even the most loyal reader would not believe that Mariupol, turned into ruins, would quickly start producing profits.

Methodology No. 3. “Russia restores”

The administration of the President of the Russian Federation could not help but understand that such a primitive, purely self-interested idea sounds unconvincing, because, from this point of view, the war looks like an invasion.

And so, in the summer, Russian propagandists received a new task – to develop the thesis “where the Kyiv regime destroys, Russia restores.” On the contrary, the main thesis was not to “take” but to “give”, that is, to take care of new territories.

“It is also appropriate to mention the great efforts to restore peaceful life in Mariupol. The city became a symbol of Kyiv propaganda, but in reality, it turned out that the Armed Forces destroyed it, but Russia was able to restore water and electricity supply in record time and continues the work of revival,” the manual said.

It was also ordered to draw attention to the “social worker”. In particular, residents of the occupied parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions pay less for electricity, water, and even gasoline. They also receive a lot of help, including material capital, which Kyiv could not afford. The authors of the manual concluded that it is more profitable and safer to live in the liberated territories than under the rule of “Nazi punishers”. Moreover, the authors of the manual optimistically mentioned at the end that “resorts of the Zaporizhia region are ready to receive 5-7 million tourists annually, negotiations with investors have begun.”

Methodology No. 4. Russia — “anti-West”

In autumn, with the liberation of Izyum and Kherson, the flow of such instructions ran out. Russian newsrooms almost stopped talking about establishing a “peaceful life”. Instead, new main theses appeared – and they are not a secret thanks to Putin’s speech. The new methods consisted of direct quotations or retellings of this speech. “Russian civilization is self-sufficient. Take advantage of others while remaining yourself. The symphony of Russian cultures can become the leader of the exit from the global civilizational crisis, which covers all of humanity,” states another methodology manual.

The propagandists seemed to imperceptibly help the reader to forget about the “aggressive agenda” of taking over a neighboring state and instead focus on a “creative” positive idea – “to become a leader of the countries of the West”, to help civilization get out of the crisis. The speechwriters of the administration of the president of the Russian Federation even invented new beautiful formulas, such as “symphony of cultures”. In the fall, the editors focused on these concepts. What is happening in Ukraine, what is the distribution of forces on the “line of battle” does not matter anymore. The main thing is that Russia’s prestige is growing in Indochina, Africa, and Latin America.

Commenting on the interim results of the war on the eve of the New Year, Putin formulated a new goal “to unite the Russian people.” In general, everyone has lost track of what the main goal is after February 24. It is difficult to consider this as the fifth change of the “ideological packaging” since the term “Russian” flickered in the tasks back in the summer. It was not the main one. The authors of the manuals then suddenly began to emphasize that “Russian fighters” were fighting for “their own people”, and that they were liberating “the Russian land – Ukraine from the Bandera people”. The participation of Chechens, Buryats, or Tatars in the war was not mentioned in such manuals.

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