Russian propaganda remains very much active, trying to convince the public opinion of its arguments both in the Russian Federation and throughout the world. One of its favourite themes is Nazism, which is allegedly a widely professed ideology among Ukrainians. Russian propagandists constantly play the above card and use it in various configurations, also as an accusation against the West supporting Ukraine. The main goals of Russian propaganda include gaining support both for the actions of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and for the political leadership of the state.
The situation of the Russian media after 24 February, 2022
The most important channel for spreading propaganda in Russia is state television. Narratives presented there reach a significant part of Russian citizens and shape their views. According to a study by the Levada Center, state television is the primary source of information for 60% of residents, especially the elderly and people living away from major cities. The analysis of the Centre for Eastern Studies shows that the most popular TV channels are:
- Rosiya 1 and Rosiya 24 belonging to the VGTRK holding
- government-controlled Channel 1
- Gazprom Media’s NTV channel
The key change after 24 February – as pointed out by the Centre for Eastern Studies – was the extension of the duration of current affairs programmes broadcast on Rossiya channels, hosted by the most prominent people associated with Russian television. The duration of the “News of the Week” show, which presents a weekly summary of current events, has been extended. Likewise, the twice-daily show “60 Minutes” and the daily edition of “Evening with Vladimir Solovyov” were extended as well. In these programmes, theses are formulated in accordance with the Kremlin’s line, and a common feature is shouting and a high level of verbal aggression among invited guests.
Russian state television is generously subsidised by the state authorities. According to data from the Ministry of Finance, real spending on television in the first quarter of 2022 increased by 200% compared to the first quarter of 2021. As much as 115 billion roubles (1.5 billion dollars) have been allocated for this purpose.
In accordance with the provisions of the Agency for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media Roskomnadzor, war events on television are presented on the basis of state sources. A special place is dedicated to official announcements of the Ministry of National Defence and statements by Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Peskov. These messages are the primary source of misinformation about warfare.
Ukrainian Nazism in the Russian media before and after 24 February, 2022
It is also worth noting that since 2014 – according to research conducted by Semantic Visions – the number of articles on Nazism in Ukraine has remained at a relatively low level. The number of media coverage on this topic has increased rapidly and reached its peak on 24 February, 2022, i.e. the day of Russian invasion of Ukraine. Furthermore, the above analysis shows that the number of articles depicting Ukrainians as Nazis decreased after the retreat of Russian troops from Kyiv. It increased again when the fighting moved to Donbas.
Why is Russian propaganda exploiting the victory over Nazism?
The fight against Nazism invented by the Russian authorities refers directly to the most important historical event for Russians, i.e. the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) – a stage of World War II, which began with the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Third Reich. It is commonly presented as the victory over the Third Reich and is also one of the foundations of Putin’s system. According to a survey conducted by the Levada Center, as many as 74% of Russians believe that the most important result of World War II was the defeat of Nazism. This shows that the victory over Nazism is thus the focal point of the collective memory of Russians. During World War II, approximately 27 million citizens of the Soviet Union died. For this reason, war events are deeply rooted in the collective memory of Russians, as they affected almost everyone. Therefore, reference to Nazism used by propagandists finds extremely fertile ground. It comes as no surprise that Russian propaganda exploits narratives referring to these events. It facilitates the unification of Russia’s multi-ethnic and multi-layered society around the political establishment and its war goals.
What is more, Russian propaganda also uses this card to highlight the historical continuation of the legacy of its soldiers, which was the defeat of the Third Reich. The fight against “Nazi” Ukraine is presented as a continuation of the fight against Nazism, over which Soviet Russia had already won once. This is evidenced by Vladimir Putin’s speech, in which he referred to World War II in the following words: Your fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers did not fight the Nazis in defence of our homeland so that today’s neo-Nazis could take power in Ukraine.
Ukrainian Nazism as a justification of the invasion
With the start of combat, the use of the word “war” in the wrong context may result in legal repercussions (examples can be found here or here). At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, leading propaganda channels argued that Russia’s goal was to defend the Russian-speaking population in Donbas. According to the propaganda, for eight years inhabitants of the self-proclaimed people’s republics have allegedly been victims of “genocide” and persecution of the “regime” in Kyiv. Thus, a simple narrative scheme was used: we (the good Russians) defend them (the civilian population of the people’s republics) against the enemy (“Nazis” from Kyiv).
The media coverage was also dominated by the narrative aimed at proving that Russia had simply been quicker to attack Donbas, and otherwise Kyiv would have attacked the lands of the Russian Federation. In the first weeks of the war, the message focused simultaneously on distinguishing the enemy – in this case the “Nazi” authorities in Kyiv – from the civilian population. Civilians were portrayed as innocent and waiting to be liberated from the oppression of the “Kyiv regime”, and the Ukrainian authorities as oppressive and deserving to be overthrown.
With the withdrawal of the Russians from Kyiv and the failure of the offensive on the capital, the dominant message evolved. From then on, the entire population of Ukraine has been presented as hostile and deserving of denazification, even by the most brutal means. Journalists in Russia openly began to talk about the need to eliminate “Nazis”, select “valuable” Ukrainians and deport them to Russia. At the same time, they stressed the impossibility of concluding any peace agreement with the “fascist” government in Kyiv. In this context, Margarita Simonyan’s statement was particularly noteworthy, where she claimed that there are more fascists in Ukraine than the Russians initially anticipated.
It is worth recalling the report of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, which stated that Russian propaganda builds the myth of Nazi Ukraine based on the presence of extreme nationalist circles that enjoy marginal support and do not constitute a real political force. At the same time, propaganda uses the false image of “Nazi” Ukraine to create a historical parallel in the eyes of the public. Thanks to this, the “special military operation” is presented by propagandists as a continuation of the fight against Nazism, for which ancestors of the Russian troops currently fighting in Ukraine sacrificed their lives.
Nazism of Ukrainians as an argument against providing support
Labelling Ukrainians as Nazis is also intended to discourage the international community from providing them with any kind of support. This is a secondary goal of Russian propaganda. It is worth noting that narratives directed at Western citizens were a complete failure.
Vladimir Putin stressed in his speech that the behaviour of the West and NATO, which allegedly pose a threat, contributed to the decision to launch the “special military operation”. In his speech, he said: “I spoke about our biggest concerns and worries, and about the fundamental threats which irresponsible Western politicians created for Russia consistently (…) from year to year. I am referring to the eastward expansion of NATO, which is moving its military infrastructure ever closer to the Russian border. (…) I would like to additionally emphasise the following. Focused on their own goals, the leading NATO countries are supporting the far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis in Ukraine (…).”
At the same time, propaganda channels echoed the theses of leading Russian politicians. Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov blamed the launch of the “special military operation” on the West. The former emphasised in his speech that for the last 30 years Russia has been trying to come to an agreement with the West on a fair security system in Europe. In his opinion, in response they received nothing but lies and blackmail. The Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that: “All these years, our Western colleagues have protected the Ukrainian regime by turning a blind eye to war crimes (…). Through their silence they encouraged the onset of neo-Nazism and Russophobia (…).” At the same time, accusations are made against Western countries of financing Nazism in Ukraine.
Russian propaganda accuses European politicians of Nazism
Narratives accusing Western leaders of professing Nazism can also be found in the media space. For example, one of the victims of such insinuations was the chancellor of Germany. In Vladimir Solovyov’s show, he was accused of pretending to be Adolf Hitler, supposedly his role model. To authenticate this message, a comparison was made between a photo in which the leader of the Third Reich poses on a tank with a recording of Olaf Scholz climbing a German self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. It is worth mentioning here that Russian propaganda also tried to convince the public about the alleged kinship of Olaf Scholz with one of the Waffen-SS generals.
Russian propaganda uses the alleged Nazism of Ukrainians in order to dehumanize them and justify the war crimes of the Russian army
From the very beginning of the war, the propaganda message has dehumanized Ukrainians by calling them “Nazis.” As shown earlier, the number of articles discussing alleged Nazism among Ukrainians increased significantly on the day of the full-scale invasion. At the same time, the call by journalists and publicists appearing in propaganda programs for the physical extermination of Ukrainians using the most brutal methods is aimed at arousing hatred towards Ukrainians, building support for the army’s actions, and preparing Russian citizens for images from Bucha or Izium. One of the most prominent examples of building such a narrative may be attempts to justify the destruction of Mariupol and the crimes committed in this city.
Dehumanizing Ukrainians by labelling them “Nazis,” “Satanists,” and “lackeys of the West” serves to justify the criminal actions of the Russian army in Ukraine. By linking Ukraine to Nazism, Russian propaganda prevents cognitive dissonance among the Russian public when hearing about Bucha. At the same time, it justifies the crimes of the Russian army on Ukrainian soil.
Russian propaganda works in two ways, trying to influence both the internal and external recipients. Propaganda activities aimed at the citizens of the Russian Federation seem to be effective. On the other hand, the actions aimed at the Westerners failed and did not stop the Western society and the authorities from providing Ukraine with the necessary help.
Kremlin propaganda focuses on creating the conviction that Russian aggression against Ukraine is necessary and morally justified. On the other hand, especially for domestic use, it arouses fear of the enemy, which is supposed to be Ukraine and the West collectively. Propagandists paint an image of Russia surrounded by enemies from every direction. Among citizens, on the other hand, they arouse a sense of life in a “besieged fortress”. Moscow’s propaganda also portrays Russians as victims of Ukraine and the West. This is an extremely convenient position for creating propaganda. With these actions, propagandists reinforce fear among citizens and make them believe that Western societies are increasingly resentful towards them. Analysts also found comparisons of Russians to Jews during the Holocaust in Russian propaganda. Such a message is consistent with the vision of life in a “besieged fortress” and makes it credible. In addition, Kremlin propagandists also present the fight against alleged Ukrainian “fascism” in the universal categories as a conflict between good and evil.
Russian propaganda rhetoric is trying to destroy the reputation of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his civilian and military associates. Propagandists try to incite hatred against them through accusations of Nazism and a wide range of mockery and hate speech.
Kremlin propaganda usurps the right to identify contemporary “fascists.” The message aimed at Ukrainians falls on particularly fertile ground, mainly due to the still high level of nationalist views and imperialist sentiments in Russian society. The general passiveness of Russian society is a significant factor as well. Nonetheless, in reality, what bothers the Russian establishment is not “Ukrainian Nazism”, but Ukrainians’ desire for independence and leaving the Russian sphere of influence.
Centrum im. Jurija Lewady 1: https://www.levada.ru/2021/08/05/rossijskij-medialandshaft-2021/
Ośrodek Studiów Wschodnich: https://www.osw.waw.pl/pl/publikacje/komentarze-osw/2022-05-06/propaganda-masowego-razenia-rosyjska-telewizja-w-obliczu-wojny#_ftn2
Ministerstwo Finansów Federacji Rosyjskiej: http://www.eeg.ru/downloads/obzor/rus/pdf/2022_04.pdf?PHPSESSID=3f8d78cada3869d46914f1a1fd8d11e0
New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/07/02/world/europe/ukraine-nazis-russia-media.html
Semantic Visions: https://twitter.com/SemanticVisions/status/1547483296082296833?s=20&t=eZYMYObHtdRtrbhoXYqSBA
Centrum im. Jurija Lewady 2: https://www.levada.ru/en/2020/05/28/victory-in-world-war-ii/
Transkrypcja na język angielski przemówienia Władimira Putina: https://web.archive.org/web/20220224142134/https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-02-24/full-transcript-vladimir-putin-s-televised-address-to-russia-on-ukraine-feb-24
Rzeczpospolita 1: https://www.rp.pl/prawo-karne/art35805201-rosyjska-duma-15-lat-wiezienia-za-falszywe-informacje-o-wojsku
Rzeczpospolita 2: https://www.rp.pl/konflikty-zbrojne/art35838521-lawrow-rosja-nie-zaatakowala-ukrainy
Polski Instytut Spraw Międzynarodowych: https://pism.pl/publikacje/rosyjska-dezinformacja-na-temat-ataku-na-ukraine
Deutsche Welle: https://www.dw.com/en/fact-check-do-vladimir-putins-justifications-for-going-to-war-against-ukraine-add-up/a-60917168