The Detector Media team analysed about 100,000 posts in the Russian and Ukrainian segments of Telegram and identified the main theses that Russia used to justify its actions in Ukraine.
During the full-scale Russian invasion, Detector Media has been systematically investigating Russian disinformation in the Ukrainian and Russian segments of social media. It has identified various Russian disinformation messages that, in one way or another, justify Russia's actions in Ukraine. These include the same "denazification" that the Russian propaganda machine used to justify the war in the first days of the full-scale invasion, as well as other allegedly benevolent intentions and goals behind the killing of thousands of Ukrainians. The team studied the Ukrainian and Russian segments of Telegram and identified the main messages that Russia used to justify its actions during the twelve months of the full-scale invasion, starting from 24 February 2022. We also describe how Russian arguments have changed over the year of the full-scale war.
The study was conducted by a team of researchers consisting of Oleksii Pivtorak, Lesia Bidochko, Ira Riaboshtan, Orest Slyvenko, and Olha Bilousenko.
Читайте українською тут.
On 24 February 2022, Russia declared a full-scale invasion of Ukraine but refrained from calling it a war, instead terming it as a special military operation. In order to justify this aggression, Russian President Vladimir Putin relied on long-standing concepts that had been propagated by Russian propaganda for years. These included claims that Ukraine was created by Lenin and that its present leadership consists of corrupt officials and Nazi sympathisers who have pushed the country to the brink of financial ruin. Putin further contended that Ukraine is dependent on Russia's benevolence to survive.
The full-scale invasion was likely designed to be a swift and decisive victory for Russia. However, as the conflict has now entered its second year, it is evident that the Russian army has failed to achieve any of its objectives. Russia has been unable to secure international recognition of the annexation of territories it has occupied, nor has it succeeded in winning favour for its rule among Ukraine's leaders or in halting Ukraine's plans to join the European Union and NATO. In fact, a study conducted by the Institute for Cognitive Modelling, the Social Monitoring Centre, and the First Rating System agency in the initial weeks after the invasion revealed that over three-quarters of Ukrainians were confident in their ability to defeat Russia, with more than half of respondents stating they were willing to endure months of hardships to see the Russians defeated. A year after the full-scale invasion, more than 90% of Ukrainians remain steadfast in their belief that Ukraine will ultimately emerge victorious.
The Detector Media team has been consistently covering the Russian invasion with a focus on how the war is being portrayed in the media. Moreover, the team regularly publishes news and analytical pieces that shed light on how Russian propagandists are utilising traditional and social media to influence the resolve of Ukrainians to continue fighting and the support from Ukraine's allies.
In this text, we will primarily concentrate on the purported justifications for the invasion that Russia articulated throughout the year-long war, which it had initially hoped would culminate in the "capture of Kyiv in three days."
The research conducted by Detector Media involved analyzing more than 99,000 posts from 1,255 Telegram channels in the Ukrainian and Russian segments of Telegram, as provided by LetsData. For the purposes of this study, the Ukrainian and Russian segments were defined as comprising posts from profiles, pages, groups, and channels that were located within Ukraine and Russia, respectively, or those that indicated their location as being in Ukraine or Russia.
Research period: 14 January 2022 - 8 February 2023.
Read more about the methodology for obtaining and processing data here.
Chronology of messages
Even before the start of the full-scale invasion, Russian propaganda had already crafted a significant number of narratives that were subsequently used to justify the conflict. Many of these narratives have been in circulation since 2014. With a vast arsenal of arguments at its disposal, Russian propaganda attempted to juggle a variety of justifications for the war, depending on the circumstances of the situation at hand. These narratives generally fall within four broad categories: historical, political, military, and economic arguments, all of which were employed to legitimise Russia's attempt to upend the existing world order and extend its influence in Ukraine.
The historical arguments developed before the full-scale invasion include the following:
- The belief that Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians are a single people, and therefore the war in Ukraine is a domestic conflict within the larger Russian nation.
- Claims that either Russia or the Soviet Union created Ukraine.
- Accusations that Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, thereby associating them and their national heroes with Nazi ideology.
- The assertion that Crimea was made a part of Ukraine by accident and that the Russian annexation of Crimea was a civilised and democratic process carried out through a referendum.
- Accusations of portraying Russia as an aggressor in World War II instead of a victim.
- Claims that Ukrainians are severing their cultural ties with Russia.
The historical arguments propagated by Russian propaganda serve to reinforce the notion that Russia has a legitimate historical right to treat Ukraine as a colony and to use force to prevent the country from breaking away from Russia's sphere of influence.
Russian propaganda has also put forward a number of political arguments to legitimise its military aggression, including:
- The assertion that the 2014 Revolution of Dignity was a coup d'état orchestrated by Ukrainian nationalists.
- Claims that the Ukrainian government is under the control of nationalists and Nazis.
- The belief that Ukrainian nationalists are motivated by a desire to destroy Russians.
- Accusations that the EU and NATO are seeking to undermine Russia and that the accession of states from the former socialist camp is a threat to Russian interests.
- The contention that anyone who supports Ukraine, including the UN, the EU, and NATO, is a Nazi or Russophobe.
- Suggestions that Ukrainians are eagerly waiting for Russia to intervene and release them from the supposed tyranny of their own government.
Russian propaganda has also employed a number of military arguments to legitimise its aggression, including:
- The belief that no one will challenge a nuclear power like Russia.
- Claims that the Ukrainian military has systematically targeted and killed Russian-speaking representatives of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk "people's republics."
- Accusations that evidence of Russian war crimes has been staged or fabricated.
- Suggestions that Ukraine is actively pursuing the development of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.
The economic arguments are as follows:
- The existence of an independent Ukraine is only possible thanks to concessions and benefits from Russia;
- Countries around the world are too dependent on Russian energy and mineral resources to dare to engage in a military confrontation with Russia.
After the beginning full-scale invasion of Ukraine, political arguments saw the most increase in the variety of narratives. These narratives were primarily introduced to rationalize the invasion of Ukraine, galvanize its supporters, and silence its detractors. Consequently, several new political arguments were incorporated after the 24th of February, including:
- Labelling all Russians who do not espouse the invasion of Ukraine as traitors;
- Arguing that the denazification of Ukraine is the only plausible solution, as the Nazis are posing a significant threat to Russia while simultaneously mocking the Russian nation;
- Stipulating that a substantial number of Ukrainians are culpable for the rise of the Nazis to power and, therefore, merit punishment;
- Accusing NATO of instigating military conflicts against Russia with the help of other nations.
Posts on Telegram Containing Narratives Hostile to Ukraine
Click a red dot to find out more about key topics of posts on each of the peak days
Analysed by Detector Media using information from LetsData. The data set analysed includes posts from 1255 Telegram channels created between January 14th, 2022 and February 8th, 2023, with a focus on publications from Telegram channels belonging to both the Russian and Ukrainian segments of the social network.
The justifications for Russia's aggression against Ukraine are presented in a varied manner, often depending on the current information pretext and the need to direct or divert attention towards events that serve Russian propaganda's objectives.
In February 2022, the Russian propaganda machine portrayed Russia as an exorcist of sorts, framing its actions as a "demilitarisation" and "denazification" of Ukraine. This motif was heavily utilised in the propaganda campaign, with the usage of these terms reaching a peak in the first six months of the conflict.
Throughout our observation period, the use of other arguments, including the protection of Russian speakers and residents of Donbas, Ukraine's alleged provocation of Russia, the supposed benefits for Europe, and the fight against Russophobia, exhibited a relatively stable frequency and dynamics.
Agitprop, or propaganda designed to agitate, frequently emphasises that Russia's aggression is not directed towards Ukraine but rather towards NATO. This message persists in the media landscape, especially preceding significant events such as the Victory Day celebrations on May 9th, the NATO summit in Madrid in June 2022, and President Zelenskyy's visit to the United States in December 2022.
Russia also employs cultural arguments to justify its military action, including objections to the decommunisation of Ukraine, alleged "rewriting of history," and the desacralisation of Russian-Soviet monuments. Essentially, Russia is incensed by these actions taken by Ukraine and believes they must be stopped. Propaganda promoting these messages is most commonly circulated during periods of information lull.
The most pronounced instances of denial of Russian war crimes in Ukraine were observed during three peak periods: April-May, August-September, and November 2022. Significantly, these were periods during which the Ukrainian army was liberating the territories occupied by Russia.
Ukraine's alleged use of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, or a "dirty bomb", is often highlighted by Russia as a diversionary tactic meant to deflect attention from Russian actions. For instance, reports of the threat of a "dirty bomb" resurfaced in the media landscape in October 2022, during the crisis around the Zaporizhia NPP, which was created by Russia. This involved the shutdown of its power units, the blocking of the IAEA mission's work, and the deployment of a military contingent at the plant.
The increased use of arguments about "pumping Ukraine with weapons" coincides with successful counter-offensives by the Ukrainian army. This topic first gained traction in April 2022 when the Ukrainian army pushed Russian forces out of the Kyiv region. The message is also promoted in response to military aid packages to Ukraine, with the "tank coalition" and "fighter jet initiative" being some of the most recent examples (January-February 2022).
The Kremlin's eight-year-long propaganda rehearsals before the full-scale war have not gone in vain. Aggressive anti-Western rhetoric and a long-term information campaign against Ukraine have become essential pillars in justifying the invasion. However, it appears that the new terms and meanings that the Kremlin attempted to attach to the aggression did not result in a significant increase in support, as was seen during the Crimean campaign in 2014. In the sections that follow, we provide a detailed analysis and explanation of how Russia's main justification messages function.
Russia's Primary Propaganda Messages Used to Rationalize the War in Ukraine
The Russian propaganda machine presents a simplified, black-and-white worldview to its audience, where there are clearly defined enemies and friends. According to this narrative, the enemies are solely responsible for carrying out harmful actions intended to undermine Russia and its allies. This model of reality, rooted in the propaganda of the early years of the USSR and the Cold War, was adopted by Russia, the successor state to the Soviet Union. By dividing the world into "us" and "them," it is possible to create an impression of the ugliness and immorality of the actions of opponents, making it easily accessible to the audience while also increasing the attractiveness of one's point of view. Consequently, even cruel actions taken against opponents can be perceived as a just and noble course of action by the consumers of such propaganda.
"Demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine"
In order to justify its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has been actively propagating a myth since 2014 that the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity, which culminated in the flight of President Viktor Yanukovych and his entourage, was, in fact, a "coup d'état." This narrative contends that the so-called coup was not supported by the residents of Crimea, eastern and southern Ukraine, thereby leading to a divide in Ukrainian society. According to this story, there were those who did not accept the supposed coup and instead supported those Ukrainian leaders who fled to Russia in February 2014. Conversely, others are portrayed as nationalists, representing the government of Ukraine and hailing from western regions of the country. In effect, Russian propaganda has divided Ukrainian society into "friends" and "foes."
Since 2014, Russian propaganda has dedicated considerable effort towards promoting the belief that there are Nazis among Ukrainians. In order to achieve this, the propaganda machine has exaggerated the importance of nationalist views in Ukrainian society and propagated the perception of Ukrainian nationalists as individuals who share the same views as those of Nazi Germany and who mock supporters of Russia. Accordingly, propagandists have sought to establish the idea that such individuals should be stripped of the ability to fight, i.e. "demilitarised." Thanks to the relentless efforts of the Russian propaganda machine, the narrative about Ukrainian Nazis has transcended the boundaries of Ukrainian and Russian media landscapes. In fact, Detector Media's analysts have documented this narrative while researching disinformation in Central and Eastern Europe.
During the course of this research study, analysts noted a number of messages on Russian and pro-Russian Telegram channels that illustrate the extent of the propaganda machine's influence. For example, a message from February 17th, just a week before the Russian invasion, was discovered on a pro-Russian Telegram channel, stating: "The battle between Russia and the world fascists cannot be avoided! But we will win!" These types of messages were widely used in the run-up to and during the initial days of the full-scale invasion, with the aim of mobilising Russian supporters to rally behind the "victorious war".
Over the 12 months of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the terms "demilitarisation" and "denazification" underwent a significant shift in meaning. Prior to the invasion, these terms were used to differentiate between Russia's invasion of Ukraine and any possible occupation of Ukrainian territory. In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to these terms in a speech announcing the invasion, stating, "I have decided to conduct a special military operation. Its purpose is to protect people who have been subjected to abuse and genocide by the Kyiv regime for eight years. And to do this, we will strive to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine. We will also bring to justice those who committed numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including Russian citizens. At the same time, our plans do not include the occupation of Ukrainian territories."
A telling quote from Russian Presidential Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov exposed the true intentions behind the use of the terms "demilitarisation" and "denazification." Following the failure of Russian forces to take Kyiv in just three days, Peskov made the following revealing statement on February 27th: "Ideally, we need to liberate Ukraine, to clear it of Nazis."
The Russian propaganda machine was intent on "denazifying" the entire Ukrainian population at any cost. Initially, the Russians had used the terms "denazification and demilitarisation" as demands in peace talks, along with the rejection of NATO integration and claim to the occupied Crimea, and the recognition of Russian as a second official language in Ukraine. However, as Russian forces were pushed out of the Kyiv region and their war crimes became known, the Russians began to shift their approach. They began talking about the lack of alternatives to the "denazification of Ukraine" on the battlefield, implying a more violent and forceful approach. For example, in early April, Dmitry Medvedev was quoted in Telegram channels, stating that "these complex tasks cannot be completed overnight. And they will be solved not only on the battlefields. Changing the bloodthirsty and myth-ridden consciousness of some of today's Ukrainians is the most important goal. Our goal is for the peace of mind of future generations of Ukrainians and the opportunity to finally build an open Eurasia from Lisbon to Vladivostok."
The denazification thesis promoted by the Russian propaganda machine served to justify the occupation of Ukraine, following the model used by the Allies in Germany after World War II. According to this vision, Ukraine needed to be purified of any perceived Nazi views, as defined by Russian propaganda.
This vision was further reinforced by an article published on the website of the pro-government Russian media outlet RIA Novosti, written by Russian political strategist Timofei Sergeev. In the article, Sergeev claimed that the spread of Nazism in Ukraine was "the fault of a significant part of the people who are passive Nazis." This statement implies that only when the Russian state controls the territory of Ukraine and its government can denazification truly be carried out.
Despite the diminishing chances of a Russian military victory, the thesis of "demilitarisation and denazification" of Ukraine continues to be promoted by Russian and pro-Russian media today. However, it increasingly resembles a concept of an unattainable future utopia once promoted by Soviet propaganda.
In reality, by using denazification as a justification for its invasion, Russia is attempting to distort the truth and shift responsibility for its own crimes onto Ukraine. The propaganda machine claims that Russia had to fight in Ukraine due to so-called atrocities committed by Ukrainians in the Donbas and other purported manifestations of Nazism. This is a false and baseless narrative designed to legitimise Russian aggression and occupation of Ukrainian territory.
"Russia must fight the Russophobic West in Ukraine"
Prior to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian authorities perceived the accession of former Soviet or Soviet-bloc states to NATO as a threat to their security. This was exacerbated by Ukraine's course towards EU integration and NATO membership. Russian propaganda used the provision of assistance to Ukraine by NATO member states as an argument that Russia was fighting not only against "Ukrainian Nazis" but also against its traditional adversaries – NATO, Western countries, and the United States. This propaganda sought to justify the prolonged military campaign in Ukraine to the Russian audience and regularly disseminated fakes and manipulations about the war with NATO throughout the 12 months of the conflict.
Russian and pro-Russian media outlets sought to prepare their audiences for the idea that Ukraine was under "external control" by the West, implying that Ukraine had lost its agency in the international arena. Consequently, any armed hostilities on Ukrainian territory could only end when the Western states or NATO were defeated.
Amidst the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, emphasised the importance of ending the conflict in an article titled "The Collapse of the Unipolar World", which was later shared on social media. He argued that NATO's expansion eastward poses a threat to Russia's security because the alliance is a remnant of the Cold War and was created to counter Russia.
The narrative that Western states are planning to confront Russia has been a recurring theme in Russian propaganda during the first year of the full-scale war in Ukraine. This narrative is used to justify the invasion and is repeated by various speakers. For instance, in early June, it was circulated in a Telegram channel with reference to the words of the leader of the Russian Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, who claimed that the "Banderite scum" in Ukraine is led by representatives of the United States.
By promoting the idea of Russophobia, Russian propaganda is trying to portray Russia as a peace-loving country that is being unfairly targeted by states and international organisations that it finds beneficial to label as enemies.
"Saving Ukrainians and the Civil War within the Russian People"
At the start of the invasion, the Russian president appealed to ordinary Ukrainians and the military, urging them to side with Russia instead of following the supposed orders of "nationalists and Banderites" who had seized power in Ukraine. The propaganda narrative portrayed the Ukrainian people as victims of both the nationalists and Western powers, from whom Russia had come to rescue them. However, this message had limited success, and by the end of February 2022, the propaganda machine switched to other tactics. Russian Telegram channels began urging Ukrainian military personnel to stop obeying their superiors and surrender to the Russian forces. At the same time, civilians were encouraged not to cooperate with the Ukrainian military in order to avoid aiding the supposed "Nazis". The channels disseminated both real and fake evidence of Ukrainians supporting the Russian cause. This served to both convince Ukrainians that supporting Russia was the right choice and to assure Russians that they were welcome in Ukraine. One message from a propaganda Telegram channel read: "Russians came for the sake of other Russians. And everyone there understands perfectly well that 'we are coming home'... We are not 'the people of Donetsk, Crimea, Lipetsk and Kuban'. We are Russians."
The Russian propaganda machine frequently uses concern for civilians, whether Ukrainian or Russian, as a justification for their military actions or to explain military failures. This allows them to soften any reports of battlefield setbacks and frame their actions as noble and necessary for the prosperity and peace of both Ukrainians and Russians. For example, the slowdown in the offensive at the end of August 2022 was called by anonymous Telegram channels "a conscious decision driven by the desire to minimise civilian casualties". However, this narrative conveniently omits the tens of thousands of people who have suffered as a result of the war in Ukraine. Despite more than 9,000 civilians being killed in Ukraine during the year of the war, including 461 children, according to the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, Russian propaganda often blames the Ukrainian military for placing firing positions near civilian areas, or suggests that any civilian casualties are the result of Ukrainian provocations. This propaganda machine glosses over the harsh reality of the war, where Russian missiles regularly hit residential buildings and shopping centres, and civilians continue to suffer as a result.
Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian authorities used the label of "Russophobia" to describe any actions taken by states that were formerly part of the Russian Empire or the USSR to protect languages other than Russian or to defend themselves against Russian military aggression. Any such actions are immediately condemned in the Russian media as examples of Russophobia or mockery of Russians and Russian speakers.
"Russophobia and fascism of the dwarf "elites" of the Baltic extinctions are contagious," wrote one of the anonymous Telegram channels broadcasting pro-Russian rhetoric. By labelling their actions as "Russophobic" or fascist, pro-Russian rhetoric seeks to stir up hostility towards these countries and prepare the justification for the use of force against them.
"In Kyiv, they are going to rename the street of Soviet General Tupikov, who died near Poltava, in honour of one of the leaders of the OUN, Andriy Melnyk. It was Melnyk's men who made up the majority of the punishers of the so-called Bukovyna Kurin, which was particularly 'distinguished' during the extermination of Kyiv Jews in Babyn Yar," one of the Telegram channels posted.
Russian propaganda used the protection of Russian speakers, whom they equate to ethnic Russians, as one of the justifications for Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Propagandists often talked about the suffering of residents in the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions before and after 24 February 2022, blaming Ukrainian troops for shelling these areas. By frequently repeating these messages and emphasising Ukrainian blame, a further invasion of Ukraine could seem like a humane step to save the victims of violence and Russophobia. Children in these regions were used as sacrificial symbols to generate sympathy and justify Russia's actions.
Russian propaganda has long used the concept of Russophobia to shift blame for its own actions and create a sense of victimhood among its population. Labelling any actions that restrict Russia's interests as Russophobic, it creates a distorted reality where Russia is defending itself against hostile forces. This message is used to justify its aggression towards Ukraine and other neighbouring countries, as well as to oppose any international institutions that condemn its actions. Even sanctions imposed by Western countries as a response to its armed aggression are portrayed as a result of Russophobia. In this reality, the victim is no longer Ukraine or other countries affected by Russia's actions but Russia itself, fighting against those who allegedly seek to harm it.
"Russia is fighting to prevent Ukraine from existing"
"This Ukraine should not exist, and we will do everything to make sure that it does not exist," exclaimed one of the representatives of the Russian propaganda media, RT Russia. From the onset of the full-scale war, the Russian propaganda machine promised a swift victory and loyalty of Ukrainians to Russia. However, when these promises went unfulfilled, the propaganda rhetoric shifted to the idea of the collective responsibility of Ukrainians for neglecting the needs of Russians. In early April, Russian political strategist, Timofey Sergeev, published an article on the RIA Novosti website, where he suggested destroying everything that makes Ukrainians Ukrainian and exterminating those who cannot be broken and subdued. In his opinion, the existence of Ukraine should be denied, as "history has shown the impossibility of statehood in Ukraine."
Sergeev was not the only one who advocated for the destruction of Ukrainians and Ukraine. For example, Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of the Russian Security Council, questioned whether "in two years' time Ukraine will even exist on the world map".
The extreme rhetoric of advocating for the destruction of Ukraine and Ukrainians satisfies the ambitions of those who hope for the restoration of the Russian Empire and gives a false sense of victory in the war. By claiming that Ukraine is an "artificially created state" and denying its existence, Russia seeks to discredit and delegitimise Ukraine as a nation. Furthermore, by painting Ukrainians as violent and uncontrollable, Russia attempts to justify its aggression as a necessary step to save the world from the threat of Ukraine. This messaging not only seeks to justify the invasion but also serves to perpetuate the myth of a noble Russia fighting against its enemies while ignoring the suffering of thousands of innocent civilians caught in the middle of a brutal conflict.
"Russia is at war because Ukraine has occupied Russian territories"
For several years now, Russian propaganda has been promoting the idea that certain Ukrainian territories historically belonged to Russia. With the outbreak of the full-scale war, this notion was reiterated by Russian President Putin in his address on 23 February, just hours before the invasion of Ukraine. Putin called our country "Ukraine named after Vladimir Ilyich Lenin". In his view, Ukraine was created by the Soviet Union with the Communist Party at its head. Therefore, Russia, as the successor to the USSR, can allegedly claim its own territories as having been seized by Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They claim that Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, or even Kharkiv and Kherson regions have always been Russian and that Russians live there. Russian propaganda also claimed that all Ukrainians, especially people from Luhansk and Donetsk regions, had willingly chosen to join Russia.
For example, during our study, we encountered the following posts: "Some colleagues are concerned about whether Russia will build a separate, beautiful, friendly Ukraine on the Russian lands liberated from Ukrainian occupation.” These posts show how propaganda benefits from the defense of "primordially Russian" territories, as it makes Russians believe in the righteousness of Putin's actions. This helps to manipulate the consciousness of Russians, portraying Russia as a "safe haven" of peace and security, thus legitimizing the annexation of Ukrainian territories and the staging of fake referendums. Putin's actions are portrayed as restoring historical justice and protecting Russians from Ukraine rather than waging a bloody war. The annexation is justified as Russia allegedly not taking anything that is not its own but simply returning the lands and bringing "Russians" back home.
"Russia is at war because Ukrainians are distorting history"
"Ukrainians are cleansing history by tearing down monuments to prominent Russian people!" This is what propagandists claim in response to Ukraine's desire for decommunisation. Allegedly, Ukrainians are destroying their history and cultural values and turning into barbarians. Most of the messages in the sample are aimed at calling on Ukrainians "not to forget their history" and not to try to "rewrite it".
"The Soviet army will forever go down in history not as liberators and winners, but as 'occupiers' on a par with Nazi Germany. In the history of the Second World War, only the United States and Britain will be the winners – this is what Western political technologists are trying to achieve," one Telegram channel posted.
Russia is using this message to create the impression that the legacy of the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire in Ukraine is being destroyed and to turn even those Russians who doubt the justification for the invasion of Ukraine against Ukrainians. This message is intended to serve as further evidence for those who already support the war that it should continue. Additionally, by spreading this message to Western audiences, Russia seeks to create an image of Ukraine as a barbaric nation that does not respect its history, making it appear inferior. By doing so, Russia blurs the lines and attempts to establish that such a state has no right to exist and, therefore, it should not be sympathised with.
"Russia is fighting for the right church, saving it"
Russian propaganda uses the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) as a tool to further its propaganda. The Russian propaganda machine is positioning the UOC-MP as the only true and legitimate Orthodox church in Ukraine. After the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was granted autocephaly by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, Russian propaganda started referring to Ukrainians as schismatics, claiming that the new church was fake and illegal and that its followers were not true Orthodox believers. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church topic has become more sensitive after the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine imposed sanctions on the UOC-MP, terminated the lease of part of the Kyiv Cave Monastery, and launched a series of searches and criminal cases against priests. Russian propaganda sees these actions as illegal, ignoring the fact that they have no right to interfere in the affairs of a sovereign state. Propaganda claims that Ukraine is becoming a pagan state and destroying Orthodox shrines, trying to convince its audience that Ukraine's actions contradict religious canons. With this message, propaganda seeks to mobilize and arm supporters, adding them to adherents of other arguments for the invasion of Ukraine. For example, some Telegram channels use phrases like "They came to rob our Slavic Orthodox people. Disgusting green [referring to the colour of Zelenskyy’s party] bastards, the bedfellows of oligarch Benia [Ihor Kolomoyskyi] and the external administration".
"Russia is at war against LGBT and non-traditional values"
Russia has also utilised the narrative of protecting traditional values in its justification for aggression. This narrative is common in Russian media and highlights the perceived threat of non-traditional values spreading across the world. The Russian government's stance on homosexuality is well-known, as evidenced by the introduction of a law against the so-called propaganda of homosexuality and public statements by Russian officials. Therefore, anything that contradicts traditional values is condemned as harmful. By promoting the notion of protecting traditional values, the Russian leadership justifies its aggression against Ukraine and positions itself as a defender of these values, claiming to defend Russian children from alleged “degradation”. Additionally, Russian propaganda uses disinformation about the LGBTQ+ community to discredit Ukraine, Western countries, and major institutions such as NATO and the EU. This further fuels the anti-Western sentiment in Russia and strengthens the narrative that Russia is fighting to preserve its values against the supposed threats of the West.
However, "LGBTisation" is of the greatest concern to representatives of Russian propaganda, who claim that "LGBT people are about to come to Russia" and that they need to put up some kind of resistance, to protect our lands from a terrible invasion. "If you return to Russia, you should expect protection of cultural heritage, language and traditional values: we want to stop LGBT propaganda, to be able to be ourselves," reads one of the posts identified in the study.
Russian propaganda claims that Ukraine is being infiltrated by LGBT individuals and needs protection from this. This message creates a reality where Ukraine, supposedly overrun by "decadent Western values" that promote LGBT culture, needs Russian protection. The propaganda manipulates the topic of so-called traditional values to create the impression that Russia is the defender of morality, culture, and national identity and that Ukraine is threatened by Western degeneracy. For more information on how Russia employs LGBT disinformation, see Detector Media's research.
"Russia attacked because it was provoked"
"NATO provoked Russia"
In the course of the study, the team came across posts claiming that NATO was constantly provoking Russia to invade by its policy of eastward expansion. The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was allegedly assured that NATO would not expand further east after the reunification of Germany in 1990. The fact is that these "assurances" were not enshrined in any document, and if they were given, they were given before the fall of the Berlin Wall, meaning that they were more likely to apply to East Germany than to the territory east of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany, which has been in NATO since 1955). Furthermore, the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997 does not prohibit the deployment of permanent NATO bases in Eastern Europe.
Since the collapse of the USSR, 11 Eastern European states and three former Soviet republics have become members of the Alliance. Russia was very concerned about NATO's expansion. However, Putin, when he became president in 2000, did not rule out Russia's membership in NATO. But as time went on, Putin's regime became more authoritarian, and his paranoid sense of a fictitious threat from the West postulated NATO as an insidious enemy that was creeping closer to Russia's borders. However, this argument lacks validity because no one was going to attack Russia. Indeed, in the Strategic Concept adopted by Allies at the Madrid Summit in July 2022, Russia was recognised as NATO's "most significant and direct threat". But the organisation took this step only six months after Russia's full-scale invasion, not before. It turns out that with its aggression, Russia is provoking NATO to engage in the conflict, not the other way around.
In addition, in an attempt to justify the war, Russia promoted the message that Ukraine's aspirations to join NATO were a direct threat to Russia's security. However, Ukraine's membership in any international organisation is the choice of Ukraine and its people, not the imposed will of third parties. Ukraine, in deciding whether or not to pursue membership, weighs the benefits and drawbacks based solely on its own interests and is under no obligation to consider the position of the Kremlin.
"It is not Russia that prolongs the war in Ukraine, but the West, which is pumping Ukraine with weapons"
Without the supply of weapons to Ukraine, the "special military operation" would have ended long ago; the supplies do not contribute to the settlement of the conflict, but only further fuel it, Russian propaganda assures. At the same time, they ignore that Ukraine is only defending its territory from the aggressor and that Western allies are helping to regain what it has lost, not to seize what had not been theirs. The purpose of such statements is to divert attention and blame the West for providing unwarranted support to Ukraine. "Everyone has been supplying Ukraine with weapons. We are finding ammunition with the markings of Poland, Germany, Sweden, the United States, and Bulgaria," pro-Russian Telegram channels said.
Today, Russia has become the primary supplier of weapons to Ukraine, even surpassing the massive supplies from the West during the ongoing full-scale invasion. Despite being labelled as a "regrouping" or a "goodwill gesture", the hundreds of captured tanks, over a thousand armoured vehicles, and several hundred artillery systems that appeared in Ukraine are a result of Russia's military involvement. In terms of military "assistance" to Ukraine, Russia has overtaken its Western allies.
The hypocrisy of Russia's outrage at the West's military assistance to Ukraine is highlighted by its own actions in militarising the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk. For years, the Kremlin sent so-called "humanitarian convoys" to these territories, which were used to supply illegal armed groups with weapons. In addition, Russia conveniently ignores its own purchases of military equipment from countries such as Iran and North Korea, as well as its current negotiations with China for non-lethal military aid.
In addition, Russian propaganda seizes every opportunity to pick up on any critical comments made by individual Western politicians (such as from the US Republican wing) about supporting Ukraine and their speculative statements about the resale of Western weapons on the black market. "When the Republicans come to power in the United States and start checking the allocated financial and military aid to Ukraine, which has been ending up in "pockets" and the "black market". The signal that Congresswoman Victoria Spartz is voting against the allocation of aid to Ukraine is another public call to Zelenskyy/Yermak," read a post on one of the pro-Russian Telegram channels. Congresswoman Victoria Spartz is doing Russian propaganda a favour. While there is no hard evidence of this, such rhetoric aligns with Russia's narrative and casts a shadow over Ukraine's legitimacy, making some political parties hesitant to support Kyiv.
"Russia is fighting to prevent Ukraine from using chemical/biological/nuclear weapons"
Russia accuses Ukraine of developing biological weapons in secret laboratories run by the United States. It cites this as one of the reasons for the invasion. This conspiracy theory is being spread by propagandists of all kinds. In this year's address to the Federal Assembly, Putin also emphasises this: "We also remember the Kyiv regime's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. The United States and NATO deployed their bases and secret bio labs [near Russia's borders] and prepared Ukraine, which they enslaved, for war."
These accusations have been made for years, with the Russians blaming Viktor Yushchenko for the situation. This rhetoric has only intensified since the start of the full-scale invasion, and it has gained popularity among far-right groups in the United States, including conspiracy theorists such as QAnon. By inventing new problems, Russian propaganda diverts attention from the real issues that need to be addressed while also trying to undermine Ukraine's international credibility. These baseless accusations are designed to reduce trust in the country and justify Russia's aggression. According to this narrative, Ukraine is allegedly dangerous to the world, and Russia had to intervene to prevent a global disaster. However, these claims are not supported by facts and are used as a tool to manipulate public opinion and justify Russia's actions.
One of the reasons for the spread of these messages is that Ukraine, like many countries around the world, is working on researching pathogens (including Covid-19) and looking for ways to save humanity. Russia has not provided any direct evidence of Ukrainian violations in this area. Instead, when Russia was part of the Soviet Union, it controlled a powerful biological weapons programme within the Biopreparat enterprise. Furthermore, the UN representatives found no evidence of biological weapons in Ukraine or the development of such weapons, admitting that these were rumours deliberately spread by Russian propaganda.
According to the propaganda, the Ukrainian military is allegedly preparing to use chemical weapons. This is a typical mirroring tactic, which involves bringing the same accusations against Ukraine as those against Russia (mirroring the actions of the opponent). The main purpose of the mirroring tactic is to divert attention from the subject of discussion or change the direction of the discussion. In English-language sources, it is called Whataboutism, as a derivative of the expression “what about”. Russia itself has repeatedly used chemical weapons in Ukraine (K-51 aerosol grenades), Syria (sarin), and the UK (Novichok), although Kremlin propaganda claims otherwise.
Russia and Ukraine are signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Russian propaganda accuses Ukraine of possessing chemical weapons in order to create a pretext for its own chemical weapons attack. The Kremlin's propaganda machine also levels accusations against the British and French intelligence services, claiming that they orchestrated a fictionalised attempt by the Ukrainian army to seize the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
Through all these messages, Russian propaganda seeks to justify and explain Russia's actions on the territory of Ukraine. For example, with the message of so-called provocations to war by Ukraine or NATO, the Russian propaganda machine creates its own reality, in which Russia appears to be a hostage of circumstances and, to some extent, a victim. In the propaganda-constructed reality, Russia is no longer an aggressor that attacks another sovereign state, violates the integrity of its borders, kills civilians, and destroys cities and villages, but rather a state that is allegedly forced to defend itself.
Russian propaganda repeats the message that if Russia had not started the war, things could have only gotten worse. However, the propagandists do not specify what exactly would have happened but only replicate stories about an alleged conspiracy against Russia by the United States and Ukraine, bio labs, dirty bombs, the terrifying NATO, and so on.
By using these so-called justification messages, Russia also tries to portray itself as a peacemaker that seeks peace in the world and not an entity that is keen on starting wars and killing people.
Russia also uses disinformation messages to promote the idea that if there are killings and casualties, they are for the best because they are necessary for imaginary noble goals, such as liberating the world from Ukrainian Nazis, the "perverted" EU and NATO, preserving Russian culture, etc.
The use of disinformation serves as a tool for Russian propaganda to create an alternative reality in which the aggressor becomes a victim, and the victims become the oppressors.. Using all the messages outlined in the study, Russia seeks to convince the world that it is right and to win over societies in different countries, particularly in the West, to its side. That is why, for example, Russian propaganda machine uses the narrative of Ukrainian Nazis in the media landscapes of dozens of countries to convince people that Ukrainians are dangerous and need to be fought. Meanwhile, Russia appears to be the country ready to wage this fight. Such disinformation is dangerous because it blurs the lines and normalises Russia's actions, framing them as acceptable. The propagandists claim that while Russia may have initiated the conflict, it had no other option but to act in this way.
Russian disinformation is a tool that Russia consistently employs to advance its geopolitical objectives, not just to justify military aggression. Extensive research indicates that Russian disinformation has a significant impact on European societies. According to a study conducted by Princeton University in the United States on Trends in Online Foreign Influence Efforts, Russia is a dominant player in the use of disinformation for influence campaigns on the internet. The study found that Russia is responsible for 62% of such influence efforts in the internal affairs of other countries, making it a global leader in the field.