Ukraine is an illiberal state: a review of pro-russian narratives in the German and Italian media

Ukraine is an illiberal state: a review of pro-russian narratives in the German and Italian media

Photo: / odua
6 April 2022

Narrative content and its varieties

Russian propaganda outlets demonize Ukraine in the eyes of the West, trying to show that Ukraine is not a democratic state but, on the contrary, is prone to authoritarianism. Within this narrative, there are the following fake stories:

  • Ukraine has a strict censorship system for those who disagree with the governing system.
  • The rights of ethnic minorities, not just russians, are constantly neglected in Ukraine.
  • Overall, Ukraine has an extremely low level of respect for human rights, violating the citizens’ economic, social, political, and cultural rights and indulging in the glorification of Nazi criminals.

Fake. Ukraine has a strict censorship system. 

As for censorship, the main subject of criticism was the National Security and Defense Council’s decision of February 2, 2021, to impose sanctions on Taras Kozak, a pro-russian MP and owner of three TV channels, regularly disseminating the Kremlin’s narratives in Ukraine. “Zelensky also shut down those domestic media outlets whose reporting did not match the government’s narrative. According to him, they were merely mouthpieces for the Kremlin, even if they produced their content in Ukraine and that content reflected the views of russian-speaking Ukrainians.,” argues RT.DE. (“Darüber hinaus lässt Selenskij einheimische Medienplattformen schließen, deren Berichterstattungen sich nicht mit dem Narrativ der Regierung decken – mit der Beteuerung, sie seien einfach Sprachrohre des Kremls, selbst wenn sie ihre Inhalte in der Ukraine produzieren und diese Inhalte lediglich Ansichten der russischsprachigen Ukrainer widerspiegeln.”)  

The sanctions are described as wholly unjustified and unlawful. The closing of TV channels (as a result of sanctions) is a manifestation of severe censorship on the part of the presidential administration.

What’s the reality?

Ukrainian law has provisions that allow for sanctions against Ukrainian individuals or legal entities if they threaten national security, engage in or promote terrorist activities, or violate human rights.

What exactly did these TV channels violate? First, they regularly disseminated russian propaganda narratives about a “civil war in Ukraine,” “Nazism,” “external governance,” etc. Today, words are the tools of war, and Ukraine is currently at war with russia on various fronts. Second, Taras Kozak, the channel owner, is suspected of financing pro-russian terrorists through schemes of supplying coal from the occupied Donbas.

The same applies to blocking other pro-russian disinformation sources. The struggle against them is not a sign of “total censorship” but ensures national security in wartime.

Fake. The rights of ethnic minorities are constantly neglected in Ukraine

According to the pro-russian media in Italy and Germany, Ukraine is not only systematically violating the rights of russians but all ethnic minorities as a whole. The main “evil laws” are those on language and the indigenous peoples of Ukraine.

“New forms of discrimination have emerged as more and more language law provisions come into force forbidding minorities to use their mother tongues, while another racial law has just come into force dividing Ukrainian citizens into three categories based on national background with different rights. Of course, it is not called the Racial Law, its official name is the “Law on Indigenous Peoples,” writes the German media outlet Antispiegel.(“Nun sind neue Diskriminierungen hinzu gekommen, denn zum einen treten immer mehr Teile des Sprachgesetzes in Kraft, das den Minderheiten die Nutzung ihrer Muttersprachen verbietet, und zum anderen ist gerade das Rassengesetz in Kraft getreten, das die Bürger der Ukraine nach völkischen Kriterien in drei Kategorien mit unterschiedlichen Rechten einteilt. Natürlich wird es nicht „Rassengesetz“ genannt, seine offizielle Bezeichnung lautet „Gesetz über einheimische Völker.”)  

What’s the reality?

With Ukrainian being the only state language, Ukraine does not deprive national minorities of their right to speak their native languages. Ukrainians are free to use any language in everyday life. National minorities can use their mother tongue to teach in pre-school and primary education institutions (alongside Ukrainian). They can continue studying their native language at the next education level, but they will use Ukrainian in general education.

The Law on Indigenous Peoples does not divide Ukrainian citizens into three categories. It aims to protect the rights of indigenous peoples and original ethnic communities formed on the territory of modern Ukraine but without a state of their own outside of Ukraine. For Ukraine, the indigenous peoples are the Crimean Tatars, Krymchaks, and Karaites.

Indigenous peoples exist not only in Ukraine. There are about 476 million indigenous people in 90 countries of the world. On average, they are more unprotected and vulnerable population groups, so international organizations or government programs give them special attention.

Adopting a law on indigenous peoples does not in any way repeal the provisions of Ukrainian laws regarding the equality of all citizens and the protection of the rights of all ethnic minorities.

Fake. Human rights are constantly violated in Ukraine

Besides language and national issues, russian disinformation outlets argue that Ukraine violates virtually all citizens’ rights: economic, social, and political. Statements about the glorification of Nazis in Ukraine are also traditional for russian propaganda.

For instance, here is what RT.DE disseminated: “Russia has been accusing Ukraine of massive human rights violations for years. These include economic blockades, systematic discrimination against millions of citizens with regard to their language and beliefs, suppression of freedom of expression, and glorification of Nazi criminals.” (“Seit Jahren wirft Russland der Ukraine vor, Menschenrechte massiv zu verletzen. Dazu zählen Wirtschaftsblockaden, systematische Diskriminierung von Millionen von Bürgern hinsichtlich ihrer Sprache und ihres Glaubens, Unterdrückung der Meinungsfreiheit und Heroisierung von nazistischen Verbrechern.”) 

What’s the reality?

Speaking about the economic blockade, the propagandists mean the broken social and economic relations between Ukraine and Crimea and some districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, i.e., the temporarily occupied territories. Ukraine allegedly has robbed its citizens of the opportunity to meet their basic needs.

However, the propaganda cliches are contrary to international law. According to it, the occupying power must ensure the safety of civilians, including by providing them with access to water, food, and medical care. In the case of Ukraine, Russia is the occupier and, therefore, fully responsible for everything happening in the occupied territories.

As for freedom of speech, Ukraine is not a model liberal democracy, but it has shown progress in respect for human rights in recent years. For instance, Ukraine ranked 97th out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. That is 30 ranking positions higher than in 2014. According to Freedom House, Ukraine scored 60 out of 100 points in 2021 for protecting civil liberties and political rights. In 2014, the country had only 35 points. These indicators are higher for Ukraine than for many post-Soviet countries, e.g., Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, etc.

Analyzing the reports by international organizations, we can see that there are still problems in Ukraine, such as pressure and attacks on journalists and human rights activists, hate speech against various groups, and oligarchs’ influence on the media. However, Ukraine cannot be considered an authoritarian country where all civil and political freedoms are suppressed.

There is no glorification of Nazi criminals at the state level in Ukraine. Stepan Bandera, leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), whom Russian propaganda is trying to portray as the leading “Nazi,” did not profess Nazi ideas. At the time, the nationalists aimed to restore Ukrainian statehood. Initially, they had seen Germany as a possible ally in the struggle against the Soviet Union, but the Nazis eventually opposed the idea of a Ukrainian state. Germans arrested Stepan Bandera in July 1941 for his refusal to revoke the Act of Restoration of the Ukrainian State. While imprisoned, he was offered to lead a collaborationist project, but Bandera refused.

Ukrainian laws prohibit the propaganda of the Nazi regime and the use of Nazi symbols. Allegations that Ukraine honors war criminals are fabrications of Kremlin propaganda.


As in many other cases, Russian propaganda distorts the facts and turns reality upside down. Protecting the Ukrainian language becomes “oppression of ethnic minorities,” and protecting indigenous peoples becomes a racial division of different peoples. The struggle against pro-russian collaborators is seen as a manifestation of total censorship.

In reality, Ukraine has not stopped moving towards democracy and other Western values in recent years. Of course, this democratic system is still far from perfect, but it is certainly more perfect than russia’s authoritarianism, which only gives the pro-government structures a voice.


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