If Vladimir Putin finally ends his waiting game and launches another invasion of Ukraine, he will need an excuse. However malign the reality of his regime, even the current inhabitant of the Kremlin cannot assault a sovereign state without giving a reason.
So as the world awaits one man’s decision on peace or war, it is well worth watching the work of Russia’s propagandists and those informal networks of Putin sympathizers whose output often, but not always, mirrors the official script (in 2014, after the Crimea annexation, 300 Kremlin-compliant journalists were secretly awarded the prestigious Order of Service to the Fatherland for their efforts.) This time, as then, there are some ominous indicators among the screeds of words marshaled to support the party line.
There is no single narrative: instead, there are a range of themes attesting to what is described as the West’s malign intent. So Russians are told by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that US contractors have deployed armored vehicles equipped with chemical weapons to Eastern Ukraine, and by state-owned Sputnik that Polish mercenaries are making their way into Ukraine to “cause significant damage to civilian infrastructure facilities in order to force [Russian-backed] DPR units to retaliate.”
This weekend, the tone became more worrying as highly placed Russian sympathizers inside Ukraine joined the chorus. On February 13, Russia’s state media newswires, including RIA Novosti, issued a story with the headline “Rada announces Zelenskyy’s preparation for the ‘massacre of Russians.’” The article was based on a Telegram post by Ilya Kiva, a serving Ukrainian MP whose politics are illustrated by his dispatch of birthday greetings to the Russian leader in October. He is close to Viktor Medvedchuk, a TV-station owner and Putin intimate. The 67-year-old is currently under house arrest on charges of treason and financing separatism. He is the leader of the Opposition Platform—For Life party, the second-biggest in the Rada, of which Kiva is also a member.
Ukraine’s pro-Russian groups are still stinging from the closure of pro-Kremlin propaganda channels both by the government and (earlier this month) by YouTube. It was not accidental that Kiva’s conspiracy centered around those closures, which he said were “preparing the country for the information vacuum and information isolation of the population. They will create legal lawlessness and prepare a ‘massacre’ of the unpopular, and the Russian population, they will be called the enemies of Ukraine. All this will be done by the Nazis, and the Nazis themselves have long made no secret of their plans to start a massacre of Russians inside the country.”
This is not the first time that Medvedchuk and the broader pro-Russian movement inside Ukraine have been at the center of controversies surrounding events in Ukraine. A few weeks ago, the British government said that it had uncovered a Russian plot to stage a coup d’etat against Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and replace them with a pro-Kremlin friendly puppet government involving the pro-Russian TV station owner and former MP, Yevhen Murayev, and including four pro-Russian politicians who fled to Moscow in 2014. This supported an earlier US assessment suggesting that the Kremlin is laying plans to “oust its neighbor’s leadership.”
Medvedchuk’s party has issued several statements supportive of the Kremlin line, which naturally enough focus on mocking the Western information campaign rather than the 130,000-plus Russian troops on the country’s borders. “Ukrainians are so tired of the tension amid the news about allegedly ‘imminent Russian aggression’ that they are already jokingly offering to be the first to declare war on Russia in order to immediately surrender,” said Nestor Shufrych, a member of the Rada from Medvedchuk’s Opposition Platform–For Life, in a speech that quickly made its way to Russian media.
There will be more, much more if Putin gives the order. After all, it was the fabricated unconfirmed allegations of a public crucifixion based on an “eyewitness account” that the Ukrainian military had tortured and then crucified a three-year-old in the eastern city of Slovyansk that led to Russia’s invasion in 2014.
Olga Lautman is the host of the Kremlin File podcast and an analyst/researcher focusing on Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe.