Ukraine: Russian Propaganda Three Weeks In
The Firehose of Falsehoods has been disrupted - but for how long?
In the days and weeks following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia has lost its long-held advantage in information warfare. Tipped off by multiple efforts by governments “pre-bunking” Russian campaigns, Western audiences were mostly able to see through Russia’s firehose of falsehoods. Instead of moving under the cover of Western confusion, Russia met global condemnation and unprecedented economic sanction.
In the retaliation against Russian state-funded media such as RT and Sputnik in the United States and Europe, Russia has lost its most effective and wide-reaching propaganda tools. The firehose has been disrupted—for now.
As Russia’s hopes for a quick and decisive military victory evaporate in the face of stiff Ukrainian resistance, Moscow has shifted its tactics in the information space. In our examination of Russian narratives in the first 24 hours of the invasion, we identified four distinct target audiences whom the Kremlin targeted with tailored narratives:
The domestic Russian audience;
Audiences inside Ukraine;
Audiences in former Soviet republics; and
Audiences in Western Europe and the U.S.
To Russian-speaking audiences at home and around the world, the Kremlin is attempting to maintain a narrative of a justified, narrowly-scoped military operation. Russian-language propaganda channels spread disinformation about supposed Ukrainian war crimes and deny the economic threat posed by Western sanctions.
In a noticeable shift from domestic efforts, Russia has barely covered the Ukrainian invasion in the post-Soviet information space. It’s possible that Russian messaging resources are constrained or that they are purposefully attempting to keep conversation on Ukraine to a minimum. When Russian channels targeting former Soviet republics do cover Ukraine, they concentrate on messages of solidarity in the face of supposed Western aggression.
Inside Ukraine, Russia has almost completely lost the ability to reach Ukrainian audiences. The Ukrainian public has turned to legitimate messaging channels run by the government and newly popular pro-Ukrainian reporters on the ground. Russia’s attempts to hack legitimate channels and seed poorly made deepfakes of Ukrainian leaders have been mitigated by Ukrainian efforts to prime their domestic population to the threat of such tactics.
To the rest of the world, Russia is struggling to retake the information initiative. Perhaps taken aback by the ability of Ukrainian officials to capture international attention, Russia has tried to sow doubt about Ukrainian sources and draw in Western conspiracy communities with claims about military biological weapons laboratories. In an attempt to disrupt the flow of painful economic sanctions, Russia’s messaging attempts to highlight their impact on Western economies.
Three weeks on, Russia has struggled to regain the initiative both in the information space and on the battlefield. While for now Moscow maintains control of the narrative domestically, there are signs this is slipping. As the war drags on and Russian casualties mount, the Kremlin faces a very dangerous combination of economic ruin and angry mothers of missing Russian soldiers.
Despite new laws and strong statements from Russian President Vladimir Putin seeking to suppress anti-war activism, activists have been able to organize, and there is a small but significant cohort of celebrities and influencers challenging the Kremlin’s line. Is this enough to disrupt the domestic propaganda system the Kremlin has built? Only time will tell.