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How Russia And U.S. Are Reviving Cold War Propaganda, With A Twist

Demonizing the adversary, often in much the same way, was central to the script of the Cold War in the second half of the last century. Now with Moscow and Washington facing off again, old habits are back.

How Russia And U.S. Are Reviving Cold War Propaganda, With A Twist

At a U.S.-Russia Summit in Geneva in June 2021

Anna Akage

When face to face

We cannot see the face

Those words come from a 1925 love sonnet by Sergei Yesenin. Though the Russian poet died before the Cold War began, it can serve as a metaphor for how the U.S. and Soviet would “see” each other in their respective propaganda operations for nearly half a century.

And now, with the threat of war at the Russia-Ukraine border, the Cold War rhetoric is being revived, with some notable caveats and novelties. One recent example came straight from the Russian Ministry of Culture, which approved an official list of national values, and the main threats to these values. On the values list: traditional family (husband, wife, children), church, patriotism, high spiritual morality. On the threats list: Islamic terrorists, foreign agents and NGOs… and one country singled out: the United States of America.

Yes, we're up to our necks in the Cold War again, only now the Kremlin is not fighting capitalism, but LGBTQ activists; not defending Communism, but the Tridentine Christian family. On the other side, too, the adversary is depicted in very broad strokes, like in 1980s Hollywood movie scripts where the crazed, patriotic Soviet lieutenant racing toward nuclear apocalypse can only be stopped by a brave CIA special agent with a golden smile.

But the reality now, as then, is how similar Russian and American propaganda is at its core. In the news broadcast from both countries, the aim is to denounce and demonize — and always stay on message. Here are some examples of Moscow’s and Washington’s mirror tropes circulating from and about each other:

The enemy wants to escalate

Channel One Russia, February 2, 2022: "The West is inciting a 'Croatian scenario' in Donbas. Then hundreds of thousands of Serbs had to flee their homes, tens of thousands were killed. All of these events could be repeated in southeastern Ukraine — only on a much larger scale."

The Wall Street Journal, February 2, 2022: "Vladimir Putin has largely transformed the country's forces left depleted and demoralized after the breakup of the U.S.S.R. as part of his goal to reassert Russia on the world stage.”

The fake image of Nikita Khrushchev's would-be "shoe-banging" speech at the United Nations.


The enemy seeks territorial expansion

Russian national news agency TASS, January 14, 2022: “Washington and its allies do not hide the fact that they are trying to restrain Moscow and Beijing — the course is “openly proclaimed” — and do not stop trying to "artificially expand the North Atlantic Alliance", including at the expense of Ukraine. The pressure is exerted in a variety of spheres — for example, the United States is also directly involved in the current crisis in global orthodoxy.”

The core messages remain largely unchanged

The New York Times, January 7, 2022: "The immediate aim, to be sure, is to return Ukraine to Russia's orbit. But that's only a brush stroke on a much bigger canvas. Mr. Putin's design is grand: to refashion the post-Cold War settlement, in the process guaranteeing the survival of Russia's personalized power system.”

The enemy is stomping on weaker countries

RIA Novosti, January 20, 2022: "In fact, Ukraine really has nothing to do with it. Americans are hungry for war with Russia. ‘Containment’ is just a polite euphemism. And Ukraine as well as the Baltics will be used by the United States as they need it. The territory was a theater of war. The population is cannon fodder."

NBC News, January 25, 2022: "Russia's capabilities have grown as a result of a decades-long program to reconstitute its military power … and the Kremlin's confidence has grown because of the consistent failure of the West and Western institutions to deter its geopolitical ambitions. While some Western officials have questioned the Kremlin's assertion that it's threatened by NATO, there is no doubt Russia aspires to roll back security in Eastern Europe, and remove the U.S. and NATO as guarantors of security in the region.”

These are just a few examples, and lurking behind are far more complex manipulations that come into our information space in old and new ways, most notably through misinformation on social platforms.

But even if technology is changing the way the propaganda is delivered, the core messages remain largely unchanged: not only between the past and present, but between the two enemies themselves.

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Putin & Kim: What Happens When Two Pariahs Have Nothing Left To Lose

North Korea lends its full support to Russia's war in Ukraine, and will supply ammunition to Moscow, which in return will help Kim Jong-un with his space ambitions. With the whiff of a Cold War alliance, it shows how two regimes that have become so isolated they multiply the risks for the rest of the world.

photo of putin and kim in front of a red guard rail

Putin and Kim at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia's far eastern Amur region.

Mikhail Metzel/TASS via ZUMA
Pierre Haski


There's a feeling of nostalgia watching the meeting between Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the Vostochny cosmodrome in Russia's Far East.

To hear the third descendant of North Korea's communist dynasty tell the Russian president that they were fighting imperialism together recalls a past that seemed long forgotten.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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It reminds us of how Joseph Stalin backed the founder of Pyongyang's ruling dynasty, Kim Il Sung, the current leader's grandfather, in his quest to take over Korea. Since succeeding his father 11 years ago, Kim Jong-un has looked to follow the model of his grandfather.

There's no doubt that North Korea's talented propaganda team will make good use of this anti-imperialism remake, even if times and men have changed. Seen from Pyongyang, not so much. But beyond the symbols, which have their importance, this meeting may have tangible consequences.

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