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Instead of sovereign nations — there are puppet states; instead of widespread protests —special services operations, instead of public activists — bribed agents. According to Moscow, the world is not what it is. This distorted picture was gradually formed by Russian propaganda to establish uncontrolled and unchanging power. In this article, we analyze what makes up the mosaic of the Russian imaginary world and what tactics propaganda uses for this.
In August 1973, more than 50 years ago, the film "Seventeen Moments of Spring" (Сімнадцять миттєвостей весни) was broadcast on USSR television. Twelve episodes cover the story of the Soviet secret intelligence professional Stirlitz, who competes with the professionals of two other USSR’s enemy superpowers: the alliance of the USA and Great Britain and Nazi Germany. Heroic Stirlitz is suspected of disrupting the destruction of Krakow and sabotaging Germany's nuclear program; he reveals and blocks negotiations between the Western allies and Hitler's influential entourage. The movie contains a historical chronicle, and the fate and map of the world are determined here by the intriguing competition of the tricks of the superpowers’ agents. Public politicians, public movements, and even the military seem to be dissolving in the big game of special services that act through their recruited puppets.
"Seventeen Moments of Spring" was commissioned by Yuriy Andropov, then head of the KGB, who sought to rehabilitate the image of the Soviet special services after Khrushchev's de-Stalinization. But Andropov could hardly have expected how large-scale the historical echo of his cinematic would be in increasing trust in the special services.
In 1991, Putin, then an official of the St. Petersburg City Hall, said in a documentary that he worked as a KGB spy in East Germany (GDR). In that documentary, for the first time in general, parallels were drawn between the fictional Stirlitz and the authentic Putin: to the musical theme of "Seventeen Moments of Spring", instead of Stirlitz driving a German car, documentarian’s camera captures Putin driving the Volga.
This parallel will be helpful for Russian elites eight years later when, in 1999, it was necessary to find Yeltsin’s successor. In the spring of 1999, two sociological polls were conducted in Russia in order to reveal the image of the leader of the state whom the population demanded. Respondents were asked: "Which movie heroes would you vote for in the presidential elections?". In both polls, Stirlitz became one of the rating leaders along with Zhukov, Peter I, and Zheglov. Afterward, the Kommersant newspaper, which ordered and published the survey, will put a portrait of Stirlitz on the cover of its weekly supplement with the headline: "President-2000."
Kremlin’s political technologist at the time, Gleb Pavlovsky, described the conclusions drawn by the ruling elites of Moscow: "The word "enforcement agent" has become the trend of the season. People at the Kremlin meetings started hearing "we need an intelligent enforcement agent" more increasingly. In August 1999, the head of the FSB (successor to the KGB), Putin, little known among the population at the time, was appointed by the president and approved by the parliament as the head of the government. He started his campaign from a zero rating and in six months, won the first round of the presidential elections in March 2000. Thus, Andropov's propaganda helped his successor in the secret service to repeat the path of his predecessor in conquering the Kremlin.
In 2019, in a similar survey regarding the best movie hero-president, Stirlitz's leadership is already indisputable. Sociologists explained this by an inversion effect: if in 1999 Putin looked like the best candidate because he was similar to Stirlitz, then in 2019, the image of Stirlitz remains relevant because the popular and irreplaceable Putin implements it. The electorate fully absorbed the parallel.
However, along with the image of a film spy, it was beneficial for Russian politicians to offer people a simplified picture of the world. In the movie, the social, political, and economic factors took a back seat compared to the activities of special agents. In the world of secret special services, instead of information, there are only disinformation campaigns of enemies. At the same time, official and public versions of events only cover facts that cannot be available to the general public. Therefore, society cannot do a critical fact assessment, its [fatt] ethical condemnation, and political reaction to them. Any public figure who does not have access to state secrets is labeled fundamentally uninformed, which means incompetent to speak on political issues. Being inconsistent with the official authorities’ version statements means sabotaging the information operations of their country’s secret services in favor of disinformation of the enemy, thus acting as a foreign agent. Under such information limitations, the population is consistently depoliticized. In the meantime, people, waving flags, cheer from the stands for a game that they do not want, and should not, see because the game of superpowers’ agents cannot be public.
The false dilemma tactic suggests choosing to support your home team, not the enemy team, and believe in victory. Conceded goals in such a game can always be marked as a foul appearance behind which many goals are hidden. In addition, how can you concede and not score, if the defense and the attack of your team are led by such a master as Stirlitz, aka Putin? Here are some of the critical tenets of Russian agitational propaganda, which creates an imaginary world of big and puppet states, native and enemy agents, secret operations, and conspiracies, and at the same time, turns people into depoliticized fans.
"The powerful USA, Russia, and China, and the occupied Germany, Japan, and Korea"
There are several superpowers in the Russian information landscape, including Russia. Other countries of the world, from their sphere of influence, according to agitational propaganda, are deprived of real sovereignty due to the decisive influence of superpowers on their politics. Propagandists include the USA, Russia, and China as modern superpowers. "There are only three states in the world that have the opportunity to influence international politics fundamentally," — wrote Tymofey Bordachev, Valdai Club’s program director, where Russian elites like to play geopolitical solitaire games.
Denying the rest [of the countries] the status of a superpower, agitational propaganda can sometimes situationally prescribe subjectivity to several additional countries whose leaders have distinguished themselves with critical statements regarding the consolidated position of Western liberal democracies. Democracies themselves are branded as USA’s puppets, which have "lost the gene of independence, sovereignty and national interest", but which the USA hypocritically calls allies. "The USA is still actually occupying Germany, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and other countries. At the same time, they cynically call them equal allies..." — Putin said in the fall of 2022.
At this year's plenary session of the Valdai Club, Putin explained his dream model of the future multipolar world: "Not one decides for everyone, and not everyone even decides about everything, but those who are directly affected by this or that issue agree on what and how to do it". It can be seen that this statement rejects not only the USA’s hegemony but also the humanists’ idea about a world of equals, where everyone agrees on everything based on universal values and international law, where there can be no "foreign" problems — most of the international organizations that appeared after the world wars are based on this idealistic model. But Putin wants a world divided into spheres of influence for several great powers, which will resolve conflict situations on the borders of their spheres because only they are the ones "directly affected". The model to which Russia aspires in the future echoes the 19th-century model of international relations, which emerged from the Congress of Vienna and was based on the interests of Europe’s Great Powers.
In the "proper" picture of the world, Ukraine is indeed defined as Moscow’s "legitimate" sphere of influence. Russian elites define Ukrainians as friendly, fraternal, and even identical to the Russian people nation. Therefore, the Russian people nation should form a government close to Moscow in Ukraine, or even an identical one, and recognize the power of Moscow, following Rousseau's principles of the general, unified will of the people. In this informational picture, the reluctance of the Ukrainian authorities to recognize the power of Moscow is explained by distorted extremism ("Nazism") and the will of another superpower (the USA) imposed from the outside. The last two messages can be combined: Nazism in Ukraine and the very idea of the separateness of the Ukrainian nation were historically introduced by hostile large countries through their agents. Putin's article of July 12, 2021, "On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians," was written based on this rhetoric. This article could have been considered programmatic for the future full-scale invasion.
Russian agitational propaganda uses a palette of arguments to prove that Ukraine is under the control of the United States:
· Economic: Ukraine is a poor, unprofitably indebted country, which the West economically supports at a minimal level only to use [it] against Russia;
· Military: "The USA is ready to fight with Russia until the last Ukrainian is killed", and to use the territories as a bridgehead for anti-Russian activities;
· Diplomatic: The US bans Ukraine from setting an agreement with Russia. Sometimes, the authorities imposed on Ukrainians seem to be ready to meet the "true interests of Ukraine" and fulfill Moscow's demands, but then Washington intervenes again. For example, there is a thesis that during the negotiations with the Russian delegation in March 2022, the Ukrainian authorities agreed to all Moscow's demands and even initiated the corresponding document, but Washington and London disrupted the agreements. Until 2022, Moscow emphasized the readiness of "real Ukrainians" to fulfill the Minsk, which Washington again hindered;
· Historical: In order to promote the thesis about Ukraine's chronic dependence, Russians needed an initial historical point. Propaganda found two of them at once: the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan interpreted as "pro-American coups". During the Ukrainian Maidans, the true representative of the Ukrainian people’s will, Viktor Yanukovych, was twice allegedly illegally replaced by American proteges;
· Biographical: Russian propaganda instrumentalizes Zelenskyy's acting past: the USA hired a professional actor to play the role of the President of Ukraine and, at the same time, fulfill the will of the White House.
With the beginning of a full-scale war, pro-Russian speakers often contradict the main narrative about Kyiv's dependence on "Western curators", which proves the importance of its emotional, not rational, component. Yet, Moscow is trying to hit the "decision-making centers", which are located in Kyiv, not in Washington; Ukrainian, not American generals, Zaluzhnyy and Budanov, are declared as the main enemies. At the same time, agitational propaganda increasingly offers theses about Zelenskyy’s manipulation of the White House.
Foreign agents and special operations
In the looking glass of Russian agitational propaganda, superpowers exercise their power through agents of special services, who are the hidden cause of any significant events. "It is the legalization of the American special services materials", — Putin commented on the journalists' investigation into the poisoning of leading Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Russian officials explain the majority of independent investigations about themselves by referring to American services operations. Agitational propaganda denies the existence of both independent journalism and public initiatives, seeing in them only the results of enemy agents’ work. The " foreign agent" status is legislated in Russia and it is arbitrarily granted by state bodies in an extrajudicial manner, and constantly used in loyal mass media to brand opponents. In Ukraine, pro-Russian speakers have come up with an idea of a hostile foreign network of "sorosyata" (соросята, people affiliated with George Soros) who allegedly serve foreign interests through the mediation of a 93-year-old billionaire. In the same way, widespread protests, either in the world or in Russia itself, can only be provoked and used by enemy agents, which DM discussed in more detail here. Agitational propaganda negatively evaluates the very idea of popular protests, which allegedly always harm the population and are used by enemies to weaken the state. In order to promote this message, not only modern but also historical popular uprisings are discredited. For example, while regretting the collapse of the USSR, Putin also regrets its revolutionary creation by the Bolsheviks.
Along with the "activities of the enemy's special services", the information space is full of hints about the favorable work of its agents. The public appearance in an interview with the editor-in-chief of the RT propaganda channel Margarita Simonyan of Russian agents Petrov and Boshirov, accused by Great Britain of poisoning ex-GRU (Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate) colonel Sergey Skripal and his daughter on its territory, was significant. Denying their involvement in the special services, Petrov and Boshirov did not even seriously try to hide the lies in their mocking stories about their love for Salisbury Cathedral. In this case, public policy was demonstrably replaced by cover-up information campaigns. The situation became a caricature due to the fact that Petrov and Boshirov approached such an activity purely formally.
Therefore, in the optics of Russian propaganda, almost all politics is reduced to the conduct of special operations or is an arena of the special services struggle. Open war with public goals and comprehensive mobilization is also not envisaged by this view. In the fairway of the special services operations, Putin also announced a "special military operation" on the morning of February 24, 2022. He declared that the operation was entrusted to professionals without the involvement of conscripts. In the absence of mobilization, the population only needed to watch the masterful game of their leader. However, after the failure of the blitzkrieg, Russia was mired in the most significant war since the Second World War, which required mass mobilization and the involvement of passionate people. It became necessary to mobilize those depoliticized for the permanence of power for decades with a well-learned thesis: "Nothing depends on us because we do not know the truth." Passionate ones quickly turn into political opposition or even rebels, as shown by the examples of Strelkov and Prigozhin. Therefore, the Russian elites need to hope that their chief intelligence officer can handle this vitally important puzzle for them. The "special military operation" itself, prepared and approved by the special services in the chess game of the great powers’ logic, crashed against the reality of popular resistance, the solidarity of international communities, and the leadership of brave people. Everything that should not have been in the world of secret services rebounded after the test of a Great War.