Beyond Russia’s Narrative of ‘Ukraine’s Air Defence is to Blame’

Written by Matt Wickham, analyst UCMC/Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group

Since the onset of the full-scale invasion, the Kremlin and its propaganda arsenal have persistently pushed a false narrative—that Russia exclusively targets military infrastructure, ostensibly aligning with established rules of warfare and claiming that any destruction to civilian infrastructure is Ukraine’s own doing. This narrative, rooted in classic propaganda techniques such as portrayal and reflection, has undergone nuanced shifts throughout the almost two-year period of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

This article aims to analyze the Kremlin’s narratives, drawing insights from the reactions of Russian propagandists in response to the January 2, 2024, missile strikes—an assault described as one of the most aggressive and technologically advanced in human history, which Ukraine successful repelled. 

Key takeaways from the January 2nd strikes

  • For years, Russian propagandists have alleged that Ukraine deliberately targets Russian civilians, framing this narrative to secure ‘justified’ approval from the population for retaliatory, unethical attacks on Ukraine. Subsequent to the January 2nd attacks, there has been a disturbing increase in such rhetoric from propagandists, with some even suggesting that finding sexual arousal from Ukrainian civilian’s suffering is nothing to be ashamed of.
  • Propagandists sought to portray Russia as superior and Ukraine as incompetent, even after intercepting the Kinzhali missiles—a technology Putin previously boasted of as untouchable. With Ukraine’s Air Force scoring a 100% hit rate (Kinzhalis) in the latest wave of attacks, the Kremlin is trying hard to convince the world of the effectiveness of its ballistic missiles against modern Western anti-missile systems. They claim Ukraine’s 10/10 statistics is a lie.
  • The Russian narrative of ‘Ukraine is to blame for the destruction of civilian infrastructure’ (after shrapnel damaged by Russian missiles) aims to undermine support among Ukrainian skeptics abroad, particularly those with personal political agendas. This is seen with certain factions within the US Republican circles against the backdrop of this year’s presidential elections. By blaming Ukraine for civilian deaths caused by Western weapons, the Kremlin hopes support will wane, calls for a ceasefire will increase, and aid shipments will dry up.

Russian Propagandists’ Disturbing Enthusiasm For Death

Sergey Marlen, a Russian propagandist, expresses outrage at how Ukrainian officials responded to Russia’s attack after Podolak, an advisor to Ukraine’s Office of the President, labeled Russians as ‘inhumane.’ Marlen’s post, “Imagine if we were to say this about them,” aims to falsely portray Russians as the paragon of virtue, the ‘do-no-wrong’ nation. This is Marlen’s ploy to stoke anger among Russians, to garner support for Russia’s war crimes and legitimize future attacks with increased public backing. However, the disparity between the reactions of Russian propagandists and Ukrainian officials to the attacks is stark. Podolak’s relatively mild words pale in comparison to the reactions of Russian propagandists to the morning’s bombardment. 

Take Vityazeva, a Russian propagandist notorious for celebrating missile strikes on Ukraine by likening the destruction to that of borscht (red color representing blood, and the chopped vegetables as limbs thrown in the destruction). Vityazeva wrote: “A missile warning siren has been launched in Belgorod. […]. This means that too few flew [missiles] around the ‘farm’ [derogatory term for Ukraine] today. We need more.” This hunger for ‘more’ is also echoed by Russian Z bloggers. Parrell Z (11K followers) wrote: “Now that’s a comeback! But we need more! We’re not just some trigger-happy folks.”

But it gets worse. Z Channel Speak TopaZ (113K followers) encourages sexual arousal from strikes on Ukraine, telling not to be embarrassed, but to embrace it. “Friends, if an erection due to missile attacks on Russophobes finds you in the wrong place, then do not despair and do not be shy, […] clench your hands into fists, raise them above your head and shout: “Glory to Russia! Death to her enemies!”

The rhetoric is not just twisted but also morally repugnant, glorifying death and destruction as something that should sexually arouse the Russian people. Therefore, more than justifying Ukrainian officials’ remarks regarding Russian inhumanity. 

“It’s just getting started”

SolovievLive host and Russian propagandist, Roman Govalonov, remarks that “It’s just getting started” hints at Russia’s capacity for a more brutal level of attacks. However, the reality presents limitations to his rhetoric. The almost complete deployment of its operational MiG-31K fleet (10 jets) armed with Kinzhali in this attack, coupled with the absence of other aircraft capable of carrying these missiles, renders his threat as nothing more than empty words.

Moreover, Alexander Kovalenko, Ukrainian military observer notes “MiG-31s were produced from 1975 to 1994, i.e. the newest of them is 29 years old. After the production of these fighter jets ceased, the serial production of D-30F6 engines was gradually phased out. Today, the Russian military-industrial complex can only maintain and repair the MiG-31 and its components, and the number of spare parts and components in storage is painfully decreasing.” Therefore an attempt to increase Kinzhali attacks at any given time is, for the foreseeable future at least, impossible.

While another such attack is conceivable, considering Russia’s accumulation of missiles over recent months, the strike already demonstrates, more or less, the maximum damage Russia can currently inflict. Furthermore, unless Ukraine exhausts its missile stockpile, its air defense will continue to yield high success rates in repelling these assaults, learning and adapting.

“Ukraine’s Air Defense is to Blame”

The ongoing rhetoric around Ukraine’s alleged air defense inadequacy, blamed for missile strikes and shrapnel from intercepted Russian missiles, is a consistent Kremlin strategy designed to deflect responsibility.

Russian propagandists go further, accusing Ukrainian media of ‘exploiting’ the attack aftermath to garner sympathy from Western partners—a narrative that skews reality. Vityazeva’s comment, “the farm [derogatory term for Ukraine] has already hustled and made a video with ‘proof of Russian aggression’ for the Western audience,” highlighting this accusation. 

Ukraine, while globally sharing the devastation caused by Russian missiles, exposes Russia’s actions and conveys the tragedy to distant audiences using its and international media. However, the Kremlin’s narrative, echoed by propagandists like Marden, Markov, and Loseva, has already seen success, infiltrating Russian mouthpieces in the West. For instance, Alex Jones, a renowned conspiracy theorist in the US, perpetuates this narrative in a recent video by falsely claiming that “Russians are not targeting civilian infrastructure – it’s Ukrainian air defense.” 

This narrative’s influence is already evident in the ongoing US congressional deadlock on Ukraine aid. Yet, media coverage exposing Russia’s war crimes serves to illustrate the challenges faced by Ukraine and document such crimes. It lays bare the truth of the havoc Russia wreaks on civilians, inevitably garnering international support. 

Lastly, it is important to note, intercepting and neutralizing missiles, especially hypersonic, hinges on the mastery of technological engineering prowess. An intercept can sometimes only divert the missile, slow its speed, and cause partial detonation mid-air. However, with speeds of the Kinzhali reaching up to Mach 10 (12,350 km/hr), successful interception becomes extremely difficult. In addition, systems like the Patriot work on a hit-to-kill method, intercepting the enemy missile in the terminal phase of flight, leaving no room for a second attempt if the interception fails, raising the risk of shrapnel damage. 

Despite this, Ukraine’s air defense saves more lives than if Russia targeted its intended sites. And, needless to say, any incoming projectiles from a foreign nation are deemed an act of war, and the aggressor bears sole responsibility for the resulting fallout—be it a missile hit or shrapnel damage.