In this article we discuss 10 myths of Russian propaganda that are unfortunately repeated by some opinion leaders in the West. We also explain methods used by Russia in production of these myths.
In “The Snow Queen” fairy tale evil trolls made a mirror that distorts the appearance of everything it reflects. Any beautiful thing in that mirror looks disgusting. When trolls tried to bring this mirror to heaven, it slipped from their hands and shattered into billions of pieces. When those splinters fell into the eyes of a person, this person started seeing only the bad and ugly things. And when a splinter hit the heart of a person, that heart turned into a stone.
This is a pretty accurate description of how Russian propaganda works. Many people around the globe have been in one or another way affected by it. Often these people do not recognize that they have “propaganda splinters” in their eyes and promote Russian narratives as their own beliefs. In other instances people and organizations are well aware of what they do and receive generous rewards for it.
Smagliy (2018) describes this phenomenon as “hybrid analytica,” defined as “the process of design, development and promotion of various pseudo-academic narratives by duped or manipulated bona fide intellectuals, academics and think tank experts or political “lobbyists in disguise.” Her study identified dozens of EU and US think tanks that promote Russian narratives, as well as Russian organizations where such narratives originate (one of them is the Valdai discussion club). The Ukrainian Centre for Counteracting Disinformation recently published a list of about 100 foreign experts who repeatedly promote Russian narratives, while VoxUkraine identified these narratives in German and Italian media. Unfortunately, these lists are probably incomplete since the Russian octopus has distributed its tentacles very widely. Even more dangerous is that Russian lies are repeated by respectable opinion leaders such as Noam Chomsky. One good example is Richard Sakwa, a professor at the University of Kent and the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, and also a member of the Valdai Club. In a ten-minute speech during a BBC podcast he packed at least ten Russian myths about Ukraine, which we discuss below.
With the help of these myths we will also illustrate the main methods used by Russia to construct its propaganda narratives.
Myth #1. Russia was provoked by NATO expansion and forced to attack Ukraine
Method 1: accusing the other party of what Russia did or intends to do (used, for example, in the MH17 case and in many cases when Russia attacked civilians in Ukraine).
No one with common sense would want to attack Russia, a nuclear power. Simply because it does not make sense. Why would any country or a group of countries spend enormous resources to occupy 17 million square kilometers of Russian territory and risk eliminating life on Earth? In order to have its natural resources? But buying those resources is much cheaper. European countries and the US have been long buying what they needed from Russia (hopefully they will soon stop). China may want back its historical lands in the far East of Russia. But it would regain these lands with economic and political methods rather than a direct military attack (e.g. Russia has already given some islands to China).
Eastern European countries in the 1990s as well as Sweden and Finland today have joined NATO because they were threatened by Russia, not vice versa. And failing to promise NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia in 2008 allowed Russia to attack Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. Thus, if NATO countries have anything to blame for, it is closing their eyes to Russia’s aggression and war crimes around the world and increasing their dependence on Russian energy.
In reality Russia attacked Ukraine for several reasons. First, as stated by Putin, Russians genuinely believe that Ukraine is not a nation. Thus, they want to erase Ukraine from Earth. Second, Putin (and Russians) want to restore a historical Russian empire and to confront the “degradant” West. Third, external expansion (“a small victorious war”) is a standard way for autocracies to distract the attention of people away from internal problems, such as corruption or poverty, and to raise their popular support. Thus, if Russia is not decisively defeated, it will attack other countries too. This brings us to the
Myth #2. There is a choice between “quick peace” by forcing Ukraine to surrender (by limiting support to it) and a prolonged war enabled by supplying weapons to Ukraine
Method 2: supporting the myth of “Russia as a superpower” (and as such, deserves a special treatment)
In fact, the fastest way to peace is to supply much more weapons to Ukraine and promote a decisive military defeat of Russia. If Ukraine is forced to surrender, this will not only lead to another genocide with millions dead or deprived of their identity. Russia will also use devastated Ukrainian land as a springboard to attack other countries – in the same way it uses Crimea and other currently occupied territories to attack the rest of Ukraine.
Russia takes any concessions as weaknesses and an invitation to escalate. But when firmly confronted, it backs down. For example, despite all its aggressive rhetoric about NATO, we see no escalation in response to the admission of Sweden and Finland; when Russian troops met a firm resistance, they escaped from Kyiv oblast, as well as from the Snake Island (presenting this as “goodwill gestures”). Finally, standing up to Russia would end the long chain of Russian crimes without punishment that led to even more crimes, including the current war.
Myth #3. There was a coup in Ukraine in 2014, and today’s administration is anti-Russian
Method 3: blatant lie; victim-blaming
This myth has been debunked multiple times (a detailed explanation can be found, for example, here). Briefly, Ukrainians went for peaceful protests when then-president Yanukovych under Russian pressure refused to sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. The protests became truly large-scale when the police brutally beat up the protesters on December 1st, 2013. About 20% of the population participated in the Euromaidan movement in one or another form. With this scale of participation there is no way it can be called a coup – this was a mass people’s movement.
In February 2014 Russia started the military operation in disguise – it occupied and later annexed Ukrainian Crimea. It also spurred protests in the East of Ukraine and occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions using its army and special forces. Involvement of the regular Russian army and heavy losses in summer 2014 and winter 2015 forced president Poroshenko to sign Minsk agreements that lowered the intensity of the bloodshed and gave Ukraine time to prepare for further Russian attacks. Implementation of Minsk agreements was impossible because Russia never implemented their very first clause – the full ceasefire.
The Zelensky administration has never been anti-Russian. On the contrary, his 2018-2020 rhetoric contains a lot of “looking into Putin’s eyes”, “negotiating somewhere in between” etc. However, Russia doesn’t want any compromise. It wants to destroy Ukraine and kill everyone who identifies him/herself as Ukrainian.
Myth #4. Since 2014 Ukraine bombed people of Donbas
Methods 1 and 3 combined (Donbas was peaceful until Russian occupation in 2014)
Before Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border in 2014, there were no hostilities neither in Donbas nor in other parts of Ukraine (Euromaidan protests were peaceful until the police started to shoot protesters). Moreover, analysis of pre-2014 data showed that people in the East of Ukraine and Crimea were more passive than elsewhere in Ukraine when asked whether they would protest in any way if their rights were violated, despite longing more for the Soviet times. Russian army with the help of local collaborators unfolded terror against population in the occupied territories. Many people have been abducted or killed, tortured or held in concentration camps. Today Moscow extends these practices to the newly occupied territories of Ukraine.
Since 2014, the Ukrainian state has helped not only those who ran away from hostilities, but also to those who remained in the occupied territories. Thus, children had certain privileges for entering Ukrainian universities, pensioners were able to get Ukrainian pensions. Ukraine established several logistical centers at the contact line where people from occupied territories could get administrative services, buy Ukrainian goods etc.
Myth #5. Putin only wanted neutrality and denazification of Ukraine, he was not going for the regime change
Method 4: using euphemisms to blur the meaning of what’s going on in reality (likewise, Russians call the war “a special operation”)
Unlike Russia, Ukraine is a democracy. Therefore, it’s up to the people of Ukraine and their elected representatives to decide on military or other unions that Ukraine will or will not join. No other nations can force Ukrainians to adopt certain domestic or foreign policies.
The myth about Nazis in Ukraine does not hold together – in Ukraine, unlike in some other countries, far-right parties consistently get less than 2% of electoral votes. To the contrast, today’s Russia is a fascist state. In their futile attempts to present Ukrainians as Nazis Russian foreign minister Lavrov went as far as to accuse Jewish people of anti-semitism.
The lie about Russia’s not intending for a “regime change” in Ukraine has been debunked multiple times by Russians themselves: e.g. Putin in February, Lavrov in April, Lavrov in July. In fact, calling Ukraine’s democratically elected government “a regime” is an illustration of method 1 – accusing the opposite party of what Russia does (or of the features that it has).
Myth #6. Ukraine banned opposition parties and Russian language
Method: combination of methods 1 and 3 (i.e. opposition parties are banned in Russia, while Russian language is allowed in Ukraine)
Ukraine banned pro-Russian parties only in April-2022, after the full-scale invasion by Russia. Unfortunately, prior to that these parties that are literally enemies of the Ukrainian state were in the parliament (some representatives of these parties still remain in the parliament). Russian language is not banned, there are many people who speak Russian even today, although after the full-scale invasion many started switching to Ukrainian in order not to speak the language of the aggressor.
Besides, although many Ukrainians speak Russian, this is not their conscious choice (and it doesn’t make them Russian). This is the result of many decades of russification policies that took different forms but pursued the same goal – to erase Ukrainian identity.
Ukrainian language is protected by law, and many countries have similar laws protecting their native (official) languages. It is true that Ukraine has banned some Russian movies and books – the propaganda products that humiliated Ukraine and Ukrainians and/or promoted “great Russia”.
Indeed, one of the “justifications” of Russian invasion provided by Putin was “protection of Russian speakers”. However, one can now see what this “protection” really means in mostly Russian-speaking Kharkiv, Mariupol, Mykolaiv, Kherson and other cities and villages of Ukraine’s East and South.
Myth #7. Ukraine is divided between East and West, Russian and Ukrainian speakers
Method 5: promoting narrative of “Ukraine as a failed state”
Russia has been trying to present Ukraine as a divided state for years. The author of one of such “division” campaigns was the same person who produced the plan for the genocide of Ukrainians published by RIA Novosti, a Russian government outlet, in early April 2022, after Bucha massacre was uncovered.
Despite all the efforts, Russia never succeeded. While Ukrainians indeed speak different languages and have different political views, they have common values – they value their freedom and their state. That is why they go to the streets when government violates their rights or the law and protect their land when Russia attacks it. Ukrainian East and South indeed used to have more Russian speakers and to provide higher support to pro-Russian parties. However, despite what Russian propaganda says, there is no discrimination in Ukraine by language or ethnicity (unlike in Russia).
While recognizing that many Ukrainians speak Russian, one must also understand the reasons for that. These reasons are genocidal policies against Ukrainians implemented by Russia for centuries. One can remember prohibition of Ukrainian language in the XIX century and its suppression in the XX century; artificial famine and deportations in the first half of the XX century (ethnic Russians occupied houses of Ukrainians who died of famine, were repressed or deported), many millions of Ukrainians killed during the World War II, constant repressions against Ukrainian elites, promotion of “great” Russian culture and at the same time humiliation of Ukrainian language, culture and arts etc. Thus, russification of Ukraine is not a natural phenomenon, it is the result of very brutal policies implemented by the Russian empire, aka USSR.
Myth #8. Russia has its back to the wall and thus needs some off-ramp (face-saving)
Method 2: promoting the myth of “Russia as a superpower”
Perhaps, the best refutation for this myth is provided by Timothy Snyder who explains that when it loses, Putin will just twist the TV reality and persuade Russians that Russia won.
Russians don’t need an off-ramp because they don’t have the wall behind their back. They have 17 million square kilometers where they can live and flourish. While Ukrainians are fighting for their existence (and at the same time protecting Europe), Putin fights for some mythical “great Russia”, and many Russian soldiers have no idea what they are fighting for (however, they are allowed to loot, rape and perform other war crimes in Ukraine).
Myth #9. Russia cannot lose and the West cannot win this war
Method 2: promoting the myth of “Russia as a superpower”
In fact, the West not only can win – it has to win this war, if it wants peace in the decades to come and if it wants to preserve the rules-based world order. Moreover, Ukraine has shown that winning over Russia is easier than previously thought. The West just needs to be brave and united. Furthermore, the victory of democracies is the only hope of such countries as Taiwan who have a much larger aggressive neighbour.
Myth #10. It is unknown what the victory for Ukraine could be
Method 5: promoting narrative of “Ukraine as a failed state”
Ukraine’s victory means restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders and ensuring that Ukraine can safely rebuild afterwards. This means that Ukrainians are not killed and Ukrainian assets are not destroyed by Russian missiles or artillery. Ukrainian victory will also be the victory for the free world, for all the countries that believe that the world should be governed by rules and negotiations rather than by law of the jungle.
In this article we considered only a fraction of myths that Russia spreads or methods that it uses. As discussed above, the net of “Russland verstehers” or Russian agents (whether they realize it or not) is quite wide. However, the reality is very simple: Russia has started the largest war in Europe since World War II (and it helped unleash two previous world wars). Russia uses war crimes as a method of war. It committed war crimes in Syria, Georgia and Chechnya, but was never punished for this. Russia is an aggressive state that uses terrorist methods and supports terrorism around the world. It should be officially recognized a terrorist state and treated accordingly.
Terrorism relies on communication to achieve its goals. Thus, it’s time to stop listening to Russia or pro-Russian speakers. It’s time to get rid of Russian splinters and start listening to peoples who suffered from Russia – Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans, Georgians and Chechens, Finns and Kazakhs, and many others. It’s time to restore justice and hold Russia accountable, which will be possible only after its military defeat. This will save millions of lives – in Ukraine and around the globe.
The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations