How does Russian State Propaganda Shape the Worldviews of Russian Military Personnel?

May 31, 2024
The Russian Army's atrocities in Ukraine reached barbaric scales, shocking the world.

The oath of allegiance to committing war crimes taken by officers is not enough for Russia; it wants the soldiers to be aware of Russian-made history. But to what extent have Russian soldiers internalised Russian propaganda narratives?

Russia's wartime propaganda is more powerful than family bonds, with a median rating of 8 out of 10 for those who retranslate ideas imposed by the Russian propaganda machine, while the Kremlin has increased domestic propaganda spending to nearly $500 million.

In the meantime, Internews Ukraine decided to delve into the connections between Russian state propaganda and the worldview of Russian military personnel who were directly involved in Russia's military aggression against Ukraine.

The study followed the Comprehensive Methodology for Detecting and Analysing Russian Propaganda, which is based on linguistic, semantic, and textual analysis principles, as well as psychological examination methods.

The study included five episodes of television programs on Russian propaganda state resources hosted by Russian propagandists Vladimir Solovyov, Olga Skabeyeva, and Yevgeny Popov. To compare propaganda narratives, five interviews with Russian prisoners of war, recorded with their consent and published by journalist Volodymyr Zolkin in 2022–2023, were also examined.

For example, Solovyov's November 20, 2014 program spreads a narrative about the so-called “Nazis”: “For as long as we have been going around, we have been asking, don't give at least money, stop funding the Nazis…”.

In an interview with Zolkin, a prisoner of war stated, "We are fighting for... people who are being deprived their right to identity by force, through the laws adopted by the Nazi regime in Kyiv”.

Russia's repeated attempts to delegitimise Ukrainian authorities elected by the Ukrainian people by portraying them as “punishers” are accepted by the Russians, laying the groundwork for the ideology of saving people who allegedly lack authorised representatives to deal with pressing issues.

The main narratives conveyed by the Russian prisoners of war are related to the fear of NATO and the United States, as well as their goal of destroying Russia from Ukrainian territory.

"If you take Ukraine and join NATO, I don't need to explain what happens next. You are fully aware that long-range weapons will reach here. It's not that far away. [A missile capable of striking] 500 kilometres will be enough to reach Moscow."

Such narratives attempt to unite people together in the face of artificial uncertainty about the future. However, while the world investigates how artificial intelligence, augmented reality technologies, and human life extension can change the future, Russia creates an enemy in order to create an “us versus them' confrontation”.

The prisoner of war believes the official version of Russian state propaganda that Russia began the war against Ukraine to “defend itself in advance” (corresponding to the “preemptive strike” narrative) and NATO/US intentions to "make vassals of Russia" have existed since World War II.

That is nearly identical to what is repeatedly discussed in Solovyov's programme on November 20, 2014: "They have already looked closely in the direction of the Slavic world, and they are not interested in Ukraine, but in Russia; they really need a scorched earth bridgehead to sneak under their sticky hands to our Russia”.

In an interview with Zolkin, a prisoner of war describes the war unleashed by Russia as a “civil war, because the Ukrainian people are a twin nation for me”, and refers to the Ukrainian military as "fighters against whom the task was to block these nationalist units”, which is consistent with the recurrent narratives of Russian propaganda.

For example, in the program 'Evening with Vladimir Solovyov' on August 27, 2017, it stated that “this is a civil war, and if they say there is no civil war in Ukraine, what are the Minsk agreements? Because the Minsk Agreements remain in effect with the DPR (Donetsk People's Republic) and the LPR (Luhansk People's Republic), we must communicate with them”.

The forced Minsk Agreements, which bear the signatures of the so-called DPR/LPR heads, paved the way for propagandists to discuss recognising and communicating with these entities.

In Solovyov's November 20, 2014 program, it was proclaimed that "If we are subsidised, why are you trying to destroy the population in Donbas with such fierceness, let us go, let us go; we will live as we see fit?"

A similar formulation was found in an interview with a prisoner of war: "I don't want the children to suffer; I want this whole cataclysm that began in Donbas eight years ago to end... A coup in Ukraine, children killed in Donbas, and eight years of bombing in Donbas".

In addition to the myth that “Donbas is subsidised”, despite the fact that Russia has destroyed the industry of the occupied regions of eastern Ukraine, the Russian military believes in disinformation about "the destruction of the population of Donbas".

The contradiction of the narratives believed and disseminated is even more interesting, as Solovyov says in the same program that "...they don't need Donbas, they don't need the population of Donbas, they need natural resources, they need scorched earth so that, as you correctly stated, Biden's son can extract shale gas in Slaviansk".

The Moscow Patriarchate, with the Russian Church's support, helped to shape and expand this narrative. In 2014, it convinced believers that extracting shale gas would bring the devil into the world...

When Ukrainian forces liberated Sloviansk in 2014, residents inquired about the status of shale gas extraction. Among other narratives, Solovyov's programme for July 23, 2023, includes "denazification, demilitarization, Donbas protection, and no to NATO. Previously, the task was set in December. To push NATO's borders back to the boundaries of 1998–1999."

And, the occupier formulated it as "to take up arms for peace so that there is no war”, which is very similar to Nazi Germany's "last war" narrative.

The statement "We are one people; there will be no winners in this war in the southeast, they are as Orthodox as we are; in principle, we have the same roots" was circulated in the propaganda programme on November 20, 2014. In an interview with Zolkin, a prisoner of war, believes that “We are all the same—both in character and in destiny”.

Both the programmes and the Russian military propagate a distorted consciousness by attempting to simulate the continuity of a common past and the fatalism of a common future.

After all, the same prisoner of war says, “It's a feud. (...) I understand that the DPR and LPR decided to withdraw from Ukraine, or something similar. And that's where the whole mess started.”

However, what distinguishes Ukraine and Russia is the culture of the former's civilized dialogue versus the latter's barbaric attack, as well as the supply of militants in the so-called DPR/LPR.

The main factors contributing to the success of Russian propaganda among Russian soldiers are limited time and attention, poverty, and a low educational level.

Russians' focus on their personal lives, which far outweighs their social lives, results in an automatic perception of propaganda information in the background and stereotypical thinking.

Poverty is also an important factor. The poorer a person is, the less he or she cares about anything outside of their immediate daily life, which contributes to the automatic perception of propaganda information. Lack of education is also a significant factor.

In general, a lack of education, or its formality and low quality, leads to unconditional faith in those with shaky but still credible social standing. The study found that Russians frequently use nominalisation, or depersonalisation of statements, and shift responsibility to a third party ('we were told', 'we saw it on TV'), indicating a lack of critical thinking ability.

Daria Synhaievska
Analyst and journalist at UkraineWorld