Russia is better at propaganda than war

There is not a single person who has not heard about the use of propaganda and disinformation by Russian Federation to increase its influence and instill correct, according to the Kremlin, opinions. However, even if Russians know of this, they continue to support the so-called “general line of the party”.

The June 30 survey “Conflict with Ukraine”, by the Russian sociological research organisation Levada Center, shows that 47 per cent of Russians answered “definitely yes” to the question “Do you personally support or not the actions of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine?”.

One can say that this is a push poll, but the evidence does not really support that position. Let’s look at it from the other side and pay attention to a survey by the Globsec think tank. There are no direct questions about supporting Russia’s actions in Ukraine, but there are questions about supporting Russian narratives, such as the fact that Ukraine should be a neutral country.

Even in countries that support Ukraine during the war, more people are in favour of Ukraine’s neutrality than those who are for Ukraine’s accession to the EU or only to NATO. This shows that if it is possible to argue about what Russians believe or don’t believe, opinion polls in democratic countries show that Russian propaganda has an impact.

But how does Russian propaganda so successfully achieve its goals? What tools or principles does it use?

“The first casualty when war comes is truth”

This phrase belongs to the US Senator Hiram Johnson and it was used by Arthur Ponsonby in his book Falsehood in War-Time. There he mentioned more than 20 types of military propaganda. 21 years ago, Belgian researcher Anna Morelli was inspired by the work of Ponsonby and decided on 10 main principles of military propaganda. Today Russia is using all of them.

1. Our adversary’s leader is inherently evil and resembles the Devil

On February 24, in his speech on the beginning of the war, Putin said that the goal is “to protect people who for eight years have been subjected to abuse, genocide by the Kyiv regime. And for this we will strive for the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine, as well as bringing to justice those who committed numerous, bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation.”

Another attempt to denigrate the authorities in Ukraine were statements from a Russian narcologist that Zelenskyy is a drug addict and uses cocaine. This disinformation was joined by pro-Russian Twitter accounts, which posted a video where Zelenskyy appeared to have cocaine on the table during the conference. The founder of Bellingcat Eliot Higgins debunked this by showing the real video but it still persists.

2. We are defending a noble cause, not our particular interests!

Russia considers itself a peacemaker and saviour of its “brotherly countries”. As Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia Alexander Grushko stated following the Russia-NATO meeting in January of this year: “Russia stopped wars. In Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh. These are all examples of when Russia’s intervention made it possible to establish peace”. However, if we look, for example, at Abkhazia, it was one of the most brutal wars launched by Russia. Before the war it was a developing tourist region of Georgia, now conditions are similar to those under the USSR.

3. The enemy makes use of illegal weapons

For four months of a full-scale war against Ukraine, Russian propagandists also managed to accuse Ukraine of using banned phosphorus bombs. According to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, it is prohibited in all circumstances to make any military objective located within a concentration of civilians the object of attack by air-delivered incendiary weapons.

However, the truth is that Russia is the party that uses prohibited weapons, according to the international human rights NGO Human Rights Watch in their report, as well as from the data of the report of Amnesty International. Both reports mention the use of banned cluster munitions by the Russian army. Their use is banned by the Convention on Cluster Munitions

4. We suffer few losses, the enemy’s losses are considerable

Morelli explains this principle as the fact that people tend to join the victorious cause. This is understood by the Russian media, who write that Ukraine is suffering losses and a shortage of ammunition. Meanwhile, Russian losses in Ukraine are significant, even though the Russian Ministry of Defense publicly admits to only rather modest figures. In March it was claiming that 1,351 Russian soldiers died in battles on Ukrainian territory. Ukraine spoke about 16,000 dead Russian soldiers.

5. Our cause is sacred

This principle says that warfare was thus the realisation of the divine will. Political decisions take on a biblical character.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow supported the war against Ukraine from the very beginning, and in June of this year he said that the Russian military was accomplishing their feat, as the holy ascetics did. That is, the Russian Orthodox Church does not consider war, murder and rape a sin, but rather justifies them. Thus, in 2016, the European Parliament adopted the resolution, “EU strategic communication to counteract anti-EU propaganda by third parties”, and paragraph eight states that the Kremlin uses cross-border religious organisations for propaganda.

The above are the most important and most frequently used principles of military propaganda by Russia, but it also uses the remaining principles and tropes:

6. We don’t want war, we are only defending ourselves.

7. Our adversary is solely responsible for this war.

8. The enemy is purposefully committing atrocities; we only make unintentional mistakes.

9. Recognised intellectuals and artists support our cause.

10. Whoever casts doubt on our propaganda helps the enemy and is a traitor.

The triad of Russian propaganda rules is cyclicality, speed and continuity. It is very difficult to verify the accuracy of all the information you receive. We tend to believe that information is true if we hear or see it several times. In other words, pro-Russian media only need to show the same message from different sources at different times to convince people of its veracity.

Russia is doing its best to show the impossibility of Ukraine as an independent country. Russian propaganda affects the course of the war in Ukraine because there are still not only citizens of European countries who believe in Russian narratives but also politicians on whom important decisions for Ukraine depend. However, Ukraine has chosen its path as a free country and will not give up in its fight for its continued independence.

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