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Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Kremlin officials and propagandists have been steadily delivering key theses for various audiences. Some of them are intended for internal consumption in Russia. At the same time, some are designed to demoralize and intimidate Ukrainians, and some are to convince the West of the futility and danger of supporting Ukraine in the war. Some of these narratives intersect and reinforce each other; others contradict themselves. At first glance, the Kremlin's numerous statements about the goals and the possible further course of the war, from the alleged readiness to sit down at the negotiating table at any time to nuclear strikes on NATO countries, belong precisely to the category of contradictory theses that are poorly coordinated. But is it? Aren't both of these narratives aimed at the same goal, and aren't they used only to complement each other and reinforce the Kremlin's main message — "Give us Ukraine back"?

On February 13, Reuters published an article concerning "three Russian sources", reporting that "Russian President Vladimir Putin's proposal for a ceasefire in Ukraine and a freeze on the war was rejected by the United States after communications between the mediators". According to the information provided to the media by the "sources", Russia is allegedly ready for a truce and the cessation of hostilities "on the current lines of conflict". The USA denied any official communication and the possibility of negotiations without Ukraine’s participation. However, Reuters voiced the central thesis of the "Russian sources": Russia is allegedly ready for a truce under the conditions of maintaining control over the occupied [Ukrainian] territories.

Putin also voiced his readiness for negotiations in his conversation with American conservative journalist Tucker Carlson, albeit more vaguely. "Don't Americans have anything to do? [...] Isn't it better to agree with Russia? To agree after already understanding the current situation," Putin said. After the interview, Carlson himself decided to highlight the "peacefulness" of his interlocutor, saying that "if it comes to Crimea," Putin will start a nuclear war.

However, another Russian official, Dmitry Medvedev, a deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, also known as a Telegram blogger over the last two years, put the emphasis in Putin's interview with Carlson somewhat differently: "The Russian president told the Western world as thoroughly and in detail as possible, why there was, is, and will be no Ukraine. From this point of view, the Kremlin has little room for negotiations, at least with Ukraine. A few days before the interview, the same Medvedev once again stated that in the event of a military confrontation with NATO countries, Russia would necessarily fight with the use of nuclear weapons due to its foregone inability to compete with NATO in other areas." It will be that notorious Apocalypse. The end of everything," concluded Medvedev.

How Russian propagandists play bad cops for the West

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Dmitry Medvedev and his Telegram channel have become one of the main channels of the "hawkish" head of Kremlin propaganda. Medvedev is scoffed at among the Russian opposition and supporters of the government, comparing the arrogant and aggressive tone of his statements with the almost complete loss of absolute power and influence of the person who once held the position of the president of Russia. His blogging efforts are attributed either to a desire to please the leadership and to compensate for his past reputation as a liberal and "Westerner" or to an unconfirmed alcohol addiction. However, Medvedev still officially holds the leadership position, and the Russian media happily quotes his most troublesome statements.

It should not be underestimated that one of the official representatives of the Russian government allows himself to regularly threaten the West with a "nuclear apocalypse" and Ukraine with the destruction of its statehood. It is one of the critical directions of Russian propaganda, aimed both at maintaining the "fighting spirit" among supporters of the war [in Russia] until the "victorious end" inside the country and at intimidating Western countries.

Another former "Westerner" who is now one of the Russian "hawks" public speakers is Sergey Karaganov. He is a Russian scientist-internationalist who has managed the department and then the faculty of international politics of the Higher School of Economics for many years and held the positions of an expert and adviser to state bodies. In the 1990s, he advocated Russia's rapprochement with NATO, and in the early 2010s, he advocated "de-Stalinization" and honoring the victims of Stalinism. But in 2023, he published an article with the telling title, "The use of nuclear weapons can save humanity from a global catastrophe".

The article discusses the Russian strategy in the war with Ukraine and its possible goals. It is determined that the full occupation of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia regions is only a "minimum" condition for Russia's victory. The Kremlin generally needs "the liberation and reunification of the east and south [of Ukraine] and the imposition to surrender for Ukraine’s remnants with complete demilitarization, and creation of a buffer, a friendly state". But even this will not be a final victory because the real enemy of Russia is the "globalist West". Therefore, to stop aid to Ukraine from the West, to make the Kremlin's victory possible, and to dissuade the USA and NATO from further encroachment on Russia's "sphere of interests", it is necessary to use the only argument left for the Kremlin and to follow the path of gradual but rapid nuclear escalation, up to real strikes. "Roughly speaking, we need the West to simply "back down" and not prevent Russia and the world from moving forward... But what if they don't back down? [...] Then we will have to hit a group of targets in several countries to bring those who have lost their minds to their senses," writes Karaganov.

An article with such theses, not from television propagandists who threatened the West with "nuclear ash" back in 2014, but from an international scientist, caused some surprise even in Russia. A group of Russian Academy of Sciences experts appeared in the press with a response article under the meaningful title " Nuclear war is a bad means of solving problems". However, Karaganov's message still achieved its primary goal; it was noticed in the Western media. "Perhaps this whole discussion is designed to attract the West’s attention so that President Putin looks like a good policeman in light of the bad policeman Mr. Karaganov," BBC columnist Steve Rosenberg commented on the Kremlin's threats to use nuclear weapons.

Good cops — Peskov and Russian diplomats

Dmitry Peskov plays a key role in the cohort of the Kremlin’s "good cops", who often voice Russia's readiness for negotiations and even peace. As Putin's press secretary, he constantly communicates with the media, particularly Western ones, answering questions, giving comments, and making statements as an official representative of the Kremlin. In his answers to questions concerning Ukraine, Peskov is never as direct and specific as Karaganov or Medvedev; he does not call for the destruction of Ukraine or the nuclear bombing of the West. Instead, Peskov constantly declares "Russia's readiness and openness to negotiations" and repeats the already mainstream Russian propaganda cliché that Ukraine has already "almost signed" an armistice with Russia in March 2022. Still, Boris Johnson seemingly intervened and disrupted everything. However, according to Peskov, returning to the negotiating table is not too late.

However, even in Peskov's presentation, negotiations with Russia must be based on certain conditions, the clearest of which is "recognition of the situation on the ground". This euphemism in Russian propaganda covers the demand for Ukraine and its allies to give up the territory that Russia managed to occupy and hold. But that's not all, because Peskov also often mentions specific "goals" that Russia wants to achieve during the "special operation". Here, he repeats Putin’s words from February 24, 2022 — "demilitarization and denazification", which can be interpreted as the Kremlin will deem necessary at a particular specific moment. In addition, he mentions the "safety of residents of new regions". It is not specified what exactly these regions are, whether the "regions" in Peskov's imagination include, for example, Kherson, declared by Russia as its territory, and how consistent it is with the "situation on the ground". It is the vagueness of the goals of the war and the vagueness of the Kremlin's official demands that allows Peskov to be a "good cop" and express calls for negotiations but not issue threats and ultimatums, like more outspoken propagandists.

In addition to Peskov, the role of "doves" should also be performed by Russian diplomats, particularly the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Sergey Lavrov, and the representative to the UN, Vasiliy Nebenzia. Although they also discuss Russia's openness to negotiations, their position is more challenging than Peskov's. Lavrov stated, "There are currently no prospects for negotiations between Russia and the West... We consider the Westerners' hypocritical calls for negotiations to be a tactic to buy time." In an interview with the BBC, Nebenzia spoke about the need for negotiations but also mentioned "taking into account the situation on the front" and Russia's refusal to consider the issue of the occupied territories, which the Kremlin called its own. However, neither Nebenzia nor Lavrov talks about the need to capture Odesa or Kharkiv, and they even condemn the use of nuclear weapons. "Our country is fully committed to the principle of the inadmissibility of nuclear war and proceeds from the fact that there can be no winners in such a war," Lavrov said.

Negotiations with a nuclear flavor

It is worth mentioning that Putin himself combines both approaches of blackmail and intimidation with calls for peace and "mutual respect", depending on the moment. At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, on February 27, 2022, Putin ordered the "deterrence forces, " including nuclear forces, to be put on special combat duty due to "aggressive statements" by NATO countries. At the same time, he sent a delegation for negotiations with Ukraine, which began in Belarus the next day.

This tactic of combining the lines of "hawks" and "doves" has been used by Russia throughout the entire time of the full-scale invasion [of Ukraine]. This tactic has two main goals. The first is to plunge Ukraine into a fog of uncertainty, to offer a ceasefire as bait, to demoralize and intimidate Ukrainians, to assure them that the situation will only get worse, so it is necessary to agree to negotiations now when Russia is still supposedly ready for them. The second goal is to influence the readiness of the West to support Ukraine in the war and to provide financial and military aid. The USA and European countries are trying to convince that it makes no sense for Ukraine to risk a collision with a nuclear state in which many people, even in high positions, are ready to use weapons of mass destruction, especially since there is a convenient and pleasant idea of peace negotiations nearby.

At the same time, of course, specific terms of negotiations and demands are not put forward, except for general theses without particular implementation mechanisms. It is done deliberately, as the vague demands allow Russia to use the idea of negotiations as a propaganda and diplomatic tool. Demands can expand when the Russian army at the front captures new territories and become more modest when things do not go as well as expected in the Kremlin. In the latter case, nuclear threats will be much more active.

After all, it is possible that the supposedly "absurd" statements of the Russian "hawks" have more real meaning than the appeals of the "doves" since they are more specific. They have a particular demand for the West — to leave Ukraine in the "sphere of interests" of Russia, not to interfere in the war, and to allow Putin to deal with all those who try to oppose his imperial aspirations. There is also a specific demand for Ukraine to capitulate and surrender to the winner’s mercy. The "doves" contain more or less the same thing, only in softer wording. Also, of course, more cautious ones — those [words] that give the Kremlin space and time to maneuver between "protection of Donbas", "situation on the ground", and "denazification", in case the Ukrainians do not want to surrender completely and immediately. In such a case, you can wait, once again play the bad and good cop with the West, and try to "demilitarize" Ukraine once again.

Collage credits: Detector Media

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