A Year of Russian Propaganda: Key Narratives and Tactics of 2022

For almost a year of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian propaganda narratives have been constantly changing, as well as the stated purposes of the war changed from the “reaction to the NATO expansion” and “denazification of Ukraine” to “preventing the Third World War” and “protecting Russian people from the anti-Russian coalition”. 

The Russian information war appeals to the irrational: fear, panic, and frustration. Against this background, Russian ideas of “strength”, “greatness”, “invincibility”, and messianism have been used to convince the global community (and Russians themselves) in Russia’s victory is the only possible ending of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Here is the list of key disinformation narratives used by the Kremlin in an attempt to justify and fuel the war. 

Sowing Doubt

Since Feb 24, Russian propaganda has tried to convince both Ukrainians and Western partners to doubt the effectiveness of weapons supply to Ukraine. Since the idea of “great and invincible Russia” turned out to be greatly overrated, doubting every success of the Ukrainian military became an important intermediate step towards the key Russian narrative: “Ukraine cannot win the war”. This is the main argument the Kremlin uses both to undermine the weapons supply to Ukraine and to make the Western governments incline Kyiv to “seek a compromise” with the aggressor state. 

One of the goals of such a disinformation strategy is to undermine the trust of Ukrainians in Western partners and vice versa, as well as to sow despair toward the EU countries. It is also combined with the traditional propaganda narrative about the external governance of Ukraine. In such a way, Russia portrays the capitulation of Ukraine as the only possible scenario of the war, which has been already decided by its “Western curators”, that will “force Ukraine to make concessions to Russia”.

Another constant Russian narrative is the one about the “black market of weapons in Ukraine”. Despite being repeatedly debunked by Western partners, this narrative is still being actively used to strengthen the old narrative about Ukraine being “too corrupt” to join the EU. This narrative was also completed by massive disinformation campaigns on social media, which were aimed at demonizing and discrediting Ukrainian volunteers and charitable foundations raising funds to provide military equipment for the army, as “thieves” and “scammers”. 

An alternative instrument of inciting doubts was portraying anti-Russian sanctions as “more harmful to Europe than to Russia”. The horror stories about “freezing Europe” however turned out to be much overrated since Europe managed to deal with the dependence on cheap Russian energy. Therefore, the narrative transformed to less threatening – “anti-Russian sanctions do not harm Russia”. 

The classic narrative about “Western fatigue with Ukraine” was later combined with the narrative about the “end of popularity” of the Ukrainian president and also aimed to demoralize Ukrainian society and push it to the idea of the “inevitability” of compromises with Russia.

Spreading the message that the Russian-Ukrainian war is profitable only for military corporations in Britain and the USA, instead, Russian propaganda portrays both Ukrainians and Russians as “victims of political pragmatism”. Such ideas are a continuation of classic narratives about the “demonic West” and the “external government of Ukraine”

The “sowing doubt” technique is used to undermine Ukrainians’ belief in Western support. Portraying Westerners as “tired of the war and Ukrainian refugees” via bots accounts and the network of anonymous Telegram channels, the Kremlin tries to convince Ukrainians they are abandoned by both their own country and their Western partners, pushing them to despair and demoralization. 

Destabilizing Ukraine’s Relations with Neighboring Countries

While Belarus remains a co-aggressor in a Russian-Ukrainian war, the stability and partnership with other neighboring countries is another important factor for Ukraine’s victory – and this is what Russia tries to undermine. The Kremlin is not satisfied with Poland being a staunch ally of Ukraine so it started revitalizing the classic narrative about Poland “preparing to occupy Ukrainian Halychyna (a historical region in the West of Ukraine) which was a part of Poland before becoming a part of Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. 

Despite the relationship between Poland and Ukraine having been traditionally filled with tensions based on historical background, the strong Polish support during the large-scale Russian invasion united the two states in a fight against the common enemy. 

Nevertheless, Russian propaganda does not cease to exploit the narrative about the “Polish invasion”. It has been systematically used to destroy the bilateral relations between Kyiv and Warsaw since 2014 and disseminated mostly through bot accounts in social media and included several aspects: portraying Poles as “fed up” with Ukrainian refugees, portraying Ukrainian refugees as “ungrateful”, and fueling the myth of “Polish revisionism”

The ultimate goal of such fakes is to create an image of Ukraine as hostile to Poland, to demotivate the Polish citizens to help Ukrainians, and therefore, to sow discord. To undermine the Polish-Ukrainian partnership, Russian propaganda does not shun even the most absurd fakes, such as the ones about Polish farmers “massively buying up Ukrainian lands at low prices” and the “mobilization of Ukrainian men in Poland to be forcefully sent to fight in Ukraine”.

Analogical strategies have been used to aggravate relations between Ukraine and Hungary. In this case, the effect is enhanced by Hungary lobbying for Russian interests in Europe and systematically blocking EU military help for Ukraine. It is also complemented by Viktor Orban’s revisionist rhetoric, which is rooted in the idea of “greater Hungary” (the state with the borders it had before the 1920 Treaty of Trianon) and concerns not only Ukraine but also Romania, Slovakia, Croatia, and Serbia. 

Against this background, Russian fakes about Hungary preparing to occupy Zakarpattia (the westernmost region of Ukraine bordering Hungary) look less absurd. 

Mirroring the Blame

Shifting the blame to Ukraine is a traditional practice of Russian hybrid warfare and involves all the problems provoked by the Russian invasion: from the global food crisis to the missile attacks against Ukrainian civil infrastructure. Promoting the messages about “Europe being unable to deal with global migration crisis”, which is, in turn, provoked by the food crisis, Russia uses its classic rhetoric of blaming the victim and portrays Ukraine as the only one responsible for the war, comparing Ukrainian troops with “terrorists”.

There is only one official position about Russian war crimes: shifting the responsibility to Ukraine. This happened after the Bucha massacre, which Russian propagandists called “staged by British security services”. This happened after the occupation of Ukrainian cities and villages when Russian propaganda accused the Ukrainian Armed Forces of “shooting civilians” to “blame Russia”. This happened every time the Russian army attacked Ukrainian residential buildings, schools and kindergartens, maternity homes, and civilian infrastructure. Every civilian object being attacked by Russians was turned by Russian propaganda into a “NATO military object” or a “Nazi base”. 

The fake news about “Ukrainian nuclear and chemical provocations” were used after every Russian shelling, being aimed to turn the reality upside down even not for the world observing the war online but for the Russian audience as an instrument of justification of the war and mass mobilization. 

Demonization of Ukrainians 

As “fighting Nazism” was one of the state’s purposes in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian propaganda is doing its utmost to “sell” the idea of “Ukrainian nazism” to the Western world. If earlier this narrative targeted only the military, now it also covers Ukrainian civilians, mainly refugees as the most vulnerable group. One of the most illustrative examples was the dissemination of fakes about “Ukrainian Nazi refugees in Germany”. Disseminating manipulations about the “unacceptable behavior of Ukrainians abroad”, Russian propaganda targets such narratives at the state with the strong traumatic experience, trying to provoke empathy to Russians as the nation of “Nazi defeaters” and incite hatred towards Ukrainians as the nation “glorifying Nazism” (and sometimes even “satanism”).  

Another aspect of demonization is built on the old narrative about “Ukrainian russophobia”, which is, in its turn, nothing more than resentment of the aggressor who tries to wipe out your country as well as its citizens as the active and silent supporters of the regime. 

Moscow tries to create an image of Ukraine as an aggressive militarist state, the image of Ukrainian authority as not interested in the peace process, being ready to sacrifice the lives of its citizens to implement the “Western plan”. The Ukrainians themselves are portrayed as “bloodthirsty” and “savage”. Together with the systematic narrative about the USA “pumping Ukraine with weapons” Russia is aimed to persuade Westerners that pacifism is a real option to end the violence and, as a result, war. However, when it comes to Russia, the choice is very limited: it is either Ukraine’s victory or more death and violence under Russian occupation. 

The demonization of Ukrainians is also used as an instrument of dehumanization of Ukrainians as a nation that “has to be wiped out” and therefore, as an attempt to explain genocide. Portraying Ukrainians as an aggressive community, as well as the narratives about the “oppression of free speech in Ukraine” is also aimed to destroy empathy for Ukrainian trauma in the world and to undermine Western support. 

Depreciation of Ukraine’s Military Success

One of the strongest and most active directions of Russia’s information war is built on both the demonization and depreciation of the Ukrainian military. To justify the retreat and the colossal Russian losses, the Kremlin propaganda attributed the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive to “NATO mercenaries” since the Ukrainian troops were traditionally portrayed as marginalized and incompetent.  

Portraying the successes of the Ukrainian Armed Forces as “temporary” and “unstable”, Russia is also making attempts to discredit the work of the Ukrainian Air Defense Forces as “incompetent” and “ineffective” – even though its effectiveness has risen to almost 50–90% since the beginning of the large-scale war. This disinformation tactic is aimed to undermine the confidence of Ukrainians not only in the authorities but also in the military protecting the civilians and spreading doubts about the country’s defense capability. 

While Russian military strategy includes war crimes and genocide practices, its information war is no less cynical: twisting the reality, shifting the blame to Ukraine, NATO, and the US, and portraying the war as “sacral” — This is the Russian myth of war. 

For almost a year of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian propaganda has changed its narratives multiple times in an attempt to justify the war. These narratives include sowing doubt about the effectiveness of weapons supply to Ukraine, claiming that Ukraine is a failed state and a haven for fascists, and suggesting that Russia is a great and invincible power. These narratives are used to convince the global community and Russians themselves of Russia’s victory and to undermine the weapons supply to Ukraine.

As Ukrainians lose their relatives and their homes, the aggressor that threatens the whole western world continues to play the victim and complains of Russophobia and “discrimination of Russians abroad”. Russia’s attempt to glorify the aggression against Ukraine as “the war against NATO” is nothing more than blurring the blame in an attempt to avoid responsibility — but this will not save Russia from the international tribunal. This will not save Russia from justice.