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After the outbreak of the full-scale invasion in 2022, we saw that Putin’s aggression was having a profound impact on the media landscape in Russia. One key question that arose was the nature of the messaging being used by Kremlin propagandists to justify the failures and exaggerate the victories of the Russian army. Furthermore, it was important to understand how the focus and direction of propaganda changed over time in response to the evolving situation on the front lines.

In light of the military setbacks in Ukraine, the Kremlin has capitalized on these events to tighten its grip on society through internal terror and control. In the aftermath of defeats in Kharkiv and the retreat from Kherson, political and military news and analysis in Russia virtually vanished, replaced instead with carefully crafted propaganda. Rather than attempting to justify the ambiguous political objectives of the “special military operation”, the Russian people have been told that they are “liberators” with the right to plunder and kill Ukrainians. However, they are also expected to sacrifice their lives for “Russia,” follow the authorities’ orders without question, and believe in Putin’s infallibility. This message bears a striking resemblance to the propaganda disseminated by Germany during the period from 1939 to 1945.

Given the circumstances, it’s crucial that we deconstruct these narratives and examine why certain individuals receive more coverage while others are given less attention. It’s also important to consider the new explanations being disseminated regarding the causes and consequences of the war and how these narratives are influencing the perceptions of Russians.

Prominent Figures in Propaganda

An intriguing starting point is the quantitative analysis of the primary Russian media reports, including those from central TV channels and websites favored by the Kremlin, which has yielded some noteworthy insights.

Semantrum’s data reveals that Vladimir Putin remains the most frequently mentioned leader, with over 12,000 news items and stories in February alone. With that said, it’s worth exploring the primary themes of the Kremlin leader’s messaging:

  • Instructions to repair and rebuild housing damaged by shelling in the border regions and an order to the Defense Ministry to eliminate the "causes of shelling" (February 1, 2023, Rossiyskaya Gazeta). Back in January, Putin made a bold claim that "Russian air defense systems are modern and reliable, and the system is generally working properly" (January 24, 2023, RIA Novosti);
  • Warnings about the escalation of the war and new "threats" from Ukraine and a promise to "give an answer." "We are once again threatened with German Leopard tanks adorned with crosses, and once again they are going to fight Russia on the land of Ukraine with the hands of Hitler's spawn, with the hands of Banderites... We are not sending our tanks to their borders, but we have something to respond with, and it will not end with using armored vehicles. Everyone should understand this" (February 2, 2023, Rossiyskaya Gazeta);
  • Assurances that Russia has managed to avoid isolation by the "collective West": "The efforts of Russian diplomats have succeeded in thwarting the plans of the collective West to isolate Russia, as well as intensifying cooperation with most members of the international community" (February 10, 2023, Izvestia); 
  • The announcement that the convicts, who were called "participants in the special military operation from private military companies", would be equalized in social rights with mobilized and regular military personnel. In this way, Putin responded to the request of the Ombudsman for Children's Rights (February 16, 2023, Rossiyskaya Gazeta);
  • A statement that the Russian economy has only benefited from sanctions and that living standards have risen since the start of the special military operation (from the Federal Address on February 21, 2023);
  • Emphasis on the fact that the war was launched "to protect citizens in the historical lands of Russia, to ensure the security of the country, to eliminate the threat posed by the neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine" (from the Federal Address on February 21, 2023).

As we can see, the Kremlin is attempting to blend messages about the routine nature of war with those that emphasize the existential threat it poses. In the absence of tangible victories or triumphs, the Kremlin is attempting to frame the war as a “discounts season” for social benefits in exchange for the citizenry’s consent to participate in it. So far, this approach has proven relatively effective as long as there aren’t any clear failures on the battlefield.

According to Semantrum’s data, the second most prominent political figure in the Russian information space was Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with over 4,000 mentions and stories. It’s worth examining the emphasis and context in which the President of Ukraine was mentioned, particularly on the flagship Channel One:

  • The prospects of transferring long-range weapons, tanks, and aircraft to Ukraine while downplaying and even denying the chances of receiving them. In particular, this is how Zelenskyy's trips to London, Paris, and Brussels were covered;
  • Speech at the Munich conference and Joe Biden's visit to Kyiv as "confirmation" of the "Kyiv regime's" dependence on the United States and "proof" of "escalating the war" with new arms supplies;
  • Planning provocations in occupied Transnistria. The Russian Defense Ministry was simply masking its own subversive actions against Moldova.

Despite the full-scale war, Volodymyr Zelenskyy continues to be a significant challenge for Russian propaganda. Unable to find a way to make the Russian public forget about the Ukrainian president, the Kremlin has resorted to using the old “neo-Nazis” and “puppets” playbook. Given Zelenskyy’s high-profile visits and meetings with world leaders in February, these measures come across as quite feeble in comparison.

In terms of media attention, the bronze medal goes to two figures: the “convict cook” Yevgeny Prigozhin, with around 1,200 mentions, and the Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, with approximately 1,100 mentions.

It’s worth noting that Prigozhin’s media mentions were almost ten times fewer than Putin’s, highlighting the significant disparity in their respective levels of influence and how it’s premature it is to suggest any kind of competition between them. On the other hand, the fact that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was only mentioned around 600 times and Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Army Valery Gerasimov barely 50 times raises speculation about who among those responsible for the war is receiving favorable treatment from the Kremlin. It’s also important to note that only one of Prigozhin’s initiatives can be considered political – a proposal to ban State Duma deputies and civil servants from traveling abroad during the war.

It appears that the main focus of media attention surrounding Prigozhin was the battle for Bakhmut (see details below), which will likely determine his fate. Depending on the outcome of this battle, Prigozhin could either become a scapegoat for the defeat or be given a new task to prevent Putin from being associated with a failed war against Ukraine.

In the case of Kadyrov, his actions and statements suggest that he is aligned with the interests of the Russian dictator. The content of Kadyrov’s media coverage shows that he is portrayed in a highly positive light and often serves as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin’s messages. It seems that Kadyrov does little more than repeat the Russian government’s propaganda.

This is a typical tactic employed by the Kremlin. For instance, they frequently refer to Zelenskyy’s government as a “neo-Nazi regime.” To keep this message from becoming stale and losing its impact, Kadyrov is brought in to make provocative statements, such as his threat to send Zelenskyy an exact replica of the gun used by Hitler to commit suicide, which was supposedly brought by Chechens from the Ukrainian front in World War 2 (as reported by Channel One and Tsargrad TV on February 13, 2023).

During the same broadcast, Kadyrov relayed another message from Putin (from February 10) indicating that Russia had succeeded in avoiding isolation. However, Kadyrov delivered this message in a more aggressive tone: “The head of Chechnya is confident that the West has realized its mistakes and is already beginning to admit them. ‘The West will fall to its knees, and, as usual, European states will have to cooperate in all spheres with the Russian Federation,’ he said. According to Kadyrov, ‘there should be no other way, and there will be no other way’.”

Similar to Putin, Kadyrov is exploiting the war against Ukraine to satisfy his own ego and bolster his political influence. He makes bold promises to destroy “all the Abrams tanks” and confidently predicts Russia’s victory within “two or three months.” He claims that his men have taken control of a nonexistent railway in the Luhansk region and have become the heads of entire military districts and ministries, allegedly replacing Shoigu’s men. He even alleges that his henchmen have been unsuccessfully poisoned by “insidious Anglo-Saxons” at the front. These messages serve a single purpose: to convince the audience that all is going according to plan as long as Putin and his “ faithful soldier “ Kadyrov are in charge.

In addition to Kadyrov and Prigozhin, there were two other noteworthy figures that Russian propagandists mentioned even more frequently: Leopard (with at least 2500 mentions) and HIMARS (with at least 1900 mentions). The depiction of German “tanks with crosses” poised to breach Russia’s “historical borders” has become a fresh symbol of war propaganda, personifying the West’s collective aggression towards Russia.

At the beginning of the month, the Russian media vigorously denied the delivery of tanks to Ukraine: “They are scraping together all over Europe, but it is still not clear when this “iron ball” will reach Ukraine” (Channel One, February 14, 2023). However, by the end of February, there were already reports that Russian “most advanced technology” could compete with Western equipment quickly and without any problems.

Channel One, February 25, 2023

“Leopard tanks in the special military operation zone - Russian military designers and engineers have something to respond with. Breaking through reactive armor on enemy vehicles, low-visibility trajectory, laser-beam targeting - in general, the most advanced technology. The ammunition is also produced at a factory in the Vladimir region. Thanks to their electronic contents, they are called “smart,” with the majority of components being created by women.”

The Battle of Bakhmut

Let us now shift our focus to the topic that was repeatedly brought up to the Russian audience in relation to the ongoing war.

During February, the clashes near Bakhmut, which Russians frequently refer to using the Soviet toponym Artyomovsk, became closely associated with the ongoing “special military operation”.

As early as February 1, Russian media started disseminating reports, citing a “DPR spokesperson,” that Bakhmut was under an effective military blockade. This type of propaganda is not a new phenomenon. On March 9, 2022, Russian sources announced the “capture” of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, which, in reality, fell under Russian occupation only 100 days later.

The intense focus on the siege of the city can be explained by both the propagandists’ desire to convince their audience that the “special military operation is going according to plan,” as well as their attempt to project an image of the Russian army’s impending victory.

February 1, 2023, Izvestiya, RIA Novosti

“Artyomovsk (Bakhmut) is under operational encirclement, Russian troops are closing the ring around the city. This was written by the assistant head of the DPR Gagin. The Russian army caught Artyomovsk (Bakhmut) in a pincer maneuver, surrounding the city from the south and north. The main efforts are focused on cutting off the roads that are used to transport enemy reinforcements and personnel. There are bloody battles going on. The enemy is constantly throwing more and more reinforcements to this area.”

Perhaps, the lessons of the past year forced Russian propagandists to immediately come up with plausible explanations for why the “besieged” city continues to resist.

  • "You can't just gallop in on a horse and slash left and right with a saber." The well-known meme "8 years of bombing the Donbas" has been put in a new light. Allegedly, since 2014, Ukraine has been building reinforced concrete fortifications in preparation for the "special military operation" in order to "violate the Minsk agreements" and "attack Russia." These talking points were promoted even as far as in the Siberian countryside. The corresponding conclusion was that many Russians would have to sacrifice their lives for victory.

February 1, 2023, “Ufimskiye Zametki”

“Since 2014, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have been preparing for the conflict by creating reinforced concrete defense “strongholds” along the entire line of contact. Russian Armed Forces veteran, retired colonel Yuri Chmutin said this in an interview with URA.RU.

If we add another 8 years to the 11 months of the special military operation, this time was enough to create powerful fortifications. This is what Ukraine did, and it violated the Minsk agreements. The country was making preparations. Soledar, Vyhledar, Bakhmut (Artyomovsk), and other settlements actually stand along the entire line of contact. These are fortified ‘strongholds’ deeply echeloned with all kinds of structures filled with concrete. These are reinforced concrete structures, not ditches or trenches,’ Chmutin said.

The retired colonel noted that well-prepared fortifications are not easy to take.

‘When the country was strengthening itself for such a long time, it was not just doing that, it was creating a platform for targeted massive fire against the Donbas. You can’t just gallop in on a horse and slash left and right with a saber, those days are gone 100 years ago. It takes time and a lot of money, including weapons, to overcome the fortifications. But the main thing is human resources,’ the expert summarized.”

  • "The city is being held by 40-50 thousand Ukrainian bayonets”. It turns out that the Ukrainian Armed Forces can concentrate as many as four or five divisions on a small section of the frontline. Moreover, Ukrainian resistance may increase if new Western weapons arrive. Therefore, according to Yevgeny Prigozhin himself, the Russians plan to capture the "surrounded" Bakhmut only in March-April. These statements are in stark contrast to the constant dissemination of reports by the Russian Defense Ministry about the destruction of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian troops, tens of thousands of vehicles, and hundreds of planes and helicopters. And again, it all comes down to the idea of the need for an even greater mobilization of human and industrial resources for the war.

February 15, 2023, “RT Na Russkom”

“Artyomovsk (Bakhmut) may be surrounded around March or April, but it is possible that this will be influenced by the supply of heavy weapons to the Ukrainian army,” said Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner PMC.

‘I think it will be March-April. Although it is very difficult to guess. They are now receiving new types of weapons. Without a doubt, we will destroy these Leopards, without a doubt, we will figure out how to smash them, but this is also the most important factor,’ RIA Novosti quoted him as saying.

The operation of Russian forces in Artyomovsk is constraining the Ukrainian army, which is forced to move large reserves to hold the city, Prigozhin said.

According to his estimates, 40-50 thousand Ukrainian ‘bayonets’ are holding the city.”

  • "Bombing everything is expensive and economically inefficient." The propagandists have come up with an interesting explanation for why Ukraine continues to receive new models of Western weapons on an industrial scale. It turns out that destroying everything in Ukraine in search of Western weapons is irrational. It would be much better to wait until the Leopards, Abrams, and Challengers reach the battlefield, and then the "second army of the world" will destroy them, just like the 7,000 Ukrainian tanks that have allegedly already been destroyed during the war.

February 28, 2023, “IA VK Press Krasnodar”

Yesterday, Yevgeny Prigozhin reported that according to intelligence, Leopard tanks arrived in Chasiv Yar, not far from Artyomovsk. Wagner’s men have not yet engaged in combat with these vehicles. But they will take losses just like other tanks in this area.

Advisor to the DPR interim head Yan Gagin said today that tanks had been seen in the area of Artyomovsk. They are a target for artillery and fighters as all the others.

The rasputitsa that has started now will complicate the movement of heavy vehicles,’ he said.

As a reminder, 4 Leopard-2 tanks out of the promised 14 were delivered to Ukraine on February 24. This was reported by Mr. Moravetsky.

Ordinary people have a question: why were these armored vehicles not destroyed at the training ground when they had not yet arrived at the battlefield? Surely there are some difficulties involved here. Some experts believe that Russia does not always know what is being delivered, where, and when. Deliveries are disguised. Bombing everything is expensive and economically inefficient.”

Simultaneously with the creation of “fait accompli” about military successes, the production of “plausible” justifications for potential failures is commonplace, and the methodologies employed are familiar and widely used. To illustrate this phenomenon, let us examine a few instances from Bakhmut.

  • "Bakhmut is a death conveyor for Ukrainian mobilized soldiers". The technique of reversing facts is a common practice employed by Russians consistently following the "goodwill gesture" near Kyiv. They attribute their war crimes and unwise military strategies to Ukrainians. This technique is especially evident in their attempts to "reassign" the human wave tactics employed during the capture of Soledar in January and February and the storming of Bakhmut. However, at times, the Russians take this practice too far. In particular, sources linked to Prigozhin's circle disseminate false information, claiming that the Ukrainian army suffered 200,000 casualties solely in Bakhmut. Such figures would make even Konashenkov envious.

February 15, 2023, “IA VK Press Krasnodar”

“Why is Artyomovsk, which has literally been wiped off the map, being held by the Ukrainian armed forces, and more and more people are being thrown into this meat grinder?

According to intelligence estimates, Yevgeny Prigozhin said, about 40-50 thousand people are currently concentrated in Bakhmut. And the enemy is trying to throw new forces into this meat grinder every day. About 200-500 people die here every day.

If you count how many people have already died here, you will be horrified. The fighting here has been going on since August 1.

According to some reports, about 200,000 Ukrainian soldiers died here.

Yesterday it became known that Ukraine’s Defense Minister V. Zaluzhnyi ordered to hold Bakhmut by all means until February 24. What will happen after that? There is intrigue brewing.

Prigozhin explained why Russia needs Artyomovsk. To paralyze the entire Ukrainian army. Earlier, military correspondent Sladkov said that those Ukrainian soldiers who decide to surrender are shot in the back.”

February 27, 2023

“The encirclement of Bakhmut is a matter of time. Ukrainian Defense Minister Zaluzhnyi has given up on the town, realizing that it cannot be held. Therefore, he used his favorite method: to delay the Wagner assault troops for as long as possible. This was reported by Starshe Eddy...

That is why the dam was blown up, turning the streets of Bakhmut into puddles. This did not change the situation, and Wagner’s men are not slowing down their offensive. To prevent the assault troops from reaching Siversk, and possibly Sloviansk, too quickly, they are being held back by a ‘meat wall’ of territorial defense forces and recently mobilized units, as well as units of low combat readiness.

All professional units have long been withdrawn for replenishment because they were quickly depleted of manpower. Initially, intelligence showed that the Ukrainian units had a 2.5 times superiority in numbers and parity in artillery. Hence the self-confidence that Russian troops would suffer a major defeat near Bakhmut. However, Bakhmut became a death factory for Ukrainian soldiers.”

  • "A businessman drove a car down Patrice Lumumba Street". Fakes and orchestrated events have long been a staple in the repertoire of Russian military propaganda, including the so-called military correspondents. A new addition to this arsenal is the "military parquet," a first-person account designed to persuade viewers that a military operation's success is "just around the corner." The story is peppered with details, such as a visit to a supposed medical tent, the purported dungeons of a champagne factory, and conversations with soldiers allegedly stationed on the front lines, all of which serve to distract from the lack of any real combat success.

February 23, 2023, “FAN #1”

“Businessman from St. Petersburg Yevgeny Prigozhin visited the eastern districts of Bakhmut (formerly Artyomovsk) and congratulated the fighters of the Wagner PMC on the Defender of the Fatherland Day. Military correspondent Alexander Simonov shared video footage from the scene.

The businessman drove his car down Patrice Lumumba Street. Not long ago, you could only traverse the street running or in small groups of infantry, but now people can safely move around in vehicles. The ‘musicians’ in the area have made serious progress and pushed the UAF back to almost the center of the city.

Upon arrival at the Wagner PMC unit, Yevgeny Prigozhin congratulated the soldiers on the holiday:

‘Congratulations! Today is just the right holiday for what you are doing – defending the Fatherland!’

The soldiers were not shy about discussing important organizational issues that would help improve the efficiency of the units. The businessman visited the field medical unit, where he was told about plans for further improvement.

There will be two tables here, operating and fully functional ones. And one more tent, and we will take two more tents and set them up!’ the musicians’ doctor noted.

Prigozhin praised the plans to equip the medical unit and noted that they would help save more lives. A wounded soldier has no more than 30 minutes to receive timely first aid.

Later, the businessman visited the frontlines and once again congratulated all the participants of the special military operation on the holiday. He noted that it was their actions that made a significant contribution to Russia’s victory:

Behind us is the front line – Artyomovsk! Here we can congratulate all the guys who are fighting, who are on the front line in the hospital. The soldiers who are fighting for our country, the volunteers, and those who work at the factory to make the most essential ammunition and weapons. Happy Defender’s Day to everyone who needs your protection!’

One of the Wagner PMC’s stormtroopers showed the last place where they fought with the enemy. He emphasized that fierce and long battles were fought in this area:

‘They have been assaulted for about two weeks. This morning they took the top five-story building, it’s not far from the center of Bakhmut. That is, Artyomovsk. It’s about 400 meters from the enemy.’

Prigozhin also visited the Artyomovsk sparkling wine factory. He congratulated the soldiers passing by and visited a bunker under the factory.

Earlier, military correspondent Alexander Simonov reported that units of the Wagner PMC occupied most of the village of Berkhivka in the northwest of Bakhmut. In addition, the “musicians” are advancing in several districts of Artyomovsk.’

  • "If you win, take Artyomovsk, if not, we're going all the way to the Dnipro." The publicized involvement of high-ranking officers in combat operations has been a characteristic of Soviet military propaganda since the Afghanistan war. Its primary objective was to convince the general populace that "everything is proceeding according to plan," and that the war was nothing more than a series of exciting adventures. We must also bear in mind another crucial aspect and the motivations of these "cookerobatics" directors. Prigozhin is being portrayed as a "frontline hero" to rival Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president who has frequently been seen on the front lines, unlike Putin. Although the actual footage of the flight and the execution of the "combat mission" is absent, it doesn't seem to matter.

February 6, 2023, RIA Novosti

The founder of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Artyomovsk from a Su-24 aircraft, according to a video posted on the Telegram channel of the businessman’s press service.

Mr. Volodymyr, we have landed having bombed Bakhmut. Tomorrow I’m boarding a MiG-29, and if you want, we’ll meet in the sky. If you win, take Artyomovsk, if not, we’re going all the way to the Dnipro,” Prigozhin said after the combat mission.”

  • "There were problems with the military leadership, but fortunately, they were resolved." Ultimately, the absence of any substantial progress is attributed to regrettable miscalculations during the initial organization of troop command. Nevertheless, the audience is quickly assured that necessary steps have been taken, errors rectified, and triumph is undoubtedly imminent. Every effort is made to steer clear of associating Putin with the conflict's instigation, and his role in any setbacks and to de-emphasize the causes of any failures by referring to "disagreements between units" or "acting in isolation," among other impersonal explanations.

February 25, 2023, Tsargrad TV

An honest conversation took place on the Russian TV Channel One. Komsomolskaya Pravda’s military columnist Viktor Baranets answered questions from Tsargrad host Yelena Afonina. Baranets pointed out that there is a considerable result of the Armed Forces, which, as they say, are tangible:

On the first day of our special operation, the Ukrainian Navy was almost completely destroyed. Did we take control of Melitopol? Yes, we did. Did we take control of Mariupol? We have. Have we taken control of 98% of the Luhansk region? Have we taken control of 60% of the Donetsk region? Aren’t these results? Yes, it took a lot of sacrifices. But the result is there.

But where we are talking about results, it is also worth speaking about mistakes. This is an effort to correct mistakes, which allows us not to go into a similar disadvantage in the future:

We started the Special Operation, having almost completely seized the strategic initiative. This is extremely important for the army. The military gets their courage and moves forward! Do you remember how we were rushing to Kyiv? And then there was the ‘act of goodwill,’ and everything rolled back. ‘That was the first time,’ Baranets said. ‘Then we left Kupiansk, rolled back from Izium, Krasny Liman, Kherson. I’m saying this for everyone to see, I’m not a one-eyed analyst – I try to honestly look at both sides of the story.

There were problems with the military leadership, but fortunately, they were resolved. What were the problems? The fact that there were many structures, and each was subordinate to its own leadership. These included volunteers, contract soldiers, mobilized soldiers, and the Russian Guard.

That’s why we acted in a hasty manner, we must admit it. That’s when it was decided to put the reins of the Special Military Operation in the hands of one person. It was General Surovikin.

And when it became clear that the tasks to be accomplished were even more ambitious, with the implementation of tasks measured by the minutes, Surovikin was replaced by the head of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov. In principle, he no longer asked for permission to enter additional areas but simply gave orders. It would seem that everything was resolved here, but quarrels between the units began, and they spilled over into the public domain,’ Baranets recalled. ‘This is exactly what is unacceptable.’

In Kyiv, they immediately started talking: there was discord in the leadership of the Special Military Operation, that’s great, defeat the Russians. That’s why we shouldn’t allow any discord, we shouldn’t do that.”

The extensive media coverage of the Bakhmut battle and the conspicuous absence of any mention of the devastating defeat at Vuhledar have required significant exertion on the Kremlin’s part. If there is another significant setback, the Russian leadership will have to sacrifice their “trump cards” and hold Prigozhin and Gerasimov accountable. These two figures are frequently associated with anticipated significant victories. Subsequently, the Kremlin will have only the last of the three envelopes, containing the name of the primary figure responsible, to resort to.

In the event of an unfavorable shift in the situation, Putin and his propagandists are likely to escalate the situation and urge their military and mercenaries to advance toward Dnipro or Kyiv. Consequently, the outcome of the media conflict will ultimately be determined on the battlefield.

Photo: Getty Images

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