The first thing one learns in politics is that states, leaders, and their actions need legitimacy.
Particularly in a democracy where government power is legitimised by the people, state actions need to be not only justified but supported by the population – or at least those able to vote. Most leaders, however, will find it hard to legitimise things such as annexation, bombing civilians, or plain war and have to appeal to something beyond the truth: propaganda.
Ever since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin’s PR team has been working overtime, attempting to target and replace buzzwords like “war” and “invasion” in Russian media outlets with more positively connotated ones, such as “liberate” and “denazify” (Roth 2022). Indeed, Russia’s long-standing president Vladimir Putin, who only two years ago pushed for a constitutional change that allows him to remain in power for 10 more years (Frye 2020), has attempted to justify this war with multiple rather outlandish claims; the most common ones being Ukraine’s alleged Nazi regime and the genocide of Russians in the Donbas region.
According to Putin, Ukraine left Russia no other choice but to invade, as they had to protect their kin from Nazi persecution. However, both claims are groundless; there is no proof of Ukraine being run by Nazis, particularly since its very president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish. The claims of genocide in the Donbas region also lacks evidence procured by either human rights organisations or by Russia itself (Blanco 2022).
The dual-threat of Nazis and genocide is however a powerful rhetorical tool for the Kremlin. The memory of World War 2 is still alive in most former Soviet countries and the more than 20 million people who gave their lives in the fight against fascism have not been forgotten. Thus, the thought of the very same Nazi monsters who killed one’s grandfathers living right next door becomes a terrifying and effective threat (Waxman 2022). Considering this and the claim that there is an ongoing genocide, the “military operation” as Putin refers to it seems rather reasonable compared to an unprovoked war to annex land. To keep this said illusion alive, the Russian government must not only phrase its president’s speeches delicately but also keep contrary voices low or completely silent.
Since Russia’s invasion on the 24th of February, anti-war protests have spread like wildfire with thousands of people in countless cities demanding an end to the invasion. Even in Russia, citizens dared to turn to the streets and protest a war they never wanted. However, they were immediately confronted by police, with over 4,000 people detained and 1,700 in Moscow alone (BBC 2022).
Russian media outlets are prohibited from referring to the invasion as a war. They may only describe it euphemistically as a “military operation”, and those who refuse to adhere to the censorship are completely silenced, shut down swiftly and permanently, as was the case with the radio station Ekho Moskvy and the television channel Dozhd, both very popular news sources among the population (Brezar 2022). What is more, prison sentences are now a looming threat for journalists reporting on issues in any way that the Kremlin does not approve of (Brezar 2022). The newly intensified censorship has further spread to international social media and news sites such as Twitter and the BBC, which at first would not load properly in Russia and are now banned completely (Milmo 2022).
By cutting off the population’s access to independent media sources and effectively censoring all those within his reach, Putin perpetuates his narrative of liberating Ukraine and attempts to forcefully indoctrinate his citizens into believing it. More media outlets are being shut down and many journalists live in fear of the repercussions that performing their jobs and fighting for freedom might have. Footage and information that does manage to filter through Russia’s massive censorship, often surrounded by a flood of Kremlin-made propaganda, is immediately dismissed as fake news and Western propaganda, an alleged tool of Ukraine and NATO (Kralova and Vetsko 2022).
While many Russians oppose the war and fiercely fight against it, the restricted media coverage continues to limit the number of people hearing the truth, while the growing propaganda continues to increase the number of people confronted with misinformation.
Not only has Russia transformed into an increasingly authoritarian regime, but its censorship of journalists has now reached dizzying new heights, despite being constitutionally outlawed. It remains to be seen what other violations of free speech and civil rights Putin and his cabinet will deem to justify the ends, but it is now more evident than ever that it is not only international law but Russia’s very own constitution that the Kremlin is comfortable with tossing away.
Written by Yeva Seplyarska, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons
Source: Nieman Lab
BBC. 2022. “Protests across Russia See Thousands Detained.” March 7, 2022.
Blanco, Patricia R. 2022. “How to Justify a War: Putin’s Arguments for Invading Ukraine.” El
País, February 26, 2022. https://english.elpais.com/international/2022-02-26/how-to-
Brezar, Aleksandar. 2022. “Russia Cracks Down on Independent Media during Ukraine
Invasion.” Euronews, March 4, 2022. https://www.euronews.com/2022/03/03/two-
Frye, Timothy. 2020. “What’s Vladimir Putin’s End Game? Other Post-Soviet Autocrats Give a
Few Clues.” The Washington Post, July 3, 2020.
Kralova, Simona, and Sandro Vetsko. 2022. “Ukraine: Watching the War on Russian TV - a
Whole Different Story.” BBC, March 2, 2022. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-
Milmo, Dan. 2022. “Russia Blocks Access to Facebook and Twitter.” The Guardian, March 4,