We’re a new publication dedicated to reporting on how the most important trends, challenges and opportunities of the day connect to one another – and require connected solutions. Learn more.
Get the best of Grid in your inbox
Mae Decena; DEA/W. BUSS/ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
Kremlin-backed propaganda has shifted in frightening ways.
The other day a friend from Nizhny Novgorod, one of Russia’s largest and most modern cities, sent me a video of a theatrical production called “The Dulles Plan,” performed by the experimental theater “NEXT.” Here were actors in their 20s — the generation born in a free Russia, after the Soviet era and before Putin took office — taking to the stage for a 90-minute rant about the degradation and moral decay of the West. The Dulles Plan — named for the U.S. spymaster Allen Dulles — was a long-ago-debunked conspiracy theory suggesting that the U.S. and its allies had a plan to undermine the values of the Soviet Union, and then Russia. The not-so-subtle current message: This is what the west is doing today, to modern Russia.
The play is one bizarre example of a clear shift in Russian narratives about the war in Ukraine. Six months ago, Vladimir Putin’s case for war — or for the “special military operation,” as he called it — rested on a few basic arguments: It was necessary to “denazify” Ukraine, to remove the “criminals” ruling the country, and to rescue the Russian-speaking citizens of the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, who had been allegedly subjected to “genocide.”
In other words, the war was all about Ukraine, in one way or another.
Listen to the messaging now — and you can sometimes hear an entire Russian TV broadcast that never mentions a specific front line or battle in Ukraine itself. What you hear now — incessantly — is talk of a struggle of civilizations. This is a fight for the soul of Russia, for its rightful place on the planet. The enemies are not in Kyiv, or in the Donbas; they are in Brussels and Berlin, London and Washington, D.C.
It’s a new way to justify Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, and to explain to the Russian people why the initial blitzkrieg failed and the war has dragged on. The hope — from the Kremlin’s perspective — is that the new messaging may make it easier for Russians to support the “operation” — despite great sacrifices on the battlefield and the home front.
The shift in ideology was teased just three weeks into the war by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in an interview with RBC TV:
“This is not about Ukraine at all,” Lavrov said. “Or rather … not so much about Ukraine, but about the world order.”
For Putin’s entourage, these words may have sounded like a statement of fact; their diatribes against the West and the “world order” had been heard for years.
However, for millions of Russians, this was still news. The Ukraine-centric points in Putin’s original case for the invasion had been pounded relentlessly in the war’s early days, not just by the Kremlin, but by the various organs of Russian media. Among the chief promoters of the message were a pair of ever-present, powerful figures on Russian television: popular anchor Vladimir Solovyov, and editor-in-chief of the RT propaganda empire Margarita Simonyan.
On the day the war began, Simonyan made a preemptive argument against any critics of the invasion. “Where have you been all these eight years?” she asked — referring to the long, low-boil conflict in the Donbas. This new “operation” was just and necessary, she said. On that first day, Feb. 24, she appeared on the Solovyov show.
“If you turned away from this war,” she said, “it does not mean that it was not there. The war was right here — with our Russian people, who were destroyed for eight years.”
Solovyov added: “The main goal of the operation is the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine. According to Putin, it is no longer possible to watch the genocide of the population of Donbas.”
This was the point of the “special operation,” articulated by Putin and then quoted or repeated not only on all Russian TV channels and in every newspaper, but also on multiple Russian social media platforms. Simonyan and Solovyov have their own channels on the Telegram app — and these regularly enter the top five most-cited social platforms in Russia. Throughout the first months of the war, the propagandists said the Russian army was saving not only Russian-speaking residents of eastern Ukraine from Nazism; it was coming to rescue all “normal Ukrainians.”
“A significant part of Ukraine, the Ukrainian people (certainly not all, and I hope not even the majority, but a significant part) were seized by this madness of Nazism,” Simonyan said March 21 on the TVC channel. “The initial task is to save normal people from the rifle barrels that Nazis put in their shoulder blades.”
I don’t know whether Putin praised Foreign Minister Lavrov or scolded him for his message-shifting, “world order” statement, but it was quickly disavowed. To say, as Lavrov did, that “this is not about Ukraine” was very much “off message.”
Until the Kremlin changed its tune.
Six months later, the message has changed.
Perhaps because of Russia’s well-documented troubles on the battlefield; perhaps because it became clear that the “Nazis” in Kyiv were not to be easily ousted; whatever the case, the arguments have shifted. One hears less about “denazification,” and less about Ukraine itself. Now it’s more about the demons well west of Kyiv. Russia is no longer at war with Ukraine, but with NATO and the collective west, led by the United States.
For one thing, the new arguments go, it has become clear that Ukraine is not fighting alone. The “Nazis” have had outside help.
Tigran Keosyan, a former film director, who now has a show on Radio Sputnik, gave a preview of this argument in mid-April.
“We are not fighting with some rabble, but with very motivated Nazis, who were trained for eight years by all of Europe and all of America,” said Keosayan, who also happens to be the husband of the above-mentioned RT propagandist Margarita Simonyan. “So, the feat of our soldiers, officers, our people only increases in the eyes of descendants and from the point of view of history!”
The fact that the “special military operation” has dragged on so long is easily explained: It is not Ukrainians who are fighting, it is the West, primarily the U.S. and Great Britain. Not only have they trained the Ukrainians, according to the new Russian line; the NATO soldiers and instructors are now fighting with them.
The recent bombing of a military airfield in Crimea and explosions in the Kursk region have been followed by a clear message from the Kremlin media: Ukrainians do not know how to handle such weapons; Russians must not think that “the second-most powerful army in the world,” as Putin’s propaganda likes to refer to the Russian armed forces, is in any way matched by Ukraine, which the same propagandists often refer to as a “non-state.”
“Ukrainian diversionists are acting under the guidance of Western instructors, there is no doubt about it,” Kremlin military journalist Yevgeny Poddubny said on his Telegram channel, commenting on the explosions of six high-voltage pylons in the Kursk region. Vladimir Solovyov quoted him immediately and spread the “news” to millions of his viewers.
This part of the message happens to have some truth in it, of course; there is no questioning the fact that NATO has supplied unprecedented levels of military training and equipment to the Ukrainians. The Kremlin takes this fact and frequently spins into talk of a wider war.
Six months later, Russian messaging about the war’s end has changed as well. In February, the Kremlin’s demands had to do with Ukraine itself — the dismissal of its leaders and a “pacification” and “denazification” of its territory. Now, NATO and the collective west are creeping into Russian media conversations about the endgame. And these messages have grown increasingly disturbing.
Here was political scientist Yakov Kedmi appearing on Rossiya-I TV two weeks ago, listing the prerequisites for an end to the “military operation”:
“NATO admits its defeat after the unconditional surrender of Kyiv,” said Kedmi. “Negotiations for complete and unconditional surrender will have to be conducted with NATO, and then with the United States.”
It’s the thesis voiced by Foreign Minister Lavrov, months ago, only now it has caught fire in the Russian mainstream: The war in Ukraine is nothing more than the first battle in the war of civilizations. If Russia wins, the West will “surrender unconditionally” and stop teaching Russia how to live — and then perhaps there will be no new battles.
But there can be no “ifs.” Russia will win, the propagandists say, again and again, and this is where the most disturbing elements of the new message take shape. Increasingly on Russian media, one hears Kremlin-backed speakers saying, If it takes pushing the nuclear button, then so be it. Putin’s veiled threats to use nuclear weapons in the early days of the war have found new life. Here was Margarita Simonyan, once again appearing on Vladimir Solovyov’s program:
“Either we win in Ukraine, or World War III begins. Personally, I consider the path of the Third World War to be the most realistic, because knowing us, knowing our leader, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the most incredible thing is that, in the end, it will all end in a nuclear strike. This seems to me more likely than the other possibility [Ukraine’s defeat].”
Solovyov responded immediately by quoting Putin himself, who said well before the war, “We will go to paradise, but they will all die miserably.”
The other major shift in the propaganda has to do with how the Russians treat civilians in Ukraine.
One much-repeated message at the beginning of the war was an assurance that the Russian army was so skilled and professional that the civilians of Ukraine need not worry. They would not suffer during the “special military operation.” On Feb. 24, Solovyov announced on his evening show that “the military infrastructure of Ukraine has already been destroyed with high-precision weapons, without a single victim, which surprises even the West, where, as you know, special operations are very dirty.”
It was nonsense, of course. But that was the message. Other broadcasters cited Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu’s order “to treat the Ukrainian military with respect, since they took the oath.”
Margarita Simonyan invoked Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” and the noble traditions of the Russian soldier. “No one,” she said, “touches the civilian population, bombs the civilian population, shoots the civilian population. The [Russian Army] does everything to ensure that this civilian population does not suffer.”
Six months later, talk of the quality and nobility of the Russian army has been replaced by an all-out, take-no-prisoners approach.
Ukrainians are no longer described as innocent victims of their “Nazi” leaders. Recently Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s official representative to international organizations in Vienna, expressed “disappointment” with the Ukrainian people. And commenting on a Twitter post by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy about U.S. military assistance, Ulyanov wrote: “No mercy to the population of Ukraine!”
Ulyanov is a senior Russian diplomat. He deleted his post a few hours later, but it circulated widely, and many people supported the remark on “patriotic” Russian Telegram channels.
I have watched and listened and read a lot of Russian media in recent weeks. Two things above all are clear: First, the tone grows more aggressive and histrionic with every passing day — a fury that is frightening to take in; and second, the seeming inevitability of a transition from the “special operation” to a qualitatively new phase.
Here was Russian TV’s Solovyov on his show last week:
“A terrorist war is being waged against us, which means we should have completely different answers,” he said. “They threaten us with a nuclear catastrophe, they are planning it on our territory. ”
Solovyov was followed by one of his show’s regular “experts,” State Duma (parliament) deputy Oleg Morozov: “The transition to another kind of operation, another phase, is inevitable. Not because we want it, but because the situation forces us to do so. This is the question of how we should respond to the challenges that are thrown at us today.”
If Morozov’s words seemed too vague, Solovyov responded by invoking Joseph Stalin:
“As Comrade Stalin said, ‘Great Britain — how many bombs will it take? Five or six’ Well, how many bombs do you need to prevent this from happening?”
Into this frenzy of anger and apocalyptic talk came Saturday’s attack that killed Daria Dugina, daughter of the ultranationalist ideologue Alexander Dugin. We don’t yet know who was responsible, or even who the true target was, but we know this: The Kremlin propagandists aren’t waiting for the outcome of a murder investigation.
Here is what Margarita Simonyan wrote on her Telegram channel the day after the attack:
“Everyone who is now making fun of Dasha’s death, practicing sarcasm and trolling, all these municipal deputies, bloggers and activists should be arrested. Time to take out the trash.”
I don’t know anyone who is “making fun of Dasha’s death” (there are some, no doubt, but I don’t see them in my social feeds), but there’s no doubt in my mind that the regime will do all it can to use the murder to its advantage, and tighten repression against anyone it considers “the trash.” Retribution will come to many who had nothing to do with the attack.
It must be repeated — Simonyan and Solovyov are in the mainstream of Russian media, people whose faces and voices are seen and heard by tens of millions of people every day. Their statements go largely unchallenged; if anything, “dissent” comes in the form of demands for even fiercer punishment of Ukrainians, and attacks against NATO and the West.
Six months since that fateful day, the message has shifted, in many ways. According to the Kremlin and its various mouthpieces, the enemies are no longer only in Ukraine — they are to be found in many Western capitals, and perhaps inside Russia itself.
Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.
Stanislav Kucher is a journalist, filmmaker and former Russian TV presenter.
Sign up for Grid Today and get the context you need on the most important stories of the day.