Russian propaganda now shows Ukraine as “enslaved brother,” invasion as “just reclamation”

Russian Defense minister Sergei Shoigu shows Vladimir Putin a machine gun, during a meeting with the Ministry of Defense, on 21 December 2021. Source: Kremlin website 

Hybrid War, Opinion

Article by: Bohdan Ben
Edited by: Sonia Maryn

Editor’s Note

Russian propaganda rhetoric has shifted to portraying Ukraine as a “brotherly nation enslaved by the West” and a possible Russian invasion as a just reclamation of Russia’s sphere of influence. This leaves no room for compromise with Russia; only military guarantees for Ukraine can stop Russia’s war.

In Putin’s thinking, an invasion of Ukraine would not be an attack on a sovereign state but a just reclamation of Russia’s sphere of influence from “Western foreign influence.” The statements below made by Russian officials and broadcast by state TV clearly demonstrate no room for compromise with Ukraine. Russian officials cannot renounce the Russian – self-anointed – leadership over Slavic people and engage in talks with Ukraine as an equal power, without an obsession with control over Ukraine.

At the same time, while talks are not expected to work until Russia abandons its imperial aspirations for dominance, military deterrence will. Back in 1946, George Kennan, the American charge d’affaires in Moscow wrote in his long telegram missive:

“[Moscow power] does not take unnecessary risks. Impervious to logic of reason, it is highly sensitive to logic of force. For this reason, it can easily withdraw – and usually does when strong resistance is encountered at any point.”

Little has changed in the current-day politics of Putin.

Understanding Russian logic

Since our previous analysis in April 2021, Russian TV broadcasting and political thinking have morphed significantly – from the fear of NATO coming too close to Russia to the fear that with the development of an independent Ukraine, Russia is losing its status as the “Master of Slavic Peoples.”

Putin’s July 2021 mega-essay on the unity of Russian and Ukrainian peoples was a desperate attempt to deny Ukrainians have their own national identity and state sovereignty.

Russia fears that with a population of 42 million and a land rich in natural resources, an independent Ukraine would undermine the Russian myth of Slavic unity. To their thinking, an autonomous Ukraine would destroy “our Orthodox civilization” which protects them from “the rotten Western civilization,” according to the propagandist messaging on Russian TV political programming.

NATO prepares to attack, says Kremlin propaganda amid record Russian troop buildup at Ukraine border

Russian commentators claim they want to liberate alleged “brotherly Ukrainians” from external US control over Ukraine. Pushing this narrative, they refuse to believe Ukrainians have their own will independent from Moscow, and thus justify military aggression.

In the last months, things have radicalized. Now it is the West, not just “some Ukrainian politicians,” who are suddenly threatening Russia.

The old narrative has to add another twist, and the Ukrainian regime is presented as simply “a tool” of the West.

This development in Russian foreign policy narrative is well documented in reports, such as the most recent (January 2022) “The Kremlin messaging on Ukraine,” by Jakub Kalenský.

Jakub cites Russian officials, including Putin and Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of Russia Dmitry Medvedev, who write that:

“Ukraine is an ‘anti-Russia project’ constructed by ‘Western authors’; and the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us” … Medvediev denounced the leadership of Ukraine as “vassals” with which Moscow should not negotiate at all; and, using crude language, reiterated the claims about Ukraine’s dependence on the West, and the US in particular …

A December 2021 report by Ukrainian NGO Detector Media also highlighted the increased volume of Kremlin propaganda directed at the Ukrainian audience, by analyzing 70,000 social network posts. The main focus of the propaganda was that Ukraine is a failed state with poor management and many domestic woes and that Ukraine is under the external governance of the West which uses Ukraine against Russia.

Both Detector Media and Jakub Kalenský highlight in their reports the shift in Russian propaganda – from a focus on Ukraine as the main anti-Russian provocateur, to the collective West as being anti-Russian-civilization, with which the Russian world should compete.
Russian propaganda about Ukraine has shifted from portraying Ukraine as the main anti-Russia provocateur to a country enslaved by the West that must be liberated Click To Tweet

Ukraine is now being portrayed as a country used and enslaved by the West that, however, is allegedly brotherly to Russians and should be liberated.

Russia pretext invade Ukraine

Russia’s Vesti channel features the Russia-backed self-proclaimed leader of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” who baselessly claims Ukraine is preparing an attack on Donbas. Credit:

The freshest examples of this new track in Russian propaganda are coming from Russian domestic TV. For example, Ihor Markov, a former Ukrainian MP (2012-2014) who is currently wanted in Ukraine for violence against Odesa protesters on 2 September 2007, said:

[Russians need] “to liberate Ukrainians from occupation of foreign agents.”

Markov made this statement on the Russian state-owned Rossiya TV channel on 29 January 2022, during his weekly broadcast “Sunday evening with Vladimir Solovyov,” elaborating further:

When the Red Army was liberating Ukraine in 1944-1945, was it the war against Ukraine? [Now] we go to liberate our people from occupation by foreign agents. Back then there were German agents, in the uniform of the Third Reich, today these are American agents … Our nation [Ukrainians] are in occupation. We have to repeat the deeds of our grandfathers. We don’t have other options.”

The very existence of an independent Ukraine is something alien in Moscow’s view. The myth of east Slavic unity (bred in the 19th century by Russian intellectuals) is now powered by the construct of Russia’s leading role among the Slavs, ostensibly because Russia (alone) was not affected by “rotten” Western influences.

It is easier for Russian leaders to construct a bogeyman of Western rulership over Ukraine than accept the reality that Ukraine is a regular independent state which does not need Russian protectorate.

The Deputy Chair of the Russian State Duma Pyotr Tolstoy, cited by Kalenský, declared:

“There has been no Ukraine for a long time! Donetsk and Luhansk are Russian. And all of Ukraine will be a part of Russia, there will be no Ukraine.”

Russian forces indiscriminately bombed civilian districts in Syria in 2019, killing civilians, including many children during the bombing of schools – one of the most recent Kremlin military crimes. Source: RFE/RL ~

Russian forces indiscriminately bombed civilian districts in Syria in 2019, killing civilians, including many children during the bombing of schools – one of the most recent Kremlin military crimes. Source: RFE/RL

Russia, officially declared as the successor of the USSR, is unable to view itself as just an ordinary state – equal to others – without the illusion that it has a “sphere of influence,” first of all over Ukraine, which it subjugated into a Russian colony for 200 years after bloody massacres of resistors and bitter wars.

The Russian supreme and special role was claimed by the Russian negotiator Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Riabkov, during the meetings of 10-12 January 2022, who stated:

“In the last decades, NATO has been seeking to ‘displace’ our country if not to the role of a subordinate, then at least to the secondary role in European and international politics.”

While Russia’s puppet – self-proclaimed president of Belarus – Alyaksandr Lukashenka, reiterating Putin’s arguments, claimed in January 2022:

We will do everything to take Ukraine back to our faith … If Russia falls, we [Belarusians] will not even notice where we occur, we will be just thrown away. That is why, whatever price it may take, we should protect the center of our civilization which is Russia.

On 29 January 2022, while introducing the topic for a political program on state TV, the moderator Vladimir Solovyov cited Lukashenka saying “Ukrainian authorities, ruled by foreign guidance, behave inadequately.”

He added that Kyiv was allegedly preparing to attack Russian-occupied Donbas because “foreign instructors visit Ukraine, the weapons are supplied from the West.”

On the same program, Russian popular political commentator Sergei Mikheev explained for the Russian audience why it is time for Slavs – headed by Russia – to conduct a “sacred war” against the West. His message, repeated once again, was that he cannot believe Ukrainians have their own will, but thinks they are simply deceived and used by the West “as sheeple”:

“Currently we observe an attempt to destroy Eastern Slavic Orthodox peoples to which Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians belong. This destruction is conducted by the West. First of all by English-speaking nations and their allies … In this situation, contemporary Ukraine is just cannon fodder. You [Ukrainians] are sheeps that should be spurred to war with Russia [by the West] … The western civilization is based on total deception and destruction. This is how they achieved their success.”

The importance of military aid and military deterrence

After the increasingly imperialistic rhetoric by Putin, it would seem that the only solution to the current conflict will be either the end of the Kremlin authoritarian regime or the destruction of Ukraine.

An alternative, however, was proposed by Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba. He stressed that conflict with Russia will end when the West declares “Ukraine is one of us.”

Conflict with Russia will end when West declares “Ukraine is one of us” – Ukraine’s Foreign Minister

History has shown that as soon as Russia faces strong deterrence, it retreats. That was clearly stated in 1946 by George Kennan:

“If the adversary has sufficient force and makes clear his readiness to use it, he rarely has to do so.”

In recent history with the 2014 Russian invasion of Donbas, Putin’s army could have seized half of Ukraine had it been brash enough.

However, Putin expended its military might in Crimea with their soldiers bearing no insignia “little green men,” and was forced to stop any further incursions into Donbas, as soon as Ukrainians undertook a firm resistance. That is why military aid for Ukraine, including security guarantees that the US and the UK promised Ukraine in the Budapest Memorandum, should be applied now, when record military units have built up around Ukraine, to prevent war. The more military aid to Ukraine, the less likely will be the need to use it.

Russian propaganda now shows Ukraine as “enslaved brother,” invasion as “just reclamation” Click To Tweet

Until the Kremlin abandons its imperial worldview, any negotiations with Russia are senseless. For Russia, independent Ukraine is unfathomable, not only because of its vast territory, 42-million population, and rich resources, but because the Kremlin has tried for centuries to portray Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, as the historic center of Slavic peoples; first and foremost the Russians.

The symbolic relevance for Putin should not be underestimated.


Edited by: Sonia Maryn

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