Terrorists in life and “innocents” after death. How Russia instrumentalizes death, and for what

Did the Russian officers, having devoted much of their lives to the service of Putin’s authoritarian regime, ever think they would become another tool for forming Russian propaganda after their death? Here we examine how Russian agitprop is reflected in Stanislav Rzytskyi’s and Roman Kutuzov’s deaths. Russian regime servants will never have an alternative option other than to serve as an instrument for propaganda. Discover why in our recent article.

(Non) Legal Targets of War

Roman Kutuzov (Lieutenant General – First Deputy Commander of the 8th Guards Combined Arms Army of the Southern Military District, Commander of 1st Army Corps “DPR”).
 Stanislav Rzytsky (The captain of the second rank, the commander of the submarine “Krasnodar”).

As of recent, we have observed two events that Russian news sources have depicted in a rather interesting manner. The deaths of high-ranking officers are always high-profile due to the way they transform the army into an effective instrument of war.

The first is the recent assassination of the former commander of the submarine “Krasnodar,” Stanislav Rzytsky, in Krasnodar. According to reports, this commander may have been involved in the shelling of Vinnytsia, Ukraine, particularly on July 14, 2022, when 27 people (including two children) were killed.

Although, according to his relatives and Russian media, he resigned in December 2021, he remained an active serviceman of the Black Sea Fleet until August 2022. Eventually, after his resignation, he was appointed assistant to the chief of mobilization work in the Krasnodar administration. 

That is, despite all efforts of Russian propaganda, attempting to present Rzytsky as an innocent victim, taken out by Ukrainian intelligence, he remained in active service of the Russian regime, thus aiding Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine.

The second is the death of Lieutenant General Roman Kutuzov during military operations in the Luhansk Oblast in 2022. Analysts have long noted the death of a commander of such a high-level in Ukraine as an example of the rigid vertical of power in the Russian army. The presence of the higher command on the front lines indicates the low motivation levels of military units. 

However, since he was a military commander in force and, according to numerous reports, including those in Russian media, he took actively participated in hostilities with his corps. According to the testimony of journalists, he brutally and maximally inefficiently used human resources, and once a soldier lost motivation, he died. He was undoubtedly a legitimate target for the Ukrainian military. On these occasions, Russian propaganda efforts aimed at distorting information in order to increase patriotic fervour and support for the regime. By shedding light on Russia’s propaganda aimed at targeting the domestic audience, we can analyze the broader context of the Kremlin regime’s actions.

The reaction to these events from Russian propaganda appears to be more of instrumentalisation of death to pursue political aims than a genuine concern for commemoration. Both servants’ deaths still serve an informational role for agitprop, which is why understanding how it works is crucial.

Instrumentalization of the death 

The political instrumentalization of the death of the Russian servants means that losses serve as a means to pursue a political goal. Accordingly, the death of its servants is a rhetorical weapon Russia uses and tailors to empower itself while attempting to undermine Ukraine. The Kremlin had previously created an alternative reality, and by using the victim, they are able to contribute to Russia’s further propaganda agenda, even after their death. 

Let’s consider how the death of Stanislav Rzytsky became a tool to give Ukraine negative characteristics and reinforce the already existing Kremlin narratives about the “terrorism” and “neo-Nazism” of the Ukrainian government.

The murder of Rzytsky prompted yet another accusation of Ukraine of “terror deployed in Russia” and equating the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine (GUR) with terrorist groups. 

News publication with tag “terrorism”.

Propagandist Sergei Karnaukhov goes on to elaborate in his statements, highlighting the comment of Ilya Ponomarev, a Russian opposition political figure, as a “confession”: “What is the structure of the GUR work within this project does not matter. Ponomarev is the official representative of those forces in Ukraine that unleashed terror in our country”.

Another label, which Russian propaganda systematically tries to hang on Ukraine, is the label “Nazis”, and propaganda uses this informational excuse as a tool to once again remind about it: “Our grandfathers used to hang such Nazi creatures. Moreover, they were right,” says Vladimir Solovyov, commenting on Rzhitskyi’s murder.

News label: “The murder of a submariner. Ukrainian neo-Nazis take revenge on Russia and its heroes.”

Instrumentalizing the murder of Rzytskyi, Russian propaganda tries to imbue Ukraine’s government with characteristics of a “totalitarian character”. Russian state-sponsored media “Russia Today” highlights the suspect in the murder of Serhiy Denysenko as a “victim of the regime”.

“Sergey Denysenko could flee from Ukraine because he was afraid for his life and the life of his family, says one of the karate trainers who knew him well: “He was terrified of the SBU, this topic worried him a lot. His former students began to write denunciations against him because he communicated with us, the Russians, and threatened him. Denisenko told of his concerns that he seriously thought his family would be murdered”.

When highlighting military losses, Russian propaganda often uses narratives about “accountability”, “punishment of the guilty” and “strictness of the law”, thereby continuing the rhetoric of replacing concepts. This rhetoric is most clearly reflected in the consistent use of “special military operation” instead of “war”.

In this way, the Kremlin manipulates international law, distinguishing death in war from civilian murder, and gives an interstate military conflict the characteristics of an intrastate one.

The news story about the death of Russian general Roman Kutuzov becomes a tool for giving the Russian regime two distinct characteristics at the same time

  • The presence of an all-powerful law, justice that can be established.
  • High moral qualities of the top leadership of the army. 

An example of this is the comment of the Telegram channel “Operation Z: Soldiers of the Ruskaya Vesna (Russian Spring)” (which has about 1.5 million subscribers) regarding the death of Russian general Roman Kutuzov: “The tragedy is terrible, and from it we must draw conclusions. We hope that those responsible will face the full force of the law so that this does not happen again. Assigning the innocent to the guilty will only lead us astray and mislead the people”.

The same infomercial becomes a tool for comparing the seafaring qualities of the senior officers of Russia and Ukraine: “What is there in Ukraine? They are trying to pass a law allowing Ukrainian commanders to shoot subordinates who are not going into battle. Moreover, with us, the general stands up and, by his example, leads the soldiers to attack. So which idea is stronger? On whose side is the truth?” – top propagandist Alexander Sladkov asks.

Manipulation of the human factor and artistic phrases about “idea” and “truth” create a picture of a valuable leadership better than that of the enemy – and, therefore, a better army.

Creating new meanings

Propaganda uses the deaths of Russian servants as an instrumental tool for achieving objectives. One of them is the creation of a cult of “new heroes” to strengthen the regime and artificially integrate the occupied territories.

The head of the Donetsk People’s Republic puppet organization, Denys Pushylin, noted in his Telegram channel: “Today, school No. 7 of the city of Mariupol, in the liberation of which he took part, bears the name of Roman Kutuzov. To such warriors as Roman Kutuzov, the people of Donbas are grateful for their freedom”. In addition, a monument to the Russian general was unveiled in the yard of the aforementioned school.

Creating a cult of “new heroes” and integrating occupied territories by filling the space with names and symbols that glorify these “new heroes” – was widely used in the Soviet Union, and it is another tool of propaganda. According to the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, as of 2016, 987 settlements were renamed in Ukraine, the previous names of which were established by the communist regime and glorified it. In this aspect, the death of the general is used to create the history of the “people of Donbas” without the involvement of this “people”, that is, the population of the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Russia is even willing to kill its servants and then present them as the new heroes. An example is the death of collaborator Kyril Stremousov in November 2022. There are reasons to believe that the Russian special services orchestrated this death. The result of this was the sacralization of Stremousov in Russian propaganda. In particular, Vladimir Putin awarded him the “Order of Courage” posthumously.

The assassination of Alexander Zakharchenko, former head of the Donetsk People’s Republic puppet organization, also exhibits signs of instrumentalization. The testimony of Igor Girkin, a Russian war criminal, says: “Without the participation of people connected, let’s say, with influential Russian circles, it would be impossible to eliminate Zakharchenko”. At the same time, Russian propaganda continues to use the image of Zakharchenko to design a myth about the “people of Donbas” and create “new heroes”.

Practically, even when dead, servants of Russia continue to serve a purpose to the Kremlin regime. And these are just a mere few examples of how propaganda instrumentalizes the deaths of the Russian servants to support its alternative reality. Russia ignores the fact that war criminals are legitimate war targets and presents them as the new heroes and innocent victims of the “terrorist”, “neo-Nazi”, and “totalitarian” Kyiv regime. Kremlin propaganda manipulates international law through these narratives, which become elements of demonizing Ukraine globally and domestically.