The Two Faces of Putin’s Propaganda Messaging

Vladimir Putin has deliberately created and escalated a crisis in Europe. He has managed to get meetings or calls with Western leaders dozens of times since he started turning up the heat on Ukraine last spring. The alleged main “reason” for this crisis is that Ukraine is a threat to Russia, as it will one day join NATO and become another NATO base. Some Russian propagandists and their toadies in the West constantly repeat the idea that this crisis is all about NATO expansion, and that it could all go away if the United States pledged that Ukraine would never be part of the alliance. But the propaganda that Russia directs to its own people makes a much different argument. Case in point: During all this time and with all these visits, Putin has never met or attempted to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. When a journalist asked Putin last summer why he hadn’t done so, Putin replied: “Why [should I] meet with Zelensky if he has put his country under complete external control? The key issues of Ukraine’s life are resolved not in Kyiv, but in Washington, and partly in Berlin and Paris.”

This is a clear look at a propaganda talking point that some Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians have been reiterating for years, a talking point that is much less visible in their Western-facing propaganda. This phrase “external control” (внешний контроль) or sometimes “external management” (внешнего управления) is at the heart of Putin’s professed grievances when he speaks to Russians. But what does it mean?

The essence of this idea is that Ukraine is not really a democracy or a sovereign country. It is a fake, potemkin democracy that is actually run by some kind of deep state controlled by foreign powers. The most common culprits for the “secret rulers” of Ukraine are the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. State Department, the CIA, and—of course—George Soros. According to this idea, Ukraine’s 2014 revolution was not a pro-democracy, anti-corruption popular revolt but an orchestrated coup that put Ukraine under the secret occupation of anti-Russian Western manipulators. 

Putin decided to elaborate his views in a July 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” He described a Westernizing Ukraine as an “anti-Russia Project” “under the protection and control of the Western powers.” He was explicit that “we are witnessing not just complete dependence but direct external control, including the supervision of the Ukrainian authorities, security services and armed forces by foreign advisers, military ‘development’ of the territory of Ukraine and deployment of NATO infrastructure.” Putin is not being innovative here. Here is an example from 2020 of this kind of argument that appeared on several pro-Russian “news” websites that describes how the IMF and George Soros took Ukraine away from the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych:

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