How Russia Turns Strategic Communications into War Propaganda

March 16, 2023
Communications are an important element of winning (or losing) a war.

Russia made promises of a quick victory and underestimated Ukraine’s strength, and now they have to invent new ways to explain failures on the front.

Strategic communications is the use of  messages, slogans, images, and rhetoric in order to promote and protect interests and achieve long-term goals. Russia does not use the term  "strategic communications," as the term is absent from media debates or high-level discussions. Instead, it uses the term "information warfare," which is described in its military doctrine.

Its three key objectives are:

  • counteraction to external threats, which requires strong state control;
  • countering international  "discrimination" against Russian media;
  • elimination of failures in the field of information technology.

Russia's military doctrine makes clear that one of the country's main fears is the Western world (NATO) strengthening and approaching Russia's borders.

The idea that the Russian authorities popularize among their people can be formulated in an adaptation of a well-known adapted phrase: "Make Russia great again". That's why their narratives are based on historical memory and contain the following ideas:

  • Russia is a friendly hero, a superpower, forced to save other countries from evil forces (primarily the West and its values);
  • Russia has a "legendary" historical significance as the center of Eastern Europe and the main winner in the Second World War;
  • The revival of the Russian Empire as a glorious period of Russian history is to be pursued;
  • The Russian Orthodox Church is the cradle of the Orthodox world.

Russian government's rhetoric uses actions rather than words or images as a tool for strategic communications. This is in contrast to the democratic world, for which the main political tool of communication is words. This is what Dr. Ofer Fridman, Senior Lecturer in War Studies at King's College of London, argues in his report, 'Information War' as the Russian Conceptualisation of Strategic Communications.

On February 20, 2022, the Russian Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry  Peskov said of the idea of attacking Ukraine, "What is the point of Russia attacking someone? We have never attacked anyone". Within 4 days, Russia launched its full-scale invasion. This discrepancy between words and deeds misleads those who are accustomed to building international relations on trust and decency. The weak reaction with mere words to the invasions of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine in 2014, along with Russia's other numerous violations of international conventions, gave the Kremlin a sense of impunity and allowed them to continue implementing imperial plans.

Goebbels and Russian Propagandists

Russia's so-called strategic communications are based on Goebbels-esque principles of propaganda. The chief propagandist for the Nazi Party and then Reich Minister of Propaganda from 1933 to 1945 believed that the centralization of power was the key to effectively spreading propaganda.

Russian propagandists adhere to this approach, while working according to the methods of the central government. The government, either central or local, has no opposing thoughts and acts as a unifying power.

Other principles include singling out a clear enemy to blame for all problems --- in this case the collective West, which Russia accuses of wanting to destroy their country.

By maintaining one or several key clear messages for its audiences, Russia keeps matters simple and logical for its people by saying that Russia is extremely strong and savior of the world from the evil western values. By appealing to audiences' emotions rather than their intelligence, Russia is able to reach almost every person and apply particular pressure to the lower stratas of its society.

The Goebbels principle of refusing to show any sign of weakness can be seen in how Russian propaganda reacts to defeats at the front. According to Goebbels's guidance, the authorities should reassure the society, which was initially led to believe that Kyiv would fall in three days, that everything is going according to a plan. After all, for the Russians, defeat in war is tantamount to a threat to the existence of the state itself.

Popular narratives common in Russian society include "The Russian army is number one in the world,"  "Ukrainians were asking us for help, so we had to invade them", "NATO and the West are weak," and "We are invincible, like our grandfathers during the Great Patriotic War".

How did Russian propaganda explain the retreat from Kharkiv and Kherson Oblasts?

Ukraine carried out a highly successful counter-offensive in Kharkiv Oblast from September 6-12, 2022. It was Ukraine's second major counteroffensive after the liberation of the country's northern regions in the spring.

On November 9, Russian troops were also "withdrawn" from the right bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast. Since Kherson was the only regional center Russia had occupied since the beginning of the full-scale war, this retreat was a heavy blow to the reputation of the Russian Armed Forces, even in the eyes of Russians themselves.

To justify military defeats, the Russian authorities also resort to Goebbels's tactics. In particular, he advised  "to report military defeats as a successful evacuation," as the Nazis did with their defeats in Tunisia.

Russian propaganda also reassured its citizens that their ceding of ground represented "gestures of goodwill", "tactical retreats", "regrouping to save soldiers' lives," and "difficult decisions" in order to win a crushing victory in the future. They also compare their failures with victorious battles in their history, like at Poltava in 1709 and crossing the Dnipro River in 1943.

They also put great focus on smaller victories to compensate for dissatisfaction after major losses. It has become harder for Russian propaganda to reconcile serious defeats with the Russian people's  high expectations, as they thought that their military could bring instant, triumphant, and bloodless victory which would not bring any problems back home. But that didn't happen.

As a result, Russians make outraged posts on social media calling for their government to "kill them all" and  "finally bomb Kyiv". Eventually, Russian missiles would hit Ukraine's energy infrastructure, leaving people across the country without light, water and heat.

Why are Russians so vulnerable to propaganda?

The secret of Russian propaganda's effectiveness lies in Russian society a itself. At this point,  Russian authorities do not even need to distribute propaganda, because Russians produce it themselves.

This is how vertical propaganda and authoritarian regimes work. They are exceptionally effective for depersonalized people who unanimously follow a chosen popularly-approved leader.

Horizontal propaganda, which also exists in Russian society, is based on the fact that people associate themselves with the government. The difference in thought, action, and life becomes hostile and contemptuous. These dynamics are fertile grounds for cults, for example. Moreover, successful propaganda must be anti-intellectual in order to be understood by the masses, especially the more vulnerable lower classes.

American human rights activist and co-founder of Human Rights Watch Arieh Neyer notes that the Russians had 22 years to see and stop the slow emergence of tyranny in Russia, but they ignored it. Their society was directly involved in the planning and execution of several  "military operations", in particular the bloody Second Chechen War and the invasions of Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine.

After all, Russia's policies of aggression have been helped along by "ordinary Russians" like soldiers, their relatives, factory workers, state employees, government propagandists, and even schoolteachers who praised Russia's actions against its neighbors. They were not forced to do so by Putin's brutality.

On the contrary, they still consider him a "strong leader" and support him as their president.

Sofiya Maksymiv
communications coordinator with Internews-Ukraine