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How Russian Propaganda Paints the West as Aggressors in Ukraine
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How Russian Propaganda Paints the West as Aggressors in Ukraine

Whether Putin invades or stands down, Russian media peg him as the good guy.

Late last month, a spokesman for a Russian-backed separatist enclave in eastern Ukraine—the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR)—warned Russian media that British-trained commandos were planning a “series of terrorist attacks” on critical infrastructure in the Donbass region. The operation’s goal: to “lure” Moscow into an unwanted armed conflict with the West, the spokesman alleged.

Look no further than the comments responding to the accusation’s coverage in RT, Russia’s state-controlled news agency, to grasp its intended effect. 

“The U.S. conducted several false flag operations at home, for example, 9/11,” one commenter wrote. “I would not be surprised if they do something similar in Ukraine.”

“Kievnazis are asking for a bloody nose,” wrote another.

“Please Russia do not allow this fascist genocide against your people to take place!” exclaimed a third. “Kick out the EU/US zionist invaders AND their servants, the traitors of humanity!”

With upwards of 130,000 Russian troops now concentrated near Ukraine’s borders—and Russian tanks, missiles, and attack aircraft alongside them—President Vladimir Putin is beginning to see returns on a months-long propaganda blitz to re-cast NATO allies as aggressors and Ukraine as their hapless vehicle for war. Western countries warn it signals Putin’s designs to stage a provocation of his own. 

The Biden administration began raising alarms of a possible “false flag” operation by the Kremlin in mid-January, citing a growing body of undisclosed evidence that Moscow was “sowing the seeds of misinformation” and had pre-positioned operatives in Ukraine. New U.S. intelligence, first reported by several media outlets Thursday and later expanded on by administration officials, seemed to confirm this theory. According to State Department spokesman Ned Price, Russia planned to release “graphic” video footage of a staged Ukrainian attack, complete with fake mourners, real corpses, and imitation Ukrainian weaponry.

But asked by Matt Lee of Associated Press what intelligence the U.S. had to back up the alleged plot, Price declined to provide specifics. When pressed further by Lee, Price snapped: “If you doubt the credibility of the U.S. government, of the British government, of other governments and want to, you know, find solace in information that the Russians are putting out, that is for you to do.” Price did not provide evidence to support his claims.

Whatever the reliability of the Biden administration’s claims, Putin himself laid the groundwork for such an event in December, when he said that the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine—which began with his 2014 invasion—had become “very reminiscent” of genocide amid growing “Russophobia.” Similar claims were made ahead of Russia’s invasion in 2014.

On Tuesday, a Moscow-based outlet published the testimony of a separatist veteran who alleged Kyiv planned to create a “pretext for war” in the Donbass between February 4 and February 21. “Russia will not be able to stay away from the conflict in this case,” he said. In a report circulated by Russian media Wednesday, a separatist politician claimed that the United States had armed Ukrainian forces with chemical weapons and intended to blame the Russian-backed militias for their deployment. And Thursday, a DPR spokesman alleged that Kyiv told foreign embassies to evacuate their citizens from the Donbass in anticipation of a Ukrainian offensive in the region.

The Kremlin’s unremitting propaganda “exposing” U.S. and UK-led efforts to spark a war could lend an eventual false flag operation believability in the eyes of the Russian public. But the successful distortion also allows Putin to de-escalate and claim the role of peacekeeper to his domestic audience, which by and large opposes foreign ventures without a proper rationale. In a January poll by the Levada Center, an independent polling agency, 56 percent of Russian respondents said they feared a world war. 

“War is very undesirable from the point of view of the Russian public, but we have to keep in mind that [with] the control of the almost entire media space, any sort of story could be pinned when it comes to justifying the use of military force,” said Anton Barbashin, co-founder and editorial director at the Russia-focused media outlet Riddle. “The way that they have been informed about the story through the state-controlled media is that it is the NATO states, the United States primarily, that are antagonizing Ukraine to retake Donbass by force.”

Russian officials continue to deny harboring plans to invade Ukraine in their public appearances, dismissing allegations of “imminent” military action as products of U.S.-led disinformation. “We consider unacceptable even the idea of ​​a war between our peoples,” said Russian foreign ministry official Alexei Zaitsev, claiming that the notion was fabricated by “overseas curators,” despite Russia’s military buildup on the Ukrainian border. 

Given Russia’s highly regulated information environment—in which government officials increasingly exert control over the press, think tanks, and academics—these statements seem to resonate with Russian news consumers. Comments sections on the country’s primary media outlets brim with anger toward Western efforts to start a war at the expense of the Ukrainian people. 

Recent troop deployments to Eastern Europe by individual NATO member states, including the U.S., shore up this skewed depiction of the unfolding crisis. On Wednesday, the Pentagon announced the movement of 3,000 U.S. troops to the NATO countries of Poland, Germany, and Romania—a move it described as precautionary and temporary. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko denounced the additional deployments as a “destructive step” that would “increase military tension and reduce the margin for political solutions.” 

“The main message is that they don’t want to go to war, they will not go to war unless they are provoked by the United States, mainly, and Ukraine as their ally. Then they will need to defend themselves, especially to defend Russian citizens,” said Iliya Kusa, an analyst at Ukraine Institute for the Future, explaining that more than 700,000 people have been issued Russian passports in separatist-occupied territory. “So it’s not about ‘Russian-speaking’ people anymore, as it was in 2014, but about Russian citizens.”  

The Russian media’s recent emphasis on eastern Ukraine has sparked concerns among onlookers that Moscow plans to formally recognize the DPR and a neighboring separatist enclave—the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR)—ahead of a military operation. The region has suffered clashes between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed militias since 2014, despite efforts to impose a ceasefire.  

An attempt by Russian forces to occupy the entirety of Ukraine would be “absolutely suicidal,” said Andrey Shary, head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Russian service. But lesser provocations, such as moving into areas of the Donbass or openly supporting the sovereignty of its occupying militias, might be a way for Putin to “save face” in front of foreign and domestic audiences. “It’s not by coincidence that one of the so-called opposition parties in the State Duma, namely the Communist Party, has now initiated discussion on a possible diplomatic move toward [recognizing] the separatist territories,” Shary said.

Another indication that Putin will stop short of a full-scale offensive is the absence of disinformation campaigns dehumanizing the Ukrainian people, in contrast to the months leading up to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Moscow now portrays NATO—controlled by the U.S. and UK—as responsible for propping up and arming an inept government in Kyiv.

The descriptor “Anglo-Saxon,” for example, has recently emerged in public statements by the Russian government and press as Putin seeks to exploit inter-NATO divisions. “It’s a term to unite the U.S. and United Kingdom together as a main evil in the world,” Shary told The Dispatch. “Ukraine is perceived as a defunct, helpless, failed state, which is governed by a corrupt elite and a puppet in the hands of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ politicians.” 

Meanwhile, direct appeals to the Ukrainian people—which draw on the country’s existing social and economic problems—have become an increasingly common feature of Russian state-sponsored media. “They push this narrative: ‘You have all these problems, the West didn’t manage to help you, so what did you get as a result of your pro-Western stance?’” said Kusa. “This is a major shift in their rhetoric.”

Charlotte Lawson is a reporter at The Dispatch and currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Prior to joining the company in 2020, she studied history and global security at the University of Virginia. When Charlotte is not keeping up with foreign policy and world affairs, she is probably trying to hone her photography skills.