Russia’s Propaganda War Started Long Ago

In the 2000 Russian cult film, “Brat 2” (“Brother 2” in English), one of the film’s heroes yells, “you’ll pay for Sevastopol, you pigs,” before killling an incapacitated Ukrainian mobster. The rest of the film’s hostility toward Ukrainians isn’t much better, as Ukrainians are depicted as mobsters and Nazis. The subtle – and not so subtle – anti-Ukrainian biases and stereotypes are nothing new when it comes to Russian depictions of Ukrainians. In this light, the Russian propaganda war against Ukraine is a continuation and aggrandizement of past rhetoric that sought to denigrate Ukrainian culture and language, and to demonize Ukrainian historical figures as traitors or Nazi sympathizers; current propaganda draws upon Ukrainian stereotypes that have been encouraged at least since Soviet times.

Common Ukrainian stereotypes in Russia include the depiction of Ukrainians as nothing more than a peculiar type of “southern Russians,” or Russians who have lost their Russian culture and identity through the interference of foreign powers. Other stereotypes include images of Ukrainians as ignorant and crude peasants.

The Russian historical narrative appropriates the ancient state of Kyivan Rus’ as the inception of Russian statehood. In this context, the Ukrainians are robbed of any claim to the history of Kyivan Rus, and denied an identity separate from that of Russians.

Extremist nationalist ideologues such as Alexander Dugin have long propounded that Ukraine is not a proper nation, but rather a subset of the “Great Russian” people. This attitude was shared by many in the Russian Federation’s circle of power, including President Putin, who reportedly told President Bush in 2008 “you have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country.”

Until recently, this mindset was reserved to a small, but still substantial, subset of Russians. Not so today. Russian social media is awash with Ukrainian stereotypes designed to enhance support for armed groups in eastern Ukraine. It’s not uncommon to see otherwise intelligent Russians posting fantastical and clearly falsified reports about the conflict in Ukraine. The list of falsified stories is a long one, with many of the offending stories almost laughable in their clear divergence from the truth. StopFake, a Ukrainian Internet initiative that investigates dubious reports in Russian media, has uncovered numerous instances of the Russian media using doctored photos or images from past conflicts in other countries that are attributed to massacres supposedly carried out by the Ukrainian military today.

The most blatantly falsified and widely distributed propaganda pieces include a report that the Ukrainian army crucified a child in Sloviansk, a proliferation of conspiracy theories surrounding the MH17 tragedy designed to deflect blame from the rebels, and already debunked reports that Ukraine used white phosphorous in the conflict.

So why are these obvious examples of propaganda so readily believed and disseminated among otherwise reasonable people?

Deeply-held stereotypes about Ukrainians have made the Russian media’s propaganda easier. Russia Today and other Russian media outlets exaggerated the phenomenon of ethnic nationalism and Russophobia in western Ukraine long before the current conflict. Russian media regularly highlights the threats to the Russian language and culture in Ukraine by nationalists, spreading rumors of an aggressive western Ukraine trying to restrict the rights of eastern Ukrainians.

In this historical media environment, the success of poorly concocted Russian propaganda is understandable. Long-held stereotypes, more than a decade of negative media portrayal of Ukraine, and falsified reporting went hand in hand to confirm the fears of everyday people about supposedly aggressive Ukrainians on Maidan. The end result has been Russian credulity toward patently false reporting, as well as a troubling rise in hate speech against Ukrainians. The Russian fantasy novel series, Battlefield Ukraine by Georgiy Savitskiy and Gleb Bobrov, depicts a futuristic civil war in Ukraine waged by genocidal Ukrainian nationalists against the southeast. The novels depict Ukrainians disparagingly, and refers to them as “possessed rednecks.” The covers of the novels include such illustrations as the execution of a Ukrainian on Maidan and the beating of a Khokhol-wearing Ukrainian.

We must understand that the success of propaganda in Russia is not the fault of everyday Russians. Just as Ukrainians are the victims of the Russian government’s aggressive policies toward their country, Russians themselves are also victims of manipulation and mistreatment. In this sense, the success of Russia’s propaganda campaign is an offshoot of Putin’s machinations over the past decade, combined with long-held stereotypes and prejudices that can be found in many societies with regard to “the other.” The current situation is merely an extension of Putin’s decade-old propaganda war, amplified to meet Putin’s current needs in a bid to solidify his own kleptocracy.

Chris Dunnett for Ukraine Crisis Media Center