As the diplomatic efforts to stop aggressive escalation along the Ukrainian borders continue, the pro-Kremlin media keeps stoking the tensions with inflammatory and misleading messages. The bulk of these are directed primarily at domestic Russian audiences, which are told on a daily basis that the West, NATO and the US are threatening Russia.
Polls by the independent Levada Center show that most Russians (around half of the respondents) blame the US and NATO for the current escalation and only around 4 per cent think it is the responsibility of the Russian leadership. Nearly eight years after the illegal annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the armed aggression in Donbas, the recognition that the Kremlin is in fact threatening Ukraine is a marginal position in Russia.
These attitudes are the fruits of labour of Russian state-controlled media, which has been cultivating the myth of an “encircled” Russia for years, fuelling fears (according to Levada, 56 per cent of Russians are afraid of world war) and deliberately misrepresenting the values, history and policies of Ukraine, EU and NATO for millions of Russians.
Turning the cause-and-effect relation on its head
Amid the continuing build-up of Russian military firepower along Ukraine’s borders, several NATO members have begun supplying short-range and clearly defensive weapons to Ukraine. For the pro-Kremlin media though, this was an occasion to claim that NATO was pushing Ukraine into a conflict. Multiple variations of this disinformation message have been disseminated in the past and continue to circulate today in Russia, in non-government-controlled areas in Ukraine, in Georgia and elsewhere.
At the same time, sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 following the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula and destabilisation of Ukraine continue to be portrayed as an illegitimate tool “against Russia”.
These are just a couple of examples of how the Russian state-controlled media deliberately distorts cause and effect to obfuscate the Kremlin’s responsibility for the escalation of tensions and to keep the domestic audience in fear (and thus, in check).
Building the trigger narratives
The Kremlin uses disinformation and information manipulation also to create space for political and, crucially, military manoeuvring.
To keep the option of direct military aggression open for the Kremlin, disinformation outlets along with pro-Kremlin pundits and politicians have been cultivating narratives about imminent atrocities against the population in Donbas.
These include unfounded allegations that the Ukrainian military was preparing “provocations” including explosions at industrial plants with dangerous chemical production facilities and deployment of the nerve-paralysing agent botulotoxin. The US was also accused of planning a “false flag” chemical weapons attack on Donbas involving the poisoning of drinking water.
Notably, the pro-Kremlin media have a long history of distortion of facts about chemical weapons, including denial of chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime and accusations that the US has been stockpiling chemical weapons.
To ensure that Russian domestic audiences believe such gruesome disinformation narratives about Ukraine, the pro-Kremlin media has been hammering the image of an inhumane “Nazi” Ukraine for years. In the past, such narratives were accompanied with neo-imperial assurances that Ukrainians and Russians were “one people”, including from the very top of the Kremlin. Now the gloves have come off: RT Russia has diverged from the “one people” narrative, claiming that “Ukrainians want Russian blood”, whereas Russia has a responsibility to save brothers and citizens in Luhansk and Donetsk from their “enemies”.
Eliminating the independent media
For the Kremlin, it took years of systematic destruction of independent media to arrive at the place where disinformation can be freely used in direct support of aggressive military posturing and hostile operations abroad.
Recently, we saw the Kremlin taking further steps in eliminating access to independent media in the country, as the Russian authorities banned the public international broadcaster Deutsche Welle and closed its office in Moscow.
The Russian state-controlled media was quick to announce that Deutsche Welle was a source of NATO propaganda, following up with broader efforts to establish a false equivalence between the respectable global media outlet Deutsche Welle and RT DE.
The decision of the Russian authorities came after Germany’s media regulator banned the Russian state-controlled broadcaster RT DE from operating in Germany due to the absence of a valid licence. In contrast, Deutsche Welle had been operating in Russia with all the necessary licences and credentials.
The ban imposed on Deutsche Welle follows another order of the Russian authorities for multiple media outlets to remove previously published news stories referring to anti-corruption investigations by Alexei Navalny’s team. In December 2021 a Russian court ruled to restrict access to the website of OVD-Info, a Russian independent media and human rights advocacy project. These are just the latest illustrations of the systematic crackdown on media freedom and other fundamental rights In Russia.