Panopticon of Russian Narratives 2023

Written by UCMC’s Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group’s analysts

In 2023, Russian propaganda evolved several dominant trends:

  • Russia’s information policy completed the transition to military censorship.  In 2023, the mobilizing role of propaganda increased to maintain a high level of support for the war among the Russian population. War propaganda has become the foundation of Putinism’s ideology, determining the direction of its development in the coming years.   
  • The Kremlin’s voice has finally drowned out the last dissenting voices in the internal Russian information field. While the so-called liberal opposition media were repressed and reduced during the first year of the war, the Kremlin tightened control over right-wing radical forces’ information agenda in 2023. The Russian propaganda machine has become total, indicating the crystallization of a totalitarian regime in Russia. 
  • In 2023, Kremlin propaganda served the military and strategic goals of the Russian leadership. To this end, Russia is attempting to undermine Ukrainian society’s resistance through narratives about catastrophic losses and the “failure” of the Armed Forces offensive.
  • Russia continued developing long-term narratives aimed at discrediting Ukrainian leaders. In this way, Kremlin propagandists are attempting to use minor fluctuations in the Ukrainian government’s rating to instill distrust in society, the military command, and the top political leadership. 
  • Despite the war crimes committed by the occupying army, Russian propaganda continued to play the role of a magnet for pro-Russian agents in Ukraine. One of the key topics remained the issue of Russian influence on the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, namely the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP).

The UCMC’s Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group reveals these tracks by highlighting examples of trending 2023 Russian Propaganda Narratives

“Failed Ukrainian Offensive” 

Debunked by Head of HWAG, Volodymyr Solovian

A large-scale offensive operation of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) was announced at the beginning of 2023. The West promised Kyiv a significant amount of armored vehicles, in particular, the formation of a «tank coalition» which began in January. Ammunition supplies increased and Ukraine dominated in the area of tactical drones, especially FPV. Also, an important source of optimism for 2023 were the successes of the AFU’s Kharkiv operation and the de-occupation of Kherson in the fall of 2022.

On the eve of Ukraine’s  2023 offensive, the Russian command felt insecure since the Russian army was still recovering from its first year of defeats  in the war. To narrow down the possibilities of an operational breakthrough by the AFU, the Russians blew up the Kakhovskaya HPP. The Kremlin’s strategic priority  was to deter the Ukrainian offensive, because the main forces of the Russian army were already occupied with   constructing an echeloned defense line in the southern Ukraine, while PMC Wagner was burning through Russia’s human resources in the Bakhmut operation.

Indeed, the Ukrainian offensive did not fulfill optimistic expectations. The Commander-in-Chief of the AFU Valery Zaluzhnyi in an article for The Economist notes: «…the enemy mine barriers along particularly important axes have a high density and reach a depth of 15-20 km. Their cover is conducted by reconnaissance UAVs, which effectively detect our obstacle-clearing detachments (teams) and target fire at them.. [….] This condition leads to the fact that the offensive operations of both parties occur with significant difficulties and large losses of material and personnel». Zaluzhnyi also notes the following factors that made it impossible to break through the enemy’s defensive to the operational depth:

  • Russian air dominance,
  • numerical superiority of the occupiers’ contingent over the assault brigades of the AFU,
  • saturation of combat positions of the Russian army with electronic warfare systems, supremacy of the number of artillery.

Military experts, both Western and Ukrainian, note the unsatisfactory pace of arms deliveries, which did not correspond to those declared when planning AFU’s operations first began. Also, the USA refrained from transferring a tactical ballistic missile (ATACMS), while the number of air-launched cruise missiles (Storm Shadow/SCALP-EG) from Great Britain and France that Ukraine received was not enough to exhaust the rear of the occupying army.

Since the beginning of Ukraine’s offensive actions in early June 2023, Russia launched an immense information and psychological campaign. Its main narrative was scaling up the losses of the Ukrainian army. High-ranking officials of the aggressor-state participated in the campaign to discredit the Ukrainian offensive, including Putin, the military command and politicians at various levels. The so-called “failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive” became the dominant narrative in the Russian mass media in the fall of 2023. The Kremlin increased its informational influence on Ukrainians and Western societies on the eve of its own offensive campaign, which began on October 10 and continues to this day. However, the confirmed losses in equipment and manpower of the Russians over the last months are considerably higher than the verified losses of the Ukrainian army during the summer-autumn offensive operations. At the same time, since the spring of last year, Russia has managed to capture far less territory compared to the Ukrainian offensive. Thus, the Russian propaganda narrative of a ‘failed offensive’ in fact played a cruel joke on the occupiers themselves.

Considering the balance of forces and resources, the Ukrainian army’s offensive has proven notably successful across various parameters. The main results for Ukraine are: the destruction of a significant number of enemy artillery systems, the holding of bridgeheads on the left bank of the Dnieper, and the depth of Ukraine’s advance into the first line of defense of the Russians near Robotino. It is also worth noting that Ukraine’s offensive actions forced Russia to spend most of 2023 in strategic defense mode. AFU’s initiative prevented Russia from conducting offensive operations in 2023, as a result of which Ukraine would have lost part of its territories, and thus, would have started this year’s campaign in worse strategic conditions.

Therefore, the claim that the Ukrainian offensive failed is groundless. The summer-autumn campaign of the Armed Forces of Ukraine exhausted Russia’s army. Additionally, the AFU’s success has created favorable conditions for further development of its offensive in 2024. This, however, is under the condition sufficient supplies of ammunition, armored vehicles, and aircraft promised by Western partners, arrive on time.

“Zelensky the Drug Addict” 

Debunked by analyst, Matt Wickham

Throughout 2023, Russian propagandists incessantly pushed the narrative that President Zelensky is a “junky,” seeking to dehumanize and undermine his global reputation amid the ongoing war. This narrative gained momentum in March 2022, reaching new heights as the war persisted. The intent was to depict him as an incapable leader during wartime, suggesting he was so ‘junked up’ Ukraine’s ‘western curators’ could effortlessly manipulate him. “They needed someone who is weak, vulnerable, emotionally unstable, susceptible to the influence of drugs and alcohol,said propagandist Tina Kandeliki. Additionally, it adds to their narrative that Zelensky and Ukraine are something inferior, lesser, and lawless to that of Russia and Putin. 

The 2023 escalation of this narrative partly stemmed from Zelensky’s proposal to legalize medical cannabis for soldiers affected by war. Russian propagandists, as is classic, misrepresented this initiative as self-serving, framing the laws as a means for Zelensky and his aids to indulge on hard drugs without the societal backlash. They branded him a “mini-dictator” with a wish for unrestrained drug access, whilst also using the new law for fear mongering a bleak Ukrainian future. Golovanov, a Kremlin propagandist, claims that Ukraine would be overrun by drug addicts with no bright future if Russia lost the war—employing a twisted justification to prolong the war. “If your child is born and grows up in Ukraine, he will first smoke cannabis. Then he’ll start injecting himself and end up [dead] in the ditch. This is Ukraine’s future.”

As the war progressed, so did this narrative. During a critical NATO summit in 2023, a satirical smear video shared by Margarita Simonyan, Editor in Chief of Russian-controlled RT, depicted a ‘high’ Zelensky, eating his breakfast cereal with ‘sugar’ (cocaine) for his morning strength. It showed the actor constantly snorting and wiping his nose, an action Russian propagandists consistently claim is proof that the Ukrainian president is a drug user. It showed him to be despondent and alone after receiving rejection from both NATO and Russia. Such tactics aim to manipulate public perception, bolster support for Russia’s military actions, and question Ukraine’s current direction and leadership. 

Even in the final days of 2023, Chief Propagandist Maria Zakharova continued this smear campaign by saying, “If Zelensky sniffs it, only to ‘snow’ (cocaine)”. The irony is that she was, unknowingly, wiping her own nose at the same time, disproving the notion that sniffing and wiping the nose is reasonable cause to accuse someone of being a drug addict. Unless, of course, Zakharova herself is, which has long been called into question.

While the accusation of Ukrainian leaders being drug addicts has a historical pattern in Russian propaganda, the concentrated effort and resources dedicated to this narrative in 2023 are far more notable. This push serves to obstruct Ukrainian aid and to discredit Zelensky, influencing Ukrainian skeptics and those echoing Kremlin rhetoric in the West, or as we at UCMC call them, ‘Shady Horses.’ We expect this false narrative to persist in 2024. 

Ukraine’s “apostasy” from the Orthodox Church 

Debunked by analyst, Anastasiia Ratieieva

The narrative surrounding Ukraine’s alleged “apostasy” from the Orthodox Church emerged in Russian media following the Ukrainian parliament’s initial approval of a law that could lead to the banning of the Russian-backed Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP). Another trigger for this narrative was Ukraine’s shift to the Western Christian calendar for holidays. President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a law moving the official Christmas Day from January 7 (the same day Russia celebrates it) to December 25.

The Russian establishment refers to these decisions as acts of “raskolniki” – individuals causing division and discord within an organization, akin to secessionists. This narrative spread among Western audiences through puppet journalists like Nicolai N. Petro, who argued that Ukraine “has a civil rights problem.”

This narrative aims to portray the “SMO” (Special Military Operation) as a mission to liberate Russia’s fellow people. It emphasizes Kyiv as the “mother of Russian cities” (you can read more about it here). Also, the narrative asserts unity between Russians and Ukrainians based on shared faith—classic imperial rhetoric. “A genuine, prayed-up Russian living in Kyiv is not broken, not fooled. He is not visible now; he is silent and sometimes intimidated. He’s blabbering, he is persecuted, and he is exhausted, but he is there. He stands. He is faithful to his church. And he is waiting for us,” says Boris Korchevnikov, a top Russian propagandist.

For the Kremlin, losing influence in Ukrainian churches means losing a significant grip on Ukrainian society. That is why Russian propaganda announces “apostasy,” “Satanism,” “violation of civil rights,” and “destruction of Orthodoxy”. In this context, the Kremlin regularly uses parallels with the Third Reich to expose the Ukrainian government as “neo-Nazis”. On this occasion, Maria Zakharova “reminded” that “historically (Christmas – HWAG) was celebrated on December 25 only under the Nazis.” Other propagandists spread about “raids” by the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (an Orthodox church independent of the Russian Federation, created in 2018) with the theft of property of Russian churches. 

The Russian Orthodox Church is one of the pillars of the “Russian world” ideology and the leader of the Russian agenda in Ukraine, so Ukraine is justly trying to get rid of it. During the searches in the churches of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Security Service of Ukraine found a lot of propaganda materials, Russian literature, and symbols. Metropolitan Pavlo of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, nicknamed “Pasha Mercedes” for his love of expensive cars and frank pro-Russian views, exemplifies the true nature of Russian churches in Ukraine. Additionally, recent revelations link the Russian Orthodox Church structures to the preparation and execution of Russian aggression against Ukraine. Therefore, the struggle against the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine is aimed at reducing Russian influence rather than being an act of apostasy.

Mobilisation = Death 

Debunked by analyst, Anton Khimiak

Throughout 2023, the Russian propaganda machine spread the narrative of forced mobilization among the Ukrainian population to destabilize the domestic political situation in Ukraine and discredit the work of the Territorial Recruitment Centers and, thus, the entire structure of the Armed Forces. This narrative began to spread as early as 2022. However, in January 2023, it gained new momentum, aiming to demoralize the civilian population alongside the relentless shelling of the energy infrastructure. Simultaneously, amidst these events, Bakhmut found itself embroiled in its bloodiest battles yet, compelling the urgent need to replenish human resources for the city’s defence.

During this time, the “Military Correspondents” of the Russian Federation began distributing messages such as: “It has begun! – crowds of militants in minibuses drive around Ukraine, tightly packing men to throw “cannon fodder” into the slaughter.” In doing so, Russia redirected focus, accusing Ukraine of a ‘Mogilization’ (a Russian term combining ‘grave’ [могила] and ‘mobilization’ [мобилизация]) in an attempt to make a mockery of Ukraine’s military while instilling fear in the Ukrainian population’s not yet mobilized men. Its essence is to create a stable association between the process of mobilising the population and the burial process (laying in the grave) through the consonance of the terms. This track aimed to deflect attention from its own disregard for Russian soldiers’ lives, where Russia poured a steady flow of mobilized men into the PMC Wagner Group’s operations, only to swiftly go through the war’s meat grinder, barely surviving a week of deployment.

According to various estimates, the total losses of the Kremlin at Bakhmut ranged from 60,000 to 100,000 irreparable losses—fatalities and severe injuries.

On the one hand, this narrative is a classic example of hybrid influence between countries at war. However, with the Internet’s uncontrollable nature, this tactic took dimensions never seen before in war. On social networks such as X (formerly Twitter), TikTok, and Viber and Telegram messages, Russia strategically orchestrates a vast incitement network so that Ukrainians would oppose mobilization measures. Bot farms (a general term for anonymous users spreading misinformation) deliberately spread false or manipulated information about an ‘unlawful’ mobilization of the male population on social media. It wasn’t long until this track was picked up by the most influential Russian propagandists, such as Vladimir Solovyov and Olga Skabeeva. They, in turn, covered Ukraine’s mobilization as “the resistance of the Ukrainian population” to the criminal actions of the Zelensky regime.

Also, this narrative contains a broader propaganda tool: the artificial separation of the people and the government. In this way, Moscow tried to show that Ukrainian mobilization, which is lawful and necessary for Ukraine to continue its defense and existence, as ‘unjust’ and a disparity in the rules, not vital for the state’s survival. And so, any signs of dissatisfaction among the Ukrainian population were picked up by the Kremlin’s trolls and then amplified in the information space.

We continue to observe the exploitation of this narrative, particularly as Ukraine implements new laws concerning mobilisation in 2024, the ideal time for Russian propaganda to sow yet more seeds of disinformation. Although experts are now more often refuting the disinformation due to the imprudence of Russian propagandists, as the next image shows:

Highlighted in Red: “The man was “packed” in necklaces” – a typical error of machine translation, a common feature of Russian propaganda’s trace in disinformation. However, they wanted to write ‘minibus’ (abbreviated Russian “buses” [бусы]  – a homonym of the word “necklaces” [намисто] in Ukrainian)