A Year Of Putin Lies: How Russian War Propaganda Has Backfired From Day One
From the first fake news reports that Zelensky had fled to Putin’s latest speech Tuesday that blamed the war on the West, Russia’s attempts to manipulate opinion have wound up leaving Moscow itself as the prime victim of its own lies.
One year of war can also be counted in 365 days of lies, disinformation and fake news.
With its invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s Russia turned up the volume and rhythm on a propaganda machine that has been deployed the past decade across a range of channels to manipulate public opinion, at home and abroad.
It has continued to the present, with Putin delivering a major speech Tuesday in which he repeated many of the falsehoods that have justified a war that has not gone as planned — all the while vowing to continue to fight.
Yet, this would-be secret weapon of disinformation has repeatedly backfired, ultimately contributing in a crucial way to the Kremlin’s overall failures in the war. And as we now mark the one-year anniversary of the invasion, the story of the broken propaganda machine is coming full circle.
Let’s go back to the beginning, to the first Big Lie that Moscow told after the Feb. 24 invasion was launched. By the following morning, multiple Russian Internet publications close to the Kremlin were reporting that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had disappeared, most likely escaped to London, where he allegedly held real estate property. According to the reports, much of the top echelon of Ukrainian leadership had likewise fled Kyiv, leaving the poor, abandoned Ukrainians to scatter into basements to hide from the advancing and inevitable takeover of the invincible Russian army.
That evening of Feb. 25, Zelensky recorded a video in front of the main government building of Kyiv, surrounded by members of his government, naming each and saying that each was “here.” It arguably remains the single defining moment of the war, not only for its display of Ukrainian resolve and the launch of Zelensky as a remarkable wartime leader — but also because it so quickly and calmly discredited the false narrative of Russia’s invasion.
Russian propaganda, directed personally by Vladimir Putin, continued to focus on Zelensky in those early days, presenting him not only as a fugitive, but also a neo-Nazi, a U.S. minion and any other number of lies. Still, both for Ukraine and the international community, Zelensky became an unlikely and bonafide war hero. He managed to unite Ukraine and the world to gain support and arms that had seemed impossible at the beginning of the war.
There were reports of Ukrainian scientists developing “combat mosquitoes” that only bite Russians.
From the start, the Russian disinformation machine has been working on three main fronts at once: trying to frighten and demoralize the Ukrainian audience, convince the international audience of Russia’s military and energy strengths, and solidifying support among the Russian masses.
On the third front, at home, we know that the groundwork was being laid well before the invasion of Ukraine, with the Kremlin bombarding the Russian public with constant accusations about the authorities in Kyiv — everything from imposing bans on the Russian language to directing Ukrainian scientists to develop “combat mosquitoes” that carry biological weapons and only bite Russian residents.
After the war began, an anti-Ukrainian and anti-American Twitter account posted a photo of a chocolate bar, which featured on its wrapper a portrait of a boy wearing a Russian army helmet with a black mourning ribbon and the words: "Death to Aleshka."
"Ukrainians wish death on a child for being proud of his country," one pro-Russian account claimed. Russian Telegram channels and propaganda media spread the news, which appeared on dozens of Russian-language channels and on the social network site Vkontakte.
More sweeping fake news stories were also planted about Ukraine producing chemical weapons and plotting with Washington to welcome NATO bases on its territory. Indeed, the narrative often places the Americans at the center, pulling the strings in Kyiv in what is portrayed as the continuation of the longstanding U.S. aggression against Mother Russia.
The domestic audience again appeared the main target of Tuesday’s “state of the nation” speech, where Putin again blamed the West for the war and wanting to destroy Russia. "They intend to transform a local conflict into a phase of global confrontation. This is exactly how we understand it all and we will react accordingly, because in this case we are talking about the existence of our country."
While Putin may continue to hold sway over much of the Russian public, he’s had less success abroad, as the West has largely remained united and even more friendly players like China have hesitated to throw their support behind Moscow.
Russia’s subtle and not-so-subtle reminders about its nuclear weapons prompted immediate pushback from Beijing, while claims about Europe's total dependence on Moscow’s gas and oil supplies have turned out not to have the absolute bind over the global economy. A bluff, like a lie, leaves one weaker when reality is revealed.
Counter Russian propaganda poster
Lies we tell ourselves
Ultimately, the teeth of the Russian bear have broken on the bones of the Kremlin itself. Russian lies have been so widespread and persistent that they were bound to infect the choices Moscow would make, convinced of the weakness of Ukraine, the cowardice of the West, the invincibility of its own army, the strength of the Kremlin elite. Indeed, Putin himself has become the primary victim of Russian propaganda, tricked into a war that he never could win.
Repeating a lie doesn't make it true.
The Russian intelligence establishment told him that Ukrainians would surrender, the army would disperse, and village locals would come out with flowers to greet the Russian soldiers; the world would turn a blind eye to the takeover of the country as it did in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea; the generals lied to him about the strength and readiness of the Russian army and the military hardware.
One year into a war that was supposed to last three days, Putin has no choice but to continue to blame the West for a war that he, objectively, started. "I want to repeat: it was they who unleashed the war," Putin said Tuesday. "And we continue to use force to stop it."
Repeating a lie doesn’t make it true — and in this case, at least, it makes the liar look weak.
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