Fishing in muddy water. How Russia’s propaganda machine works
Before the battle starts, every general tries to weaken the enemy first. In the Middle Ages, it was done with arrows; during the “Desert Storm” operation — by air raids. It begins with information in modern Russia. The Kremlin’s state media are not journalists but a full-fledged military vanguard that prepares a bridgehead for the armed forces, destabilizes the enemy, and cuts it off from its allies.
Russia’s propaganda machine consists of four main elements, of which only one is public — the state media. The Kremlin generously sponsors TV channels such as Russia Today: in 2022, this media alone officially received 88 billion rubles (approximately $ 834 million) in budget subsidies. At the same time, the last independent channels and sites are being eradicated from Russia.
The second layer of propaganda is a network of bots
As it is known from numerous journalistic investigations (for example, by Novaya Gazeta, BuzzFeed), there are real state-owned “troll factories” in Russia with several hundred employees. Each of these employees has tasks and production standards.
The third part of the system includes resources in other states that seem to belong to local citizens
In fact, these resources are sponsored by Moscow and lobby for Russia’s respective interests. In particular, there was a triad of so-called “Medvedchuk channels” in Ukraine. Russia was so confident in its invulnerability that it did not disguise itself and entrusted the leadership of the media to President Putin’s close affiliate, a guy whose kid has Putin as his godfather.
The fourth level of influence is “soft power”
It is expressed in public statements of athletes and artists — for example, one of Russia’s most famous directors and Academy Award winner Nikita Mikhalkov calls for the inclusion of Ukraine and Belarus in the “ideal Russia.” It is expressed in films, such as the propaganda movie called “Crimea,” which provides a Russian interpretation of “salvation” rather than the annexation of the peninsula. It is also reflected in imposing own holidays in Russia, for example, not the European Day of Remembrance, but its own paradoxically revanchist “Victory Day” in World War II. After all, Russia even uses the church for propaganda. The latter actively join the lie that Ukrainians and Russians are one Orthodox nation.
This whole mechanism works mostly vertically. Russian state channels are the first to announce new misinformation. And the following links pick it up and bring it to their audience. Depending on the audience, the propaganda machine performs different tasks.
Let’s explore the example of the war against Ukraine
Within Russia, propaganda mobilizes the population. It fabricates lies about Ukraine’s aggression against its own citizens, the threat of biological weapons genetically directed against the Russians, and NATO’s secret bases. All this is designed to justify the war and provoke the population’s support for hostilities and even gratitude to the regime, which allegedly protects Russia’s interests.
So far, all opinion polls show that this works, and at least half of Russians do support the war. It should be noted that propaganda is not omnipotent. The truth about the killings of civilians and their own losses is penetrating Russia. So the Kremlin had to effectively ban Facebook, Instagram, and the latest independent media.
For the West, Moscow has built a real legend about the war. Although Russia’s large-scale aggression began only in late February this year, hostilities and partial occupation of Ukrainian territories actually began in 2014. However, Russian propaganda denied this for eight years. They say that Ukrainians are not being killed by Putin’s army but by separatists who “found tanks in the mines.” Now they are trying to justify open war by defending the so-called “LPR” and “DPR,” which Moscow had intentionally recognized as sovereign states the day before. As political statements and concrete sanctions show, no one in the West has committed to such a transparent lie. Many countries have already blocked the Russian propaganda broadcasters. So now, the remnants of the Kremlin machine will move to demotivate support for Ukraine. For example, intimidation of the negative consequences of sanctions for Europe itself. Or describing the strength of a fictional superweapon, like “hypersonic missiles.”
The work of propagandists directly in Ukraine for the last eight years has had two goals
First, Moscow tried to weaken and destabilize our state before the invasion. They discredited reforms, undermined trust in Western allies, split Ukrainians on cultural grounds (language, history, religion), and provoked defeatism.
In addition, Russia tried to spread the idea of it being a “single nation” with Ukrainians, so that the citizens do not resist but accept the occupiers as “brothers” and “liberators.” All this against the background of more than 14 thousand deaths in eight years of hostilities.
It may seem that Russian propaganda is crazy and pointless from the outside. Does the Kremlin hope that someone will actually believe in a weapon that genetically attacks only Russians? No. The style of Russian propaganda is not to convince you of any fact. Its main task is to sow doubts and make the situation ambiguous. Vladimir Putin fishes best in muddy water. And, whatever its ultimate goal, these absurd and contradictory, but always very persistent information throws, help to achieve it. They disorient the enemy and open the door for Russia to physical attack.
On February 24, 2022, Russia was able to launch a full-scale aggression because of the information chaos surrounding its aggression for the previous eight years. Instead of unambiguously stopping the Kremlin back in 2014, the world wandered in stories about the “separatists,” the Crimean referendum, and the non-political nature of Nord Stream-2. This gave Russia time to gather strength and pull the bait. If only someone knew that there were no defenseless fishes in Ukraine but rather megalodons.
Yaroslav Zubchenko, journalist for the Detector Media NGO.