CEPA

In the eyes of one of Russia’s leading propagandists, the head of RT Margarita Simonyan, what is happening in Ukraine is, “not even a Russian special operation against Ukrainian troops.”

“This is a civil war in which those Ukrainians who are Russophobes, anti-Russian in the sense in which the Nazis were antisemites, destroys another part of its own people. And Russia is simply on the side of one of the warring parties,” she declared.

This of course contradicts everything that the propagandists, taking their cue from Vladimir Putin, have said since February 24. While rhetoric about a supposed civil war in Ukraine has been a part of official Russian storytelling for at least the last eight years, this was only in reference to the occupied areas of Donbas. As for the so-called special military operation, the Kremlin’s term for full-scale war against Ukraine, it had until now topped the list of approved terminology.

This is far from the first time Russian propaganda has contradicted itself. Its narratives regularly do so, and sometimes are so self-incriminating that they require no refutation. Recall that even before the start of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian officials and propagandists not only publicly denied their intention to start a war, but simultaneously unleashed a stream of statements warning of an impending campaign of military aggression.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova openly sneered, declaring that German press stories detailing the invasion plans were “a lie” and “anti-Semitic trolling” that “belied common sense.” A month later, she issued a warning about the imminence of war, and the US desire “to morally destroy the citizens of Ukraine.”

At the same time, Russian ideologists and propagandists were openly ignoring the lies of their own official spokespeople and calling for an invasion. The infamous, far-right Kremlin philosopher Alexander Dugin openly demanded the seizure of Ukraine as far west as the River Dnieper, a push towards the Baltic countries, and the issuing of an ultimatum: neutralization or war. He was echoed by the former spy Andrei Bezrukov, who however proposed a somewhat more limited seizure of Ukrainian territory.

After the outbreak of full-scale war, these two contradictory themes continued to coexist in the information space. Thus, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, declared on March 10 without any embarrassment that “Russia did not attack Ukraine.” His colleagues, did not deny the fact of the invasion, but tried to stick to the rhetoric, claiming arguing it was “forced” and arguing that “America dragged Russia into the war”, thereby destroying the existing world order. At the same time, such statements comfortably coexist with directly opposed statements that the destruction of the “Anglo-Saxon world order” is “Russia’s historical mission” and a contribution to the “liberation of the world from the neo-colonial oppression of the West.”

The theory that it was the West that dragged Russia into the war is no less self-contradictory. Thus, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service claims that Ukraine was allegedly developing nuclear weapons on its own initiative, with the Americans in the know and offering to help if necessary. RIA Novosti said as much on March 3, but the next day reported the former pro-Russian Prime Minister of Ukraine Mykola Azarov claimed that by the end of the year, NATO planned to base its own nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory.

As for what is currently happening in Ukraine, there is no unity between the Russian authorities and propagandists. Simonyan recently pronounced that Russia is not at war with Ukraine, but with NATO and the United States. At the same time, she began spreading the new argument that the conflict is a civil war, without even mentioning NATO. Leading Russian media figures have meanwhile written policy articles that “almost the entire Ukrainian people is infected with Nazism,” and therefore must undergo total de-Ukrainization and a complete reformatting of national identity.

Nevertheless, the majority of Russians do not dwell on these contradictions, instead selecting alternative explanations from their propaganda supermarket; consumers can choose whatever narrative best suits them, while leaving the rest for other pro-regime shoppers. As has been documented, the average person has a strong psychological need to avoid disturbing truths, and the best way to do it is through conformism.

The second reason for the success of propaganda is a deep distortion of perception that has developed over many years of information twisting. An illusory world has been built in the minds of most Russians, in which the West hates Russia for the very fact of its existence and dreams of destroying it, regardless of the behavior of the Kremlin. Accustomed to living in an aggressively militaristic world, Russians are convinced that the West has the same mentality.

From these two factors, a third naturally follows, which can be described as “ideological cynicism.” The afflicted believe in propaganda only partially, knowing full well how false at least some of it is. However, such people also believe that the end justifies the means and offer support if they see a lie as beneficial to Russia.

The results of these processes are clearly visible in Russian opinion polls. Even pro-Kremlin sociologists do not attempt to hide that focus group participants do not understand the meaning of official justifications like denazification and demilitarization. Nevertheless, people argue that the war “must be pursued to the end.” Another group openly (and more truthfully) states that the war is fought for “the political ambitions of the Russian leadership”, as well as “the struggle for fertile land.”

Nevertheless, the majority of Russians support the war, something confirmed, among other things, by the numerous testimonies of Russian dissidents who report the impossibility of finding a common language with their loved ones. At the same time, they say, the proportion of those who consider the struggle for new territories a worthy pretext for war has increased significantly. In street polls, Russians openly say that “we should take this land for ourselves” and “wipe Ukraine off the face of the earth.”

The official state website Ukraina.ru in its Telegram channel regularly mocks Ukrainians, including female victims of violence. They have also periodically reposted calls to hang the defenders of Mariupol in public from trucks on the streets, attaching signs reading “I am a Banderite” to their chests. This is what the Nazis did to Soviet partisans.

It says something about the radicalization of the population that this is now the discourse, indicating a shift in the principles of many Russians.

Kseniya Kirillova is an analyst focused on Russian society, mentality, propaganda, and foreign policy. The author of numerous articles for the Jamestown Foundation, she has also written for the Atlantic Council, Stratfor, and others. 

For weeks, if not months, we have witnessed a barrage of narratives suggesting that global powers help Russian face-saving following its illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. It is a position adopted in various forms by European politicians of varying degrees of prominence — from G7 leaders like President Macron of France and Chancellor Scholtz of Germany to analysts and Russian-sympathizing political parties, to Brazil’s President Bolsonaro or India’s Prime Minister Modi.

The common message in various versions of this Putin-pacifying approach is that the only way of ending the hostilities is by forcing Ukraine to agree to some form of concession or defeat.

Allowing Russia to get away with mass murder and ethnic cleansing has significantly more far-reaching consequences than just the suffering of tens of millions of Ukrainians (although the notion of deliberately causing human suffering of such magnitude in the 21st century is in itself despicable.)

The wider world will suffer as well, with the turmoil potentially lasting decades, greatly undermining the quality of life of hundreds of millions, if not billions of people.

The world is struggling with a post-pandemic economic slowdown, inflationary pressures, continued and accelerating climate change, and food and energy supply issues.

So let us additionally imagine a scenario where Russia re-emerges with Putin’s face intact.

Russia has abused the global energy trade for years (in one recent example, it’s meddling with gas supplies to Europe in 2021 sent natural gas prices skyrocketing.) It no longer even denies that it uses energy as a tool of pressure: not just with gas supplies to Europe, but also enriched uranium for the United States. With his military aggression unpunished, Putin’s energy blackmail will continue: why would Russia refuse the windfall revenues from the distorted markets it can manipulate, when it also allows it to reap political benefits?

Food shortages will increase. Ukraine is a major global grain producer and exporter, and Russia’s key competitor in grain and other food exports. The blockade of ports, destruction of storage and export logistics, and looting of grain are therefore not accidental. Ukraine is, or was, a key supplier for the UN World Food Programme, feeding millions in the poorest countries. If Russia kills off competition from Ukraine, it will have even greater leverage to use global hunger as a lethal weapon.

Russia will continue to poison other countries’ internal affairs. For years, it has been attempting to rig elections and has carried out extrajudicial political assassinations. It has promoted corruption and rent seeking in the political and economic life of Western democracies, bribing or insinuating its way into establishments and media, supporting all manner of wild conspiracy theories. At home, it has completed the process of destroying all democratic institutions, imprisoned or killed its opposition leaders, subdued all media, and indoctrinated its population.

Putin will also continue to use one of his favorite weapons: refugees. Direct Russian military action or covert operations have helped force millions of refugees to seek safety in Europe, Turkey, Jordan, and other countries even before the latest Ukraine invasion. As NATO’s Supreme Commander noted in 2016, Putin and his allies helped create and then mercilessly exploited the EU’s Syrian migrant crisis. Now that he has added hunger to bombs, there will be more global exoduses.

But perhaps “off-ramps” will at least bring peace? Again, no.

Russia’s security strategy has always been to surround itself with a “belt of insecurity”, creating conflicts in Transnistria in Moldova, supporting Armenia’s occupation of Karabakh and the war with Azerbaijan, helping defeat pro-democratic forces in the Tajik civil war, occupying South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia in 2008, not to mention two brutal Chechen wars domestically. Then came the Ukraine invasions of 2014 and 2022. A little-noticed flare-up is under way in Tajikistan, which Russia already promised to “defend”. Further afield, Russia undertook full-scale military action in Syria, and has blessed brutal and rapacious private army operations in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Where might these so-called private armies of Russian mercenaries show up next? As many top Russian officials explicitly stated, there is no intention to stop. Helping Russia avoid defeat in Ukraine now would only allow it to rebuild its military capacity, damaged in Ukraine, using its massive energy profits.

Governments near and far will be forced to respond. Defense budgets around the world will surge, just as increased energy prices will hit voters in both developed and developing worlds. Public spending will be reduced, affecting healthcare, education, and social services. Forget new investment in infrastructure and non-military R&D: green economy and climate change-related initiatives will be shelved. As disposable incomes dry up in the West, China’s consumer goods exports and economic growth prospects will suffer.

Such is the price of saving Putin’s face: a poor, insecure, hungry, militarized world.

Are you ready for this world for your children?

Or shall we arm and finance Ukraine now, and let Ukrainians fight for our joint future?

Artem Shevalev is an International Economics graduate from Kyiv National University. He also holds an Executive MBA from London Business School. He served in Ukrainian diplomatic service, moving into public development finance in 2002, spending most of his time since with the EBRD. In 2015-2016 Artem served as the Deputy Minister of Finance for European Integration, launching the state banking reform in Ukraine. He currently sits on the Board of Directors of the EBRD and the Supervisory Board of PrivatBank, the largest bank in Ukraine.