Matt Wickham, analyst, Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group/UCMC
When Maria Zakharova, Head of the Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, takes to the stage on Russian television, you know a state propaganda show of the highest class is expected. Her appearances are meticulously planned to elicit emotions, maximizing shock, horror, and drama at just how ‘inhumane’ the West is and why Russia’s war on Ukraine is ‘justified.’
Zakharova follows a carefully prepared propaganda script, with a prepared answer for every ‘off the cuff’ questions from foreign reporters, but a closer examination of her weekly press briefings reveals a deliberate selection of phrases, repeated over and over, designed to mislead the Russian people and immerse them in the web of state propaganda.
In this article, we analyze how the Kremlin manipulates lanaguge, specifically four phrases consistently used by Zakharova, to convey the state’s narrative, portraying Russia as both a victim and a hero for the civilized world, while depicting Ukraine as nothing more than a vessel used by the Western states.
Russian state propagandists actively use the term “Kyiv regime” to criticize Ukraine’s government, implying that it is illegitimate and does not represent the majority of the population.
This term is used by critics of the current Ukrainian leadership to diminish the perception of authority held by those in power. Internationally, a government is frequently referred to as the “government of ‘country’”, “‘country’ authorities”, or simply the capital—the state’s decision-making center. Russia frequently refers to states that they consider legitimate (although not ‘friendly’) in this manner, such as Washington, London, and Brussels (when referring to NATO, which is headquartered in Belgium). The term “Kyiv regime” has political connotations. Firstly, ‘regime’ is often a word associated with a government elected in an unfair way, that is, a corrupt government or one that takes on an authoritarian dimension. This wording is used by Russian state propagandists to undermine the credibility of the Ukrainian government and President Zelensky’s authority, therefore misleading its domestic audience and ‘Western sceptics’ to justify its war.
Another term Zakharova employs to manipulate the Russian people is ‘Curator’. Curator, a word rarely used in English, translates as someone who oversees or tends to a place/area such as a museum or zoo. She refers to Ukraine’s ‘Western Curators’ as the true (albeit foreign) authority of the ‘Nazi Kyiv regime‘, those who instruct Zelensky to fulfil what and how they want something done. This narrative has existed for many years but first saw mass use after Ukraine’s Euromaidan, when the US and other Western democracies supported the people’s aspirations to live in a democratic country, not one steered by Russia. In the state Russian propaganda world, Zelensky is shown to be a simple figure who carries out the wishes of Ukraine’s Western partners.
There are several reasons for this, the first being – to reduce Zelensky’s influence and power; a non-seasoned politician, whom they treated as a joke and a weak leader before the full-scale invasion, but now showing himself to be far from that. Zelensky has demonstrated his strength by uniting Ukraine and the Western world, demonstrating his international influence and unforeseen ability to successfully fight off Russia. As a result of his success, Russian propagandists must reduce, humiliate, and diminish him to nothing more than a useless figure ready to ‘perform’ at the West’s request.
The word ‘Curator’ is also used as another lever to manipulate the audience, casting doubt on who is truly in charge, but more specifically, in charge of what? A zoo? The Kremlin has long attempted to falsely portray Ukrainians as a ‘lesser’ and uneducated population, one of which could never reach the level of prestige Moscow has.
Zakharova, therefore, chooses this wording to imply that there is chaos in Ukraine, that the government is run by ‘animals’, and that only foreign powers can control it, which is the only logical reason for its ability to resist Russia.
By employing the term “Russophobia,” Zakharova aims to rally Russians across the globe to participate in the war, an attempt to invoke their emotional connection to the cause – which evidently failed.
Zakharova frequently uses this phrase when discussing the West and its alleged attempts to undermine Russia’s global influence, diminish the Russian language, particularly in former Soviet republics, and eradicate Russian culture. However, in reality, the West is far from being “Russophobic” – Russians live freely throughout Europe and the US, Russian literature continues to be adorned (regrettably), and Russian businesses continue to thrive.
The term “Russophobia” is often used interchangeably with “Anti-Russian campaign,” another concept employed by Zakharova. While instances of Russophobia have been observed since the full-scale war, they are not pervasive. Rather, they stem from those who supported Russia’s actions in the war with Ukraine, indicating a dislike for Russians, or any civil-minded person for that matter, supporting the Russian state’s actions rather than a hatred for all Russians or Russian culture.
Many in the Western world continue to study Russia’s history, language, and culture, though the stain of Putin’s war on Ukraine has tarnished its reputation, and this interest has seen a decline. Propaganda experts have characterized Putin’s utilization of “Russophobia” narratives as a political tactic, with Putin and propagandists emphasizing the notion that Russia faces an existential threat from Western powers, thereby justifying the need for drastic measures to maintain domestic stability.
The use of terms like “Russophobia” serves as a political strategy to depict other countries as adversaries of Russia and thus as a victim against a collected enemy. It constructs an image of Russophobic nations, shaping the neo-imperial political identity of Russian citizens, mobilizing them against perceived threats, and providing psychological comfort in the face of the Kremlin’s shortcomings.
The term ‘Anglo-Saxons’ is used to portray Russia as a victim in the war. In the Russian propaganda dictionary, ‘Anglo-Saxons’ are a group of hostile states, led by the Brits and Americans with their imperialistic ideologies. Zakharova employs this term to showcase the Russian army’s strength in repelling the entire Western world. According to Russian state propaganda, these Western powers share a single goal, which led to the full-scale invasion: to destroy the Russian nation. This language aims to balance the scales by presenting Russia as both heroic for defeating an invincible foe and victimized as if it were Russia alone against the whole world.
While the West has openly supported Ukraine in its defense against Russia’s violation of international law through the invasion of a sovereign nation (again), the fight has always been disproportionate and in favor of Russia due to its signifcant firepower. At the outset of the invasion, Russia had a significant advantage with more arms, ammunition, heavy artillery, and air power, which should determine the outcome of a war.
Therefore, the use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxons’ serves as a tactic to depict the West as greedy imperialists, forcing Russia into a defensive role and portraying themselves as victims. However, this tactic ‘reflect and project’ Russian propaganda methodology, as it is Russia that holds the imperialistic agenda, invading sovereign nations and manipulating narratives to suit their interests. This manipulative strategy is often executed through carefully chosen words and phrases, as exemplified by the theatrical displays of Zakharova, that are now part of the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus.