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War in Ukraine. From “special operation” to “patriotic war”. The Evolution of Kremlin Propaganda

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In the year since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, much has changed in Russian propaganda. At first, in Russia, the importance of the attack on a neighboring country was downplayed. After the partial mobilization was announced, it was argued that this was a war with the West for the existence of the homeland. Now the public is being informed about the “great patriotic war”.

On the night of February 23-24, 2022, Vladimir Putin gave a speech in which he announced that he had ordered the start of a “special military operation” in the Donbas. When they aired in the media, Russian planes were already bombing Ukrainian airports, and Russian soldiers were entering Ukrainian territory, not just Donbass. Thus began a war that has been going on for exactly a year.

Putin’s speech was not only an official announcement of the invasion of Ukraine, but also set the tone for Russian propaganda in the early months of the war. Since then, however, a lot has changed not only at the front, but also in the very way of telling the Russians about the “special military operation”, which even in the mouths of Russian politicians was already “war”. On the anniversary of the beginning of the Russian invasion, we show how the Kremlin propaganda evolved and why it was forced to such changes.

“Special military operation” and no attacks on civilians

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Immediately before the start of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin gave two speeches: on February 21, 2022, he justified Russia’s recognition of the so-called people’s republics – Donetsk and Luhansk, and on the night of February 23-24, 2022, he explained why Russia was allegedly forced to enter Ukraine. In both cases, the argumentation was very similar, and additionally became the basis of Russian propaganda in the first weeks and months of the war.

Putin said: “I have decided to conduct a special military operation. Its purpose is to protect people who have been victims of intimidation and genocide by the Kiev regime for eight years. To this end, we will strive to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine and bring to justice those who have committed numerous bloody crimes against the civilian population, including citizens of the Russian Federation.

Putin ordered a military operation in the Ukrainian DonbasTVN24

Putin’s detailed argument was as follows: Ukraine was the aggressor and “planned to organize a blitzkrieg in the Donbass.” Not only was the life of Russians in Donbas threatened, but so was their Russian identity. There were accusations of “aggressive Russophobia and neo-Nazism” in Ukrainian society. Neo-Nazism itself was even supposed to be “elevated to the rank of state” after the “Western-backed coup d’état”, i.e. the change of power after Euromaidan in 2014. The second aggressor naturally appeared to be NATO. “Now that NATO is expanding eastwards, the situation of our country is becoming more and more dangerous every year,” the Russian president said.

However, this message addressed to the Russians can be considered deliberately toned down: in the official propaganda, Russia did not attack Ukraine, but only launched a “special military operation” in the east of the country to defend the Russian-speaking civilian population from the Ukrainian regime. Moreover, Putin falsely asserted that “our plans do not include the occupation of Ukrainian territories.”

This message began to be reproduced in state propaganda. Russian state television tried not to give too much importance to Russian activities in Ukraine. In the first days of the invasion, the information was mainly about Ukrainian soldiers who, for example, were supposed to “hide behind the civilian population”. At the same time, it was assured all the time that Russian troops only attack military targets with “precision ammunition”. Every time the world media reported on Russian attacks on civilians, propaganda tried to find evidence that it was in fact a Ukrainian provocation. The most famous examples of such disinformation are the denial of Russian responsibility bombing of the theater in Mariupol and the massacre of civilians in Irpieniu and Bucza.

Russians watching Vladimir Putin’s speech on the night of February 23-24, 2022SERGEI ILNITSKY/EPA/PAP

The most important thing, however, was to avoid the word “war” in official communications and propaganda. Both leading propagandists, state media employees and politicians stuck to the term “special military operation”. The main purpose of this newspeak was to blur the image of a full-scale invasion, which Russia had narrowed down to south-eastern Ukraine since early April, after the defeat in the fight for Kiev.

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Counter-offensive, mobilization and “war”

The failure to establish a rapid “military special operation” entailed such major changes at the front that they required a change in official propaganda. In September, the Ukrainians launched a counter-offensive, which led, among others, to to recapture Kherson from occupation, and at the end of the month Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization”, which was ultimately to cover up to 300,000 people. conscripts. It was an important moment in the Kremlin’s war propaganda, because it became increasingly difficult to hide from the Russians the scope of Russian activities in Ukraine and, above all, the scale of deaths among soldiers already called “defenders”, implicitly: “defenders of the homeland”.

In the last months of 2022, the Russian media even began to discuss the taboo topic, i.e. the possible failure in Ukraine. Of course, it was considered in the right context, which was supposed to encourage the Russians to mobilize: they began to talk about the need to fight for the future of Russia. The several-day “special special operation” became a defensive war for the survival of the homeland.

The very forbidden word “war” at the turn of 2022 and 2023 was actually spoken by Vladimir Putin himself. The Russian president used it on December 21, 2022 during a press conference with journalists accredited in the Kremlin. “Our goal is to end this war and we will strive for it,” Putin said, adding that “Russia does not refuse peace negotiations with Ukraine.” At the beginning of the year, you could also read about the “war” in, for example, posts by Russian politicians in social media. Paris’s decision to hand over infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine alone will not change the course of the war. he wrote January 7, 2023 on Telegram Russian Senator Alexei Pushkov.

The word “war” also began to appear on state television, although only in the statements of some recorded Russians. The most important employees of television still stick to the term “military special operation” to this day.

Find out, how to recognize false narratives about the war in Ukraine

“No longer hybrid, but almost real” war with the West

However, the narrative about the defensive war for the survival of the homeland needed a clearly outlined enemy, an aggressor. With the successive deliveries of Western equipment to Ukraine, the propaganda began to create a coherent picture in which the “special military operation” against the Ukrainian regime was slowly becoming a war with the entire Western world.

Of course, the image of NATO as an aggressor was present in Russian propaganda even earlier: not even from the beginning of the war, but long before it began. However, on January 22, 2023, Sergei Lavrov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, gave a clear signal to tighten this narrative. while visiting South Africa he stated that “when we talk about what is happening in Ukraine – there is a war there. No longer hybrid, but almost real, which the West has been planning against Russia for a long time.” In his opinion, the goal of the West is “to destroy everything Russian – from language to culture – that has been in Ukraine for centuries, and to ban people from speaking their native language.”

“Great Patriotic War”

From that moment, the message about the war between Russia and the West or with NATO in Ukraine became more and more popular, and at the same time stronger and stronger. A new narrative axis also appeared: events in Ukraine were more and more often compared to the “great patriotic war”. This term in Russia is used to describe World War II, which for Russians means the fight against the Third Reich after its attack on the USSR in 1941.

The transition from “special military operation” to “great patriotic war” in Russian propaganda has one goal: to convince the Russians that the struggle in Ukraine is a nationwide affair and will not succeed without massive social mobilization. Propaganda argues that, just as in the 20th century, the effort of all the inhabitants of the USSR allowed to defeat Nazi Germany, so now only full devotion to the cause, for example by agreeing to conscript their family members or agreeing to switch the economy to war, can bring victory. The only task of the propagandists was to change the enemy: Germany is now only one of the NATO members, but the United States and Great Britain, which fought together with the USSR during World War II, came to the fore.

This fundamental change in Russian propaganda was noticed by, among others, American Institute for War Studies (ISW). IN report of January 18, 2023, Vladimir Putin’s speech on the anniversary of the lifting of the blockade of Leningrad in 1943 was analyzed. The World War II celebrations provided a good opportunity for the Russian president to clearly formulate new guidelines for Russian propaganda. “Putin said that Soviet forces stopped Nazi Germany’s ‘Leningrad genocide’ and compared it to how modern Russia fights ‘Ukrainian neo-Nazis’ in Donbas,” wrote ISW analysts. “The goal is to increase support for a protracted war,” they added.

The new narrative proposed by Putin has been picked up by the Russian media. Its latest fuel has been the deliveries of German Leopard tanks offered to Ukraine by a number of Western countries, including Germany itself. In a number of Russian television current affairs programs, hosted by leading propagandists (primarily Vladimir Solovyov), immediately after the announcement of this decision, it was announced that after almost 100 years, “German” or “Nazi” tanks will fight the Russian “defenders”.

In this sense, after a year of the Russian invasion, the propaganda has come full circle, i.e. it has returned to scaring and mobilizing the Russians with the Nazis against whom they had to defend themselves. However, these are not only the Ukrainians themselves, but all NATO countries that have decided to support Ukraine militarily, e.g. sending her tanks of German production. First of all, it is no longer a “special military operation” that can be finished in a few days with the help of the regular Russian army. This is the “Great Patriotic War”, the success of which depends on all Russians.

It is also “patriotic” in the sense that the future of the Russian homeland is to depend on its outcome. Vladimir Putin said this directly in his speech before the National Assembly on February 21, 2023: “The elites of the West do not hide their goal: to inflict, as they say, a strategic defeat of Russia. What does this mean for us? It means the end of us once and for all, i.e. the intention transferring a local conflict into a global confrontation phase. This is how we understand all this and we will react accordingly, because in this case we are talking about the existence of our country.”

Read in Konkret24: Trends in disinformation in 2022

Main photo source: Celestino Arce Lavin / Zuma Press / Forum

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